Feast of the M60 muses over what seems to be a dying art in public houses
On the rare occasions that you go to the pub (for anything besides family occasions), you may fancy a quick snack with your pint. You yearn for something quite filling though not over facing. A quick sandwich, a tasty ham muffin or the like – anything besides pickled eggs, salted peanuts and crisps.
Then you check the menu. Burgers. Cheeseburgers. Chicken burgers. Build Your Own Burger. In some places, Let Sir Norman Foster Design Your Dream Burger (only joking, but if anybody can find a burger deal designed by Wayne Hemingway, please fill me in). You go to the light bites section and wonder where the sandwiches have gone. Some places offer meal deals with cheese and tomato paninis, the bastard son of the toastie counterpart. When I was young, a panini meant swapping Imre Varadi for Arthur Albiston.
The rise of the pub burger seems to coincide with J.D. Wetherspoon’s ascent to National Institution Status and the parallel decline of the Wimpy bar. Tim Martin’s enterprise has always sold burgers on proper plates (like Wimpy have done for the last 65 or so years). This makes the local ‘Spoons an acceptable alternative burger joint to rivals that steadfastly refuse to use plates and real cutlery. In many areas, they fill a similar void vacated by Wimpy’s rapid decline in the 1990s.
Sadly (for nostalgia’s sake), the price of a substantial Wimpy meal is more expensive than a ‘Spoons burger deal. £9.75 gets you a tea, a Megaburger, and chips. Meanwhile, the nearby ‘Spoons (I am using Huddersfield town centre as my example), charges £6.25 for a Gourmet Burger Meal Deal. For £7.25, you can substitute the brew for a pint of real ale.
At both the bottom and mid-market price points, competition isn’t only with national and multinational burger chains. It is also with the local takeaway or smaller chains (though with the pub being your surrogate lounge).
From my vague recollections, I could never remember seeing burgers in public houses till around 1995. Burgers were the preserve of occasional barbecues in the beer garden. Or they were the run-of-the-mill Iceland/Bejam/Cordon Bleu variety served with soft baps for quiz nights or sports clubs as sustenance.
Supposing Year Zero for the Pub Burger Deal was 1995, fellow beery blogger Tandleman asked this question on Twitter.
What did pubs and bars sell before burgers? My timeline is clogged by offers to buy and eat them.
— Tandleman (@tandleman) August 15, 2016
This led me to my reply and this blog post. I said “toasties” and “Ploughmans’ Lunches”. He said “the toastie is a lost art form”. If you like your beer-based blogging, Tandleman’s Blog is well worth a read. Of similar leanings, I also recommend The Pub Curmudgeon’s writings too. Pub cats and dog friendly pubs really are the stuff of legend status.
Reports of the Toastie’s Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
You can still get toasties in the traditional sense at Wimpy. Subway’s Sandwich Inquisition allows for the toasting of your sub (but it is not a toastie in the traditional sense). The Wetherspoons menu has two types of toasties: ham and cheese or cheese and tomato.
The Traditional Toastie consists of two slices of medium sliced bread. Usually white bread, but wholemeal or brown bread are good alternatives. Bread would be toasted in a sandwich press or a sandwich toaster. Sometimes, the bread would have deep pockets for the filling. As well as the traditional flavours (Ham and Cheese, Cheese and Onion, and Cheese and Tomato), Chicken Curry and Baked Beans are popular choices.
In the pub, the traditional flavours have stood the test of time. In modern day practice, toasties are often served with a salad garnish. Before burgers dominated, any pub with a food licence and a modest kitchen, would be used for making sandwiches or toasties. Not just public houses noted for their food. Also common and garden working-class boozers too, more noted for their wet trade.
Until recently, the pub was a popular employees’ dinnertime venue. In between work hours, for a butty and a beer. Usually with a limited menu, and the kitchen only being open from 12 midday to 2pm. Instead of a wrapped-up or freshly-made ham muffin, toasties were a popular choice. Like paninis are today.
What do we like about traditional pub toasties? Well, some of the best toasties came from the least food-orientated pubs. A decent sandwich toaster, ample small plates with serviettes, and the basic ingredients for good toasties were enough for a satisfying snack or light lunch. There was no airs and graces, it worked.
For anything similar to Proletarian Pub Issue Cheese Toasties, only traditional local cafés ever come close. Today, the demographic suited to proper toasties have gone. Drinking in pubs during your lunch break is frowned upon. Butties brought into the workplace from the home, petrol station, sandwich shop or supermarket seems to be the norm.
As much as avaricious Pubcos, (in some areas) the 2007 smoking ban, and beer prices, the lack of lunchtime trade have hastened the demise of working class public houses. Case in point with Bredbury industrial estate, where The Horsfield Arms performed a similar role. See also the cluster of public houses around (the now demolished) Hyde Mill that have closed.
Which also means fewer cheese toasties sold in pubs. Or other light bites like the Ploughman’s Lunch, or a Soup of the Day. The cheese toastie is long overdue a revival, not only in gastropubs, but also in down-to-earth wet trade boozers. I’ll have a cheese and tomato toastie with my pint of Unicorn, please…
S.V., 18 August 2016.