In recent years, the importance of quality pub food has increased. At one time, pubs were places to drink and smoke with minimal food. That began changing in the 1990s with the appearance of food-rich gastropubs. Then, in 2007, smoking was banned in many public places in London, including restaurants. With society changing, pubs had to make more adjustments.
“The pubs were crying out for really good food, and the culture changed because of the healthy attitude toward less drinking,” says Rebecca Burr, editor of the Michelin Guide Great Britain & Ireland. “The pubs that are surviving now are the ones that are serving good food.” The food in pubs has improved so dramatically that Michelin awards stars to outstanding pubs and publishes a guide solely devoted to them. That guide has been printed annually since 2004.
NOW YOU KNOW: Founded in 1926, the Palm is one of the most famous American steakhouses. Its only European location is in London.
“The reputation that countries have is often based on its best restaurants,” Ochterbeck says. “Every great city has fantastic expensive restaurants. But it is the food that is accessible to everyone that should be judged. And in England, those are the gastro-type pubs. It’s terrific cuisine, it’s inventive and it’s available to everybody.”
In London, pubs are not only ubiquitous, but many also have storied histories. In the Wandsworth area in southwest London where my daughter lives, we found The Ship, a pub that opened under a different name on the same site in 1786. That makes it a staggering 227 years old. Under classically trained chef Shaun Harrington, The Ship has two areas: one with pub food (burgers, etc.) and another with a more formal restaurant (steaks, pork, chicken, lamb, seafood). But it is the classic British treat of Scotch eggs — a hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage meat and then either baked or fried — that allows culinary worlds to intersect. The Ship has a competition called the Scotch Egg Challenge each September, which about 20 pubs enter. One of those entrants in 2012 was The Hinds Head, which Blumenthal owns.
Alas, Blumenthal’s pub finished second in the 2012 Scotch Egg Challenge to The Bladebone Inn, which is in Berkshire. Yet the competition was a reflection of what is good now about the London culinary scene — a chef who owns two of the top restaurants in the world allows one of his cooking crews to enter a Scotch-egg contest at a neighborhood pub. “Something Heston always talks about is the purest food in the world,” Lake says. “If you want the purest food, it’s Tokyo. If you’re looking for really classic cooking and technique, it’s Paris. But London and New York are where the most varied and exciting stuff is happening.”
In terms of culinary reputation, England will probably never be as exalted as France. But if the character of a country is to be judged by the quality of its cuisine, former President Chirac should know that the English certainly can be trusted.
Associate Editor JAN HUBBARD has been to London three times and has never had a bad meal there.