London was once a dicey prospect for anyone with a substantial appetite and finicky palate. Between sandwich bars, fast-food chains and standard pub fare there was little gastronomic pleasure for lunch or supper. But in January 1991, on a shabby thoroughfare just outside the City, a small venture was about to change all that.

“Visit The Eagle public house if you like good food and drink served in convivial surroundings” ran its opening publicity campaign — home-printed leaflets handed out by co-founder Michael Belben.

Belben and chef David Eyre were hoping to tempt customers from a raft of creative businesses that were starting to open nearby, as well as journalists from The Guardian’s offices down the street and from news broadcaster ITN, whose studios were around the corner.

“Michael was walking down Farringdon Road, handing out flyers,” says Piers Gough, founding partner of architectural practice CZWG. “He said, ‘Please come,’ so I did, on the first day. And I’ve been going ever since.”

“What people forget about that period is there was a fraction of the restaurants we have now,” recalls Oliver Peyton, the London restaurant impresario whose high-octane Atlantic Bar & Grill opened in the West End in 1994. “It was all about veneration. You had to dress up as if you were going to see the bank manager. The Eagle didn’t feel like that. It felt like a pub, which is what it was — the congeniality of it, the owners serving — and David was a fabulous host.”

Not only did a stripped-out boozer feel renegade, so did the menu. To Londoners in 1991, Eyre’s food was both comfortingly familiar and shockingly modern.

There were fat steak sandwiches, picante sausages and fleshy fish stews, alongside plates of exotica such as quail, rabbit and octopus. The vegetables and salads were ravishing. “Even kidneys sold well,” recalls Eyre. “And not many other places were doing pesto, because you couldn’t get basil in vast quantities.”

The food was delicious, but the economic outlook was less so. The UK entered a recession as The Eagle opened. The oil-price shock of the previous year had knocked consumer confidence. Meanwhile, the generous business expense accounts of the 1980s had started drying up. Belben and Eyre borrowed a third of the costs of the lease and had no backers. There was room for only two people in the kitchen because they couldn’t afford to build a bigger one.

Yet despite the odds, The Eagle changed the UK’s culinary landscape. The word “gastropub” entered the Oxford English Dictionary five years later, popping up for the first time in the Evening Standard in 1996, in an article headlined: “Will stale pork pies and reheated bangers ever be axed from pub menus?”

A generation of entrepreneurial cooks graduated from The Eagle, including Margot Henderson of The French House Dining Room, food writer Tom Norrington-Davies and pub entrepreneur Trish Hilferty.

Within a decade, pubs everywhere had copied The Eagle’s look, ripping out patterned carpets, fruit machines and cod-Victoriana and replacing them with church chairs on bare floorboards and mismatched crockery on scrubbed tables. They would serve (or aspire to serve) restaurant-quality food, with menus scrawled on blackboards and — usually — open kitchens. But in London, Belben and Eyre got there first.

“We invented a genre,” says Belben, now 68 and sitting in The Eagle bar on a weekday lunchtime in late 2020. The decor is unchanged in 30 years, its walls and ceiling painted in the same shades of buttermilk and forest green. “Not many people can say they did that.”

The UK gastropub revolution happened because the pub-dining market was “waiting to be exploited”, as Belben puts it. In 1989, six big breweries operated most pubs, when the Monopolies and Mergers Commission launched an inquiry under the pro-competition Thatcher government.

Pub food and drink in the 1980s was mostly desultory. “It was classic monopoly behaviour, controlled by big business and they didn’t have to make any effort to improve,” says Belben. “If you wanted to open a pub, a load of publicans would be whipped up by management to object to the licence. It was a closed shop.”

The so-called Beer Orders changed the market, after the inquiry recommended the number of pubs that big breweries licensed be capped. Following subsequent legislation, more than 11,000 UK pubs fell out of the hands of leading owners between 1988 and 1992, according to The Morning Advertiser, the UK pub trade publication. Small-scale entrepreneurs — “people like David and me”, says Belben — could suddenly lease licensed premises more easily.

Belben, who worked in restaurants, and Eyre, a mechanical engineering graduate who grew up partly in Malawi, met in the late 1980s. Belben ran Smith’s in Covent Garden — one of a handful of establishments with self-taught chefs that formed a nascent late-1980s scene. They included Alastair Little in Soho and The River Cafe in Hammersmith (Belben and Eyre admired both). Smith’s was owned by Christina Smith, a dynamic entrepreneur and former design assistant to Habitat founder Terence Conran. Belben credits Smith’s inspiration with The Eagle’s flair for casual aesthetics.

“I gave David a job as a busboy [at Smith’s],” says Belben. “That’s my skill — picking good people.”

Eyre moved to “a crazy bistro” — Mélange in Endell Street, where he taught himself to cook — and the pair realised they could run their own place. Covent Garden rents were high, but there was another option: following the Beer Orders, pubs were now cheap in less salubrious areas where creative industries were taking root.

In 1990, Belben and Eyre secured the lease on The Eagle, an unpretentious but elegant Victorian tavern in Clerkenwell two miles from the West End, from brewer Banks & Taylor’s. “We got in here for a few grand,” says Belben. The lease cost £15,000, but the pair had only £10,000. The brewery was so keen to offload the place, it lent them the rest.

Belben and Eyre took what they had learnt in the West End and applied it to their constrained circumstances. Could they make scarcity a virtue? Could their food dazzle against plain surroundings?

