A friend has returned from LA and is telling me about Californian culture. He’s waxing lyrical about wheatgrass, juice bars and medical marijuana. It’s only later, after a few hours drinking, that he comes up with something the West coast Yanks don’t excel at. “Gastropubs,” he says “they just don’t get gastropubs”. My response at the time is “Do we, though? Is the gastropub something we’re still proud of?” It’s a salient point: are gastropubs what they were? Does the concept still have a place at the forefront of our culinary landscape?
Please let me be clear, I am a fan of gastropubs; in fact, you might call me a purist. I love walking down Farringdon Road to The Eagle and struggling with their famous Bife Ana. I still enjoy wandering through the streets of Westbourne Grove, before choosing whether it’s oysters and a Guinness at The Cow, or Breton cider in the sun outside The Westbourne. More recently, places like The Harwood Arms in Fulham and The Bull and Last in Highgate have really raised the bar of what we can reasonably expect from gastropubs. I embrace the energy, warmth and informality of these places, the pared down aesthetic and the generosity of spirit that the best examples still provide; however, I worry that these great examples are the exception rather than the rule. I fear the way the concept has been plundered throughout the last decade, leaving endless corruptions of this honourable format throughout London and beyond.
Chains masquerading as gastropubs have been rolled out across the capital, leaving bloated, pointless establishments that stink of stale pesto and cat piss Sauvignon Blanc and rip off the unsuspecting punter. I have first-hand experience. When I first moved to London I worked in several ‘gastropubs’ and I was appalled by the level of ineptitude and cynicism that operated from management level down. One establishment that I won’t care to name sticks in the mind. It sold itself as a one-off: fine wines and organic food cooked on site. It was farcical. The alcoholic, West African chef hated his job, his colleagues and, most of all, his kitchen. He spoke little English and couldn’t cook, raging alone in an alcoholic torpor. And nobody blamed him. Nothing was cooked fresh, everything arrived in plastic bags, ready to be cut out and heated up, there was an aerosol of vegetable oil, a blunt knife and very little else. The food was hideous; complaints ran thick and fast, but no one really cared. An isolated case, you might say – I wish this could be true. I worked for several other pubs in this group – they have many, many ‘gastropubs’ across London – and the experiences were fairly consistent.
With all this in mind, may I say thank god for places like The Garrison on Bermondsey Street. If ever there was a place for warmth and generosity of spirit, ever a place to re-establish your faith in the gastropub, then this is it. This is an area that is currently going through a huge upsurge in interest and activity. House prices are soaring and the quality of restaurants and bars has gone up, too, with places like Zucca and José Pizarro’s new sherry and tapas restaurant José taking advantage of the cool, sophisticated vibe that has developed. With eight successful years under its belt, The Garrison is something of an old-timer, but you’d never know it. While there is a comfortable, worn-in feel, there’s also a contemporary freshness that seems to come easily to this establishment. Unlike the gastropubs I rant about above, this one moves smoothly with the zeitgeist. The room is smart yet quirky; there are elegant shades of eccentricity in every nook and corner, but it’s not trying too hard. The Garrison is comfortable in its own skin.
The food here is excellent, really very impressive. We visit on a warm night at the very tail end of summer and the menu is totally correct: autumnal and gamey, but with a few last touches of summery charm. Dishes that stand out include home-cured salmon with beetroot sorbet, braised rabbit leg and roast haunch of venison. Puddings are a joy. Sarah finds homemade ginger bread with lavender honey ice cream to be “one of the puddings of the year”, and this girl eats out a lot. There is a short, sharp list of aperitifs that covers every cocktail a civilised Londoner might desire, along with a double-sided print out of good, fairly priced wines. We enjoy a flinty, mineral-laced Picpoul de Pinet, before moving on to glasses of Spanish Graciano from Navarra; at £6-7 a glass this represents range and value. The staff are genuinely warm and take their time explaining the menu – even on a busy Thursday night. We’re charmed by the whole experience.
It isn’t just in the food and service where The Garrison triumphs though; the thing that strikes me as most important is how well it succeeds at being a pub and restaurant – the very essence of the gastropub format. Often, attempts to provide an atmosphere that is conducive to both dining and boozing fail miserably. There is sometimes a stuffiness that is unwelcoming to drinkers or, at the other end of the spectrum and even worse, a prevalence of boozy suits dropping drinks and insults upon anyone messing with their Friday night. At the Garrison there seems to be a symbiotic relationship between staff, drinkers and diners. It’s all very fluid, the food’s great, everyone’s cheery – and not a pesto dressing in sight.
The Garrison, 99 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3XB. Tel: 020 7089 9355. Website.