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It’s been two decades since David Eyre opened The Eagle on Farringdon Road with Michael Belben, thus starting the whole gastropub phenomenon. The chef, who now runs the Eyre Brothers restaurant in Shoreditch, talks to Liz Edwards about the early days in EC1

Why did you choose Clerkenwell?
It was dirt cheap! At the time, there was nothing on Farringdon Road except a chip wrapper doing 30 miles an hour up the street. The Monopolies and Mergers Commission had ordered breweries to offload the majority of their tenanted pubs and we were able to buy a lease. It was the recession, so people had no money for restaurant food, but they did have money for an intelligent salad and a glass of wine – or a pork chop and a pint. Even so, everyone said we must be mad: “Opening a pub, where?!”

Did you think it would appeal to the Clerkenwell crowd?
We never thought about who the customer base might be. We just opened The Eagle as a place we wanted to go to ourselves – we thought people like us would like it. Unknown to us, we were surrounded by artists, architects, The Face and Arena magazines and other publishers. A very special thing about Clerkenwell is that it’s a geographical crossroads – King’s Cross is north, Blackfriars and Borough are directly south, Holborn is west and the City is east. It’s not far from a lot of people; it’s convenient to get to, and that was part of The Eagle’s success, too.

And that success was instant?
We were completely blown away. We thought we were opening a nice quiet place but it was really oversubscribed. It took us nine weeks to achieve the weekly turnover we’d optimistically told the bank we’d have after a year. I was 29, newly single and a bit crazed – it allowed me to do five double shifts in a row. By 1997, I thought I was going to burn out so I sold my share to Mike [Belben] and hooked up with my brother instead.

You don’t like the term ‘gastropub’, do you?
I hate that word – it sounds like a belch! We always said The Eagle was a pub. It was important that a table could be used by people in muddy boots drinking lager as much as by people who’d come to the best place to eat ribollita. It was very egalitarian – a great leveller. You’d have the editor of The Guardian next to a builder, next to a fresh-out-of- school graphic designer. And at least half our customers were women, which was unusual in pubs at that time.

How have you seen Clerkenwell change since 1991?
It’s ten times busier, and full of the demographic who’d use a place like The Eagle. Someone should give The Eagle a prize – it was instrumental in turning around Clerkenwell’s fortunes. I’m not being immodest – I say that with confidence. It’s great to see Clerkenwell isn’t windswept and desolate any more. It’s just a shame you can’t park all along Farringdon Road as you used to.

What philosophy connects The Eagle and your current restaurant, Eyre Brothers?
What I learnt at The Eagle, about the ordinariness of good food and hospitality – these are still my maxims. Eyre Brothers looks modern but really, it’s granny’s cooking. We buy really good ingredients – from many of the same suppliers I used at The Eagle – and do very little to them to turn them into great dishes.

And what’s next on the menu?
If it’s in London, it’ll be a tiny ten-tabler. Otherwise, a simple hotel in the tropics. A place in the forest, with no doors, where you can have breakfast in your pants.

 

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