Unlike many of the previous topics, this one promises to be contentious, for it concerns the much discussed phenomenon of the gastropub. Everyone it seems has an opinion about them, roughly ranging from grudging acceptance to downright loathing. Given that even how to define such an establishment is itself debated, for me to discuss them I must start to offer some personal opinions, so I’m moving decisively to the first-person for this post. You may differ in your definition, but that’s to be expected. There’s no single defining element at work, though I’ve heard people trying to argue that things like serving handmade/hand-cut chips, or having a chalkboard with food specials, are the sole feature making a place a ‘gastropub’. Perhaps, though, they could feature on a checklist we might come up with, or a mathematical equation?
What It’s Not
Even the OED entry errs on the side of vagueness when grappling with the gastropub:
“gastropub, n. Brit. A public house which specializes in serving high-quality food.”
While one might quibble about how to define “high-quality” food, let’s start with what the gastropub is not. It’s not a restaurant. Which means that restaurants that happen to be located in former pub buildings, even really striking ones retaining their old signage and name — for example, Konstam at The Prince Albert (St Pancras WC1) — do not in any sense count.
The gastropub is, then, quite rightly, a pub.1 But how, after all, do we define a “pub” in the first place? We could say that if you can go in and just have a drink, it’s a pub for our purposes. You may not feel entirely comfortable just ordering a drink (these are gastro-pubs for a reason), but it should be possible without any undue attitude on behalf of the venue.
Then again, this doesn’t take account of the differences between a bar and a pub. One place which is local to me, where a person can happily just have a drink but which I don’t think of as a pub, is Masons (Ladywell SE13, fig. 50). It’s in a single-roomed former pub building; it even has a pub-like name (from its original name, The Freemasons’ Tavern). However, it’s fairly obviously a restaurant as well, and not a gastropub. There are many other places — whether housed in former pub buildings or not — that bill themselves as “bar/restaurant” or “restaurant/bar” which are, in essence, restaurants.
Figure 50. Masons (Ladywell SE13). Not a gastropub, but a bar/restaurant.
A pub doesn’t have to offer real ale (plenty of them lost their handpulls during the mid-20th century, as lager gained in popularity post-World War II), and then again there are places like the bar area at St John Restaurant (Clerkenwell EC1), which has several handpulls for ale. You could argue that pub decor is distinctive, perhaps emphasising wooden panelling, it might even be carpeted, but then there are plenty of places which shun these expectations and are no less pubs. Being able to sit at the bar doesn’t make it a pub (since you can do that at Masons), and if you are expected to stand while drinking it’s probably a bar, but some bars have seating and some cramped centrally-located pubs have a real dearth of it (The Coach and Horses in Covent Garden WC2, for example). It’s really a very subjective thing in the end.
In other words, you know a pub when you’re in it.2
More Food Than Drink
Taking the set of establishments we accept as pubs, then among those which could be called gastro, there are those which emphasise the food over the drink, and vice versa. It’s this first category which I would single out as the canonical gastropub and which have given rise to a certain characteristic style (which one can even see creeping into restaurant decor, just to further confuse matters).
They may not fully be restaurants but they certainly share characteristics, such as being laid out for service. Many fêted gastropubs will have a room, or several rooms, or another floor, laid out for service. Some may have only a few tables, or even just a bar stool area by a shelf, for drinking (especially during busy service periods, such as lunchtimes or dinner), which is I think fairly miserly, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a pub. The Running Horse (Mayfair W1), to take one example, may be dominated by tables laid for service, but it’s still a pub.
The most famous — claimed, in fact, as the pioneers — are The Eagle (Clerkenwell EC1) and The Anchor and Hope (Southwark SE1, fig. 51), and fit into this category. The latter has a separate drinking area, but those crowding it are often waiting for a table in the coveted dining area next door (for which no bookings are taken). When I visited on my own, hungry, during a downpour, I was seated at the bar on the drinking side. The food was great, and there was quite a crush of people around me getting drinks in, but as a pub, it remains marginal.