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Raising the Bars
Something's Brewing in London's Nouveau Pubs

By Tamsin Todd
The Washington Post
Sunday, March 21, 1999; Page E01

What's so great about English pubs? Usually, not very much. Your average pub reeks of stale tobacco and has ugly carpets, poor booze selection and poisonous food. The glasses are dirty, the service is slow, and the jukebox plays tunes you hoped you'd never hear again. And because until recently most pubs were owned by Britain's notoriously chummy big breweries, there was little competition between pubs. The breweries set high prices and made no effort to attract new customers. Most pubs looked exactly as they had in Victorian times--dingy, with frosted windows keeping women and children well out of sight.

Then the Monopolies and Merger Commission issued the 1990 Beer Orders, which required breweries and pub-operating companies owning more than 2,000 pubs to sell off some of their pubs by the end of 1992. Large breweries had to unload a lot of pubs very quickly, and a few of the new pub owners started thinking about the state of the English pub. Why were pubs so grubby? Did pub food have to be awful? Could pubs cater to a new customer set--young professionals who might prefer wine to lager and roasted vegetables to steak pie? Could the English pub keep pace with social change--without losing its traditional charms?

The Atlas, in Fulham in West London (16 Seagrave Rd., SW6, near the Earls Court Exhibition Center; West Brompton tube) is a typical new-style pub. The pub's original Victorian features--oak paneling, gas lamps, selection of lagers, ales and bitters on tap--blend with contemporary touches: wood floors, clear windowpanes letting in the afternoon sun, fresh flowers, chilled mineral water in a fridge behind the bar. There's a small but carefully chosen wine list, and a Mediterranean-influenced menu is written up each morning on a blackboard. "The menu changes every day, since we only use what's freshest at the markets," says Richard Manners, who took over the Atlas with his brother George last May. A typical menu might include crostinis ($8) topped with ricotta salsa and oregano, or whole roast black bream with vine tomatoes ($14.60) with risotto.

Like many independent pub operators, the Manners brothers moved into the pub business from other fields. Richard, 28, wore a corporate suit as a marketing manager for Procter and Gamble for five years before, as he puts it, he "saw the light," while George, 31, worked as a produce and wine buyer in Paris and San Francisco. To learn about running a kitchen, George got a job cooking at the Eagle--the original and, many argue, still the best quality-food pub in London (139 Farringdon Rd., EC1; Farringdon tube).

The Eagle, which opened its doors in 1991, was the first pub to introduce quality food to the pub environment. As in traditional pubs, you order and pay for your food at the bar. Bar staff bring the food to your table, but there's no waiter service. Here, too, the menu changes every day, and if you don't drink beer, a selection of wine, spirits, coffee and other non-alcoholic drinks is available. There's art work on the walls and an upbeat world music soundtrack. Recently the Eagle has benefited from the relocation of the Guardian newspaper to Farringdon, business growth in the nearby City of London, and residential development in Clerkenwell, which is the place to buy a loft. It's a popular after-work hangout for journalists and photographers. Get there early to get a seat.

A pub that's pushed the good-food model to its limit is the four-year-old Engineer in Primrose Hill in North London (65 Gloucester Ave., NW1; Chalk Farm tube). While the front room has a bar and retains a pubby atmosphere, the rest of the pub looks more like a restaurant. There are tablecloths, waiters serving food, and pricier entrees starting at about $12 (eggs benedict). The kitchen uses only organic meat and there are several vegetarian choices every day, but the specialty here is fish. (The Engineer recently won the Best Seafood Pub in London award from Britain's Automobile Association.) Owned and operated by Tamsin Olivier (daughter of Sir Laurence) and staffed by out-of-work actors and dancers, the pub attracts an arty, thirtysomething crowd, often accompanied by their children, who play in the garden out back.

Another child-friendly pub is the two-year-old Bread and Roses in Clapham in South London (68 Clapham Manor St., SW4; Clapham Common or Clapham North tubes). The pub--which takes its name from a song sung by U.S. women textile workers ("Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes/ Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread but give us roses!")--is operated by the Workers' Beer Co., a fund-raising organization that sells beer at pop festivals. The prices and the entertainment schedule reflects the organization's social interests. Here you can get chorizo quesadillas ($7) or Merguez sandwiches (North African spicy lamb sausage with harissa chili sauce, $8), and there are cheaper children's portions. A conservatory in the back has children's games and crayons. Monthly events include African Sunday lunches and stand-up comedy. There's lots of light and space and a relaxed, collegiate atmosphere--think long summer afternoons in Ann Arbor or Austin.

If you're feeling energetic, head a few blocks east for the Sun (7 Clapham Old Town, SW4; Clapham Common tube). The Sun is all upbeat--bright yellow rooms and techno mixes and crowds of the upwardly mobile twentysomethings who are buying up Clapham's Victorian terraces. Mixed drinks by the pitchers are a specialty, and the kitchen cooks Thai food, including panang (rich, medium-hot curry with chicken or beef cooked in a coconut cream and coriander sauce with rice, $11) and phat ka prow (spicy stir-fried chicken or beef with fresh basil, chili and garlic sauce and rice, $11). Check out the quieter bar upstairs, where there's a mural painted on the ceiling.

Of course, the big breweries and pub-operating companies haven't ignored the trend in new pubs. Three years ago, Bass launched the enormously successful All Bar One chain, which operates 43 new-style pubs nationwide. Marsons, Thompson & Evershed Brewers owns the 23-strong Pitcher and Piano pub chain, and a year ago Grosvenor Inns spun off an independent chain, the Slug and Lettuce pubs, with 30 locations. The chain pubs have identical-looking outlets on many major high streets, all with wooden floors, large windows and decent if generic food. And for those who feel nostalgic for old-style booze holes, there are still plenty around. Just don't order a mineral water.

Tamsin Todd last wrote for Travel on London's Bloomsbury neighborhood.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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