English Corner

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The reinvention of the British pub

Pubs are infiltrating more and more of the UK travel sector, offering gourmet meals and boutique hotel rooms.

A British pub-goer of the 1970s and 1980s would find this ever-popular British institution unrecognisable today. Most taverns were simply hostelries choking in cigarette smoke, there for little more than imbibing beer, chosing songs from the jukebox and playing darts or pool.

Not particularly popular with families, the food menu seldom exceeded packets of crisps and nuts. If you were lucky, a ploughman’s lunch graced with a near-plastic slab of something purporting to be cheese sitting sadly next to a stale hunk of bread may have been available, or perhaps a steak and ale pie hovering more in the world of gastroenteritis than gastronomy.

Fortunately in the last couple of decades more and more British inns have upped their game and now there’s an ever-growing selection of attractive alehouses that offer exceptional food and tip top accommodation.

Today around 6,000 pubs in the UK offer accommodation, and the figure is rising, as is the quality, with many matching the best boutique hotels. For the publican, letting rooms brings in not only incremental rental revenue, but also additional food and drink sales. Restaurant-quality menus boost revenues even higher too.

Many pubs have had strong incentive to increase the quality of their food

The popularity of pub accommodation has partly been boosted since ‘staycations’ (holidaymakers preferring to stay at home in the UK rather than travel abroad for their holidays), a trend that started during the last recession.

Additionally, inbound tourism has been steadily rising - VisitBritain predicts 36.7 million tourists visiting the UK in 2016, a 4% rise on 2015 - fuelling the need for more holiday accommodation. The UK now hosts more than 92 million overnight stays each year, and for tourists a visit to the pub consistently features in the top 10 of things to do when in the UK.

Also, many pubs have had strong incentive to increase the quality of their food and accommodation in recent years as they have found strong competition from other leisure activities. The UK’s relatively high taxes on alcohol have helped promote the idea that pub drinks are expensive, and as a result hundreds of pubs have been forced to close in recent years.

More positively, a 2013 survey by the publishers of the Pub Accommodation Report found that 41% of respondents preferred to stay in a pub compared to 23% in a branded hotel, 11% in a B&B, 8% in a budget hotel, 7% in a restaurant with rooms and 6% self-catering.

There’s even apps and websites to help search out good pubs

According to dedicated online booking website Stay In A Pub (stayinapub.co.uk), which lists more than 1,500 UK pubs with rooms, business travellers are also increasingly opting to stay in a homely, characterful pub rather than a soulless budget hotel.

There’s even apps and websites to help search out good pubs with food and accommodation. For example, the Caskfinder app - available via iPhone, AppStore, android, sat nav and web - lists 8,300 real ale pubs and 1,500 beers.

The growth of pubs providing accommodation has followed in the footsteps of their emphasis on providing good food in recent years. The best are dubbed ‘gastropubs’, a term coined in 1991 when The Eagle pub in Clerkenwell, London started offering top-notch nosh.

Pub food sales have increased astonishingly since then. According to UK food service consultancy Horizons, food sales in managed pubs now outperform the rest of the UK eating-out sector. They currently hold around a 25% share of the restaurant, pub and quick-service market.

In a way, pubs have gone full circle from their origins. Many started life as coaching inns in the days of horse-drawn carriages, offering weary travellers an overnight bed and meal for themselves, and stabling for the horses.

Whilst stabling for horses is not necessary for the majority of pub-goers these days, most would raise a toast to the rise in quality and increase in facilities the modern pub can now offer.

(BW)