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The Universally Recommended Timeless Institution Pub

This is a version of a conversation between the two of us that took place in Whitelock’s Ale House, Leeds, in October 2021. We may have had a few drinks in us before we got to this point.

B: I’m calling it – I think this goes into our Best Pubs in England list.

B: Based on just this one visit? Wow. But I see what you mean – a real city centre Timeless Institution. Like the City Arms in Cardiff.

B: That thing where it feels traditional and unchanged but has actually morphed slowly through the ages. So it’s just about on trend, but doesn’t feel trendy.

B: The range of beer is just great, isn’t it? Something for everyone. Local standards, some more experimental stuff, and a couple of regular beers.

[Editor’s note: from Five Points, which currently has custody of the pub.]

B: Why aren’t there more of these kinds of places? Every city in the UK ought to be able to support at least one. You know – the pub you recommend to everyone. The pub everyone recommends. Beer Twitter, CAMRA, your mate who’s lived in the city for years and doesn’t even really drink beer but just likes the atmosphere…

B: You need a bit of food to soak up the booze but it shouldn’t be a food place. It might not even really be a beer place. It’s a meeting place. A bolthole. Get away from shopping, take the weight off your feet, escape the weather, whether it’s too hot or too cold…

B: BANQUETTES! These places definitely have banquettes.

B: A sort of historic interior is important – even if a lot of it is fake.

B: So where are the other examples? Is London too big to have one?

B: It feels as if, with London, you’re lucky to get two out of three of: atmosphere, beer quality, universal welcome. There are definitely some great pubs in the centre, like The Harp, or those mews pubs – they probably get the closest – but the best ones are often standing room only and can feel a little cliquey.

B: Bristol doesn’t have one, does it? And dare we opine on Manchester?

B: No, don’t think we know it well enough. But I bet if we asked Twitter “which pub in Manchester would you recommend as a must-visit” you’d get some suggestions.

B: Probably the same with Sheffield, right? So does the existence of the Universally Recommended Timeless Institution type of premises actually mean that drinking options are more limited? Do places like Whitelocks and the City Arms become great because of a lack of competition? Makes it easier to keep hitting the sweet spot.

B: That feels a bit unfair to Leeds though – there are clearly other atmospheric city centre pubs with good ale. Why has this particular place managed to gain and keep this reputation? It’s not even as if it’s been in the same continuous ownership.

B: I’m going to start wanging on about genius loci if you’re not careful… What are you having next?

8 replies on “The Universally Recommended Timeless Institution Pub”

Leeds used to have several such pubs: Cardigan Arms, Garden Gate, Adelphi. Would they still count?

To qualify, does it need to be well-known outside the circles of the beer cognoscenti?

Liverpool – Philharmonic
Nottingham – Trip to Jerusalem
Belfast – Crown Liquor Saloon

I doubt you’ll get many Belfastians recommending The Crown as anything other than a museum piece to gawk at. As a pub to go and drink in, it’s a bit shit. The Errigle has a much better claim to a place on the list.

That thing where it feels traditional and unchanged but has actually morphed slowly through the ages. … Local [beer] standards, some more experimental stuff, and a couple of regular beers. … a bit of food to soak up the booze but [not] a food place. … a meeting place. A bolthole. … banquettes

In Manchester (city centre) that’s the City Arms or the Briton’s Protection for definite, and possibly the Rising Sun, the Castle, the Millstone; not many others. (I’m tempted to add the Waterhouse, even though it’s a Spoons.)

The odd thing is that – ironically – these aren’t pubs I would often find myself recomending to people. They aren’t beer-lover’s destination pubs (that’d be the Marble Arch, Angel, PSBH, Beermoth, Smithfield, Crown and Kettle); they aren’t cheap-and-cheerful ham-egg-chips-and-a-pint places (list of Holt’s pubs and Spoons’ goes here); they aren’t even pub-architecture destination pubs (Peveril of the Peak, Marble Arch (again)). They’re in between all three, meaning that they tick all of those boxes – which puts them in a category that’s uniquely comfortable. (Must be the banquettes!)

I feel a certain loss that I’ve stood outside the back of Tiny Rebel looking at the City Arms on a number of occasions but never been in.

The Barrels in Hereford is definitely in this category
Loggerheads or the Kings Arms in Shrewsbury.
Not sure about Worcester, maybe The Plough?

I think London has a lot like this, but they’re rarely central. I’d consider putting The Royal Oak in Borough, The Faltering Fullback in Finsbury Park in that category. Almost everyone I know who’s been to them enjoys them. I like the Harp but it’s too busy and too near a mainline station to feel comfortable.

A few other contenders:

The Blue Bell in York
The Bow Bar in Edinburgh
The Hourglass in Exeter (RIP)

Maybe Ye Olde Mitre in London

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