As the Eagle in London marks a quarter of a century of informal food and mismatched furniture, all hail the gourmet saloon. Plus: 10 of the best in the UK today
hildren always suppose the truly primitive thing about the last century was not having the internet, but actually, holding the sum of human knowledge in the palm of your hand has its ups and downs. If you want pure progress, an uninterrupted path from a bad place to a better place, you should consider the gastropub. C
the Eagle opened on a corner in Farringdon, London, a quarter of a century ago this month, feeing was different and drinking was different. The gastropub revolution has been chiefly held to have improved pubs, rescued us from a life of pork scratchings and wet sandwiches toasted in their suitcases, but it was of immeasurable benefit, too, to gastronomy.
Restaurants may have already been edging away from elaborated napery and
Rules-ishness, but only superficially and, God, so slowly. There was so much formality, which is really just a cover for condescension( were telling you what to do because we dont want you to get anything wrong , not because were upselling control freaks ). The whole starter issue was a inundate. You dont want a starter? Is that because you havent got enough money? Are you paying in cash? Might you do a runner? You want two starters and no main course? Is that because youre poor? Why are you looking at what is clearly the inexpensive bit of the wine listing, cant you buy proper wine?
The Eagle on Farringdon Road, London. Photo: Alamy
Every once in a blue moon it last happened to me recently at Le Pont de la Tour, London youll run into a sommelier who treats you the route they did in the pre-gastropub dark days, guiding and sneering, all eyebrows and averted glances. Nowadays its funny, like meeting a throwback, person still doing Harry Enfield impressions or quoting Withnail& I. Back then, it was plain unpleasant. The advent of a boozer in which you could sit down to a peerless, slow-cooked stew without even so much as a reservation explosion that power balance.
It was also, softly, a gender revolution: food before Trish Hilferty the cook at the Eagle, who went on to the Anchor& Hope and then the Canton Arms, for my money, the best saloon in London had the demonic sexism of todays tech industry. It wasnt small-c conservative, it was elaborately macho; kitchen-culture judged for excellence on its long hours and fiery tempers. This persists, with cooks talking admiringly of each other
for attacking their underlings with rolling pins, but was never part of the gastropub DNA, which broke the model not only of formality but of melodrama.
A lot of gastropub fare deep-fried Cornish anchovies, rabbit lasagne, cods roe with a wobbly duck egg is more foodie than technical. The emphasis on seasons, food miles, foraging, inventiveness through nature rather than fuss through a piping bag, received from places such as the Sportsman in Seasalter, Kent, and the idyllic Star Inn in Harome, North Yorkshire( both in the nations top 10 gastropubs, below, as denominated by the Publicans Morning Advertiser this week ).
The snack menu at the Canton Arms. Photo: Frank Baron for the Guardian
In the late 80 s and early 90 s, there was a competing bid to keep saloon culture alive by making pubs look a bit more like bars. They were standardised across chains so that you always knew, if you were in an All Bar One, that they could make a white wine spritzer, and they were built more female-friendly. It was dispiriting and homogenised, clackity, soulless; if there had been no alternative renewal, the boozer would have died. We would be stuck drinking coffee spiked with synthesised syrups, as in Friend.
The ethos of the gastropub was broader than its menu: a determination not to be fussy; to keep the glassware and never lose sight of the true purpose of the saloon; to have no matching chairs. Yet the food has changed everything: when the Canton first opened( itself a late arrival, though from a long-standing stable ), I used to go with the dog so that I could, without waste, have a foie gras toastie as a pre-starter, followed by a starter, followed by a main course, hoovering up lupin seeds for 60 p along the way. The dog has died; the lupin seeds are still on the menu; the foie gras toastie, on matured reflection, was a bit much. Our eating culture, in these unassuming temples of greet, has changed forever.
The top 10 UK gastropubs
The Sportsman, Seasalter, Kent
Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian
Chef Stephen Harris churns his own butter, builds his own salt, bakes his own bread and uses only the finest, freshest make. Every dish is a knockout, but the slip-up sole grilled in seaweed butter is a must-try.
The Pipe& Glass Inn, Beverley, East Yorkshire
Barnsley chop. Photo: Gary Calton for the Observer
Kate and James Mackenzies pub is all about traditional Yorkshire fare, but cooked with the passion that earned it a Michelin star. Try the slow-cooked crispy lamb shoulder, adorned with kidneys turbigo, cumin-spiced lentils and minted sheeps yoghurt.
The Superstar at Harome, North Yorkshire
Photograph: Gary Calton for the Observer
One of the first saloon in the country to be awarded a Michelin star. Try cook/ owner Andrew Perns North Sea octopus carpaccio with black olive sorbet, roasted peppers, soft-boiled quails egg, anchovy fritters and garden lovage mayonnaise.
The Coach, Marlow, Buckinghamshire
Owned by Tom Kerridge of the two-starred gastropub
Hand and Flowers, also in Marlow. Try chef Nick Beardshaws sous-vide burger, complete with West Country cheddar.
The Pony& Trap, Chew Magna, Bristol
Another Michelin-starred boozer, this one run by siblings Holly and Josh Eggleton. The menu changes daily but look out for plaice with chorizo, brown shrimp, celery and parsley.
Freemasons, Wiswell, Lancashire
Chef and proprietor Steven Smith fuses world flavour with British make to great impact. Try the butter-poached lobster tail with crispy claw wontons, seaweed potatoes, fresh blueberries and black pepper sauce.
Harwood Arms, Fulham, London
Chef Brett Graham, of the Worlds 50 Best Restaurant competitor
the Ledbury, has the distinction of co-owning Londons only Michelin-starred saloon. The food here is more traditional, but no less thoughtful. Try the buttered Cornish crab on English muffins with coastal herbs and pickled lemon.
The Hardwick, Abergavenny, Wales
This Welsh pub belonging to Stephen Terry of Walnut Tree fame is as good as youd expect. Try the confit duck hash with hens egg, chicory and burnt orange dressing.
The Kingham Plough, Kingham, Oxfordshire
When Emily Watkins isnt popping up on BBC2s Great British Menu, she is putting the experience gain access to Heston Blumenthals Fat Duck to good use in running her own saloon. Try her twice-baked pumpkin souffle with Windrush goats cheese.
The Masons Arms, Knowstone, Devon
Before he opened this cosy Devon pub, Mark Dodson was head cook at Michel Rouxs three-Michelin-starred Waterside Inn, Bray. He now serves good, simple, locally sourced ingredients cooked with panache. Try the wood pigeon breasts with curried brussels sprout puree and stuffing.
From the Publicans Morning Advertiser get the full list of the UKs 50 best at top5 0gastropubs. com