Gastropubs of Zone 1

The gastropub is a real Great British enigma, a much used term with no real definition, rather like the pub itself.  To drinkers, it’s almost a dirty word.  Get it right and everyone’s happy but get the emphasis wrong and punters are left with a poor deal one way or another.

Zone 1 is not particularly known for its gastropubs, despite laying claim to have founded the term.  However, this piece argues that perhaps only tight pubs in the centre of urbanised areas, such as London’s Zone 1, really qualify as gastropubs under some vague rules which we will explore later on.

Chalk board editThe traditional pub is struggling somewhat these days (for various reasons that we ought not to go into on this page) so it seems that food sales might be the answer to keeping a beer interest going on some properties, after all the margins that restaurants appear to attract seem very appealing.

Lack of definition makes it perfect pub conversational fodder.  There is no right answer and the debate can go on and on.  With a will to continue exploring there is room to find the gastropub to match your taste in ale and food but it won’t please everyone and that’s fine too.

Perfect blend of food and ale?

There seem to be some unwritten rules out there, even some of them we might be able to agree on.  But the trick seems to be when to honour the rules and when to dispense with the formalities, everyone has their own preference.  Simply selling food is not enough – pubs have been doing this for years, although it used to be very limited indeed.  Venn diagramSo much so that standards such as “scampi and chips”, “beef hot pot” and, if the tourist pubs around Leicester Square would have it, “fish and chips in a beer batter” became better known as English cuisine, because we didn’t really ever lay claim to a standard definition.  There we go again.  Definition? And of course no pub serving food could ever escape the Sunday lunch with its ever-increasing-in-size Yorkshire puddings.

So the first unwritten rule might be that it has to be slightly different to 1980s-and-earlier pub fare – leave all that to the tourists.  The best menus are well understood, and go well with beer, for example Bangers and Mash – but not just ordinary mash – washed down with a craft beer.  When you consider the range of craft brews, especially in London, an independent pub has a distinct advantage over a tied house – but those in the know would argue that is now sadly the lay of the land.

The menu just needs a bit of imagination.  The Anchor and Hope serves a phenomenal range of mouth-watering items for degustation.  Indeed just reading it gets the imagination racing.  Most others serve more traditional fare.

It’s easy sometimes to have a laugh at some presumptuous descriptions – but the name of the farm, region or a description of the animal’s upbringing is absolutely OK and ususally celebrates Britain.  One adventurous place up north even re-branded Yorkshire Puddings as tapas.  It seems nothing is off limits.

Yorkie pudIf the menu has something quirky, a twist on an old idea, maybe typically British without over-statement (e.g. Pie and mash with …..) it’s in the right ballpark.

Put simply if they are making more effort with food then the venue could call itself a gastropub.  Too much, and it’s a restaurant.

But then should there be a separate bar menu? – not if it’s the traditional Clerkenwell model, which we’ll come on to.

Some gastropubs will attempt to recommend or suggest ale types with food on the menu.  Some of this is pretty obvious – lighter ales with lighter foods, and the richer stouts and porters with richer more dense foods (e.g. Christmas Pudding).  Bitter and Pale Ale does tend to go so well with steak pie, sausage and mash, and shepherds pies that they become ingredients!

Watch out for cuckoos

But drinkers beware! Some restaurants have taken residence in the pub building and, from the exterior, you would not know – kicking out the thirsty drinkers but keeping the nest intact.  But the clients seem to love the fact that the room has the ambiance of a pub, after all pubs have that er pub-like ambiance, which in itself is difficult to define.  You see, we are talking food and ale, not just wine. One should not feel guilty about ordering just a beer – or (shock, horror) putting your pint down on a tablecloth!

Those that are set out for service or have a separate dining area are aiming for restaurant standards that pubs will always fall short of.  Very few have Michelin Stars – but this should not be the objective of a pub, I mean, how good is the cellar?  The only stars should be at the bar – Dark Star, Portobello Star……

The archetype

When did the pub transform itself from pie and chips, or whelks and cockles for that matter?  And since when did the great British public start to venture away from their kitchen tables in search of a meal and what is the food they seem to be craving for – the great British cuisine or something more exotic?

