By far the most significant development in catering in recent years is the phenomenon of the gastropub. While they've been around for some time, their numbers have exploded in the last 12-18 months. More importantly, I've been amazed at the high standards demonstrated by the hundreds of these establishments we inspected when putting together my new guide.
Some 300 gastropubs have been included in the new Egon Ronay Guide to the Best Restaurants and Gastropubs in the UK 2006, published next Monday (21 November).
Where have all these excellent chefs been hiding? Characteristic of the phenomenon is the news that Jean-Christophe Novelli, a great chef who could certainly open and run an ambitious restaurant of first rank, is instead planning to open 10 gastropubs around London.
Gastropubs are a uniquely British phenomenon and their excellent food is generally coupled with a warm-hearted atmosphere often created by the owner's family. A predominance of young, charming staff counterbalances the sporadic lack of professional service.
A warning to all gastropubs, however: it would be short-sighted and counterproductive if your current success were to lead to an increase in your very reasonable prices. And don't be tempted to extend the seating capacity to the detriment of bar space. This would seriously reduce the pub-like atmosphere. So important did we believe this atmosphere to be that we decided not to include any establishment as a "gastropub" if it didn't serve draught beer.
A useful sidelight is the widespread use of local produce and suppliers. One gastropub we encountered prints the names of suppliers on the menu and even displays a photo of some in the dining room. The result is that you get excellent, very local cheeses, game shot perhaps within a few miles and properly hung, and possibly fish caught nearby hours before.
Wine lists are generally as practical as they are short. An unusually large number are available by the glass, and of course customers are welcome to choose a beer with their meal - not a choice welcome in many restaurants.
Ashley Hancill, head chef, the Pig's Ear, Chelsea
"Yes, definitely. I think it's about the confidence with which British chefs now cook. They've got the confidence to use British produce and cook it brilliantly. It's an exciting environment to exist in."
Ian Stoppani, owner, Bouchon de Bordelais, Battersea, London "Gastropubs have changed the face of casual dining in pubs in this country, but I wouldn't necessarily say they're serving traditional British fare. Some do, but not many offer dishes like smoked eels and horseradish, steak and kidney pie or toad in the hole. They're more likely to serve decent Continental-style food in a casual pub atmosphere."
Nigel Haworth, chef-patron, Northcote Manor and Ribble Valley Inns "It depends on how you define British food. To me, British food is about turning local produce and seasonal ingredients into real English dishes. In my experience the vast majority of gastropubs don't cook British food but tend to serve Anglo-French food."
Willie Deans, chef-proprietor, Deans at Let's Eat, Perth "No. A lot of gastropubs are geared towards high-volume, high-turnover menus that tend to offer more fast food. You can't beat going for a traditional meal in a real pub where the food hasn't been bought in."