Queuing in Pubs: Feels So Wrong, But So Right

Illustration: queue.

Is queuing at the bar an affront to the idea of the pub, or “excellent Britishness”? Are there any practical arguments against it or is the reaction purely emotional?

On Sat­ur­day, for logis­ti­cal rea­sons, we end­ed up in a gin-and-din­ing water­side pub a bit off our usu­al beat where we saw a remark­able queue for the bar, 20+ deep at times, cut­ting right across the main ser­vice area and towards the front door.

We Tweet­ed about it…

…not mean­ing to con­vey any par­tic­u­lar judge­ment, only that it was unusu­al. As is often the case, that kind of min­i­mal­ist open­ness elicit­ed an inter­est­ing range of respons­es.

It’s a sad reflec­tion of the lack of expe­ri­ence in “real” pubs by mil­len­ni­als. It’s not McDon­alds #FFS

Have peo­ple for­got­ten how bars work?!”

I think any­where with this auto­mat­i­cal­ly los­es their pub sta­tus.”

I ignore it and do what I’ve always done – go to the bar.”

I’m a big fan, saves hav­ing to con­cen­trate. Just chill and wait for your turn.”

Excel­lent British­ness on dis­play. Makes you proud.”

I’d pre­fer queu­ing to hav­ing to fight your way through a swarm of barflies.”

If you believe that the point is the most effi­cient and fairest ser­vice of food and drink, the queue does indeed make a great deal of sense. In almost every oth­er aspect of British life it is con­sid­ered prac­ti­cal­ly sacred.

But the pub… The pub is sup­posed to be a jum­ble. And when we say “sup­posed to be” we mean “is usu­al­ly por­trayed as”. Look at this famous paint­ing, ‘Behind the Bar’ by John Hen­ry Hen­shall, from 1882:

A Victorian pub.

These days, as pubs have been cleaned up or closed, the scrum at the bar is about all that remains of the old tra­di­tion of glee­ful dis­or­der.

In response to our Tweet Ter­ry Hay­ward shared a link to a 2012 blog post on this sub­ject which con­tains the fol­low­ing stir­ring sto­ry:

I decid­ed to make a stand and I began to bypass the queue. Two men at the back of the queue saw what I was doing and felt the urge to make a com­ment, and I heard the use of the word “queue jumper”. I turned to them, and I could see that they, like me, were men of the world. They weren’t here to order Burg­ers, or Bangers & Mash , or Turkey Dinosaurs and a Fruit Shoot, they just want­ed a good pint of fine foam­ing ale.

I asked them when they’d ever seen peo­ple queue like this in a pub before. They con­ced­ed it was unusu­al but used the Homer Simp­son defence, “It was like it when I got here”.

Ah”, said I, “but by stand­ing there you’re only mak­ing the sit­u­a­tion worse, more will come and queue behind you. It’s time to break ranks. Are you in?”

They looked at each oth­er ner­vous­ly, but after a brief moment they agreed. It was time to make a stand. So, we start­ed to move to the vacant areas of the bar but, being British and being nat­u­ral­ly polite, we made sure we took oth­ers with us. We weren’t here to push in; we were here to ensure that cen­turies of tra­di­tion were not being thrown out of the win­dow.

But, again, check that nos­tal­gic instinct: what if, as one per­son hint­ed on Twit­ter,  queu­ing might make the pub more of a lev­el play­ing field for women? (It’s inter­est­ing that Mr Hay­ward’s sto­ry uses the phrase “men of the world”.)

Or, indeed, for any­one oth­er than large, con­fi­dent peo­ple with sharp elbows?

It’s per­haps no sur­prise that the cur­rent spate of pub queu­ing seems to have start­ed at branch­es of Wether­spoon which, for all its down-to-earth rep­u­ta­tion, is also often a step ahead when it comes to mak­ing pre­vi­ous­ly exclud­ed groups (and their spend­ing mon­ey) feel more wel­come.

