The pub where ‘gastro’ leaves a nasty taste

The local boozer is having a refurb! This is good news. Like many pubs, the Royal Oak has been hit by falling trade and has also suffered a number of ‘incidents’ prompting visits from the local plod. Permanent closure and conversion into flats could have been the alternative, so any kind of determination to keep it open is a good sign.

Speaking of signs, there’s one on the wall announcing that the Royal Oak was an Evening Standard Pub of the Year back in the late ’70s. That probably meant you got an assortment of affable pipe-smoking gents who used the word ‘marvellous’ a lot.

‘Affable’ too, probably.

I hope the refurbishment plans allow for the retention of that dying institution, the separate public and saloon bars. Mind you, the distinction between the two was getting a bit blurred at the Royal Oak. The former used to show football on Sky and could get noisy, especially when Chelsea were playing. The saloon bar used to be somewhere you could escape football on Sky. Then the management adopted the retirement home model of reckoning that people needed to have TV on at all times, wherever they were. So they put up TVs in the saloon bar, and tuned them all to show football on Sky.

The pub served a range of traditional hearty pub fayre. You know the sort of thing. Burgers, steaks, pies and so on. All pretty good value and, thanks to weapons-grade microwaves, delivered to your table virtually before you’d finished placing your order.

But whatever else is changing, it looks like the food side of things will stay the same:

See that?

GASTRO PUB, NOT US!

Dubious grammar aside, I was struck by what these four words say about how the ‘gastro pub’ is perceived. Well, badly, obviously. Perhaps with a deep sense of distrust and suspicion. ‘We’ll be having none of your fancy London ways around here’ is the subtext. Or maybe it’s a veiled reference to the refurb carried out some years ago at another nearby pub, The Railway.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about drinking in pubs, it is to avoid any whose name contains the words ‘railway’, ‘station’ or ‘travellers’. Sure enough, The Railway was a seriously dodgy venue. After one disturbance too many, they shut the place down and reopened it months later with a new name, new decor, new prices and a new menu:

Does this shout ‘gastro pub’ to you? It doesn’t to me. But maybe the drinkers at the Royal Oak got terrified that their pub would reopen selling, not burgers, but black cod fillet in a Japanese tamari and manuka honey reduction, served with locally harvested micro greens.

Fair enough, but why so virulent in the denial? Why mention it at all? Is gastro food, whatever that might be, really such a terrible, terrible thing that you have to highlight the fact that customers needn’t entertain the slenderest fear of encountering any?

It’s like trying to reassure customers with signs saying things like:

SALMONELLA & BOTULISM? NOT HERE!
FILTHY CARPETS & STINKING BOGS? I DON’T THINK SO!
RISK OF UNPROVOKED GLASSING? NOT REALLY OUR STYLE!

To me, the sign is stating in a passive-aggressive way that the pub will under no circumstances serve the kind of food many people enjoy. They may as well have a sign reading:

CHEERFUL AMBIENCE? NOT US!
LOG FIRE IN WINTER? GET OUT OF HERE!
or
GOOD RANGE OF ALES? WHAT PLANET ARE YOU ON?!

I’ll give it a try when it reopens, though. Of course I will. It’s the local.

UPDATE 1: I visited The Royal Oak shortly after it reopened. Verdict: They’ve kept the good stuff (antique mirrors, unusual tiny wooden doorway through which one has to stoop to get from the public to the saloon bar, good range of beers, general layout,) and got rid of some the bad stuff (old fashioned furniture, heavily stained swirly carpet). All the TVs are still there, and they’re all showing football. There were plenty of unoccupied tables and chairs. But dim lighting made it impossible to read the paper, which has always been one of life’s pleasures, and a pair of children were allowed to run around and yell at the tops of their voices. THAT I could just about have coped with, but the constantly barking dog in the adjacent bar proved too much. Plus, the owner attempted to stop his dog barking by shouting at it. So I drained my pint and left.

UPDATE 2: Maybe I was unlucky, so I give the pub another try. This time I takeBounder (my cocker spaniel) and a backlit iPad. The place is just as empty as before. But the barman takes one look at Bounder and says that dogs are no longer allowed, except in the public bar. From there I can hear the barking dog above the sound of two teams battling it out on Sky 3 Plus Football Euro Extra, so I leave and strike the Royal Oak off of my list of locals. Shame.

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