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london pubs

What Makes a Pub a Star?

Some pubs appear in Top Ten lists and pub guides time and again. They are the places that you must visit, according to the experts of Twitter and the Blogoshire.

But what distinguishes them from the many run-of-the-mill, perfectly adequate boozers that sit on corners and high streets throughout the country?

Our first thought was that star quality requires one or more of:

  1. ‘Cheapness’. This came to mind specifically because of Sam Smith’s and the Blue Anchor at Helston: the fact that the beer is unusually cheap is all part of the fun.
  2. ‘Character’. Hard to define, but can mean anything from an interesting history to unusual décor. Real character will divide opinion. It is also, we think, hard for a brand new pub to have character: it takes a few years to develop (but not as many as you might think).
  3. ‘Good beer’. This can mean something unique or unusual; a wide range; or a particularly expert handling of the product. A pub with good beer but no character, and scary prices to boot, had better have very good beer if it wants to be loved.

So, here’s our attempt to map a few well-known London pubs with those in mind. (Note the emptiness around cheapness: though many branches of pub chain Wetherspoon’s could claim to have good, cheap beer, they are rarely loved.)

Venn diagram: star pubs mapped by cheapness, character and good beer.

Looking at this prompts one suggestion for struggling publicans: if you can’t be cheap and can’t sell good beer (for whatever reason), make the most of ‘character’. It goes a long way.

27 replies on “What Makes a Pub a Star?”

Hmm – wouldn’t have put cheapness in there to be honest. I don’t think that is in any way indicative of a classic pub at all.

Cheapness relative to the quality or interest of the beer is more achievable, see perhaps The Grove Huddersfield, which in my opinion would fit that centre place much better than the Olde Cheshire Cheese.

Note that “service” isn’t mentioned here: it’s an important part of why the Grove and North Bar are such good pubs, but perhaps that isn’t quite captured by “character”, which can be so many other things. Certainly it’s the combination of the service and the beer that keep bringing me back to North Bar, even if it can be a little expensive by Leeds standards.

I’m not entirely convinced about cheapness either. I can see it as a plus point when it is part of a distinctive business ethos, as it is with Sam Smith’s and used to be with Holts, but there’s never any benefit from cheapness alone if a pub has no other positive features.

“Character” could also be divided into architectural character – general design and layout, fixtures and fittings, historical artefacts, and “atmosphere” – who goes in there, how welcoming it is, what the crack and banter are like, if it features live music, whether it has any special events etc.

Cheapness or at least honest value is an attraction in UK culture with its consumer advocacy but, oddly, amongst a certain set in North America it is something that detracts. Price inflation has been made a goal for certain brewers and some consumers follow along rather blindly.

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese has so much character that you can barely see two feet in front of your face. It is also quite affordable, although I don’t think much of the Old Brewery Bitter.

I like a pub where you can go in and sit down with your pint and have a lot of tourists wander in absolutely baffled that this is a place people write about and have been writing about for years. It’s just not that…. something.

I agree with your criteria, including cheapness in the sense that beer never was an image-driven product with price tag to match. It has become so in North America partly, but that should reversed IMO. Regardless of the depth of one’s purse, one should be able to enjoy a fine beer without needing to take out a loan. You can do it the other way but it is not part of the beer ethos (I would argue) as handed down and will discomfit all but a small minority.

Good beer, either a range or just a couple well kept: yes! Desideratum par excellence.

Character: yes, but this can be imparted in many ways. It isn’t just architecture, but extends to “mine host” and his/her staff, the type of clientele (I like when it is mixed), the area adjacent, all sorts of things. Ron P has written movingly of character in rural German pubs that favour a 1970’s plywood rec room aesthetic. Jackson wrote, even before The World Guide To Beer, of English pubs whose decor was charmingly mismatched. And industrial chic, perhaps inaugurated by Camden Lock in England, can be characterful too. It’s a broad category, but a real one, I agree again.

The only other criterion that I might add is comfort. Spaciousness in particular is often appreciated. That was the genius of those English houses and still is, you can wander in a corner, sit by your lonesome if you like, no one passes by regularly to ask if you want food or a refill: peace and quiet. Yup.

Gary

I would go with Value over Cheapness. Good Value tends to bring in a wider swathe of the drinking public, and can add a lot to a bar. Cheap swill is still swill at the end of the day. But cheap and *decent* is a good package.

Quite a few craft bars in Londin can have some scary prices at the top end, but you will often get some really good sessionable beers in the £3.20 /pint range too, which will beat the mainstream pricing.

Character can also come from consistent, recognisable, quality management – like a personable governor who puts their face around.

