Ask anyone what pub food was like 20 years ago and they probably wouldn’t have a whole lot to say. Fish and chips, steak and kidney pie, bangers and mash. Most of what was served at the pub was pretty bog standard fare; food that’s main prerogative was filling you up and preventing you from getting too pissed during the night. I’m not saying that was a bad thing, I’m just saying that going to the pub for the food wasn’t the done thing. The dishes were nothing to write home about and there certainly wasn't anything for the Michelin inspectors to write about.
Go to a pub today, though, and you’re just as likely to be bombarded with an array of seasonal small plates as you are to be assaulted with a reheated Patak’s curry. Pubs across the country are starting to serve some truly cutting-edge cooking – food that’ll make you rethink your opinions of your local boozer.
I’ll be the first to admit that this trend for good pub grub is hardly box-fresh. Tom Kerridge opened up his Marlow gastropub, The Hand & Flowers, in 2005 and was almost instantly lauded for breathing new life into the public house. It’s still, to this day, the only pub in the country to hold two Michelin stars. The Sportsman in Whitstable has also held on to its own star since 2008, The Walnut Tree in Abergavenny regained its shiny star in 2010, and there’s plenty of excellent food pubs all over the United Kingdom that the tyre inspectors have deemed to be worthy. While that’s all well and good, I’m interested in the chefs cooking more affordable cuisine that’s free from accolades and awards. I'm talking about the pubs where you can find no-frills flavour without any expectation of being handed an eye-watering bill. It’s that new breed of pub, and the shit-hot restaurant residencies in pub kitchens, that have been on an upward trajectory over the recent months.
Hot 4 U is an example of a restaurant group (concept? empire? cult?) that has successfully turned pub food on its head. Initially started by Mathew Scott and Eddy Tejada as a delivery-only pivot during lockdown, the Hot 4 U empire (I’m sticking with that one, I like the majesty of it) now consists of three pubs – The Plough, The Prince Arthur, and The London Tavern in Margate – where you can get your fill of highly exciting and crushable plates like grilled lambs tongue with green beans and tomatoes or fresh Palourde clams served with braised summer peas and leche de tigre. No, this ain’t your standard pub menu.
“We have direct relationships with suppliers,” explains Mathew Scott, “not just that we buy directly from them, but that we actually consider them as our friends and collaborators. In terms of the Hot 4 U food style, I suppose it’s sort of inventive. We shoot from the hip – and it often surprises people! I’m personally driven by a want and need to constantly be creative.”