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'Gastropubs' offer elite fare at prices fit for the masses


Richard Ouzounian
Toronto Star

London is still one of the world's great cities ... until it comes time to pay the bills. Quality hotels and restaurants are now almost out of the range of the average traveller, unless you know where to look.

The "gastropub" phenomenon began in London in 1991 with The Eagle. On the outside it looked like an ordinary pub, but inside it did (and still does) serve first-rate grub.

It spawned a whole new culture of dining, one that put the emphasis on food rather than frills.

Although the average gastropub's meals aren't as cheap as old-style pub food, you'll find them a lot easier on the wallet than the average luxury British restaurant and you can usually enjoy a three-course meal with wine and tip for about $50 Canadian.

A lot of them are also into regional food, organic vegetables and additive-free meat. And while you'll still find a nice selection of beers, the wine lists are nothing to sneeze at either. Most of them take no reservations, so it's good to come very early or very late – or be prepared to sit at the bar and wait for the crowds to thin.

THE EAGLE, 159 Farringdon Rd., 087 1332 5129: Yes, it was the first and although it's no longer the best, it still serves an impressive meal. The menu here tends to have a Mediterranean flair. The kitchen has a magical way with ingredients like lentils and chickpeas, pairing them with unlikely suspects such as salsa and cuttlefish in a fine way.

Unlike many gastropubs, it's cool, open and airy, especially nice in the summer.

ANCHOR AND HOPE, 36 The Cut, 020 7928 9898: This has been a favourite since it opened in 2004. It's a good one to remember if you're seeing a show at the Old Vic, just down the street.

Its strength is wonderful slow-cooked casseroles, some only available, alas, in portions for two or four people.

I had an amazing slow-cooked shin of beef, heady with rosemary and juniper berries, served with an awesome crusty potato cake.

THE NARROW, 44 Narrow St., 020 7592 7950: This Limehouse gastropub has been taken over by the talented Gordon Ramsay, but his volcanic temper is nowhere in evidence in this sleek establishment.

Quite the nicest-looking of all the gastropubs I visited, it has a relaxing yet elegant air that's disarming. The food is also first-rate and I couldn't get enough of the braised Gloucester pig cheeks served with mashed neeps, but I did leave room for a delicious chocolate sponge with custard.

THE COACH AND HORSES, 26-28 Ray St., 020 7278 8990: Not far from The Eagle, this gastropub opened in 2004 and zoomed to the top of many people's lists.

It's next door to The Guardian and a fine place to catch many of the estimable journal's scribes unwinding.

The food is hearty but served with flair. All of the high-quality meat is from Long Ghyll Farms in Lancashire.

The décor may be grubby pubby, but the lamb rump with lentils I enjoyed at lunch was first-class.

MAGDALEN, 152 Tooley St., 020 7403 1342: It once was a Peruvian restaurant, but this new South Bank entry is now a marvellous mix of French brasserie and British gastropub.

Some of the best, most garlicky snails I ever ate were a superb prelude to a venison pie whose flaky crust and heady filling I can still taste.

If you have room for dessert, they do magical things with lemon, including a cheesecake and an awesome sorbet.

GREAT QUEEN STREET, 32 Great Queen St., 020 7242 0622: If you're concerned about such things, this is currently the most "in" of all London gastropubs and its Covent Garden location means it attracts a starry crowd. (Jude Law was there the day I had lunch.)

The décor takes the no-frills approach to an extreme, but the food is first-rate and a zesty steak tartare paved the way for an ultralight lemon sole, leaving plenty of room for a fine crème brûlée.

I couldn't see what Mr. Law was eating, but he definitely seemed to enjoy it.




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