What is a gastro pub? It can't just be a pub that serves food, because many, if not most, pubs do that. But if it's something more than a food pub, doesn't it become a restaurant in all but name? And that is my problem with gastro pubs: they cease to be pubs. And they tend to attract a metropolitan elite, otherwise known as the chattering classes loud, braying, self-conscious and self-opinionated luvvies that make outsiders feel unwanted.
I object to the modern trend that categorises and ghetto-ises pubs. I am not welcome in youth pubs and I feel uncomfortable in gastro pubs if all I want is a pint. The game is given way in the introduction to a collection of recipes for the first-ever gastro pub, the Eagle in London's Farringdon Road. It is written by the Observer journalist Kathryn Flett, who begins with the telling sentence "I don't like pubs, but I love the Eagle". She loves the Eagle precisely because it's not a pub.
When I first knew the Eagle, the Bedfordshire brewer Banks & Taylor ran it. It sold a range of excellent cask beers and good, simple, unpretentious pub grub of the bangers-and-mash variety. The modern Eagle has no pub feel whatsoever. The single room is packed with tables. It is a place designed for dining, not drinking. There are a few keg lagers and Guinness available, but this is the type of place where people drink wine with their food. The index to the book Big Flavours & Rough Edges lists dishes by the yard, including some cooked with wine. Of beer there is not a mention.
Just down the road, and a tad handier for Kathryn Flett and her Guardian and Observer colleagues, is Fuller's City Pride in Farringdon Lane. It's a brilliant pub, with a large, rambling main bar and lots of nooks and crannies if you want a quiet chat. There's also the Hogarth dining room upstairs with excellent tucker. But, if you're a journalist on the make, shrugging off your humble, provincial roots, and wanting to appear oh-so-cool and trendy, the City Pride remains definitively a pub. So it's back to the Eagle, dahling, for Vitello o Capone Tonnato with a nicely chilled Chardonnay.
I am not against good food. I'm sure I would like Vitello o Capone Tonnato if I had the faintest idea what it was. But it is perfectly possible to serve excellent food without destroying the basic character of the pub, and its beery traditions along with it.
One gastro pub in London proves the point. The Duke of Cambridge in St Peter's Street, Islington, run by SinghBoulton, has retained its pub atmosphere. There are plenty of tables for diners but there's also ample space by the bar. And I can also get my head round a menu that may include bean and chilli soup, bacon and spinach and potato and mushroom pie.
In St Albans, my local was turned into the ultimate horror; a Thai restaurant with no pretentions to being a pub at all. A bad press in which I played my part and lack of customers saw it close and reopen as a Mitchells & Butlers pub, using the original name, the King William IV. Surrounded by a large housing estate as well as offices, it sensibly offers an extensive menu from breakfast until early evening. But the dear old King Will is now firmly a pub again. I can drop in for a meal or, if the fancy takes me, go for a couple of pints. It's a pub for all the people, a public house in the true sense of the name.
I feel uncomfortable in gastro pubs if all I want is a pint