Pub fare from across the pond brings cheer to the table.
Oh, sure, you can toss around a phrase like "traditional pub food" as if you know what you're talking about. You might even have some examples in mind—steak and kidney pie, perhaps, or fish and chips. But here's a tip: Don't say it in Great Britain or Ireland. Because there's no such thing.
Traditional food exists over there, of course, much of it quite wonderful. And the pub is practically a civic institution. But until recently, finding the two of them together in one place was about as likely as getting Ossetra caviar on toast points at a drive-through in Kansas.
"Food never used to be part of pub culture," says Irish-born Cathal Armstrong, chef and co-owner of Restaurant Eve, Eamonn's Dublin Chipper, and the Majestic, all in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. One thing that changed was the passage of strict drunk driving laws, in 1967 in Britain and in 1994 in Ireland. Suddenly, people no longer sat around for hours downing pints of Guinness—they drank at home instead. So pubs started serving food to bring in new customers and give them a reason to stick around longer without getting utterly pickled on ale. Thirty years ago, fewer than 10 percent of London pubs served hot food; now about 90 percent do.
These days so-called gastropubs—establishments offering British-style comfort food and drinks in an unpretentious atmosphere—are a bona fide culinary movement gaining traction here in the United States, according to Entrepreneur.com. It's easy to understand why the pub part of this trend is catching on: When times are tough, people long to feel rooted in their communities, and these convivial local hangouts have always offered an unconditional welcome to whoever came through their doors. "By far the most important aspect of pubs has always been their social function," says Armstrong.
The gastro aspect of the movement is a bit more perplexing, however. Who would have thought you could build a chic cuisine out of the sodden remnants of British and Irish cooking, long renowned for overboiled vegetables and boarding school puddings with names like spotted dick? But it turns out that these countries have dazzling culinary traditions, tucked away in storefront butcher shops where simple savory pies were baked fresh daily, down cobblestone lanes in Dublin and Aberdeen where fish and chips were fried to order and served in newspaper cones to soak up the grease, and in those drafty country kitchens where a big pot of stew would always be simmering on the cast-iron stove and a loaf of oat bread baking in the oven.
The ingredients, too, are a revelation. Britain and Ireland don't have the homegrown bounty to draw on that Italy and Spain do, but what they've got is fresh and profoundly flavorful: sweet, tender seafood harvested right off the rugged, chilly coastline; fat berries tangled up in miles of hedgerows; lush gardens popping with sweet peas, carrots, potatoes, and parsnips; and some of the best beef and lamb in the world. Perhaps the region's most precious assets of all are its dairy products—rich butter, thick cream, and a multitude of cheeses, all from animals traditionally grazed on that tender, emerald grass. (Thankfully, many of these items are increasingly available in American grocery stores.)
Pub food is all about transforming these marvelous ingredients into simple, nourishing stews, soups, casseroles, and pies that bring people together. According to Colman Andrews, a founding editor of Saveur magazine and author of The Country Cooking of Ireland, "These foods are not something you eat by yourself standing over the kitchen sink. They almost demand that you sit down and share a meal."
So it makes sense that while other chefs are expanding their empires with franchises in Vegas and Dubai, Cathal Armstrong and his wife, Meshelle, are planning to open a fourth restaurant in 2010 right in Old Town. For them, food, drink, and neighbors to share them with are wound together like the loops of a Celtic cross. "Food creates a network," says Armstrong. And a good meal and a couple of pints strengthen the bonds that keep a community alive.
And that, in the end, is the secret ingredient in pub food. For there isn't a finer condiment in the world than the warmth and laughter of people gathered gratefully around your table.