Michelin: Eating out in Pubs 2009 Review

Posted on: November 7th, 2008 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Hello and welcome to Fine Dining in the UK episode 9 – the podcast brought to you by www.finediningguide.co.uk

Today we discuss the Michelin: Eating Out in Pubs Guide 2009. The public house, or pub, is quintessentially British – the ‘ye olde England’ image of a social meeting place in a country village with a roaring fire and a pint of ale.

Indeed, each of the British long running social commentary soaps has a pub at its heart: Coronation Street, Eastenders, Emmerdale and The Archers. Literature famously says that were a church the soul of England then the pub is her heart (Samuel Pepys)

Britons have allegedly been drinking ale since the Bronze age but it was not until the Roman Empire and the development of the Roman road network that tabernae or pubs became commonplace. A brief flirtation, or craze, for Gin in the eighteenth century aside (when over half of the 15,000 drinking establishments in London were Gin shops), the pub has gone from strength to strength.

The concept of a pub being the venue for fine dining is a relatively recent one: The 21st Century term ‘Gastropub’ has been widely used to describe this new trend – pub grub diversifying upwards and gastronomy diversifying downwards.

An economist might argue that the pub is naturally product differentiating to maximise its market potential by taking advantage of the growing number of consumers who have become more knowledgeable and particular in their dining aspirations.

The natural result is a significant and growing overlap in the marketplace for fine dining restaurants and pubs: A trend that must have vexed the executives at the Michelin ‘Red’ Guide.

The Michelin Red Guide has been around for over a century and has been awarding the coveted stars since the mid 1920s. For decades these establishments were plush, lavish affairs, out of the affordability and comfort zone of the many and accessible only to the few.

Michelin have been at pains to point out that the criteria used for awarding stars have always revolved around the same principle: the food on a plate, the food on a plate and the food on a plate. Over the last ten years, the rise in quality of the food on a plate found in pubs, left Michelin with little choice but to research a whole new field for potential inclusion in their Red Guide. This need was amplified by the other Michelin guiding principle of value for money.

The impact of these overlapping markets has been significant. Fine dining restaurants have become more informal, relaxed, approachable and affordable. Many pubs on the other hand have become slightly more formal and expensive – the latter naturally so as the sheer cost of fresh, high quality, raw ingredients has dictated price increases.

Michelin made the recent ground breaking decision to award a Michelin Star to a pub; today there are a handful including the Starr Inn in North Yorkshire, the Masons Arms in Devon and The Hand and Flowers in Buckinghamshire.

Naturally, these three pubs, for example, are found in the 2009 Michelin: Eating out in Pubs Guide. So, in a way, Michelin have taken a potential problem and turned it into an opportunity. Like pubs, they are part product differentiating and part diversifying into a new market.

In Michelin terminology the line between pub and restaurant fine dining is blurred further – perhaps as a deliberate reflection of the overlapping market – by the Red Guide introduction of the ‘Bib Gourmand.’

Bib is short for Bibendum, the character created in 1898 from the imagination of the Michelin brothers, André and Edouard, and the pen of cartoonist O’Galop. Over the years, Bib—the one and only Michelin Man—has become the Group’s “mascot.” In the Michelin Guide, Bibendum’s head is a familiar, widely recognised red symbol.

The Bib Gourmand symbol was created in 1997. It indicates a restaurant offering good food at moderate prices. For the 2008 Guide, the price of a full meal (excluding drinks) is under £28 (40 euros in the Republic of Ireland).

The Michelin Guide Great Britain & Ireland 2008 includes 133 Bib Gourmand restaurants with a significant proportion of them pubs.

A natural next step for Michelin was to take all the pub data that had been collected in conjunction with production of the Red Guide and use it as a springboard to diversify completely into a new pub guide. Hey Presto! The Michelin: Eating Out in Pubs Guide was born.

The 2009 Edition contains information on 550 pubs. Each pub has a full A5 page including colour photograph, concise and accurate 200 word description, ales served, cards taken, address, web address, phone number, typical dishes served (usually a signature starter, main and pudding), serving times, directions, guide prices and room availability. There are also useful symbols for whether there is an interesting wine list, al fresco dining and even whether dogs are allowed.

One might argue that it would add rather than detract to show whether the pub has a Bib Gourmand or Michelin Star among the collection of symbols. Michelin choose to tread a different path and invent a new symbol – the “green Bib stamp” with “Inspectors Favourite”. This is a very interesting departure as its award is not exclusively dictated by food on a plate.

The Guide states that these pubs have at least one extra quality that marks them out and that quality may be “the delightful setting, the charm and character of the pub, the general atmosphere, the pleasant service, the overall value for money or the exceptional cooking.”

In a way this new criteria of excellence – especially for pubs – is the Michelin way of underscoring that this is a unique piece of work to be viewed in it’s own right, completely separate from the Red Guide. This impression is re-enforced by reading the Guide introduction, where the only detailed explanation given is of the production, type and quality of beer!

Still, should a pub have a Michelin Star or a Bib Gourmand – brands that are well known and trusted – one may argue that it is worth advertising in the guide. No doubt, over time, the Green Bib Stamp will come to have the same quality and trustworthy feel to it and join its currently better known cousins in the ranks of Michelin folklore.

Overall, the Michelin: Eating Out in Pubs Guide 2009 is a worthy companion and one that I sense will become an annual fixture on the bookshelf.

That concludes Fine Dining in the UK episode 9 – the podcast brought to you by www.finediningguide.co.uk

Until next time. Happy eating!