I have this idea for a tavern. I am not sure it is workable or possible, but I certainly find it appealing. I call it the One-Brew, One-Dish tavern.
In my fantasy books, Dirt (both series), my characters spend a lot of their time in taverns and inns. This is not terribly surprising; it is a culture that has yet to invent the restaurant, and the naff takeaway is a few thousand years away, if they are lucky. So they either make their own din-dins, as one of my characters would say, or get out of the rain into the nearest tavern.
This is a primitive society so the taverns are very basic. They make their own beer, only sell one or two that they have honed to perfection, and food is important to the trade, though they only sell one dish each day. Soup one day, stew the next, pie on another, and so on.
Writing these up in my made-up world has made me think about where the pub is going in our modern world and whether it really is doing the right thing by the customer.
When I was young, most pubs didn't sell food other than a stale sarnie and peanuts, and the beer was often mass-produced rubbish. These were smoky, smelly environments that were jealously protected by their narrow-minded regulars. Alright, that is a bit mean, and most pubs were open and friendly, but there were a lot of less-appealing establishments around.
The smoking ban in 2007 forced pubs to rethink what they were doing. Now, I know a lot of people still say it killed off the traditional British Pub, but I don't get that. The pubs that survived (and most did) were the ones that realised that they had to broaden their appeal, think of young and old, male and female, and offer more than a chemically-brewed pint and somewhere to cough your guts up.
Those that fell by the wayside were the ones that were dying out already; the male-heavy, dirty, boring places that were stuck in the 1920s and were already losing customers.
However, I am not sure what we have ended up with is quite right either.
The problem is the Gastro-Pub
These establishments have often taken tired old pubs, spruced them up, added a good kitchen and a cook and are serving half-decent meals at lunch and dinner. Sometimes, the dinner tables are taking up far more space than the bar, which has a mixed popularity.
Certainly, these establishments have changed the trade significantly. They welcome children (who are part of our lives and should be included even when we drink too much), they have often increased the lunch trade significantly and they are clean, bright, unthreatening places to visit.
But they are also often boring. They might look like a pub, but they feel like a 1950s English restaurant.
Now, some have taken the idea to an extreme and have produced something exceptional. There are several around the country who have gained a Michelin Star, though how close they are still to being a pub I am not sure. And of course, the ever-chatty Tom Kerridge has championed wonderful food through his pub in Marlow.
This is all lovely, but it is becoming predictable and samey. Round our area are several pubs which have taken on the Gastro Pub ideal. Actually, most of our village pubs have, I think. Although they are independently owned or managed, they are remarkably similar. They serve the same selection of beers (Guinness, a couple of predictable bitters and lagers and then one Real Ale), they have all now started selling reasonable wine and passable coffee, and they all serve steaks, lamb shanks, fish in batter and pork belly cooked for hours, it says on the menu.
The cooking is okay, but not stunning, and the meals are wonderfully presented on big plates but are completely unoriginal. Service is friendly, but the training is mixed and the result can be frustrating waits for meals, mistakes and a general feeling of struggling when they are busy.
My One-Brew, One-Dish Tavern
Okay, so I don't have a tavern, but just for a minute, imagine I do.
This is the taverns in my books. They serve one brew and one dish each day. To be fair, it is all they can afford to serve since they have no staff and not much in the way of resources, so they have to keep it very, very simple. The result is an establishment that puts everything they can into their ultra-basic offering.
Imagine visiting one of these establishments today.
There is no menu, no great line of taps or fridges, but just a counter and a warm, welcoming atmosphere.
"Beer and a plate or just a beer?" asked the landlord.
"Wheat beer round these parts and we have a thick stew and bread today."
"That will do. Four of those."
"Take a seat, I will bring over the flagon and pots. Stew will be five minutes."
That was simple! And, of course, you know it will be the best. This tavern-keeper has only one chance to keep your custom; they have to get it right. The beer probably won't change much over time because, as the owner said, they serve what they like round these parts. But the food will change day by day. It will always be simple, but it will be hot, generous and good.
That is my ideal and I would love to do exactly that. But if I couldn't get away with being quite so basic, how close could I get?
To start with, I would have to take inspiration from my own books and remember why the villages have taverns in the first place. In my stories, the villages are small, poor and can be quite isolated. Passing traffic tends to be traders, and are often the villager's main connection to the outside world. The tavern is not only where you buy a beer but it is a meeting place where everyone is on equal terms. The doors are always open, children and older people mix freely and easily, and many people will eat the cheap, basic fare that the tavern offers.
