The latest Real Meals column:
“We’re, like, regulars, aren’t we?” I said to the attractively goofy young fellow who takes the role of maître d’ in the new gastropub across the road from our house. He surveyed us slackly and replied: “Well, we want the place to be for locals, too.”
There was not a soupçon of irony in his tone: he meant it. He meant that our local corner pub … should be for locals. Actually, we weren’t the only locals in – our next-door neighbours were there, too – but there’s no escaping that, since its refurb and the arrival of a much-feted Australian chef, the Canton Arms’s clientele is no longer representative of the local population. Not a black or a brown face in the gaff – to put it bluntly – and instead of cockney glottals stopping at the bar, there’s the wicker and whinny of Sloaney ponies and their financial servicers.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not about to launch into an elegy for the decline of the Great British Pub; I’ve never been any more pubbable than I am clubbable. Back in the days when I drank, I also liked to smoke dope – and without becoming an habitué of a local on the Herengracht, there’s no way I could satisfy this joint taste. When I think about it, I was always in the avant-garde of pubbing (as I am with so much else) because, if I went at all, it was with a view to food.
The King’s Arms in Oxford – which, during my time, had a vast array of real ales and a fully functioning Trotskyite groupuscule, headed up by Terry Eagleton – was, for me, little more than a licensed canteen. I don’t recall the food being outrageously good or bad, just the usual “hearty fare”: cottage pies with a thatch of flaky pastry, battered plaice rigid enough to batter someone with, sheaves of chips, a grapeshot of peas. In a way, pub food benefits from its bibulous context: if it’s good, it seems exceptionally so by virtue of having been cultured in this yeasty realm, and if it’s bad, well, anaesthetic is close by.
There are these advantages, and there’s also the enduring myth of ye olde English coaching inne, a mythic hostelry that lurks in the psyche of every Mondeo Man as he pulls off the motorway and into the turning circuit of a Harvester. Ye olde inne allows for an atavistic presumption of largesse and the blurring of social boundaries that makes it possible for the grimmest little pisshole in the grottiest little town to still importune customers brazenly with its own hearty fare.
By the same token, it’s the great cultural hinterland of the pub – both imagined and real – that has made it such an attractive target for this, the latest putsch in the permanent bourgeois revolution. Gastropubs first made their appearance in the early 1990s. They had pseudo-earthy names like The Cow or The Sow and were run by Wykehamists with cod-demotic names such as Tom or Bill. They offered nouvelle British cuisine, heavy on the puy lentils and smoked eel. Indeed, I once went into one of these establishments and ordered a pint of puy lentils, and it duly arrived on the bar with a smoked eel for a swizzle stick.
Gastropubs enable the most febrile BBC hack to feel as a horny-handed son of the soil. They are only a logical extension of the manifest inauthenticity first picked up on by Richard Eyre’s and Ian McEwan’s Ploughman’s Lunch in 1983, wherein the cynical adman explains to the uppity BBC hack that said pub grub is in fact a neologism, rather than a rarebit from time out of mind. After all, if the ploughman’s lunch was a marketing concept, what can we say about foie gras sandwiches, just one of the bar snacks available at my local?
But to be fair to the Canton Arms, it’s by no means the most chichi gastropub I’ve been in. That accolade belongs to Ford’s Filling Station, a self-styled “American gastropub” on Culver Boulevard in Los Angeles, whose “executive chef” is none other than Ben Ford, Harrison’s son from his first marriage. Say what you will about the Cows, the Eagles and the Oxen, but none of them would risk the drivel on Ford’s menu that sets out his “culinary philosophy”.
Which brings us back, full circle, to the Canton Arms, where – or so it used to be said – it was possible to buy a strap (local argot for a handgun) over your pork scratchings. It’s a curious fact that not one of the shots fired here, at the epicentre of London’s black-on-black gun crime, has ever been heard of around the world – but the gastropub has, oh yes.