Of all the types of restaurants that have flourished in recent memory, the gastropub seems to have most thoroughly captured the public's attention, infiltrating nearly every facet of American dining. For a working definition of the contemporary gastropub, Eater turned to Restaurant Editor Bill Addison who put it succinctly: "I define a gastropub as a casual establishment, usually boisterous, with a near-equal emphasis on quality eating and drinking."
While the appealing addition of good food to pubs might seem like a no-brainer, the gastropub hasn't always been a mainstay of the dining scene. So how did they come to be so popular? And will that popularity last?
From the original London gastropub the Eagle to U.S. chain Blackfinn Ameripub, here's everything you need to know about gastropubs.
Today’s gastropub owes its existence to England’s historic pub tradition. The various beerhouses, taverns, and inns serving drinks to a thirsty clientele date back centuries and spawned the modern pub. The history of England’s pub culture is a rich and long one, and today there are reportedly about 7,000 pubs in and around London
Pubs are known more for their beer offerings than cocktails, and they are sometimes tied to specific breweries. On the food side, dishes like ploughman's lunch, meat pies, fish and chips, and smaller snacks like pickled eggs are typical offerings.
The birth of the gastropub
In 1991, restaurateurs Michael Belben and David Eyre took over the lease of a London pub called The Eagle. As they describe on their website, Belben and Eyre "added a decent selection of wine and a few rums to the draught beer and lager that was already on offer" and extended the kitchen's space and offerings. The often-rotating menu, always scrawled on a blackboard, includes chowders, grilled meats and whole fish, sandwiches, and composed dishes often with an Italian or Mediterranean bent. The Eagle, still in business today, is widely credited as the first gastropub and proudly maintains that claim with their cookbook titled The Eagle Cookbook: Recipes from the Original Gastropub.
A nose-to-tail chef
While the term may well have been coined to describe the Eagle, acclaimed British chef Fergus Henderson in many ways inspired the cuisine of the gastropub. Henderson opened St. John in 1994 and its style of whole beast cookery has been nothing short of revolutionary.
Aside from inspiring chefs around the world to explore "the nasty bits," Henderson's simple yet expertly crafted fare has shaped the menus of today's gastropubs — meaty, comforting, and hearty. His influence on menus is inescapable. The atmosphere of St. John and its 2003 sister restaurant St. John Bread & Wine also had a ripple effect: Here were restaurants with the serious kitchens and casual, energetic dining rooms that look so familiar today.
In a 2014 essay for the Guardian, Henderson explains the tension inherent to his position as a father of contemporary British culinary thinking: "It is interesting that some say St. John pioneered 'Modern British' cooking, that staple of the gastropub. When we started, 20 years ago in October, we were accused of being '200 years out of date.'" Iconic Henderson dishes like his famous marrow bones and parsley salad now have countless imitators across the world.
Gastropubs arrive in America
The beginnings of a gastropub movement soon landed in America. When chef Sang Yoon bought the long-standing Santa Monica bar Father's Office in 2000, he had one goal, he tells Eater. "I wanted to serve good food in a casual setting." Yoon took inspiration from three European restaurant models: the tapas bar, the enoteca, and the brasserie. Father's Office quickly became known for its outstanding burger, its no substitutions stance, and its walk-in-only policy. In 2008, Yoon opened a second location, which also serves the famous burger and other plates to large crowds.
Yoon tells Eater that he wasn't necessarily aiming to open a gastropub but that is, essentially, what he did. Writing in a 2008 LA Weekly review of the second Father's Office, critic Jonathan Gold notes: "Chef-owner Sang Yoon is fond of pointing out that Father’s Office is less a restaurant than a bar that happens to serve food." To that point, at Father's Office there aren't waiters, exactly. Rather, guests put in food orders at the bar and a runner brings the food to the table. Of the look and feel of Father's Office, Yoon says, "I always wanted a simple and understated look where the people added the color." With the two locations under his belt, Yoon continues to be a leader in the LA dining scene.
Although Father's Office opened four years prior, the Spotted Pig in New York City is generally accepted as the first gastropub in America. Opened in 2004 by restaurateur Ken Friedman and British chef April Bloomfield with backing from Mario Batali, the Spotted Pig quickly became one of the city's busiest and buzziest restaurants (it remains a tough door 10 years later).
Early reviews made much of the fresh combination of top-notch food served at a casual pub. In his $25 and Under New York Times writeup, Eric Asimov credited "a winning confluence of casual yet imaginative food served in an easygoing, almost rustic atmosphere" for the early success of the restaurant, and in his one-star review two years later, then-critic Frank Bruni agreed. He wrote that Bloomfield's dishes demonstrate "how expertly a kitchen can operate in the eye of a storm," churning out a "sometimes heroically satisfying combination of English and Italian cooking." The Spotted Pig burger continues to be a true New York City icon.
