Sunday, 5 September 2010

Gastro pub enlightenment comes with the scrape of chairs on a wooden floor

From the windows of this pub you can see the restless breast of the sea, heaving and swelling as if sighing over some regretful episode in life. The Northumberland coastal path passes here while beer is brewed in what looks like a shed next door. The ‘English wheat beer’ confounds my scepticism over the habit of micros trying to follow a path that veers away from the standard bitter/golden ale one — commendable but all too often many breweries make a right Horlicks of it (cask conditioned Bavarian style lager ale anyone?) — and is rather delicious: lemony with a bitter twist and an appetising dry finish. The pub is all wood and at 6pm as the reserved signs start to lay their heads on the bleached out tables like small spaniels rolling over and asking for their tummies to be tickled, I know we are heading towards gastro pub land. I’m ambivalent about gastro pubs. They are easy to hate with their corporate mish-mash of terracotta paint jobs, type-faces that all seem to come from the same book of fonts, the forest of wooden furniture and chummy-mockney-psycho-rural-babble menu descriptions, but on the other hand when done right they are a fantastic amalgamation of good food and beer. And let’s face it, the best of English pubs have always offered good food (not necessarily fancy either), you only have to read Thomas Burke, John Fothergill or George Orwell to discover this. And yet, As someone who has been in pubs since the age of 15 I feel propriatorial about the pub — I often feel it’s almost as if gastro pubs encourage people who would normally turn up their noses at pubs but now have the nerve to colonise this much beloved part of my life but don’t really understand it. They rave about rose, sip on cups of herbal tea (in a pub for Christ’s sake) and grill the chef about the provenance of his pork. And at this pub as the 6 o’clock changeover, when the next stage of the pub’s day starts (food is served 7-8pm), staff emerge from the kitchen to rearrange tables, sweep the floor and drag chairs from station to station. My first thought is that this is a deliberate policy to discourage the early evening drinkers and push them outside (there are plenty of tables outside overlooking the sea, but what if it was raining?). However, slowly but perceptibly my thoughts start to change — I am reminded of being in a market as it opens, being surrounded by the bustle of people at work. This feeling adds a robust hardiness to the pub’s atmosphere, brings it alive — it’s the sound of the living nature of the pub. It’s almost like seeing the innards of how pubs work and the stripping away of the freemasonary of what licensees do to make their places viable. It’s theatre. I’ve been to this pub before and got rather in a lather about this changeover at 6ish, but now as I see it for what it is — one part of a pub’s journey through the day that adds an extra something to the atmosphere. However, I still think the man who came into a pub and ordered a mug of herbal tea should be taken quietly to one side and told to change his ways…
(after a long weekend in Plzen, I went on the family hols in Northumberland and stayed here; Northumberland is perhaps one of my favourite parts of England along with the North Exmoor coast, east Suffolk, the Shropshire Marches, the Yorkshire Dales and the Peak District)

11 comments:

  1. Ah, it's a great pub....not many places you can walk out the door and onto the beach. I just wish we'd been able to eat there (booked solidly the week we were there - and a window of just an hour and a half in which to order). And Embleton Mill cottages are pure heaven.... only a brisk walk from another really nice (and much more traditional) Northumberland pub...

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  2. That's quite a list - are there any bits of England you don't like?!

    I understand why people dislike gastropubs, but the bottom line is that they don't usurp 'traditional' pubs, they just offer something different. I'm aware that it makes me sound like a Tory by implying that you have to play to market forces, but if customers didn't buy pressed pork belly on white bean purée, landlords wouldn't put it on the menu.

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  3. Zak as you can see I don’t dislike them per se, when they get it right they are fantastic, but I do have this ambiguity which I am trying to work through. Funnily enough I don’t particularly like old men’s pubs where the racing is on all day, the carpet is brown and sticky and there’s a gaggle of sad-eyed souls standing outside puffing on their fags. Nowt wrong with market forces either, or pressed pork belly on white bean puree.
    As for England, not that keen on the interior of Norfolk (that’s the county not the Duke BTW).

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  4. Out of interest how cold was the beer? It's always FREEZING in my experience. I resent being chucked outside when diners come in, too.

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  5. Chris — beer was fine and to be honest I would want a wheat beer to be a little cooler, perhaps 10c. My first thoughts were that we were being made to go outside but then I was intrigued by the whole theatre of it — I had a pint of Allendale’s Black Grouse as well, which was confusingly designated at a Porter Bitter (or was it the other way around).

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  6. If it helps don't think of gastro pubs as pubs, think of them as restaurants with poor service.

    You will still dislike them, but your dislike will not be as a result of your love of pubs.

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  7. Cooking — my mind doesn’t think that way, it has never been very good at displacing one thing for the other, but thanks for your advice. Out of interest, as your main drinking establishment seems to be the front room do you think it has the ambience of a gastro or a pub or something totally different?

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  8. Ade, my front room has all the ambience of a freakish creation from a TV home makeover show. As does the rest of the house. It is rescued by a fridge of dirt cheap beer, a big telly and a cracking bird I'm guaranteed to pull.

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  9. I read this with interest.I think my feelings are similar to yours(mixed)about the gastropub trend.
    Really its about getting the balance right,doing decent food,without going overboard on the fancy
    descriptions.
    Its increasingly difficult(esp in rural areas)to survive as a wet let pub so obviously the food side needs to be successful,ideally retaining a pubby atmosphere.IMHO For what its worth!

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