It’s not a fashionable term anymore, but ‘Gastropub’ was coined in the UK in 1991 to describe pubs offering something more ambitious than bangers and mash and cottage pie. While the term comes from the word gastronomy, its abbreviation, ‘gastro’, has unfortunate connotations in Australia, being a common term for a stomach bug.
The first in Britain, according to its proprietors, was The Eagle in Clerkenwell, Central London. In 1991, partners Michael Belben and David Eyre took over The Eagle with the aim of doing good, simple food while maintaining its pub character. The result was a combination of restaurant and pub – the hallmark of what became known (although not by them) as a gastropub.
Arguably, Australia’s first gastropub opened in 1800. Our country’s first restaurant was at the Freemason’s Arms in Parramatta. The publican, James Larra, opened his slab-hut tavern in 1896 but moved to a brick building four years later, employing a French chef and offering silver service at the tables. Of course, it wasn’t called a gastropub.
Perhaps the first local establishment to earn that distinction was O’Connell’s Centenary Hotel in South Melbourne. Acquired by members of the advertising and film industries in 1991, it took the daring step of introducing Greg Malouf’s Middle-Eastern cuisine in the dining room, while still supplying white bread steak sandwiches in the bar. Some mourned the passing of the old-fashioned counter lunches, but most of us were happy to exchange the old lamb’s fry and bacon for more imaginative, if pricier, alternatives.
In Sydney, the Woollahra Hotel in Sydney set new standards for pub food, when Dr Ron White and chef Damien Pignolet opened Bistro Moncur in 1993. To be honest, though, the bistro was much more fine dining restaurant than pub. The Subiaco Hotel became Perth’s first gastropub in 1994, catering to the needs of a trendy inner-city residential area.
Not everyone embraced the gastropub concept. Famous English restaurant critic, AA Gill was not a fan. Famously writing that “food and pubs go together like frogs and lawnmowers…” he bemoaned the “cruise ship highlights” of a menu that embraced multiple cuisines and a hotchpotch of ingredients.
There are, give or take, ten different countries’ cuisines represented here, some of them in the same dish. There are more than fifty-one primary ingredients, not counting staples… and they’re all relatively cheap. …
Aussies love eating in pubs. Research company Roy Morgan found that In the 12 months to June 2015, 43% of the population 18+ (or 7.9 million people) went to a pub or hotel at least once for a meal in any given three-month period —more than twice the proportion going for a drink only (20%, or 3.7 million people).
What makes a gastropub though? You’d want more than a chicken parma, a steak, fish and chips or a burger. Perhaps we’re better to ditch the definitions and just follow our taste buds.