I'm standing in a petrol station on a gray motorway in western England. The car isn't starting, the temperature is falling faster than the rain, and I blame Jamie Oliver.
Britain's best-known culinary export gave me the idea of taking a gastropub tour around England about three years ago. His father, Trevor, owns one of Britain's original gastro- pubs, the Cricketers, in Essex, and it was in that kitchen that Jamie learned how to cook. The only thing he never mastered was practical jokes. When he was 10, he set off stink bombs outside the pub, which forced 70 guests to flee—30 without paying—and caused Trevor to show his son that beating was something that could be done to butts as well as to eggs.
Ever since Jamie first made me aware of gastropubs—old-world taverns serving modern English cuisine—I've noticed them everywhere, from Notting Hill to Nottingham. So, after one crazy-busy week of working in London, it seemed that a few days of cozy, beamed rooms, roaring fires, and tasty food would make for a relaxing idyll. I canvassed some of England's best-known cooks, hoping they'd join me.
"There is no way you'll get me into the country," Nigella Lawson told me. "I'm a city girl. Call me when you get back and we'll go for dinner in town." Nigel Slater, whose cookbook Appetite is one of the most used on my shelf, dismissed the proposal—he just doesn't eat in pubs. I had read that Clarissa Dickson Wright, the surviving One Fat Lady, liked a place in Fletching called the Griffin, but when I tracked her down in Edinburgh, I was informed that she'd given up the drink and therefore rarely eats in pubs, thank you very much!
Instead, I persuaded a British friend, Caz Hildebrand, to accompany me. She suggested we head toward the counties west of London—Dorset, Devon, and Shropshire—because even if the food wasn't great, the scenery would be. Caz is a perpetual optimist; even now, at the gas station, the look on her face was happy, at least as well as I could see it through the rain-splattered and fogging windshield.
Certain British foods have always made me laugh, if not for their crazy combination of ingredients, then for their equally crazy names. Cock-a-leekie, for example, is not a prostate problem but a gut-warming stew of chicken and leeks. Hairy tatties are not the pendulous body parts of hormonally challenged women, but feathery potato-and-cod pancakes. Still, there's something about those dishes that I find perversely compelling—it's similar to the pull I've felt toward a few greasy American diners. The food isn't delicious in a fine or delicate way, but it's comforting in a familiar, semi-appalling manner.
It could be said that public houses were the world's first diners. Some suggest they got their start along the roads of Britain when it was ruled by the Romans, lodging officials who traveled through the inhospitable imperial outpost. They didn't serve ale until the Middle Ages, when monasteries opened guesthouses and the brothers started tapping their ale tanks, and marking the inside with vertical pegs to indicate how much would fill a glass (thus the origin of the expression "to take down a peg"). Today, both the church and the pub, England's two most entrenched institutions, are facing the crisis of dwindling constituencies. Yes, there may be more than 55,700 pubs in Britain—haunted pubs, historical pubs, theme pubs—but the days of blokes swilling 10 pints of beer are over.
As a result, pubs have had to step up to the plate—literally. In 1990 two Londoners who didn't have the cash to launch a restaurant from scratch found a derelict pub in a questionable neighborhood, gutted it, and created a simple menu that omitted the defrosted scampi in a basket for which pubs were known. The British food revolution was in its infancy then—a good restaurant usually meant French or fussy—so the idea of modern food at reasonable prices was a radical, welcome relief. The Eagle became an unexpected hit—it's still packed with media types, artists, and architects—and it was one of the sparks that ignited Clerkenwell as one of the hottest neighborhoods in town.
London is now home to more than a dozen gastropubs that serve outstanding grub: the Cow, the Salisbury Tavern, and the Admiral Codrington among them. As for the rest of the country, there's the Good Pub Guide, which lists more than 5,000 good-grub pubs. Regrettably, the authors extol almost every venue they list, leading naïve readers to believe that Britain has become the new Italy, with an abundance of home-style trattorias, all making use of farm-raised, organic food.
By the time we hit Dorset, the car was purring and the skies had cleared. Caz and I picked up two friends and made our way to the Fox Inn in the tiny town of Corscombe. I immediately liked the eccentric owner, Martyn Lee, who bumptiously advertised NO CHIPS OR MICROWAVES on his menu.
The Fox is crammed with stuffed animals, making it a cross between a natural-history museum and a peasant cottage. With blackened wooden beams, bulging wattle-and-daub walls, and a gaping inglenook fireplace, it is a pub in which everyone, from local lord to local milkman, can feel at home.
Mr. Lee, who has since retired, eschews the G word: "That's the most ghastly, most jumped-up word of all time. Most gastropubs are just restaurants that serve the occasional bottled beer. This is a pub!" Despite his protests, the menu aims high, twisting the traditional into dishes with organic produce and locally raised meats. There was a succulent warm pigeon-breast salad with bacon; garlicky sautéed field mushrooms; and a plate of salmon tartare, which was home-cured but too small by half. When I mentioned this to the waitress, she scampered silently away with my plate. I thought my American bellow had terrified her, but, two minutes later, a mountain of salmon was delivered with a hearty apology.
The main courses—lamb shank with mustard mash, roasted John Dory with thyme and sea salt—didn't measure up to the starters. Though expertly prepared, they lacked the vibrancy that makes a meal memorable, tasting slightly like a reheated Sunday lunch. Our friends assured us that previous meals they'd eaten here had been brilliant, which led me to think that gastropubs suffer the same problems as restaurants all around the world. The last delivery occurs on Thursday or Friday, making the chances of getting a great meal on Sunday evening less likely.