On bal­ance, we don’t think queues are the end of the world in pubs like the one we vis­it­ed on Sat­ur­day. Places that aren’t in his­toric pub build­ings, with lit­tle his­to­ry about them, and where the num­ber of pun­ters great­ly exceeds the bar staff because head office insists on adher­ence to an ide­al wage-per­cent­age. In fact, it was pret­ty con­ve­nient, keep­ing things clip­ping along so we could get our drinks and Pub Grub before mov­ing on to a Prop­er (queue­less) Pub.

But some­thing would cer­tain­ly be lost if queues start­ed appear­ing at, say, The Roy­al Oak, Lon­don’s best pub. Or, at least, overt, obvi­ous queues, because of course there is a queue, even though the bar has two sides open to ser­vice. It’s just invis­i­ble, man­aged by staff and cus­tomers between them, through a sys­tem of eye con­tact, def­er­ence and polite mur­mur­ing.

21 thoughts on “Queuing in Pubs: Feels So Wrong, But So Right”

  1. Can’t make my mind up about this one. The seethe when some­one is served before you is real and lin­ger­ing for me, espe­cial­ly as I’m the type who will say, ‘he was here before me’ and hope for a cour­te­ous ‘thank you’ from the recip­i­ent of my good man­ners. How­ev­er it just looks wrong. I sup­pose it depends how busy the pub is. There is noth­ing worse than see­ing a huge scrum at the bar and real­is­ing you have to get in there and go com­plete­ly against your nature to get a bloody drink. In those cas­es all rules and bets are off. A queue would be sooth­ing and log­i­cal. In short, I don’t know.

  2. Depend­ing on the type of pub and amount of trade, it can make a lot of sense for food order­ing, but less so for drinks ser­vice. Also a good point about mak­ing pubs more acces­si­ble for the mar­gin­alised – some­thing that is also very much true of the Spoons app.

  3. We need to leave both queu­ing and fight­ing at the bar behind. The way for­ward is the Euro­pean way – sit at a table and wait to be served. I HATE peo­ple who stand at the bar and don’t move so you can get served and if it is too crowd­ed at the bar, I walk out.

  4. If you think of the pub as a Bat­tle­ships grid, what you’ve got there is a queue extend­ing from D1 back through D2 and D3 to D8, D9 and how­ev­er many oth­er Ds you can fit in before you’re out the front door. Mean­while the bar is sit­ting there, run­ning from A1 to H1, almost entire­ly unused.

    Bars are there to be lined up along, not queued per­pen­dic­u­lar to (excuse gram­mar). Every­thing else fol­lows from that – the punter nev­er quite know­ing how long the wait at the bar is going to be, the eye-catch­ing and oppor­tunis­tic dodg­ing into new spaces at the bar, the bar­tender con­tin­u­al­ly scan­ning the pun­ters and see­ing “who’s next” (with­out actu­al­ly hav­ing to ask, dear me)… The bar-with-crowd sys­tem (as opposed to till-with-queue) also mean that you can serve two, three, four peo­ple at once, staffing lev­els per­mit­ting.

    I take the point about the scrum at the bar being exclu­sion­ary for some, and I can only com­ment from the point of view of an able-bod­ied male. That said, I was a very shy and shrimpy young male at one time, with a hor­ror of push­ing myself for­ward either fig­u­ra­tive­ly or (God for­bid) phys­i­cal­ly, and the rov­ing eye of the bar­tender always found me in the end.

    I don’t think the bar as we know it is a good sys­tem as such – it’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly what we’d come up with if we were start­ing from scratch – but it is a sys­tem that works. A queue at the bar tells me, not that the pun­ters don’t know what to do, but that the bar staff don’t know how to do their jobs (lack of expe­ri­ence and train­ing) – and/or that the busi­ness isn’t let­ting them (e.g. by putting more than one per­son on the bar).

    1. Yeah, agree. If noth­ing else, a com­pact mass of peo­ple wait­ing at the bar is what the basic pub set­up is designed for. Once they’re there they can look at pump clips and see what sort of snacks there are, and they don’t get in the way of peo­ple com­ing in, leav­ing or going to the bogs or end up awk­ward­ly jammed between peo­ple at tables.

