30 years of the Eagle – the UK’s first gastropub

By Nicholas Robinson contact

- Last updated on GMT

To coin a phrase: the word gastropub was invented because of the Eagle
To coin a phrase: the word gastropub was invented because of the Eagle

Related tags: The Eagle, Michael Belben, Gastropub, London, Farringdon, Clerkenwell, Charles Campion

Impossible it may seem, yet there is a pub that not only launched a dining genre but has thrived over three decades without deviating from its original concept. The Eagle in Clerkenwell, north London, is the granddaddy of gastropubs and celebrates 30 years as head of the generation this year.

It is almost unheard of for an independent eatery to live for so long under the same operator who not only brought it to life, but set out with one idea and has continued to deliver that every day since.

That is why the Eagle is special, because while the average lifespan of a restaurant is about seven years, the Eagle’s stretches far beyond that and has stretched a generation. To add some perspective, when it opened in January 1991, I was not yet two and many of my colleagues at The Morning Advertiser ​were not born.

Needless to say, founding partner Michael Belben’s experiences during that period have been exceptionally interesting and filled with eccentric and recognisable characters of the time, including the late, great Charles Campion who coined the phrase ‘gastropub’ after eating at the Eagle.

It all started quite accidentally though, as Belben explains over the phone. He worked in Covent Garden restaurants in the 80s and by chance, his future business partner David Eyre walked through the door asking for a job.

Chalk boards
Daily changing menus on chalkboards

“He’d worked as a busboy for a while, saying he’d had a lot of experience, which he clearly didn’t,” Belben says as he reflects on the start of the Eagle’s journey.

Belben and Eyre eventually ended up running a restaurant in Covent Garden, but the former had always wanted to open his own place. However, it was the late 80s, the country was in the midst of a deep recession and Belben didn’t have the finances to open a venue.

The dream continued for a little longer, until Belben convinced Eyre they should open a place together,  buoyed by the success they’d both made of someone else’s site. They began looking at venues and came across the Banks & Taylor-owned Eagle on Farringdon Road after looking through a Fleurets list.

“I remember taking an ex-boss up there to look around, who said there were an awful lot of to let signs and said it was quite a risk,” says Belben. “It was the first pub we looked at and pretty much the only pub we took any interest in. It was on the market for a premium of £30,000 from a small brewery called Banks & Taylor.”

Gnocchi
Affordable restaurant quality food was and still is the concept

It was all go, both Belben and Eyre were mentally invested in the business, although still not perhaps financially. “But then disaster struck. David’s wife’s family tried to put him off going into partnership with someone because they’d had a bad experience themselves. We did split up as business partners but maintained our friendship.”

Unfortunately, or fortunately as Belben might think, Eyre’s relationship broke down and “I came and rescued him”.

“Some months later we offered Banks & Taylor, who still hadn’t managed to sell, £10,000 and they said you must be joking.”

Clearly the duo was not joking and were offered a premium of £15,000 from the site's owner, which allowed them to open the pub on a shoestring budget, utilising the skills of some kind friends who worked for food and drink.

Belben and Eyre
The founders (LtoR) Michael Belben and David Eyre

“We moved in just before Christmas Day in 1990, I remember because it was just as the Gulf War was kicking off,” says Belben. “We had worked from early morning until midnight and then at about one in the morning, we retired to the flat upstairs and watched the war, the first time war was recorded as a live event.”

Unlike many business stories, the enterprise was a success once the doors opened on 14 January 1991. Farringdon Road is not a million miles away from Covent Garden, so the duo had managed to poach many significant customers from the restaurants they’d worked in and run in the area. Lots of people were curious to dine at a pub which served restaurant quality food, but with no reservations and no tabs.

“It started almost straight away,” says Belben. “We opened on 14 January 1991 and the weather was terrible, with snowdrifts on Farringdon Road, the electric went out and I remember going to buy a load of fan heaters to warm the pub up a bit.

“I printed a load of flyers off, handwritten of course, and I remember seeing Piers Gough, an architect, who used to go to Smith’s where I once worked in Covent Garden. I ran out to give him a flyer and told him to come and have some food. He loved it and became our best customer.”

Flyer
The Eagle's first promotional flyer

These were the days long before social media, so marketing was a lot more personal, but Belben had experience. “We never used to open at lunch on a weekend and we had something called the Sunday Lunch Club with the staff and friends. We wouldn’t let them pay us, but they could leave a donation in a big jar on the bar where they dropped £5 notes. We used to invite them and say they should invite a friend who you think will be a good customer.

“It was brilliant marketing and we made the business happen by being ourselves. We invited food journalists who we got to know. We would get an informal pitch to them about what we were.”

The Eagle's iconic kitchen behind the bar, however, didn’t exist at that point and was instead housed in a small room near the pub's only toilet.

Order and pay at the bar
Customers still have to order and pay at the bar for food, with no tabs

“We got very busy very quickly and by Easter of our opening year we’d banked all of the money we’d taken, so we’d gone from being skint when we moved in it Christmas to having money in the bank.

“With that money, at Easter, we employed our friends who mostly just helped out with the payment of booze and great meals, to rip out the fittings from the bar. We installed a proper extract into the pub space and we bashed out into the bar and installed the open kitchen which became the must have for any new gastropub for years,” Belben adds.

Although many gastropubs that followed the Eagle would have tried to mimic it’s interior and business concept of affordable restaurant quality food, matching its atmosphere would have been tough. Belben, Eyre and the staff at the Eagle had, for instance, diverse tastes in music, with South African Jazz featuring at the top of the playlist.

Asked which piece of music sums up the Eagle, Belben cites tshona ​by Pat Matshikiza and Kippie Moeketsi as the pub’s unofficial anthem. “We used to play it at the beginning and end of most shifts, it’s beautiful. We were all very keen on reggae and what we called African happy music and there was a good amount of jazz mixed into it too.”

And things became busier when journalists at The Guardian ​had their expense accounts slashed, he adds. “They were coming to ours and for the first time spending their own money on their food here.”

Momentum kept building as more people learnt about the Eagle through word-of-mouth, food critic write ups in newspapers and so on. “Frequently I stepped back and thought the business was so rock and roll and we were phenomenally busy. My old mum used to ring up often to ask how it was and I’d say we were packed out all the time. It was so exciting and exhilarating and that atmosphere is so infectious. It’s really exciting.

“It went on for so long, years and years,” he continues. “We used to try and analyse it sometimes, there were so many things that happened, so many things that we could do.

“We had a place with 60 seats and no reservations, so no one answering the telephone. We opened at 12pm and shut at 3pm. The customers were so well drilled. We would serve 120 meals and we knew from our past experience at Covent Garden that to double the number of covers was unheard of and there was no hassle, the customers would organise it themselves. Customers at the bar would hassle people away from the tables so they could sit.

“There were no other restaurants in the area. One of the first people to open a restaurant in the area after us was my mate Fergus Henderson. We knew competition was a good thing, but they were nervous that we’d be pi**ed off with them, but we weren’t.”

Diners
Packed out from open until close

But then it all stopped. This wonderfully positive tale of a thriving, booming business that has bucked all of the odds by maintaining a simple approach to one of the most competitive markets in London and the UK.

To hear Belben talk about the past with such joy and passion and then for his mood to suddenly darken in answer to a short question about the Eagle now is gut-wrenching.

Many other operators across the UK will relate to Belben’s current situation. He says he has become depressed. “It’s not the first time in my life. I find it very depressing. I’d liked to be positive.”

For the majority of 68-year-old Belben’s career he has flown high and enjoyed the experience of immense success. He and the Eagle have changed lives, given life to an entire genre of pub and helped create memories for countless people. How did it come to this?

Even during the short periods between lockdowns and tier restrictions it is clear Belben couldn’t run the Eagle in the way he wanted to. “We’re not in the business of selling food and drink or marketing myopia, that of course is what depresses me. We’re in the business of social interaction, we’re in the business of the opposite of social distancing.”

Pints
Staff are the heart of the pub

But, the same passion and enthusiasm that launched this iconic pub remains inside Belben, burning just as strongly today as it did 30 years ago. “I have a strong instinct to keep it going,” he confirms.

“The loyalty of the customers has been unbelievable. This crisis has caused us to open and close and open and close and each time we open the doors the same thing happens, people come up to me and say we’re so glad you’re back.

“There’s a huge brand loyalty from the customers, that keeps me going. The staff are so important and so good they would be devastated if the Eagle wasn’t here. That keeps me going. That alone.”

I’m listening to the Eagle’s ‘anthem’ as I write this and on 14 January I invite you to listen too in celebration of Michael Belben and 30 years of the Eagle.

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