There’s something almost magical about a really good pub.
When I say “really good”, I don’t mean the ones with fancy cuisine (top rated in the latest pub food guides) or a vast range of beer, wine and spirits. “Crap pubs” my younger sister Nancy calls many of those places. Trying too hard.
As with so many rewarding and deeply English customs, the key to a really good pub is tradition.
And that’s a very difficult one to unpack.
Unlike fine French, Italian and Chinese cuisine or the fabled American burger, the great British pub isn’t an easy thing to export nor replicate.
Something about it is organic, or as we Americans like to say, authentic. If you have a favorite pub it’s “your local.” Regulars have a sense of ownership that has little to do with the money they spend.
A really good pub works because of “the punters” – the personalities who inhabit the place each evening. They know the customs and rituals. They supply the hum of laughter, conversation, even argument. Perfection it is not.
A really good pub works because of the beer. A perfectly pulled pint is a thing of beauty. Neither ice cold (perish the thought!) nor room temperature warm, the ideal pint of beer goes down smoothly: the perfect balance between fizzy and flat.
And here’s the thing. I don’t really like beer anywhere else than in a cozy British pub. The mix of chatter at the tables nearby and a good humored, but not too friendly bartender makes the suds go down easy.
It’s all about balance. So easy to get that one wrong.
My sister Lucy knows. She was a publican for a decade. Being the landlady of a village pub in Somerset was “bloody hard work.” On her feet from morning ’til night. The place was open every day of the year. The routine included an exhausting mix of joy, laughter, friendship and even a certain amount of status. But it often came with physical pain. Challenging too. Managing the menus and bar staff was no easy feat. Not to mention the finances.
Because of a decades-long decline in custom, being a publican is often a struggle. Many public houses have shut down.
In the past English pubs were home away from home. When the telly was black-and-white and your indoor heating was iffy at best, the pub was a warm, welcome retreat.
Today, with inexpensive wall-to-wall carpeting, large Samsung flat screen TVs, wifi, Netflix and yes – adequate heating – many modest English houses and flats have been transformed. Vast numbers of folk don’t go out much as their parents, uncles and aunties did.
Successful pubs are increasingly rare. But when you find one, dropping into an English local is a real treat. A place where you’d be missing out if you didn’t go in for “a quick one”.