Although in London Thai food and pubs had seemed to become a tradition, not many other foreign influences had been able to take over a great British institution, such as a pub.  One could hardly see an Italian restaurant taking on a pub and serving purely Peroni or even regional Italian beers in an attempt to bring customers in.  In fact the gastronomic range has to be complimentary to real ale, and that’s not easy

According to it’s own rhetoric The Eagle in Clerkenwell was the first gastropub.   EagleThe original idea may or not have been lost but reasonably priced food and an entertaining open kitchen seem to be the main attraction now.  In fact this gastropub is a world away from the formal dining at some of the top restaurants Zone 1 London has to offer.

The point about the Eagle is that it is unassuming, unpretentious.  The bar is shared equally between the casks and the cooker and everything is relaxed.  The food smells are amazing and, above all the food is very tasty.  By unassuming we mean that from the outside it is a pub.  There’s no host or usher, no tablecloths and, in fact, when visited recently, no table plan of any description.  That it is unpretentious is in the sense that you order food at the bar in the same way as drinks and then find a table to enjoy your beer.  The menu is not fixed and not even printed.  By looking around at what everyone is eating, the chalk menu and the kitchen you make your choice.  So relaxed it might unnerve the uninitiated, expecting perhaps a more personable experience.  Yet at the Eagle the ale, the food and the punter are complemented so well that as long as you are comfortable with one you will enjoy the other two.

More unwritten rules

Typically you can’t book these places in advance, they have no formality, even sharing a table with someone else perhaps is possible – and the real ale is a must and stay true to the pub’s classic interior.  If you follow the archetype food fusion is expected, inexpensive pricing should be the regime and no tablecloths.  Plus ordering food only at the bar maybe and an ever changing menu.  The pub should have space for drinkers too, not just a few token bar stools or the waiting area in the corner, I mean homage to the needs of a pub-goer – e,g, big screens, pool tables, quiz machines, why not?

definitionThe thing is it’s a relatively new phenomenon – the Wikipedia definition is pretty sparse – that we rely on good examples to make a point.  The term was quickly snaffled by New York establishments so there’ll never be an agreement of what it is now!

Can a pub chain be made of gastropubs?  Depends on your point of view.  There are chains out there, good luck to them if they can remain individual.  Gordon Ramsay is in there and  the ETM Group are too, who own The Botanist, Sloane Square , an excellent gastropub, according to Alan – the food is excellent, although bar gets a little crowded on the busiest nights, due to the design of the pub but well worth a mention here.

Our next example, Waterloo’s The Anchor & Hope is a strictly casual affair. The kitchen is right there next to the bar and the diners are separated by an old-school curtain from the rest of the punters, typically those waiting to be served.  The food is written on a chalk board and the lunch menu we saw when visited recentlywas excellent. With the kitchen so close the energy of the place is true to the archetype but in this case it’s not completely on show, more functional.  The decoration is so unassuming, basic even – and no tablecloths

Anchor and HopeThere is still attention to detail, it’s all just understated, modest even, like it doesn’t have to.  You’re here because your here and the food is excellent – rabbit, pheasant, veal, beetroot – it almost reads like an eastern mid-European banquet.  For what you get the prices are amazing if you are prepared to wait and take in the ales which are available.

old red cow 2A pub with good food, of which there are many, which gets the good reviews is “Old Red Cow” next to Smithfield Market.  The great thing about the Old Red Cow is that it’s a pub first and doesn’t shy away from it.  When it’s busy the place is a neo-classic haven for beer and craft lagers with lots of worn-out wood visible.  In fact on a Friday night diners look out of place.  old red cow 1Upstairs the dining area doubles as a craft lager bar – keg but interesting – with great views over the historic market area through massive sash windows.  The menu, however, from ham hock to cottage pie is a tad limited, still worth a try and it gets excellent reviews, especially for Sunday roasts and (the Fat Cow) burgers.

