Bars and Pubs and Clubs

Dada bar in Sheffield.

Last week, we interviewed the founders and owners of North Bar in Leeds, arguably the first ‘craft beer bar’ in the UK, and, in the course of our conversation, asked: ‘So, what makes this a bar rather than a pub?’ After much head-scratching, they had to admit defeat: they didn’t know. ‘But we know a bar when we see one.’

Here’s a quiz, then: are the following bars, or pubs, or something else?

  1. Dada, Sheffield
  2. Craft Beer Company, Islington, London
  3. Craft Beer Company, Clerkenwell, London
  4. The Parcel Yard, Kings Cross, London
  5. any branch of All Bar One.

A pub has to sell beer, but then so do most bars. A bar is more likely to sell cocktails, but some don’t, and some pubs do. Pubs are more likely to be brown, while bars will have white/cream/grey walls, but white-painted pubs and brown bars do exist… no, this isn’t getting us anywhere.

In the introduction to her 2002 book Bar and Club Design, Bethan Ryder defines bars as follows:

They are modern, spectacular forums, underpinned by the ideas of display and performance, rather than utilitarian, more casual places in which people meet, drink and gossip — such as the pub…

We’re not sure that works — North felt pretty casual, for example, but is definitely a bar. She also, however, says this in attempting to define the nightclub: ‘…to a certain extent they have always been whatever a… pub is not.’ Now that, vague as it is, might work as a definition of a bar.

As, perhaps, might this: a pub should always feel as if it is in the British Isles; whereas a bar should feel as if it is in Manhattan, Stockholm, Moscow or Paris.

If you think you’ve got it cracked, let us know in the comments below.

Our answers would be 1) bar; 2) pub; 3) bar; 4) something else; and 5) chain pub with pretensions.

29 thoughts on “Bars and Pubs and Clubs”

  1. I’d define a bar as like a pub but with more people standing around rather than sitting, but without the loud music and utter wankers you get in nightclubs. Instead, however, you get a different type of wanker – the suit.

    1. See, that could be a description of any number of London pubs on any given Thursday evening, and the Hand Bar in Falmouth is a largely suit-free zone.

      1. Fair point, but I’m talking of a place that purposely has a lack of seating. Not just having to stand because it’s so busy.

        1. Ah, gotcha. We considered that but North Bar threw us for a loop: it’s got about as many seats as any pub we’ve been in, considering the size of the place, and bar stools too.

  2. By defining all bar one as a pub with pretentions you set ‘bar’ up as something aspirational. Maybe best going back to original use of terms pub = public house thus implying a building rather than single room in larger complex. Bar would simply be any bar counter from Which alcohol is sold. Hotel and theatre bars make good examples as do stand alone country pubs. Examples like North or the spoons in Leeds train station sit in grey middle area but I fail to see logic why they wouldn’t be in the same category along with many all bar ones. Maybe we are better going back to define craft 😉 discussion may be more productive and give clearer results.

    1. “Maybe we are better going back to define craft 😉 discussion may be more productive and give clearer results.”

      We always quite enjoyed that conversation until it got sunk by people moaning about how boring it was.

      Anyway, this isn’t an attempt to define it so much as to work out what people mean when they use it. Why is North Bar called North Bar and not The Briggate Arms? What does a customer expect from somewhere flagged as a bar rather than as a pub?

  3. The same question arose on my blog a few weeks ago. These are good offerings:

    Blogger Curmudgeon said…

    A pub is something whose identity endures through changes of ownership, and even name, whereas the identity of a bar is essentially defined by its current owner.

    18 June 2013 19:22
    Anonymous Martyn Cornell said…

    A pub is something that looks as if it could be converted without too much expense into a family home. A bar is something that looks as if it could be converted without too much expense into a shop. (And, of course, vice-versa – which, since such conversions happen all the time, is QED.)

    19 June 2013 08:36

    1. Funnily enough, I think we’ve had the same conversation on Facebook with Curmudgeon, too.

      Martyn’s definition falls down when you look at, say, most London Fuller’s pubs: the Jugged Hare on Vauxhall Bridge road is definitely a pub (we think) but doesn’t resemble a family home. (It resembles a bank, unsurprisingly…)

      Curmudgeon’s is better, though when we put it to the chaps at North Bar they immediately countered with several examples of pubs defined by their owners’ personalities, and bars which had stayed the same through several owners over the course of many years.

  4. I think pubs and clubs are quite specific things. A bar is just a catch all term for anywhere else that sells alcohol for consumption on the premises that doesn’t fit into either category.

      1. I’ve never been there, but it doesn’t look like a pub from the photos, it looks more like a cafe.

        A public house is literally that: a house for the public. Its like the downstairs of someone’s house with comfy seating and people you know sitting around, a pool table and a dart board, a tv showing sport or eastenders, beer in the fridge and sandwiches available from the kitchen, and garden where you can kick a football around with your kids. If it doesn’t have an absolute minimum of 50% of those things then its not a pub.

  5. Even in a big city like Manchester it’s noticeable how virtually all pubs are free-standing buildings, not just the bottom floor of something else. Scotland is different, of course.