  5. I am also ambiva­lent, but the biggest fac­tor is whether the bar staff are any good at their job (which is, of course, one of the things which dis­tin­guish­es a “prop­er pub”). I’m sure I’m not alone in get­ting a very warm feel­ing when I go to a pub where you can see that the serv­er is con­stant­ly look­ing around, and *you* know that *they* know who’s next, and every­one can relax, how­ev­er busy the counter is. On the oth­er hand, when the bar staff have an obvi­ous pol­i­cy of “keep their head down and serve who­ev­er hap­pens to appear in front of them”, every­one gets edgy, and decides that there are obvi­ous­ly no rules, so you end up with a dis­or­der­ly scrum which pleas­es nobody. In that sit­u­a­tion, I sup­pose I’d reluc­tant­ly pre­fer a queue, if it’s the only way to ensure that I, and every­one else, get served in rough­ly the right order.

  6. Last time I was home, I went into the Spoons in Inver­ness and was almost stopped dead in my tracks by the pres­ence of a queue, most­ly old­er folks. I wan­dered up past the queue to the far end of the bar, where a coterie of bar staff were lin­ger­ing and was prompt­ly served a love­ly pint of Wad­worth some­thing or oth­er, and a chat with the bar staff.

    While I can see the use of a queue, espe­cial­ly in a pub where the bar staff is a sin­gle har­ried indi­vid­ual, I think it is unnec­es­sary. Hav­ing worked behind a bar by myself, it is up to the work­er to keep a track of who came into the bar in what order, and get round to peo­ple accord­ing­ly. Queue­ing is also anti­thet­i­cal to the com­mu­nal nature of the pub bar – will I talk to some­one ahead or behind me in a queue? Hell no. Will I talk to the per­son stood next to me at a bar, yep, will do.

    Mar­gin­al­ly unre­lat­ed, I won­der what the lady at the bar is spoon­ing into her baby’s mouth…

  7. We Cana­di­ans are con­gen­i­tal­ly against queue jumpers but main­ly have table ser­vice in bars. I think there is an unspo­ken un-egal­i­tar­i­an aspect to the Eng­lish scrum. If this were Mid­somer Mur­ders, Lord Blah would be served first if he came last. (Then his gar­den­er’s son would kill him after dark on the walk home.) Once in Har­rod’s in the 1980s, there was a scrum at a ser­vice area and a well appoint­ed gent stuck his arm over my shoul­der (a feat in itself as I am 6 foot 3) and sub­tly demand­ed to be served ahead of me and the oth­ers ahead of him. I less sub­tly sent his arm into my soon offend­ed fel­low Canuck friend’s head (just to high­light the rude­ness, you under­stand) and then placed my elbow mod­est­ly into the man’s rib cage. The demand was qui­et­ly retract­ed. There are aspects to the polite­ness of the Eng­lish which are a bit thin when placed in prac­tice. The “know­ing your place” stuff. For­get that. The queue is a great way, as you say, to ensure women and oth­ers of less sta­tus get served in an order­ly fash­ion. But we are Cana­di­an and our con­sti­tu­tion’s first promise is “peace, order and good gov­ern­ment” so we rel­ish the ben­e­fits of a good queue.

  8. the longest queue I ever saw in a pub was in the Welling­ton on Por­to­bel­lo Road dur­ing car­ni­val. It was wait­ing for the toi­lets and extend­ed well out of the door. Wait­ing for a drink in the stu­dents’ union in Bris­tol ear­li­er this year a queue was inevitable as none of the young scamps were buy­ing in rounds, all used a card to pay and 50% want­ed cof­fee with all the faff and both­er that entails. Maybe it is the round and cash that are endan­gered. In the 80’s I drank in The Swan on Wood Street Liv­er­pool, a pub so rammed on Fri­days and Sat­ur­days that a prop­er thirst was required to dri­ve you through the throng. Even­tu­al­ly, as a reg­u­lar, I achieved a sta­tus that allowed me to hold up a num­ber of fin­gers to show how many pints I want­ed and then get them passed over the heads of bar hog­gers. A queue would deny gen­er­a­tions the sense of pride and com­mu­ni­ty that this priv­i­lege con­fers

  9. Cana­di­an here like Alan. As he said, it’s most­ly table ser­vice over here (and run­ning a tab btw). If you’re at the bar, you’re nor­mal­ly sit­ting down, not look­ing to order a drink and wan­der off with it.