Today Friedman and Bloomfield have another gastropub under their belt in The Breslin, but the Spotted Pig remains as the often-copied model for gastropubs across the country.
Gastropubs have thrived under the ownership of large restaurant groups and small operators alike. Early proliferation in England is perhaps not surprising. Founded in 2000, the London-based ETM group operates multiple gastropubs. According to the Guardian, by 2003 "the number of gastropubs reaches 5,000 out of a total of 60,000 pubs. The proportion of pubs serving food is now 90 percent." Anchor & Hope, a London gastropub opened in 2004 by St. John alums, is a prime example of the growth of the sector.
In America, there are gastropubs in cities across the country, and not just in top dining destinations like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Gastropubs have featured prominently among the hottest restaurants in San Antonio, Columbus, Tucson, and Greenville.
There are even gastropub chains now in the United States. Blackfinn Ameripub is a growing chain of gastropubs with locations across the country. Their concept is to "be a whole new generation of the classic American pub, a lively restaurant and bar that offers the affordable, craveable American food." In Los Angeles, PS 310 is a gastropub from the minds behind the Daily Grill chain. Darden — the company that owns Olive Garden and The Capital Grille — also owns Yard House, a self-described "modern public house where food and beer lovers unite" with locations scattered across the country. In 2012, the word "gastropub" was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the same year that the Wall Street Journal reported that Yard House had "the highest average sales volume" of all the Darden properties. Darden confirms that Yard House still leads the pack today, with highest average annual sales of any Darden property in fiscal year 2014 (Compare Yard House's $8.2 million average unit sales to Olive Garden's $4.4 million).
There are a few key features that stand out about American gastropubs today. The rise of the American gastropub mirrors the rise in America's interest in craft breweries. Not surprisingly, gastropubs are known for having strong beer programs showcasing local craft breweries and even cask ales. Most likely due to the fact that trailblazers Father's Office and the Spotted Pig are famous for it, gastropubs in America often feature a signature burger as a star menu item. Also expect to see charcuterie and plenty of fried foods on menus that often emphasize seasonality. Many American gastropubs have also embraced the "small plates meant for sharing" trend.
American gastropubs have increasingly become their own breed, apart from the British model. Sang Yoon of Father's Office explains: "Now I think that American Gastropubs have their own identity. Most places that call themselves gastropubs that I’ve experienced seem to operate more like casual restaurants than bars that happen to serve food." Indeed, restaurants such as Bloomfield's stunner The Breslin are often categorized as gastropubs, but operate more like a restaurant than like a bar.
The future of gastropubs
With their ubiquity and popularity, it's fair to say that gastropubs transcend the "trend" label and are actually their own dining genre. But is their continued popularity a given? As gastropubs were growing increasingly popular in the United States, certain UK food experts were declaring their demise. In 2011, the Good Food Guide declared the gastropub over and banned the word from subsequent guides. In 2013, after editing the Michelin Eating Out in Pubs Guide 2014, editor Rebecca Burr called for an end to the term, on the grounds that good food at pubs should be standard.
It is certainly easy to argue that gastropubs have, perhaps, jumped the shark. Eater Restaurant Editor Bill Addison notes the term "gastropub" has started to get a bit fuzzy. He explains:
I think the distinct idea of gastropubs becomes blurrier as the genre seeps more deeply into American culture. In London, the key word is “pubs,” these drinking taverns where the chefs have stepped up the freshness and creativity of the food. America doesn’t have the same relationship with the places they drink. Wine bars offer nibbles and craft cocktail bars often do strong business without standout cooking. Places that focus on craft beers seem to have the most affinity, to me, for the original intent of gastropubs — the communal counter experience, the idea of nursing a brew and eating something interesting alongside it. Largely, though, I think the “gastropub” as a genre across America is being absorbed into other trends. There are gastropub elements to the new breed of oyster bars across the country, for example.
There's also Royal Caribbean's effort to bring "the gastropub trend" to the ocean. Beard Award winner Michael Schwartz partnered with the cruise company to open Michael's Genuine® Pub, "the first American gastropub at sea."
Even if gastropubs might be a little past their prime, new venues boasting great beer selections and good food served in a casual pub atmosphere continue to open in America. And to Eater's Chief Critic/Data Lead Ryan Sutton, that's a good thing. "The gastropub has such a strong potential to be an entry point for Americans into cuisine that comes from more humanely raised animals than they're used to, that's prepared with better technique than they're accustomed to, and that comes from hopefully better paid cooks and waiters than they typically encounter," argues Sutton. "The gastropub, not Per Se, is how we get more Americans to care about food and to spend more on food."
Ultimately, gastropubs still speak to how restaurant-going Americans today want to eat. It's extremely telling that Darden's gastropub concept is still its highest performer, and that the buzz has never cooled at trailblazers like Father's Office and the Spotted Pig. Even with the growing fast-casual sector, don't expect to see the end of gastropubs any time soon.