Ask pub goers to name a traditional pub meal and pretty high on the list would be the ploughmanís lunch; that wholesome combination of rich cheddar cheese, fresh baked bread and home made pickle. It conjures up an idyllic image of times past, the ploughman sitting in a half ploughed field, unwrapping his cloth parcel, a small flagon of cider by his side.
So imagine the disappointment when it was revealed that this most traditional of pub fayre was a 1960ís invention; a marketing tool dreamed up by marketing men, none of whom, we can safely assume, have ever ploughed a furrow.
The humble sandwich, on the other hand, is no marketing creation. A snack devised so the Earl of Sandwich (1718-92) could eat whilst playing cribbage, without getting grease on his fingers or the cards.
What the ploughmanís lunch and the sandwich both have in common is, that until fairly recently, they were about all you could hope for in the way of pub food; then only at lunchtime, nothing in the evening. Otherwise it was a packet of crisps (potato chips, US), pork scratchings (salted crispy pork skin) or salted peanuts.
Well, how times have changed.
See also our recommended Good Food Pubs
Now, pub menus boast dishes from all over the globe; pastas, chillies, curries, as well as British classics like steak and kidney pies, filled baked potatoes, fish and chips and ploughmanís lunches, still there, but now reborn. Many pubs, particularly in urban areas, serve food all day, some even serve breakfast!
To generalise about pub food is about as useful as generalising about pubs themselves. A pub will serve the food to suit its customers and that may be simple, quick dishes, in the case of a city pub, or something more elaborate in a country dining pub where evening trade is the mainstay.
A large proportion of pubs in Britain make more money from food sales than from drinks, so for many itís the reason theyíre still in business. Overall, pubs have improved the variety and quality of their food offering, but the publicís appreciation and expectations have increased proportionately, so food-wise you could argue, the average pub has stood still.
Food in Chains
High street restaurant chains, for example, McDonaldís, Bella Pasta, Pizza Express, Brownís and Chez Gerard, all have an identity; you know the brand, you know the standard, itís in neon over the door. Pubs donít usually have that obvious brand identity, the exceptions being Greene Kingís Hungry Horse, M&Bís ĎHarvesterí or Spirit Groupís Chef & Brewer, but generally pubs donít signal their food brand to the customer.
Menus are often a giveaway in pub chains; the same menu appears in all their pubs, so you get to know who they belong to. These menus are fixed for a season and are expensively printed, so they do not change on a daily basis.
Chains buy their ingredients in bulk direct from suppliers or from the likes of catering specialists such as Brakes or 3663. Thereís nothing wrong with the food, it is cooked and served to a formula, which should ensure itís the same wherever itís served. It can be great value too.
Pub Grub or Gastro-Pub?
"Good ol' Bangers & Mash"
Rising above the average, or the mass produced, are some great pubs serving excellent food. The trend towards locally sourced, fresh, seasonal ingredients can only be a good thing. Dishes do not have to be complicated and simple meals, perfectly cooked, are better than a failed attempt at haute-cuisine.
We've resisted the term gastro-pub as it conjures up some pretentious notions. The challenge is to find real cooking, where a chef has put his or her skill into the dish and made it their own. Pubs that serve great food are just that and follow in the tradition of the tavern and inn. Restaurants that reluctantly cater for drinkers or make them feel uncomfortable arenít pubs and donít belong on this site.
Getting it Right
Here are two examples where the pub has got it right.
1. The White Bear
, Fickleshole, Surrey, is an ordinary country pub on the outskirts of Croydon. Itís a long rambling pub, made up from a row of old artisansí cottages. They serve good beers and unpretentious, straightforward food.
On a recent visit we ordered two sandwiches, a BLT and a tuna and mayo. They both arrived with fresh granary bread, the BLT was warm with crispy bacon, the sweetest tomatoes and a round lettuce, not the tasteless iceberg variety. The tuna mayo was a good balance, not too much mayonnaise, lightly seasoned, again sweet tomatoes and lettuce as a garnish. Both plates had chunky chips, hot and crunchy. Needless to say, we devoured the lot.
2. The Pot Kilns
near Frilsham, Berkshire, is the pub of chef Mike Robinson, whoís exploits have been shown in the series Heavenís Kitchen on UKTV. As you would expect the cooking is exceptionally good and most of the ingredients are locally sourced, some of the game is shot in the local woodland. The beers are local too.
We had pigeon breast, black pudding and bacon salad on a bed of lettuce for £5 and a succulent beef and venison burger on a bun, with chips, salad and shredded celeriac in a mustard sauce for under £9. It just makes my mouth water thinking about it; all this in the most relaxed surroundings of a small country pub.
These two pubs are poles apart in terms of renown, reputation and catchment, but both give the customer the best that they can offer and are unsurprisingly, very busy.
We receive more complaints about food than anything else; poor value, is usually coupled with poor service. Price doesnít seem to be a good barometer either; some of the most expensive pubs restaurants get the worst criticism.
Equally it is unfair to expect haute cuisine when paying £3.99 for a hot meal, when clearly whatís on offer is Ďpub grubí. What everyone should expect is value for money and Iíd argue you are more likely to find that in a pub than elsewhere.
If you know a pub that serves great food then please take the trouble to post your comments on the site.