    But from the con­text above I’m assum­ing the line was for order­ing every­thing, includ­ing food? In that case why not have that queue strict­ly for those wish­ing to order more than just a pint? Those that just want a drink can short­cut the queue. Sort of like the ’12 items or less’ at super­mar­kets. 🙂


  10. The self-ser­vice cof­fee machines have made a big dif­fer­ence in ‘Spoons branch­es. At least you now don’t have the only bar asso­ciate dis­ap­pear­ing to make two lattes

  11. many moons ago they used to have a bar­ri­er in front of bar one way in one way out you new who was next every­one seemed hap­py by it no push­ing in good times

  12. I always enjoy get­ting away to the Main­land and avoid­ing some of the unpleas­ant fea­tures of British pubs – the ‘cus­toms’ that nev­er seem to get into the guide­books. Fore­most is the scrum around the bar in so many places – I have lost count of the num­ber of pubs that I have left to go some­where more pleas­ant, even if I thought the first had bet­ter beer. Table ser­vice would elim­i­nate this prob­lem but it just seems too dif­fi­cult for so many pub­li­cans, who no doubt assume that they would then need to have enough staff. It’s inter­est­ing that Wether­spoon seems to be tri­alling a form of table ser­vice by mobile phone, but as B & B have point­ed out, it excludes guest beers so is of no use to me or most of my friends (although I do applaud Wether­spoons for once again demon­strat­ing some inno­va­tion). Pos­si­bly the root of the prob­lem is try­ing to cram too many peo­ple into a lim­it­ed space – now that my wife and I are retired I would tend to go out to the pub at say 5 p.m. when I can secure a table and every­thing is much more pleas­ant than 2 or 3 hours lat­er. At least there is some­thing to look for­ward to about retire­ment.

    One thing that does annoy me is com­ments about ‘barflies’. Quite frankly, if a pub has no stools along the bar (as in most Wether­spoons) then peo­ple should not drag their own up from oth­er parts of the pub, and staff should enforce this rule. If the land­lord choos­es to line his bar with stools (as in my local CAMRA Com­mu­ni­ty Pub of the Year) then you can’t blame peo­ple for using them. But don’t gripe at the cus­tomers, gripe at the man­age­ment.

  13. Judg­ing by the pic­ture, that’s not a pub. It looks more like an Ital­ian café. Which just hap­pens to serve a range of beers.

  14. The peo­ple who say they ignore the queue and go straight to the bar and prompt­ly get served are igno­rant in my opin­ion. Why should they get served before oth­ers who’ve been wait­ing longer? Many bar staff are poor­ly trained nowa­days or sim­ply don’t care what in what order they serve the cus­tomers. I’m not back­wards in com­plain­ing when some­one push­es in. The worst thing is when you get the reply ‘He was here first’ when they weren’t. ‘Who’s next’ annoys me too. Staff should be aware of who to serve first. I’ve walked out of pubs many times when the ser­vice is poor.

    1. Who’s next?” is one of those phras­es like “How are you?” and “You must come round some time” which are not meant to be tak­en lit­er­al­ly.

