Last Friday I went out for a drink with my old chums Jon and Bish, and I realised that it had been about twenty years since I'd last been in a proper English pub. Of course these days in the States they have pubs, or at least they think they have pubs, but really they are either bars with a few British items thrown in (such as a Union Jack mirror on the wall) or a restaurant with a bar that happens to serve a dark beer. Pubs are a different thing.
These days, of course, to compete with the burgeoning number of restaurants which seem to have increased about 50% (at least in my town), most pubs now feel they have to have an extensive bistro-type menu. But it is hard for someone such as myself to get used to this, when back in the day, the most extensive menu you could find in an average pub was the choice between salt & vinegar or cheese & onion crisps. (I tell a lie, actually - The Eight Bells, God rest its soul, did have a restaurant in the back part, but that wasn't always open, and you could buy sandwiches at the bar. But since The Bells is no longer there and Cafe Rouge is in its place, the point is irrelevant. I also remember Ye Olde Cellars back in the 1970's having a restaurant section, but that went away around the time I started to be old enough to buy beer. So - whatever).
Back in the early '80s I was the drummer in a rock(?) combo known (perhaps infamously) as The Grass. To this day, I think that was a terrible name. However, we must have impressed some people because during 1983 we played several pub gigs in the local area, and even got return bookings from some shows. So...?
Some of the pubs were lovely places, replete with good beer, dartboards and kindly landlords, and somewhat receptive audiences. Some, however, were nightmarish, as were the owners and customers. The sort of places you walk into and the room turns stony silent and everyone turns to look at you as you adjust your collar nervously and ask under your breath "What do people drink around here?"
Last night I revisited the William Caxton at the end of the town, one of the pubs I used to frequent in the late '80s, which used to be populated by old geezers sitting on their own stools at the end of the bar, playing dominoes and shove ha'penny and drinking black & tan before it was hijacked by the cool and trendy types. I went there with my old buddy James and the first thing that hit me as I walked in was the aroma of something frying, possibly fish or chicken. There were about 5 or 6 people at the bar, engaged in conversation with the landlord, and the other side of the pub had about 2 or 3 people in there also. It seems the Caxton is now a Shepherd Neame pub. Back in the day Both the Caxton and the Bells were owned by Whitbread, and my favourite beer, Fremlins Bitter, was brewed by them following their acquisition in 1967 by Whitbread. Whitbread sold out to Interbrew of Belgium in 1997 for £40 million and in the last few years Whitbread has been pretty much out of the pub game, preferring to focus on Premier Inns and its restaurant brands such as Costa Coffee, Brewers Fayre (where, startlingly, you cannot get a beer but you can order wine with your meal), Beefeater, Taybarns, and Table Table, which are apparently pubs but that do have a full-service menu. There are four in Kent - Dover, Folkestone, Sevington and Herne Bay. The only beers they have on tap are four lagers - Beck's, Fosters, Stella and Carling - and Guinness and Tetley's Smoothflow. Interbrew are now known as AB-Inbev, (the AB standing for - wait for it - Anheuser-Busch), and on their website I looked up their local brands. The only two British brands I saw in a looooong list of brands were Boddington's and Bass. This sucks.
Anyway, so.... back to the Caxton. I had a pint of Spitfire Ale, very nice indeed I must say, and Jim had Master Brew, which I have yet to try. As we sat and reminisced and drank, we noticed an Elvis impersonator was setting up his PA. As the pub began to fill up we thought we'd better find somewhere a bit quieter to drink. We zipped on down to the Vine Inn, a pub I think I only went into once in the '80s, a night I seem to remember playing U2's "Desire" on the jukebox about a dozen times. The interior of The Vine has been completely remodeled and is now replete with comfy leather armchairs in which to enjoy one's beverage. Again, this is a Shepherd Neame pub and so Jim once again partook of the Master Brew but I plumped for Bishop's Finger, an odd-named brew but very satisfying. I noticed, as is my wont, a typo on the Specials board. I can't remember the whole thing unfortunately, but I do remember that it was some type of "Wanton". Hmmm.
Of course, we cannot turn back the clock and have things back to the way they were. Nor should we. Progress, mate. But I wasn't really ready for pubs to be warmer, comfier places with full service menus and espresso machines. In my early years pubs were cold and draughty and had nasty bathrooms. Some of my favourite snacks are gone too. Remember "Mignons Morceaux"? Phileas Fogg used to make those, and they were wonderful little crunchy rounds of garlicky bread. Just perfect with a pint. But alas, along with their counterparts Punjab Puri and Shanghai Nuts, they are no more. Ah, calamity! Phileas Fogg snacks are still around, but even though their crisps, poppadoms and nuts are, I'm sure, very tasty, they aren't Mignons Morceaux. Is it just me? Am I getting old and nostalgic and misty for a bag of mini-garlic-bread? Yes, I am, dammit. Nothing lasts forever, it is true - but it seems as time goes on, nothing lasts even five minutes anymore.