  6. Hmmm – let’s try to narrow this down a bit more.

    Does the person in charge live on the premises? If yes, it’s a pub

    Does the person in charge lock up and go home when the trading day is over? If yes, it’s a bar.

    And yes, I’m sure multiple exceptions can be found to both those statements. …

    1. Yes, that does confuse things! If we asked you to suggest a good bar in Nottingham, because we didn’t fancy going to a pub, you’d know what we meant though, wouldn’t you?

      1. Now that’s tricky… I might go to Martyn’s definition above and send you to a ‘bar’ where the person who locks up at night lives in a different ‘pub.’ Confusing, but yes I know what you mean, even if I’m struggling to think of one I’d actively recommend without it only being a bar on a technicality!

        I’m also pretty sure some pubs call themselves bars because they want to sound cool (American). Draft beer anyone?

  7. Traditionally at least I would have thought that a bar is designed for night time drinking whereas a pub is a more relaxed all day affair. But I realise this is changing now that bars (like North Bar) are becoming more like continental style bars – ie. more like cafes.

  8. I really cannot decide on a definition that works but I know that in most cases I’m going to prefer a pub to a bar.

    What makes CBC Clerkenwell a bar though? The design? It certainly makes a focal point of the bar with seating downstairs being confined to the edges. But it’s still a pub in my mind.

    The Islington branch is the most pubbish of them all, which is why it’s my preferred choice. But the Clerkenwell one is still a pub to me. It just tends to get too busy for my tastes especially on weekday evenings which is why I tend to steer clear.

    The Parcel Yard = soulless train station pub. But still a pub.

    1. “What makes CBC Clerkenwell a bar though? The design?”

      Good question. We tried to pick examples where the answer wasn’t obvious and then followed our gut instinct. Maybe it’s because it’s bright, noisy and (sorry, CBC…) a bit uncomfortable?

  9. My thinking is with Martyn’s home/shop distinction. Though as with many things it’s a bell curve distribution, and the curves overlap.

  10. Here’s my definition of a bar from my London guide, if it helps. “Some places with pub licenses don’t feel at all like pubs, and I’ve designated these bars. Most follow non-native traditions, homaging Low Countries cafés, Bavarian gäststätte or US dive bars, for example. A few are flasher establishments in the international style.”

  11. The origin of the term “public house” is not, as py0 thinks, because it’s a bit like someone’s house that happens to be open to the public, though that’s rather an appealing notion. It’s a licensing distinction — it’s public because it’s permitted to serve alcohol for consumption on (and usually off) the premises to the public, as opposed to hotel guests, or theatregoers, or diners or another more select group.
    A “bar” used to be simply the counter itself where the drinks were served, and by extension the immediate area surrounding it, and we still use the term in this sense in pubs, which can have more than one bar. Thus also the usage of bar in connection with places where the primary purpose isn’t selling drink, as in theatre bar, restaurant bar, hotel bar etc.
    When a place that’s mainly about selling drink, like the North Bar, bills itself as a bar, it’s simply a matter of style — in the British context, it’s an indication that the place doesn’t style itself after a stereotypical pub. In fact most so-called bars have identical licenses to pubs, otherwise passers by wouldn’t be able to drop in at random to enjoy an expensive half of imported Italian craft brewed pilsner or a muddled mint and single sugar cane plantation mojito without also consuming at least a plate of chips.
    I’d be interested to know more about how the use of the term ‘bar’ developed in the US, where places for everyday boozing used to be called ‘saloons’. I’m theorising it’s because the term ‘saloon’ developed very negative connotations, particularly in the runup to Prohibition, and ‘bar’ was a neutral alternative that could be made aspirational and upmarket by sticking the word ‘cocktail’ in front of it.

  12. Nice question. For me, my answer is an emotional one, perhaps. Bars, for me, should be that – the focus being ‘The Bar’ as in one bar, on one floor, usually darker and louder than a pub, with a focus on ‘quick’ drinks, chat, socialising. Not family friendly. Not ‘Sunday Paper’ kind of place. no beer gardens. Usually urban.

    Obviously, as I write this, I realise that ultimately a pub can be these too, but generally shouldn’t be – in my most humble opinion!

  13. From an American point of view, a pub is a place that serves a certain kind of food and has a long beer list. A brewpub, is a place where beer is brewed and food is served. A bar just sells alcohol. Sometimes bars are with in restaurants. I don;t know if that helps but that is what it looks like to me here in the states.

  14. I don’t think it’s ever going to be possible to draw a line and say that All Pubs do X whereas All Bars do Y. Then there’s the unresolved question of whether Wetherspoons are pubs, and if not what they are; they certainly aren’t bars, but there are quite a few un-pub-like things about them.

    I think we can say that bars are more likely to serve posh and/or pretentious bar snacks, and pubs are more likely to serve something to go with a pint. (“Something to go with a pint” may in fact be very tasty and unusual, but it’s not sold as such.) Something similar applies to food in general – the difference between getting something to eat (pub) and trying the charcuterie platter (bar). Even on the booze front I’d say that bars are more likely than pubs to make a big deal of the particular beers they serve, although this is a bit less obvious – you could say that just having a list on a blackboard isn’t actually making a big deal at all.

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