James Whelan Butchers: Gastro Pub At Home


‘Gastropub’, a word that would give you the idea that it is an establishment that is a pub but should you also want to eat, then the food is going to be above average. It should always prove to be a good gastronomic experience and not just an astronomic one when it comes to price. The rise of the gastropub has been an interesting one indeed. It has been largely embraced by Irish cities but the truth of the matter is that not all ‘gastropubs’ were created equal. Just because you have the menu written on a blackboard, the staff wear trendy retro floor length aprons and you’ve got a wooden floor does not automatically make you a gastropub; like it or not the food counts! It is often the case that fairly ordinary pub grub is served but the presentation has been pimped; again not good enough. Just because you serve the ‘hand cut’ chips in a fancy funnel or a little steel bucket won’t necessarily make them good chips. A real local potato genuinely cut by hand and cooked with care and attention in good quality oil will make the chip a good one.

The phenomenon of the gastropub is about to come of age. Most commentators agree that its genesis can be found in London twenty years ago. At the time many pubs in Britain were seen exclusively as places to drink and little emphasis was put on serving food. The ones that did meals had a distinct ‘Rovers Return’ feel and the choices were limited to the odd hotpot, cold dishes such as a ploughman’s lunch or very ordinary sandwiches served without any real passion. In the 1980s and into the 1990s pub grub expanded to include traditional British dishes such as steak and ale pie, shepherds pie, bangers and mash, fish and chips, homemade burgers and traditional roasts. We saw a similar rise in the popularity of eating in pubs here although it was mainly dominated by a lunchtime trade. It was certainly a way for any pub to grow its daytime business and of course with less and less people going home in the middle of the day there was a need. The menus also expanded to include the slightly more exotic – chicken curry, lasagna and chili con carne.

Braised Beef and Guinness CasseroleIn 1991 two men, David Eyre and Mike Belben, took over the Eagle pub in Clerkenwell in London. They went a step further with the food and created a restaurant within the pub and it was here that the term ‘gastropub’ was coined. It would take five years to gain popular usage and for the media to jump on it and then it exploded. Suddenly many pubs in Ireland and England took another look at the food they served and aspired to be a gastropub. New York is still enjoying a love affair with the term and Scandinavian countries got the bug around 2009 and the sector continues to thrive there.

So what is the story here these days? Well we got the bug early, being so close to Britain and the idea was indeed a good one. A welcoming establishment, less formal than a restaurant with excellent food and the casual ‘drop by’ atmosphere of a pub should add up to a pleasant combination. It often is a great formula, but for my money too many of these places concentrate on the décor and good food presentation but the soul of the food is missing. In many of these places you can be let down and the first bite and as the surroundings and presentation are usually good, that fall is quite great as an expectation has been built up.

I could go on but this isn’t about finding a good or bad gastropub, it’s about asking what we can learn from them and translate it into our own home cooking. The first thing is to look at the menu. There is a common thread; and that is familiar and fairly common inexpensive dishes. Braising steak, mince, lamb shanks, sausage and battered fish seem to be the basics. All these are relatively inexpensive meats. Some of them require long slow cooking and the general feel is quite rustic so, unlike scientific baking, there is more flexibility in method and ingredients. Finally the big lesson comes in the presentation. It is very true what they say in that we also eat with our eyes. The same dish presented a few different ways can make all the difference. Many gastropubs have given this area a great deal of thought and it works. Chips come in various vessels, dips are on the side in tiny dishes, sometimes plates are dispensed with and small tiles, slates or chopping boards are used in their place. Shape or colour is often unusual, vintage or just mismatched with great effect. There is often a little culinary theatre employed – the steak knife appears speared through something within the dish, you get a part of the food wrapped up in some way that you have to participate to open it and put it on the plate, things have to be spilled and poured to create the finished meal. It’s all great fun but when we strip it back it just requires a little thought. For the average family buying little buckets for the chips or tiny dip dishes is not prohibitive at all. You can find allsorts of vessels and containers under €2 each that can be used for food presentation. All it takes is a little imagination.Steak and Kidney Pie

It’s not about trying to create the gastropub experience every time you serve steak pie or fish and chips; it’s about surprising and mixing it up every now and again. It’s about taking an easy and fairly common family meal and turning it into something special. It is often the case that we save our best cutlery, good delph, crystal glasses and excellent presentation skills for when we have people over. So we go to all this trouble for people that drop by rarely and that we see occasionally. Yet for the ones we love the most and those that support us the best, our own family, we are happy to give them the ordinary glasses and everyday plates! Of course I appreciate that it’s not always possible, but every now and again do something special for your nearest and dearest just to surprise them. The bangers and mash will still cost the same but it will feel like an entirely different meal. Bring the gastropub experience home and make it something that all the family can enjoy.  

We hope you enjoyed reading this post by Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers. Pat is a 5th generation butcher, cook book author and the director of  James Whelan Butchers with shops in Clonmel, the Avoca Handweavers Rathcoole and Kilmacanogue, Dunnes Stores Cornelscourt, Rathmines and Swords in Dublin. Sign up to our newsletter for more updates from James Whelan Butchers

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