Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - March 2008

* Who's Going to Eat all the Pies? *

The idea that food will be a panacea for the pub trade is wishful thinking

PUTTING more emphasis on food has been widely recommended as the way for pubs to respond to the smoking ban. Yet food has been touted as “the future of the pub” for thirty years, and we must be fast approaching the point where the market is saturated. You can stay in the pub for one drink or many, but you’re never going to eat more than one meal at a sitting.  Indeed industry figures show the food trade to have been at best static in the first six months after the ban, despite frantic efforts to tempt diners through the door.

The idea that small urban locals that currently serve no food at all and do four-fifths of their business after 9 pm can suddenly turn themselves into dining establishments is absurd. Indeed, many pubs in less prominent locations that once made an attempt to serve meals and appeal to outsiders have dropped the food, gone evenings-only and essentially cater only for locals and regulars. It is also impossible to switch from a mainly wet trade to a food-led one without a major change in the character of an establishment. It may still be a successful business, but whether it is still in a meaningful sense a pub may be questionable.

So much pub food is dull and predictable – the culinary equivalent of mass-market keg beers. And why do almost all pubs aim to serve slight variations on the same menu? Distinctiveness and individuality are, in general, sadly lacking, and this must ultimately limit the market for pub dining.

* The Moderate Option *

Reintroducing smaller wine glasses is a broadening of choice that promotes sensible drinking

RECENTLY I went out for a meal with some work colleagues. One of them, a rather fastidious French lady, asked for a small glass of red wine, but when it arrived decided it was far too much and poured half of it away. On the face of it, this may have seemed a rather prissy attitude, but in fact what was presumably a 175 ml glass is considerably larger than the standard glasses served in her native country. Traditionally, wine was served in 125 ml glasses, but in recent years, in the pursuit of profit, many pubs and bars have adopted larger sizes of 175 ml and even 250 ml, and often dropped the smaller size completely. In response to this, MP Greg Mulholland has called for the law to be changed to require wine to be offered in 125 ml glasses, as the widespread adoption of the larger sizes may lead drinkers to underestimate how much alcohol they are consuming and also misjudge their fitness to drive.

This has been criticised in some quarters as a “nanny state” measure, and normally I am no fan of petty-minded restrictions, but in this case he has a point. There is no suggestion that the larger measures will be banned, so it is not a curb but an extension of choice. Pubs would be roundly criticised if they refused to serve beer in half-pints, and a 175 ml glass of pretty much any wine contains as much alcohol as a pint of standard-strength beer. Many customers quite reasonably might not want that much, and so it makes sense to give them the option of a smaller measure. Indeed even a 125 ml glass of 13% ABV wine contains almost as much alcohol as a pint of mild. Providing wine in 125 ml glasses, and describing them as “standard” rather than “small”, could be viewed as a mark of responsible drinks retailing. And a lot of customers might buy two 125 ml glasses, but be content with just one of the larger sizes, so revenue need not suffer either.

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