      Often (not always, true) staff will know exact­ly who is next, but “Who’s next?” is deemed the social­ly accept­able alter­na­tive to
      “Oi, you – wake up! I know you’re next but con­ven­tion demands that we pre­tend that it’s our fault that we can’t attract your atten­tion because you’re too busy count­ing the pat­terns on the wall­pa­per or look­ing at your phone because we’re busy and could­n’t pan­der to your every need with­in sec­onds. And I bet you’ve been doing that instead of work­ing out your order, so you’ll stand there faffing for min­utes even though we’re busy, and that order will inevitably con­tain the phrase “yes, that’s all – oh, no, sor­ry, can I have a Guin­ness as well?” But instead we’ll just smile and give you a sense of smug supe­ri­or­i­ty because it’s our job to make you feel good”

      Cor, how stu­pid is that bar­tender? They did­n’t even know who was next!”

  15. For food, yes. For drinks, no.

    The bar is wide and so should be used accord­ing­ly. Form­ing a queue per­pen­dic­u­lar to the width of the bar, trail­ing across the pub floor and leav­ing most of the bar emp­ty, is noth­ing short of absurd.

    It’s like how ver­ti­cal video is wrong. Widescreen tele­vi­sion is a thing and high­screen tele­vi­sion is not, because your eyes are arranged hor­i­zon­tal­ly, not ver­ti­cal­ly.

    But this only applies to drinks orders. Drinks are pre­pared at var­i­ous points along the bar, then served and paid for imme­di­ate­ly. So it makes sense to order them at var­i­ous points along the bar, too. The till sys­tem also allows for sev­er­al staff to serve sev­er­al drinks to sev­er­al cus­tomers simul­ta­ne­ous­ly.

    How­ev­er, food in pubs is (typ­i­cal­ly) ordered at the bar, but pre­pared else­where (the kitchen) and served at the cus­tomer’s table some time after the order and pay­ment has tak­en place. Usu­al­ly, only one food order can be tak­en from one cus­tomer at a time, so here is makes sense to form a queue.

    Of course, there are excep­tions to this sys­tem but going down that route inevitably leads to the blur­ring of the dis­tinc­tion between “pub” and “restau­rant”, which is anoth­er bat­tle for anoth­er day.

  16. Dis­cus­sion of the queue sys­tem in the bar just the oth­er day based on our local Wether­spoons staffs I abil­i­ty to know who is next. We all decid­ed that the very busy pubs should have queu­ing sys­tems sim­i­lar to the Yates Wine Lodge of years ago. Bliss.

    In my small bar on busy night’s two of us share a cus­tomers order rather than one on one. This speeds things up no end.

  17. Absolute­ly against the for­ma­tion of the queue.

    Inter­est­ing­ly have engaged the staff in Port Street Beer House on this sub­ject, as the shape of the venue some­times by its nature leads to queues form­ing. They are cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly against this, and pre­fer cus­tomers to use the breadth of the bar. They have tweet­ed about this sev­er­al times.

    Only one exam­ple, but gen­er­al­ly find that to be the opin­ion of most bar staff.

  18. If you’re queu­ing in a pub, is it even a pub any more? Per­son­al­ly, I think not.

    Only ever seen it once, in a Wether­spoons. It was not effi­cient, and the queue went right past tables in a way I thought was intru­sive. It felt alien and deeply uncom­fort­able, giv­en the very long bar.
    My local, though, almost has queues, giv­en that it’s a push to get more than two peo­ple at the bar at any one time (3 is man­age­able). Kind of works as the best of both worlds, as it’s always very obvi­ous who is next, but it still has that infor­mal­i­ty of the bar scrum, and encour­ages con­ver­sa­tion, and prob­a­bly con­tributes to the pub being the CAMRA pub of the year for the coun­ty.

  19. I’m in a pub I have nev­er vis­it­ed before and I thought I’d test out the invis­i­ble queue. I found my place at the bar and looked alert but pas­sive (and not on my phone of course!) . I knew I was next but a Gen­tle­man came and stood next to me. Stan­dard bar per­son ‘who’s next?’ addressed to our gen­er­al area. Split sec­ond to process that every­one, includ­ing the bar per­son knew it was me. ‘Are you being served?’ the Gen­tle­man asked me. I ordered my beer quick­ly, then thanked him. Then when I left the bar anoth­er cheers. This tiny inter­ac­tion is one of thou­sands of rea­sons I love The Pub.

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