Mark Taylor, the experienced and respected food writer, examines the evolution of the gastropub and its future: Although the 20th anniversary of the first gastropub has just passed without mass celebration, it is still a significant landmark for an industry that has been transformed because of it. The doors of the Eagle in London’s Farringdon opened in early 1991 and the pub went on to spawn thousands of imitators across the UK over the next two decades. Owners Mike Belben and David Eyre had come from a restaurant background, but were the first operators to spot the potential of turning a ‘dead’ pub into a vibrant space where simple, well-sourced food was matched by pints of real ale and quaffable wines. It is hard to imagine quite what the British pub scene would be like now if the Eagle, which opened during a recession, hadn’t opened. It would be a very different pub landscape. Record numbers of pubs have closed in these challenging trading times and many more are in trouble. For most pubs these days, food has to be the driving factor of the business to survive. At the same time, consumers’ knowledge and expectations of what pub food should be has risen dramatically, so chefs have to deliver. How healthy is the country’s gastropub scene in 2011 and what trends are developing? Ironically, one of the biggest trends — according to the operators and chefs themselves — is the fact that very few are describing themselves as a ‘gastropub’ at all. Call it a pub & kitchen, a pub with a dining room or simply a pub, but just leave out the gastro term — that seems to be the current feeling of some. For many of the people who run them, ‘gastropub’ has become too generic because of the large pub companies and chains that have hijacked the term, not to mention supermarkets, who now offer ‘gastropub’ ready meals. However, many operators still believe that if customers are comfortable with gastropub as a term and it helps them identify their business for top-quality food, the description is no bad thing. As well as an increased use of local suppliers, seasonal ingredients and pared down, simpler dishes, one identifiable trend over the past 12 months has been the back-to-basics approach of chefs who want to reacquaint themselves with forgotten skills. More than ever before, pubs have also had to diversify their business and look beyond the traditional lunch and dinner offering. There has been an increase in pubs offering wood-fired oven pizzas or fish & chips and curries if the village doesn’t have its own takeaway. Other pubs are branching out into outside catering or selling ready-meal versions of their own dishes from a chill cabinet so people can eat the same food at home. Pub operators are having to be more flexible with their prices and menus. Cash-strapped consumers want better value than ever and that means they are looking for deals — fixed priced menus, all-in offers (main course and a drink for £10, for example) and quirky offers such as £7 meals at 7pm. There has also been an increase in pubs launching loyalty cards or ‘early bird’ menus on selected days — all of which keeps the regulars happy, but also acts as a taster for new customers. When it comes to the actual food being served, the trend in most pubs has been a return to simplicity. Chefs are listening to their customers more, resulting in more pub classics, done well. Too many gastropubs were trying too hard to be restaurants and charging top-end prices for the food. The recession has been a loud wake-up call for many chefs and it is now more common to find a well-made steak & ale pie using local ingredients at £10, rather than an elaborate, overly fussy dish at the £20 mark. One of the major menu trends has been ‘small plates’ and this looks set to become even bigger in the coming months. Essentially a British pub version of Spanish tapas, it allows chefs to offer up to 15 or more bite-size dishes that can be ordered as a bar snack or as part of a starter, perhaps to share. There may be more pubs closing than opening, but that hasn’t stopped a raft of exciting new launches over recent months — many of them outside London. Twenty years after the Eagle opened, food-driven pubs have never offered better quality or value. We may be in challenging times, but this is one part of the pub industry that seems to be in rude health.