At first glance, The Eagle is just another of London’s many innocuous neighborhood pubs, on busy Farringdon Road in the city’s less visited Clerkenwell neighborhood. At second glance it’s a landmark restaurant responsible for igniting the latest celebrity chef trend. Why? It is believed that the now overused term “gastropub” was coined to describe the innovative food concept at The Eagle when the owners took over in 1991. It was the first, but hardly the last.
Today there’s no strict definition of gastropub, but since half the name is “pub,” it should definitely have a pub-ish element. The Eagle upgraded classic English dishes like “roast of the day” with the best possible ingredients and culinary techniques, but also broke new ground by featuring a Mediterranean-influenced menu with bowls of olives, pastas, eggplant and an unusual signature dish for a British pub: a Portuguese steak sandwich with a spicy dressing of onion, garlic, chili, herbs and seasoning, sautéed in red wine and olive oil, on a crusty roll.
The Eagle’s newfound gastropub concept broke traditional rules and begged for creative imitation, and more than a decade later, a bevy of celebrity chefs bored with upgrading classic American steakhouses are trying their hand at gastropubs. The most notable early success has been Todd English, who opened P.U.B. (Public Urban Bar) four years ago in Las Vegas. There are lots of celebrity chefs in Sin City, lots of bars and even lots of pubs, but English, the James Beard Award-winning chef behind Olives and many other well-received eateries, immediately carved out a niche and attracted both visitors and locals, something that’s very hard to do in Las Vegas, especially on the Strip. His formula is simple: a comfortable, fun atmosphere; reasonable prices; tons of beers; two happy hours each day; and food that’s more interesting and better than it should be in this setting.
P.U.B.’s chili is made from braised prime rib. There are Chinese-style duck buns; chicken parm sliders; an all-beef, foot-long, artisanal kosher hot dog on brioche roll; three styles of fries; and a fancy grilled cheese with brie and craft bacon. There’s a full (and very good) raw bar. Plus, English hits the traditional points as well: bubble and squeak, bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie and a full “carvery,” with meats from prime rib to crispy duck legs to brisket. The beer menu includes nearly four dozen draught beers from all over the world, a wide selection of bottled Trappist beers, large format beer bottles, beer flights, hard ciders and even mead. P.U.B. — which sits immediately next to the lobby of Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star ARIA Resort & Casino — has been popular round the clock since CityCenter opened.
Vegas recently attracted another celebrity chef who knows a thing or two about pubs, Gordon Ramsay, who, in December, opened his namesake Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill — with one whole wall built out of beer kegs — in Caesars Palace, home of Four-Star The Laurel Collection by Caesars Palace. Ramsay tweaks convention by operating two restaurants under one roof: the more casual pub, with elevated English classics — think Irish stew made from beef cheeks and creamed spinach blended with beet greens — and the grill, with meat-centric entrees such as a lamb “T-bone” and a whole Cornish game hen cooked in the traditional Italian “al mattone” style, under a brick.
Just down the Strip at MGM Grand, Michael Mina of Aqua and Stripsteak fame is preparing to open his “American gastropub,” 1842 Pub, which says it will feature “craft beer, sausage, seafood and burgers,” and includes an indoor wood-fired grill, rare outside of Argentina. Mina may be the latest celebrity chef on the Vegas gastropub bandwagon, but he already has one under his belt in Baltimore: Wit & Wisdom at the Four-Star Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore. Wit & Wisdom might well be a preview of 1842, describing itself as a “modern American tavern” that “redefines the ordinary tavern and elevates it,” with a focus on the area’s abundant seafood (lots of oysters and crab cakes) plus gourmet comfort fare like roasted bone marrow, Maine lobster pot pie, and macaroni and cheese made with smoked gouda and goat chevre.
The latest salvo was fired in Boston by James Beard and Emmy Award-winning chef, author and TV personality Ming Tsai, who just opened his Blue Dragon in the city’s waterfront district in February. Tsai describes it as an Asian gastropub, and it was an immediate smash hit, with very reasonable prices, a broad selection of beer and even draught wine, and delicious food. Tsai’s twist is to incorporate Asian ingredients in traditional pub dishes and vice versa, not to create fusion but to bring out bold new flavors. For example, his Indonesian curried lamb shepherd’s pie is the best shepherd’s pie I’ve ever had, including all over the British Isles, just overflowing with taste. Likewise for his “Asian sloppy joe,” a braised pork and beef blend in a sauce that includes hoisin and sambal and tastes like the Manwich fondly recalled from youth, only much, much better. Late night, the eatery sells these as sliders at the bar for a dollar a pop.
With gastropub food this good, one hopes more celebrity chefs throw their hats into the ring.
Photos Courtesy of Caesars Palace and Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore