Uni professor defends England's gastropubs

Sam Russell
Britain's pubs are no longer all about beer and grub, and some say this is a shame

Britain's "gastropubs" are unfairly maligned because people "miss a past society which is no longer there", a Cambridge University professor says.

Sociologist Christel Lane has examined the rise of the gourmet pub in a new book, From Taverns To Gastropubs.

She says that, contrary to the popular narrative of gentrification killing off the traditional alehouse, gastropubs are in fact a natural evolution prompted in part by social change.

Gastropubs started to appear in the 1990s, but until now their impact has not been analysed, Prof Lane said.

She defines gastropubs as providing "high-quality food that is freshly made on the premises from mostly locally-sourced produce", adding: "Such pubs are not merely food-led, but aspire to serving gastronomically ambitious food."

And she notes that they have come in for criticism over the years.

The writer AA Gill opined that "food and pubs go together like frogs and lawnmowers, vampires and tanning salons, mittens and Braille", while another critic disparaged the gastropub as "a restaurant occupying the dead shell of a pub".

However, Prof Lane said that gastropubs are developing, not wrecking, the best of British pub culture.

She said many serve as community social hubs, champion traditional English cooking and that by emphasising dining as well as drinking they are accessible to a wider range of customers - especially women.

"The character of the pub has always changed over the centuries and the gastropub is part of that," she said.

"Ultimately, much of the criticism of gastropubs seems to have less to do with what they actually offer, and more with the fact that people miss a past society which is no longer there."

She continued: "Their importance for some communities has been ignored and as a result they have been undervalued.

"The rise of the gastropub does not just mean a culture has been lost; something has been gained."

She spoke to the owners and clientele at 40 gastropubs to chart their rise, or "gastrification" as she calls it.

This included The Eagle in Clerkenwell, London, described as the very first gastropub.

She said the expansion of a middle class who value eating out has helped the increase in gastropubs.

The closure of drinking pubs is in part down to the disappearance of a British industrial working class and changes in social attitudes, not least the demise of the liquid lunch, she added.

Prof Lane found many gastropubs champion English dishes like fish and chips and Sunday roasts.

She calls this "gastronationalism", adding: "it is not too far-fetched to claim that most gastropubs contribute significantly to raising the profile of traditional English fare."

There is now a greater balance of genders at pubs that once self-identified as "drinking men's" establishments, she said.

"It is an astonishing transformation," Prof Lane said. "Women were once almost completely excluded from pubs; now they are a target market and pub owners go out of their way to welcome them."