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. 🙂

    Cheers

  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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