The Rhubarb is a rare survivor – an old backstreet pub that hasn’t gentrified or closed down, where locals still drink.
It’s one we’ve had on our #EveryPubInBristol tick-list for a while having noticed the unusual name on the Pub Stops of Bristol poster that hangs above our usual spot in our local.
A quick Google told us what to expect: a pub catering to its locals, down-to-earth, but not unfriendly to strangers.
We walked there in darkness through eerily quiet industrial estates, past wasteland and roadside caravan shanties, and finally into a residential area with the smell of weed on the air as squat, muscular dogs were taken for their evening walks.
The pub, by a railway line and opposite a hulking, boarded-up Victorian school building, dazzled from afar: there’s a painted sign advertising Georges & Co Ltd, either fake, or a recreation of a lost original, but convincing; decorative brickwork with swags and other pseudo-classical details; and fairy lights. The building is oddly truncated – there surely ought to be an extra floor or two – which only adds to the sense that this is a pub just hanging on in hostile territory.
The history is a bit vague. Its apparently old, though we can’t dig up a definitive founding date, but came into something like its present form in the late Victorian period, finding renewal with the growth of the Great Western Railway.
On Saturday evening we found it busy, if not perhaps quite busy enough for its size.
A large family group with children was enjoying a table-obscuring, wonderfully aromatic feast of Caribbean food, centred around a tray of rice the size of Captain America’s shield.
There were multiple TV screens showing football along with several furiously illuminated fruit machines. Some strange lighting scheme meant that one entire corner was cycling through the Joel Schumacher Batman Forever colour scheme of lurid greens and purples. Several people were staring towards this electrical storm, either watching match highlights, or perhaps just hypnotised.
The sight of Mitchells & Butlers Brew XI on cask was momentarily startling but the barman assured us that, no, the pump-clip wasn’t just a nostalgic decoration and, yes, they do actually serve it. We had to order a pint, of course, having a weakness for orphaned brands. (Brewed by Brains these days, the internet tells us.)
He then did something we’d like to see in more pubs: not liking the look of the first pint, he sniffed it. “Hold on,” he said, before consulting a colleague who said: “Pull a couple of pints through and try again.” Our man pulled through four pints in all before giving up and suggested GWB’s Hambrook Pale Ale instead. What he didn’t do – what happens too often – was give us the dodgy pint and hope we wouldn’t know better. And the Hambrook, after all that, was pretty good.
Despite the bar being decked with bunting advertising Carling there was a plastic moneybag over the keg handle signifying that the bestselling lager was off: “I’ll have to have Grolsch, then, won’t I?”
Local twenty-somethings played pool in the back bar and a tentative group of what seemed to be foodies arrived for dinner, placing a complex order punctuated by the barman’s gentle murmur: “Yes, sir… Yes… Yes, sir… Thank you, madam…”
A bloke perched on a stool and drank a pint while he waited for takeaway which emerged from the kitchen in four bulging carrier bags. On his way to the door he stopped to banter with what seemed to be his neighbours at the feasting table, telling an appalling dad joke that made the six-year-old giggle with delight. He left waving, and being waved to.
Our favourite detail? On the dark red patterned carpet, a freestanding yellow sign with a handwritten note sellotaped to it: ‘Carpet wet, please go round’.
A strangely normal pub. Uniquely typical. A different arrangement of the same old pieces to create something that is all itself.