So what is a gastropub, exactly? If you ask the owners of the original gastropub in London, a scruffy place called the Eagle, they’ll tell you they don’t know anymore. “Our idea was to be an anti-restaurant,” co-owner Michael Belben, told me recently. There were no napkins at the Eagle, no checks (you paid before you ate, like in an old country pub), no pictures on the wall to distract patrons from the task at hand, which was to get drunk and have a good feed. The idea was to focus on the simplicity of old-fashioned food—“British peasant fare, done with a bit of care” was Belben’s description—without any of the fussiness or attitude Londoners had come to expect from snooty (read French) restaurants. Since then, of course, the fad has spun out of control. “A journalist invented the term; I never liked it,” said Belben, who also runs London’s gastropub of the moment, the Anchor & Hope. “It’s a bandwagon now. The other day, I saw an ad for a ‘gastro- restaurant.’ What on earth does that mean?”
The gastropub bandwagon arrived in New York a couple of years ago, with the opening of the Spotted Pig in the West Village, and since then the fad has spun out of control here too. Take the self-described gastropub called the E.U., which opened not long ago down on 4th Street, in Alphabet City. The name stands for European Union, which has sort of a pubby ring to it. There’s a small red griffin emblazoned on the menu, and for $10 you can get a tasting flight of five “hand-crafted artisanal beers” delivered to your table on a butcher block. But the room feels less like a pub than a refurbished machine shop. There are no cozy-looking couches in the corner (an old gastropub staple). No pictures of fluffy sheep decorate the spare brick-and-porcelain walls. The lights hanging from the ceiling are fitted with the kind of industrial filament bulbs that used to be trendy a few years ago; there is a raw bar up front, piled with ice, in the timeless faux-brasserie style; and bread is delivered to the table not in a basket but in a white enamel pot.
The menu at E.U. is a similarly schizophrenic mélange of received trends and styles, centering, it seems, on European comfort foods. You can get German sausages squeezed into a bun made of fresh pretzel dough, and two styles of Euro burger: the German, topped with liverwurst and bacon, and the Cheddar-and-gravy-smothered English (mine was overdone). From the “Tapas-Antipasti” section, I enjoyed “house-made” olives served in a little crock, and a decent mini-portion of hand-cut steak tartare decked with a quail egg. Liverwurst is included among the usual selection of Italian-style charcuterie (bresaola, prosciutto di Parma, speck), and the nice house bruschetta is piled not with tomatoes but sweetbreads tossed with shiitake mushrooms. I liked my artichoke-and-spinach salad (topped with a fried egg) more than the rock-hard meatballs (dressed with a minty Indian yogurt sauce). And the grilled octopus (with bits of tomato compote and preserved lemon) is probably more palatable than any grilled octopus you’ll find in the gastropubs of London.
I never sampled the fish and chips at the E.U. (a special on Tuesdays), but the chicken and dumplings are a good, if slightly effete, version (the chicken breast is sliced, the dumplings are made with spinach and ricotta) of that famous dish. The lamb I sampled (a medley of loin and shoulder) was forgettable, though my helping of veal cheeks (with flat beans and crushed potatoes) was braised with the kind of care and tenderness not always associated with kitchens in Alphabet City. A gummy version of that great gastropub specialty blood pudding makes an appearance on the brunch menu, along with a decent English-breakfast “fry up.” For dessert, I recommend a slim German chocolate delicacy called a “Rocher” and, of course, the sticky-toffee pudding. True, this dish is to faux gastropubs what profiteroles are to faux brasseries; but it’s hard to argue, here, with the crackle of house-made toffee on top, and the attendant scoop of buttermilk ice cream.
An approximation of sticky-toffee pudding is also available at another one of New York’s new gastropublike establishments, the Inn LW12. You can procure a tepid, not very crispy rendition of a crispy pig’s trotter, too, plus a tough Berkshire-pork chop that requires a hacksaw to disassemble, and a grizzly Quebecois specialty called poutine, which consists of melted cheese and gravy (also pork belly, if you like, or braised beef) dribbled over little mountains of greasy French fries. These grim delicacies are not enlivened any by the restaurant’s location, which is smack in the middle of meatpacking-district hell. On our first visit, my guests and I showed up a few minutes late, on a Friday night, to find that our table had been given away, even though the telephone reservationist had aggressively demanded my credit-card number in order to keep it. We wound up seated by the freezing doorway, in a zone attended only sporadically by waiters and busboys, amid a crowd of random poseurs, all yammering at the bar.