This is no different from the origins of taverns of one sort or another throughout our world.
If I wanted to offer the same sort of atmosphere in my tavern in the modern day, then I would have to make sure that everything about it is as accessible as possible to the widest range of people.
Beer should be good, but cheap (good luck with that one), and not necessarily strong. In times gone by, beer was drunk all day as it was safer than drinking water, but it was very weak. I like the idea of selling beer that is hoppy and frothy, but not always designed to knock you off your feet. So, there would probably be two main brews, one a stronger version of the other. I can imagine the weaker version might be popular at lunch.
When it comes to character or style, in an ideal world it would be nice for the pubs to specialise more. Although in cities and towns this is possible because of the large diversity of trade, in villages, they are less adventurous often and wedded to their ways; they would want the usual suspects. However, I think a compromise could be reached with a little experimentation.
Wine, if a particular tavern specialised in wine rather than beer, would be a similar mix of good enough to keep the wine lovers happy, but not trying to be pretentious. Obviously in the UK, sourcing wine from the local vineyard would be problematic - we do not have enough of them and up north it is way too cold! If we did have wine areas here I could imagine that the pub would not sell beer at all, but would push the wine instead. Promoting the local economy and all that.
This is really where the biggest difference would be.
I believe it is perfectly possible to cook untrendy food in such a way that it is simply irresistible. Actually, I know it is possible; I do it all the time.
Part of the trick is how you serve it, though I suppose this could be seen as a little trendy. For instance, if I served a stew, it would come in a nice huggable bowl with a spoon. Half the point with a point with a stew is that you don't need to cut anything up, so why would you want a knife? And a fork is useless when it comes to the gallons of gravy. So, a spoon is way better.
The rest of the trick is the choice of dishes themselves, and I have kind of given the game away by mentioning stew.
When you dig through this site, you will come across several recipes that mention taverns. These are all dishes that I could see being served in my One-Brew, One-Dish tavern. Stew would be a biggy, as would large, thick soups, soggy pies, and hunks of meat served with mashed potato and a sauce of some kind.
Part of the brief to myself would be that these should be as easy to eat standing up next to the fire as sitting at a table.
The other big difference would be variety - it would be very small.
My idea would hark back to my fantasy taverns - just one dish each day. However, though I think that might work in a town, in rural communities, it might not get enough customers - though I would love to be proved wrong!
The compromise would be to have two big dishes, a couple of lighter snack-type dishes and that is it. Oh, one pudding. Apple pie probably. There would be no starters, no special of the day, no pork cooked five ways, and as much as possible it would reflect the local area. If the area has a cheese, it would occasionally make an appearance.
The menu would vary day to day, mostly based on availability locally. One of the interesting thoughts I had about the One-Dish idea would be that you would go down on Wednesday because the board said it was stew day, and you like your stews.
I suppose I like taking away the hassle of having to choose. If you know that your tavern serves one beer and one dish, then you go in and ask either for both or just one.
The compromise is a little more complicated, but not terribly so.
Well, nothing probably.
I really love the One-Brew, One-Dish version of this idea. I think it answers a lot of problems. If you are only cooking one dish and only brewing one beer, then you can concentrate on making the best quality possible without drowning yourself in cost.
Restaurants have a huge headache. Well, two actually. If they are going to serve lots of dishes, at some point it involves a lot of labour, both in the kitchen and front-of-house. Especially if you want the dishes served on time and hot.
The more variety you offer, the more waste you have and the more difficult it becomes to plan. Reducing the options to one makes everything much easier. If you are serving stew and bread you can actually cook it before you open. Get the recipe right and the stew will sit there bubbling away slowly, getting thicker and richer. You just have to ladle it out.
You also simplify people's expectations. The fact that you are keeping it small means you can serve lots of people easily and they know EXACTLY what to expect. If you brew good beer and cook a good stew, then that is what they will expect and won't be disappointed.
It ticks a lot of boxes this, but it has one big problem. We are no longer living in such a simple society and we have become attuned to trendy - we now expect it. But then, perhaps this is why this would work. Maybe this is so un-trendy that it is the trendiest thing of all!
I would love to get drunk with Tom Kerridge or Hugh Fernley-Withenstall and chat over this - see what they think.
Sadly, I don't have the resources to do this myself which is a pity - I cook a bloody mean stew and bake brilliant bread! I am sure someone could teach me to brew good beer.