Your pub needs you... to order chips with your beer and save a British institution

Our love for pubs is ingrained in our soul. Now they’re under threat, we must fight for them – with food as our weapon of choice

Save our pubs
Save our pubs Credit: The Telegraph

It’s another curious spectacle of 2020. Landlords of Britain’s drinking pubs queuing up in their local supermarkets, their trolleys laden with Cornish pasties and oven chips.

As a new layer of Boris fog descends on the country’s hospitality industry, the wily owners of pubs that don’t serve food – unless it’s crisps, pork scratchings and pickled eggs – are fighting to stay open in the wake of new government restrictions. The Prime Minister’s new local Covid alert levels specify that pubs and bars in areas in the ‘very high alert level’, according to the government: ‘must close, and can only remain open where they operate as if they were a restaurant – which means serving substantial meals.’

When pressed on exactly what constitutes a ‘substantial meal’ Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick suggested that it could be a Cornish pasty, but only if it came on a plate with salad and chips; the government’s website stipulates that a meal is ‘like a main lunchtime or evening meal’.

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This new gloriously grey area is now the subject of widespread conjecture – and hilarity. Customers, landlords and MPs are piling in on social media to debate the issue. Soup of the day: Carling £2.80 on a board outside a pub went viral on Twitter. Could a bowl of crisps and peanuts count as trendy and ironic ‘bowl’ food. Labour MP for Chesterfield, Toby Perkins, stated: ‘It’s not entirely clear if you had a sausage roll with a bowl of chips, would that be substantial?’

Boris’s new restrictions now make a drive for obesity virtually compulsory. If you’re a loyal customer at your local hostelry and you’re in a high-risk area, in order that the establishment remains open you’ll definitely need to order chips with that.

Of course, the pubs that already serve food will be thanking their lucky stars that they did what so many establishments have done over the past few decades, adding food to their drinks offering.

It’s been a systematic, gradual development since the end of the Second World War, boozers across the UK adding food to help retain punters and sell items that have greater margins than beer. This trend famously crescendoed with the arrival of the gastropub in the 1990s. Food historians specifically identify the opening of The Eagle, in London’s Clerkenwell as being the birth of the gastropub. Founded by manager Michael Belben and chef David Eyre in 1991, the pair had wanted to open a restaurant but couldn’t afford it. So instead they bought an old pub and created a menu that was more refined than that found at the average British local. “The time was ripe for a casual, good value approach to dining using top quality ingredients that until then could only be found in expensive restaurants,” reflected Eyre. His view on the majority of UK pubs was: “The beer was expensive, poorly sourced wine was an afterthought and the food was rubbish.”

Their menu, featuring the likes of roasted skate wing, rabbit linguine and Portuguese custard tart, was summed up in the name of their own cookbook: Big Flavours and Rough Edges.

The Eagle successfully blurred the lines between a restaurant and a pub, and as gastropubs spread across the country and in the ensuing years the phenomenon was even granted its own awards ceremony, now the annual Estrella Dam Top 50 Gastropubs.

But it could be argued that the very existence of the British pub was due to the blurring of lines between what was once an alehouse, an inn or a tavern.  

By the 18th century one could determine three types of what we would today call a pub. There was an alehouse, which only served drinks, and that was mainly ale or beer. There were inns that catered for travellers, who could tether their horse and then repair inside for a set menu; you ate whatever came out of the kitchen. And there were taverns, more refined establishments and where you could find a menu with choice.

Alehouses probably have the longest history because the British have traditionally been better at drinking than eating. And eating out did not become a thing until the Industrial Revolution when the traditional agrarian life was disrupted and people started to travel to work at factories that were springing up across the country. While cookshops had existed from the Medieval period and served hot food, they were in reality humble food stalls that had found shelter in a building in cities like London.

Before 1400, dining out did not really exist at all. People ate meals at the houses of families and friends, and travellers relied on the hospitality of religious institutions and monasteries.

Travellers outside a tavern, 1850 Credit: bridgemanimages.com

Meanwhile the growth of inns began in the mid-18th century as coach routes criss-crossed the country. With horses needing to be changed and rested there were inns every seven to ten miles. They were most prolific along the Great North Road, from London to Durham, which is now the A1.

Such inns served simple food such as roast meats, salad, cheese, trout, pickled salmon, fowl and cold meats and there was little choice. That luxury instead was found in establishments such as The London Tavern in Bishopsgate, presided over by one John Farley. Such was his reputation that he even wrote a cookbook, The London Art of Cookery. His book, published in 1787 featured recipes for stews, hashes, ragouts, fricassees, sauces, soups, broths, vegetables puddings and pies. He discussed cooking techniques from pickling to candying and the success of his book reflected the glorious growth of such places. By the end of the 18th century those who sought food and drink at a London tavern were spoilt for choice. There were two chefs named Francis Collingwood and John Woollams who cooked at the Crown & Anchor Tavern in the Strand, a man called Richard Briggs cheffed at the Globe Tavern on Fleet Street and diners sought sustenance in Holborn at the White Hart Tavern.

The popularity of such places was summed up by Samuel Johnson who, in 1798 wrote: ‘There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced by a good tavern.’

The British love for pubs is ingrained in our soul, embedded in our history. When governments threaten them we feel the pain sharply. We must fight for their survival. Yes, you must do your duty for your country and have chips with that (or a salad).

Sitwell’s no-kitchen-necessary menu for pub survival

Starters

  • Pork scratchings and tomato salad (empty scratchings into a bowl, serve sliced tomatoes on a plate)
  • Tomato juice with celery stick (lest we forget that this was an actual starter in the Seventies)
  • Scampi surprise (bowl of scampi-flavour fries) – serve with wedge of lemon, maybe in a basket to keep with the Seventies flavour

Mains

  • Cornish pasty and chips
  • Cockles, whelks and chips
  • Bag of crisps and pickled egg (serve in a bowl, slice of lettuce on the side)
  • Pot noodle and a slice of buttered bread
  • Pint of Guinness (a meal in itself, surely?)

Puddings

  • Mars bar on a bed of Twix (lay pair of Twix on a plate, place Mars bar on Twix at an angle)
  • Cake and cream (cake becomes a pud when cream is poured onto it and it’s eaten with a fork)
  • Mr Kipling’s apple pies (see instructions above for cake and cream)
  • Hobnob ice cream (break Hobnobs onto ice cream)
  • Cheese and biscuits (but not Bath Olivers; lockdown called has called time on those too, sadly)
Will you be rallying behind your favourite pubs as a second lockdown looms? Let us know in the comments section below.