“Our manifesto was one line: ‘Never forget it’s a pub,’” says Belben. “No tabs, no cards, no reservations.” Like the decor, most rules hold 30 years later (though card payments are permitted). Arriving customers must pounce on tables as soon as others leave. “And no optics,” says Belben, referring to the measures most pubs use to dispense spirits, “so ungenerous.”

They put a record player behind the bar and gave over the first floor to a fine art gallery, run by Emma Hill. The kitchen was so small they were often forced to change the menu in the middle of a shift — “a radical idea at the time and determinedly unrestaurant-like”, says Eyre, who brought the Portuguese-inflected cooking of his Malawian childhood to the venture.

Despite the recession, The Eagle was rammed from the start. “By the fifth week, we took what we had projected to take in the 52nd,” says Eyre.

Six weeks after opening, they had earned enough to expand the kitchen into the bar, opening the cooking process for diners to see, burners raging all lunchtime. The unusual willingness to show the process and the no-reservations policy boosted takings: “You had to pitch up,” says Belben. “That is how we were able to serve 120 people at lunchtime, doubling the covers. Which a restaurant is always trying to do but never manages to achieve.” There was the odd issue. Sometimes the food would take far too long to arrive, and sometimes the crowds were overwhelming.

But prices were reasonable — some say too low. “Every penny that Michael made out of the drink, David would present as fabulous food at bargain prices,” says Gough. “An outrage against every restaurant norm.”

By July, The Eagle was runner-up in The Times’ annual pub food awards. The paper explained how Eyre’s Venetian sausages and garlic mash were pulling in a thirtysomething clientele “who come from all over London and pack the pub out every night”. The cultural critic Jonathan Meades described its style as “big flavours and rough edges”, which became the title of Eyre’s book of recipes.

Other than Eyre (who left in 1997, eventually founding Eyre Brothers restaurant), The Eagle has had just three chefs. Incumbent is Edward Mottershaw who joined in 2004. Pedro Chaves from The River Cafe was first, overlapping with Eyre for a while. Chaves was a professional who knew how to cook pasta in big quantities and what sort of grill to buy. In 1996, the self-taught Tom Norrington-Davies took over, a former drama student and longtime customer, drawn to “ingredients sat nonchalantly in full view: olive oil, rocket, things we take for granted that at the time seemed terribly new,” he says. “And cooking in fisherman’s’ smocks, not chefs’ whites.

“I was part of the second generation of this new wave,” Norrington-Davies recalls. “David made those jobs attractive to people like me. He was prepared to take on untrained people and teach them the way he had taught himself. Then it started happening in pockets all over London.

Hilferty, an Australian who joined the kitchen in 1996, went on to co-found the Canton Arms in Stockwell, The Fox in Shoreditch and The Anchor & Hope in Waterloo (in which Belben invested). All, she says, were influenced by The Eagle. She had previously worked at the “high-pressure” Bibendum, an exclusive French restaurant in Kensington.

“The Eagle was laid back, which was just really, really nice,” she says, “after having mental men screaming at me and everything having to be perfect.”

Today, gastropubs are everywhere. Some, such as All Bar One, are chains run by big operators. Others are independent. Smarter venues echo 1980s formality, with white linen tablecloths in hushed dining rooms.

Some offer exceptional food. The Stagg Inn in Herefordshire was first to earn a Michelin star in 2001. Tom Kerridge’s The Hand & Flowers in Buckinghamshire is the only pub with two.

But Nicholas Robinson, editor of online guide Top 50 Gastropubs, believes parts of the industry have lost sight of Belben and Eyre’s “never forget it’s a pub” formula. “They are often expense-account places with people having traditional business meetings, ideal for impressing a big client,” he says.

Numbers are hard to find because “gastropub” is not a separate category, but there are proxies. According to Statista, of about 47,000 UK pubs in 2019, more than 7,000 were “food-led”, and more than 900 labelled “rural character (food-led)”.

Yet pubs are in decline, with about 7,600 lost in the past decade. More than 13,500 have gone since 2000, a fall blamed variously on the indoor smoking ban, rising alcohol prices and a generation more interested in “wellness” than booze. The industry predicts almost 20,000 more are unlikely to survive the pandemic, taking 250,000 jobs with them. In November, Mitchells & Butlers, All Bar One’s owner, posted steep falls in takings.

Can independent gastropubs survive? Robinson thinks the strongest neighbourhood offerings will. “They have suffered in 2020 . . . But [in the summer] people did go back in big numbers. Trade was on a par with Christmas for weeks on end for some.”

However, the gastropub style is out of step in a public health crisis, as Belben knows. “The pandemic feels like an attack on everything we’ve done,” he says. “I’m making my living out of people in a crowded space, encouraging them to drink to lubricate the interaction.”

The Eagle serves a local crowd as well as office workers, which is an advantage, and customers did return in July. But between intermittent lockdowns, it operated at low capacity and with 10pm closures. The vaccine, says Belben, is the only way out — for The Eagle and for all hospitality.

Despite the fragility of chains, independent pubs are more vulnerable. Belben and Eyre never converted The Eagle formula into a brand, unlike contemporaries such as Carluccio’s. The pair received private equity interest, and there was once talk of an outpost in a theatre, says Norrington-Davies. But Belben says a chain of Eagles was never a serious proposition. “We always claimed we couldn’t repeat it, and we were right.”

Eyre now lives in rural Portugal. What does he miss? More than the food, he longs for the sounds: “The hubbub, the chink of the cutlery and the clash of the pan.

“Just like any pub, really.”

Helen Barrett is deputy editor of FT Wealth magazine

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