More Gastropubs of Zone 1 we have visited

If more space for food (as well as ale) is your need then, in general, you need to look in areas away from the city and mainly residential.  The majority of these tend to be suburban and outside of zone 1, away from the tube station (further the better as a rule).  Clerkenwell is a decent area for gastropubs – The Eaton, The Peasant, The Bowler are some, to name but a few.  There are many residential areas in Zone 1 served by gastropubs, not exactly hidden away but perhaps not entirely obvious – here are a few we have been to – Islington (Earl of Essex), South Kensington (Anglesea Arms), Earls Court (Scarsdale Tavern), Chelsea (Phene Arms), Pimlico (Cask Pub and Kitchen), Southwark (Anchor and Hope), Bermondsey (The Woolpack).  You can see from these selections how some may be viewed as pubs that serve food well.

The Princess of Shoreditch is good – Dimo took us there on his Shoreditch crawl  There is a dining area is upstairs, a spiral staircase, with elegant furnishings in darker, more classic wood than the Cow.  There is also a separate bar menu for downstairs and they feature food without enforcing it, thank to the more serious tables upstairs; so drinkers do not have to worry.  Selected meats, and a wide variety for that matter, make this interesting and they seem to deliver the classics well.

princess of shoreditch

So too much gastro – is this death to drinkers’ pubs?

Most drinkers will be ever conscious of a gastropub which is trying too hard or going too far. If you can relax and have a beer while others choose to eat great but, as we pointed out earlier, the pubs that look like pub from the outside and serve only food are a big disappointment – unless food is your motive. We have seen good pubs, like the Kings Arms in Holborn, be almost overtaken by food, now known as Lady Ottoline.  But equally if you want food but in a relaxed environment, a pub hybrid would seem very appealing, especially now that the smokers have been banished to the exterior.

Marstons recent announcement that it was to sell off 200 pubs because they only served (wait for it) “beer” was yet another move away from the traditional pub – to those that sell food and drink to attract more women and families.  This might be true of out-of –town properties and not a particular Zone 1 problem, as the demographic is clearly different to the rest of the country.  But it is a death knell to some regions.

Outside of central London the pub and restaurant elements tend to have a different balance.   The first reason is that there is more space inside the property to separate the two offerings and the second is that the relative space may mean there is a car park and the catchment area is geographically wider……which is why the “and kitchen” came to the bar in London.  A kitchen takes up space!

In fact good drinkers’ pubs in London are still flourishing.  Most people think of central London pubs as being fish and chip dens catering for tourists. But then most people from outside the metropolis go right to the heart of zone 1. If you do then….

Typical of zone 1 is to exploit an otherwise unused upstairs room for dining. There are so many examples offering traditional pub fare to name, I would recommend The Newman Arms and its range of home made pies and puddings. But these are a long way away from the gastropub definition where food and beer are in perfect harmony (depending on taste), complimentary, symbiotic……..

So in conclusion, there are some excellent gastropubs in zone 1 and one can argue that you have to be in a city like London where space is a premium and compromises are made to give the customer good food and good beer at the same time.

Get the balance right and you have something not easy to qualify. Like the definition of the pub itself. Each to their own.

Other references

There are plenty of recommendations in zone 2 and of course throughout the UK, that’s not the point of this article either.  So in case you came to this page looking for top London gastropubs the following links take you to TimeOut’s accurately surveyed list.  In its top 10 only 4 are in zone 1. 

The others are The Horseshoe – 28 Heath Street, NW3 6TE; Harwood Arms – Corner of Walham Grove and Farm Lane, SW6 1QP; Public House – 54 Islington Park Street, N1 1PX; Empress – 130 Lauriston Road, E9 7LH; The Gun – 27 Coldharbour, E14 9NS and Bull & Last  – 168 Highgate Road, NW5 1QS


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