Saturday 6 December 2008

To Bar or not to Bar?

What makes a good pub? What is the difference between a food pub and a restaurant? Can an establishment major in food and still call itself a pub? Why does the café bar culture not work in the UK?

That last question might seem like a tangential issue. I believe not, the key word of course is culture. We have a pub culture in our great land. For centuries we have congregated in the public house for social reasons. Until very recently we did not, on the whole, eat out as a nation. Conversely on mainland Europe, there is a long tradition of socialising that entails a mixture of food and drink, sometimes formal dining and sometimes snacking. The Brits used to just go out for a pint, perhaps a packet of crisps, or if you where really posh had scampi fries.

The above constitutes sweeping generalisation. This is no better than saying all lager drinkers are numpties or all UKIP MEPs are nutters. Cultures change over time. Whilst in Brussels recently we went into several very pub like places; Delirium Café and Mort Subite being examples. Food here was very simple, consisting for example of Croque Monsieur or Croque Madame, which are toasted cheese and ham sandwiches, the madame variation including an egg....indeed in Delirium the food appeared to be completely packet snack foods and ordering from the bar was compulsory. There is a sign outside declaring that in fact the place is a pub. There is evidence that the Belgians respect our pub culture and in some cases are embracing it as their culture changes.

Our culture is also changing. In the good old bad old days pubs tended to be male dominated boozers. Drinking, smoking and being bawdy was the order of the day. I have myself enjoyed many an enjoyable evening in this environment engaging heavily in all three activities. This is indeed a grand part of our culture and never may it die out. It is fact thought that this style of pub is becoming less popular. The more diverse, mixed culture we now enjoy, a unisex attitude where comfortable surroundings, a larger choice of products and a more refined style are in increasing demand. This refined style also justifies a higher price.

The pubs where drinking takes centre stage are important. But the male dominated, spit and sawdust pub of the past, where gents toilet is a shed in the back yard, and the women stayed at home to do the ironing are fast failing. Most would agree this is a good thing. Pubs need to become something else to survive. I have a strong conviction that the "anti-gastro" brigade is actually inhibiting the progression of pubs. Why are pubs changing to something more like restaurants? It's because it works for them. We can't just keep pubs as they used to be as some sort of museum piece, they are businesses that must move with the times.

In a recent post on Jeff Bells Blog questions are asked about the issue of "gastro pubs". There appeared to be general condemnation of the pub that majors in food. I resisted in jumping in to comment for a while. I'm glad I did resist because in the end it would seem we all agree. Comparing the British restaurant pub to the bars on the continent reveals a very stark contrast. Jeff and his commenters points out very well that when you enter a pub and it is set out with cutlery on every table you have to ask "can I just have a drink?" Our Continental beer cousins have their bar tables left clear so that you can just have a drink, the Maître d' just politely asks if you are having food, without pressure.

Perhaps though we are too sensitive, after all the government wanted to encourage a "cafe culture" for our pubs, and is that such a bad thing? Perhaps implementation in this country of the continental style bar has been less than ideally executed, but we can't just keep damning every attempt by pubs to move the offering away from the traditional.

Conversely, because there is a shift in culture, many more couples go out for a meal rather than just a drink. Restaurants are becoming popular these days and pubs run the risk of loosing out. Changing demographics and the long term increase in spending power results in less people going to pubs. Perhaps some pubs have to behave more like restaurants to be able to attract customers and compete in a different market rather than the indifferent trade of the old fashioned pub.

Perhaps we need to embrace diversity in our pub industry rather than complaining about pubs that are trying to be innovative. Perhaps a changing culture upsets some, but that is progress and that progress is ultimately for the better. Perhaps we need to blur the divide between the pub and the restaurant. Yes many pubs that major in food also need to learn how to accommodate casual trade. But we also need to remember that diversity will result in some pubs not being able to satisfy everybody. Perhaps if we can learn to do it like the Continentals it will be part of the answer to the problem of closing pubs.

The astute Brussels visitor would know that the two bars mentioned in the text are not shown on the pictures. The first picture is the outside of a brew pub called Les Brasseurs the second is inside a rather nice cafe bar that I forget the name of.  I have in front of me a "Palette Dégustation 5 bières". I had also ordered a light snack.


Sat In A Pub said...

“a unisex attitude where comfortable surroundings, a larger choice of products and a more refined style are in increasing demand. This refined style also justifies a higher price.”

Broadly speaking that may be true. However, I think some of it is wishful thinking or what we are led to believe from reading glossy magazines. There are whole areas near me in which the pubs don’t offer food, don’t offer any choice and are pretty basic. These are the ones probably suffering most from the smoking ban. Or so we are told. And yet they continue to flourish. Suggesting the appetite for change isn’t quite as big as some prophets’ claim. Whilst some rough & ready pubs have shut, what I’m seeing are pubs closing which were offering supposedly what customers want. How do you reconcile that with the upmarket trend? I don’t know, to be honest.

The Woolpack Inn said...

You are right. A pub has to play to it's best market. There are some that will thrive at what they have always done, this is fantastic. Some will try to change and fail by getting it wrong.

I also feel that some fail because of inertia of the customer base, a customer base that is already too small to support the existing but resist too much the change that is required.

Some go on to become something very successful despite criticism, but there is always be people willing them to fail - this is sad.

I gather there is some sort of economic situation at the present time, this of course will effect the way people spend money in the short term.