Re: cheapness — we’re not 100 per cent sure about it either, to be honest, and have been pondering it since someone challenged the original Tweet this morning. But there is something we’re trying to get at (it’s on the tip of our brains…) about the appeal of down-at-heel but not-too-scary pubs.

Sam Smith’s pubs, on reflection, present a red herring: the company just happened to buy a lot of already classic pubs in London in the nineteen-eighties and nineties.

Richard — looking at the Venn again, it does seem harsh to deny the Craft Beer Company has character. We’ve got a blog post about this on the way, but we were well impressed by Tom Cadden’s ‘guvnorish’ manner there last week.

Value for money or fairly priced?

I think craft beer co has character. Can’t think of any good beer pubs without character, except perhaps newly opened places

We love Cask in Pimlico, but it doesn’t have character: we wouldn’t send someone there who didn’t like beer, purely to appreciate the atmosphere or architecture. That’s especially true since it received its corporate makeover a couple of years back.

I agree about Cask, and would add Draft House Tower Bridge as another London craft beer pub that’s a bit cavernous and characterless, Ghostbusters wallpaper notwithstanding. Dublin has lots of pubs with great beer but which don’t really do the character thing that Dublin pubs are supposed to do. I blame it on having clientele under 50: really lowers the tone it does.

“character” (and to some extent service) is very much subjective, but everyone likes cheap beer, everyone likes friendly staff, and every one likes good beer. Improving beer range and quality and cuttting prices is an absolute no-brainer if you want happier punters.

Food/wet led
sports tv/no sport tv
music/no music
kids/no kids
pool table/no pool table
modern/traditional decor

really is a matter of personal preference. On a pub by pub basis, its a matter of finding your niche within your local market.

I agree – “value” rather than just “cheap”. Cheap but crap is actually expensive, if you think about it. I would put the newly re-opened Ivy House SE15 very close to the centre of your Venn diagram personally.
The (very) recently re-opened Old Loyal Britons, Thames St SE10, also has genuine potential to score very high on all three criteria – good beer at £3.20 a pint in a characterful pub in the centre of Greenwich………

Everyone is wrong. Cheapness is the single most important characteristic.The only essential.

All else is “desirable”

Cheapness doesn’t count for me at all regarding a star pub, (if it did I wouldn’t be skint half the time though) , character and good beer certainly do though, of those on the illustration above , Dirty Dicks has a bit of history and tacky character, a place I would entertain these days, the same with The Olde Cheshire Cheese ,it has true character and real history, cheap beer but in my opinion not good beer, I wouldn’t drink there if they were giving it away,well maybe a pint. The other two are must visits for me, The Craft has some character and lots of good beer not particularly cheap, and the Gunmakers ,excellent beer and oozes character without really trying, not at all cheap but given the choice that would be were I headed,a real star pub for me.

The post above regarding Dirty Dicks , should read – a place I would not entertain these days -.
Oops.

I wouldn’t go that big on Sam Smith’s these days. The prices were seemingly hiked a few years back, removing the main attraction of the draft beer, which has never been up to much (bottled stuff much nicer but not cheap).

Also find they are often pretty shoddily run with low-paid, half-arsed staff, and heard rumours from some people in the industry about unpleasant practices.

They’ll do, though, and obviously some of the buildings are outstanding. I spent most of my undergraduate life in the upstairs bar at The Lyceum, and much of the subsequent few years propping up the pre-refurb bar at the Princess Louise. Happy daze.

Sam Smith’s prices may no longer be spectacularly cheap in London, but they certainly are in t’North – around here Old Brewery Bitter is usually £1.80 a pint, which is the cheapest anywhere unless you’re in Spoons with a CAMRA voucher. And it may not be to everyone’s taste, but IMV it’s a fine beer.

Guilty of London-centricity.

I seem to remember paying about a quid for a pint in a Sam Smith’s in Chester not that long ago.

Think we paid 64p for a half of mild in a central Sheffield Sam Smith’s place last year. Remarkable. (The price, not the mild — that was fine but fairly boring.)

Some pubs will never achieve character – see any pub in any news town, even though they may have been built 50 or 60 years ago and have a terrific real ale range (eg the Our Mutual Friend, Stevenage – built circa 1960, regular GBG pub, no character at all). Others achieve character almost immediately – eg the Jerusalem Tavern, Clerkenwell, a great pub from the moment it opened its doors.

It’s interesting how new some ‘classic’ pubs are — when was the Jerusalem converted? Fifteen years ago or something like that? And the ‘Victorian’ interior of the Royal Oak in Borough is from the nineties.

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