Saturday, March 13, 2010

My idea of what a pub is. Or was.

In the early days of British rule in America, travel was by horse on really bad trails. I hesitate to call them actual roads. Along the way were "inns" where one could stop for the night and put up his horses. These came to be called public houses. You could get something to eat and a bed for the night. Sometimes you had to share your bed with a stranger, I've read. It wasn't very long before the landlord also discovered he should be serving alcoholic beverages as well. Maybe 8 or 9 minutes it took him to figure this out.

In my mind, this was the beginnings of the concept of pubs (which is still short for public house, I think) in America. Public houses for travelers had been around much longer than that in Europe, of course.

Today, in America, the concept has changed. Now we have bars. In my mind, a bar and a pub are two different things. Bars in America evolved from the concept of public houses. The name of the game at first was the same as a pub: hospitality, fellowship, a place to unwind with people you knew (more or less.) Today, in America, there are still neighborhood bars, of course, and there are bars in small towns where people still know each other (more or less) but more and more American bars are just places to go to drink. Food sometimes. Friends sometimes. But mostly to drink. Sometimes it isn't very pretty.

The laws have gotten more and more intrusive until one can't really go to a bar anymore like one could years ago. The bartender has to keep track of how many drinks you've had and probably even will have to find someone to drive you home if he doesn't want to get sued. In America, those days of drinking and then dragging yourself out to your car are gone. That's a good thing. Time was the horse knew the way home, but fewer and fewer Americans drive buggies anymore.

Besides the regular bars, you have your entertainment joints where loud music is supposed to bring in more drinkers. And you have the food joints where the food is supposed to bring in families, and drinking is secondary. Oh, you have pubs in America, but they are by design. Patterned after English pubs and probably franchised. They offer "authentic" fish and chips and 137 kinds of micro-brewery wares. Tres chic.

To me, you have to search far and wide to find a real "pub" in America. I don't drink anymore to speak of, so I am not motivated to search - so maybe you CAN'T find a real pub in America.

That brings me to describing what I think a pub really is, Britishly speaking. I may be wrong.

1. It is a pretty old building. It has been there for a long time. It has seen generations come and go. A lot of old pubs with "atmosphere" have probably closed down in recent years, either due to not being able to compete or just getting fed up with new laws.

2. It is a neighborhood thing. People go there not just to drink, but to be with other people they know. Like the fictional Cheers in Boston, everybody knows your name. It is not just a place to drink. It is a club of sorts. It is a place to hang out. Strangers come in, for sure; I'm not saying it is a REAL club. Often the unknown faces are guests of regulars though, I would think.

3. Furnishings are wood chairs and high-backed booths and wooden tables. There are exceptions, but I don't see much padding and plastic covers in my American vision of an English pub.

4. Food. You can get a sandwich in a pub. Or some fish and chips maybe. Some have house specialties. Bangers and mash. Pasties. Things I have only come to learn about in the past couple of years. The so-called "gastric pubs" (what a horrible name) you can keep, I think. If I want to go to a fine restaurant, then I will go to a fine restaurant. I'll order a drink with my meal. I won't expect to sit on a wooden chair in front of a roaring fire in the winter and wash down my sandwich with heady stout.

If I had to come up with a one word description for "pub", I suppose it would be "atmosphere". If I just want to get drunk, I'll pick up a 12-pack of Bud Light on my way home from work.

I've never been in an authentic English pub, because I've never been to England. How far off am I?


  1. I've been waiting in hope that someone else would start off. Someone more expert than I am.

    1. Things have changed. There are modern pubs or modernised pubs that have no atmosphere. Even some of the old ones have had the atmosphere forcibly removed.

    2. Yes, very often it is still a neighbourhood thing.

    3. I haven't seen high-backed booths in years. They really aren't part of the tradition in any I've known. But yes, it would be mainly wood.

    4. GastrO pubs are really only pubs that have become restaurants in everything but name. You can't always get a sandwich in a pub, or anything other than a bag of crisps. I found that out to my cost very recently. I'm amazed they survive but perhaps the summer trade is enough. There may even be food in the summer. I don't know.

    You're not far off at all. You don't all that often get a roaring fire these days and where you do, they will be the most atmospheric. The pubs with no food had no fires and no atmosphere, all bar ( :) ) one. But that was an inn and had rooms.

  2. What's the matter with gastric pubs? All the beer goes straight to your stomach whatever type of pub you go to.

    I think a map of the world would go much better with postcards than with a pub, don't you?

  3. Pubs,traditional ones are mostly about serving drinks. Inns, which are a subset of 'Pubs', tend to serve food as well. Food such as 'bar-meals',tends to be simple, yet tasty fare, the ploughman's lunch, pie with chips etc.
    Fish and chips? virtually never. If you want fish'n'chips you go to the fish'n'chip shop, it used to be something you did after the pub, but it's rare to find the chip 'oil still open after eleven these days.
    Some pubs, many pubs, put on a good lunch. Your full english breakfast, there, lacking the black-pudding and the fried bread, and the toast... no, you go to a good working man's cafe for that, not a pub.
    pubs, generally don't open before about eleven in the morning, a bit late for breakfast and rather early for booze.
    You've got mostly the right idea about the ideal concepts of a pub, but sadly, most are in the hands of big management companies, who gut them and refit them with a corporate theme.
    Close to home, there's a gtreat example. The White House, no relation to the one in D.C., the White House was built in the nineteen twenties as a large 'gentleman's residence'. It was a lovely house, with art nouveau bronzework, oak panelled walls, figured plasterwork ceilings, when I used to go there regularly, a big old house, where a bit less than half of the ground floor was a pub.
    Then a big Pubco bought it.
    Brought in its cleverest designers, and destroyed it.
    Now, you go up the driveway to an elegant mansion, and step through the door into a designers idea of a rustic barn. What were they thinking? Bastards.
    Plastics? In a real pub? oh most definitely not. old wood, worn smooth by countless hands. And bartops and tabletops are wood, or copper.
    The decor? usually looks as though its been there forever. stuff that may have some connection with the pub's name or locality, country pubs may have a stuffed fish in a glass case, caught in the river outside the pub in 1896, or a silver trophy, presented to a racehorse trainer from the stables nearby, or pictures of the WWII aircrews who used to drink there....
    A really good pub is a little piece of local history.
    In a village, the pub is the place for the local sports teams to display their trophies, the noticeboard, the village information exchange. In a few, you'll find a rack of books, you or anybody else can bring a few in, browse, and buy one or two, your money going toward some charity. there may be a newspaper rack, get your beer, sit and read until your pie and chips arrive. Or yorkshire pudding with onion gravy.mmmm...

  4. That picture just made me lose my appetite. Why would you want all of that on your plate at one time??? Eeeewww...

  5. @A - Thank you for agreeing that gastro-pubs are really restaurants.

    @Sheila - No. A map goes better with a bon vivant dog of international mystery, like myself.

    @ Soubriquet - Thank you for the fantastic description. And to A., too.

    @ Paytra - For a brain-eater, you sure are judgmental about what others have for breakfast.


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