20th Century Pub beer and food

When did coffee in the pub become a thing?

Here’s a gripe of traditionalists and pub staff alike: people ordering hot drinks, especially when there’s a queue at the bar.

Of course pub companies and breweries like offering hot drinks:

  1. It enables them to compete with Costa and Nero.
  2. The markup is good.

And, as drinkers, we’ve often found it handy when we’re with a designated drinker or teetotaler.

But only the Wetherspoon chain seems to have worked out how to handle it without disrupting everything else.

That is, by selling customers an empty mug and making them self-serve from that machine over there… no, further… keep going… Bit further…

We’ve been wondering about when coffee in pubs first became an option.

Our guess is that it started in earnest in the 1950s and became more common in the 1960s – but no doubt with odd outliers long before then.

Let’s test that assumption.

Espresso in pubs in the 1950s and 60s

We know from the research we did for 20th Century Pub that Italian-style coffee, and coffee bars, came to London from 1952 onward.

There’s even an entire episode of Hancock’s Half Hour built around this trend – ‘Fred’s Pie Stall’ from 1959.

But how early were pubs in getting in on the game?

Dipping into the marvellous British Newspaper Archive we instantly found an answer of sorts, in an article from the West London Observer for 6 June 1956:

“A coffee bar attached to a pub is something new in London life. But the Venetian (that’s the coffee bar) opened at the Royal Oak in Bishop’s Bridge Road, Paddington, seems, after only a few weeks, to be firmly established… There you can have just espresso coffee, a chocolate, a light ale or whatever ‘yours’ may be. They pass the drinks which are a bit stronger than coffee or chocolate through a hatch which connects Venice (the decor is so realistic) with London… When I dropped in there the other day I heard a queer round ordered: a coffee, a coffee and brandy, a chocolate and a glass of stout.”

Going back a little further we can find notice of the opening of this coffee bar in December 1955. It replaced what had been the ‘ladies’ bar’.

The moaning started early, too. On 7 August 1957 Arthur Eperon wrote a piece for the Daily Herald in which he mentioned The Royal Oak and a nameless pub in Cambridge as signs of the grim future of the pub: “They are going to make us sup our pints elbow-to-elbow with addicts of sundaes and coffee…”

In 1961 Maurice Gibbs, consultant surveyor to the Brewers’ Society, predicted there would be more coffee in pubs, as reported the Coventry Evening Telegraph for 5 July that year:

“Because of the high cost of building new houses. brewers are likely to seek ancillary sources of attraction and profit. It is more rewarding to sell either a cup of coffee, a bowl of soup or a sandwich than a glass of beer. and possibly a hairdressing shop in a pub would be popular if customers could enjoy any of these things while they waited their turn.”

But was he right? Did it take?

Well, not really. Scouring our collection of pub guides from the 1960s and 70s, we can’t find many examples of pubs with coffee as a selling point.

The Tiger at East Dean in Sussex, mentioned in Sussex Pubs from 1966 is an exception: “The house purveys… morning coffee freshly distilled from ground beans and not out of a tin…”

Green and White’s London pub guide, in its 1973 edition, lists all sorts of features of pubs, from drag acts to wine menus, but doesn’t mention coffee.

Pub Catering is a very boring but extremely useful book from 1986, edited by John Fuller. Among pages and pages of advice about spuds and gateaux it has two paragraphs on coffee:

“A number of pubs are now serving coffee, both as a separate service outside licensing hours and as an after-dinner drink. The publican must assess how this affects his sale of liquor…”

And, of course, we’ve got the evidence of our own memories to rely on here.

As recently as the mid-2000s, it seemed remarkable to us to see an espresso machine in a pub.

We also know that Wetherspoon pubs started selling coffee nationwide in 2000 and that St Austell launched its Brewer & Bean sub-brand in 2014.

So we can probably say it’s really a 21st century phenomenon – and almost certainly a reaction to the arrival of Starbucks et al from the late 1990s onward.

19 replies on “When did coffee in the pub become a thing?”

Picking up on the designated driver (surely not drinker) theme, some pubs (even in the 2000s) were so hostile to the idea of coffee drinkers that they refused to contemplate selling a cup of instant coffee to a driver, even when offered a couple of quid for it. The driver in our party figured the pub would have a kettle and Nescafé in the back for its staff anyway and many pubs did either offer this or kept a flask of filter coffee (no fancy foreign machines). One landlord even thought asking for coffee was a reason to bar a customer (unsurprisingly the pub closed not long afterwards).

As in one of your quotations, the strange logic may have been a perceived threat to beer sales, despite the massive mark up on a cup of instant.

Wetherspoons haven’t really solved the time to serve question as their self-service machines don’t give anything like the results of a barista on a Gaggia machine. However, they ought to install cocktail machines to perform a similar function as staff assembling half a dozen ingredients plus various fruits and vegetables for some fluorescent coloured pitcher really does cause a huge queue at the bar.

My first instinct was that coffee in pubs would be linked to when they started to provide restaurant-style/quality food, but that’s not based on anything at all.

Serving coffee in pubs gets people grumbling but even a latte or a cappuccino takes less time to prepare than a lot of cocktails.

Finally, one of those Wetherspoon cups has enough room for a black coffee and an additional espresso, for anyone who really wants their money’s worth.

This is one of the questions to which the only possible reply is “Well, it all depends….”. Coffee rooms appeared in a number of pubs during the later 19th century – in 2004, When Geoff Brandwood, Mick Slaughter and I wrote ‘Licensed to Sell’ for English Heritage, we identified surviving windows with that room name at the Holly Bush in Hampstead, the Romping Cat at Bloxwich, and the East Kent at Whitstable.

The provision of those rooms was a response to campaigning by the Temperance movement. From the 1870s onwards Temperance campaigners began to establish coffee taverns (often described as “pubs without the beer”) in direct opposition to licensed premises. At the height of the ‘coffee tavern movement’, between about 1877 and the late 1880s, there were over 5,000 such places in England, some endowed by local philanthropists, but many operated by limited companies specifically set up for the purpose. Mark Girouard, in his book on the pub, devotes a chapter to coffee taverns, and describes the movement as a failure, but that is rather a harsh judgement. The largest coffee tavern companies flourished for decades, and paid large dividends to shareholders – the Liverpool company, which operated over 90 taverns, mainly around the docks, was paying 10% annually on shares until the 1920s. The coffee tavern model – selling coffee, tea, cocoa, soft drinks, and inexpensive, wholesome food – influenced ‘reformed’ pub companies such as the People’s Refreshment House Association, and ultimately Government policy. The Government-run Carlisle State Management Scheme, in existence from 1916 to 1973, insisted that their pubs serve coffee, tea, soft drinks and food as well as beer, and managers’ bonuses were calculated on their sales, and not those of alcohol..

I think that the availability of coffee in pubs dropped from the 1930s mainly because alternative places to the pub became more widely available. Continental-style cafes, milk bars and so on offered a more pleasant ambience in which to drink coffee and soft drinks than the pub. But the appearance of coffee in pubs in the 2000s was a reappearance rather than an innovation.

Thanks for this, Andrew – fascinating stuff.

We were planning to write something about coffee taverns, maybe later this week, having turned up a bunch of stuff while digging around for this post.

Our feeling was that they weren’t *really* pubs but cafes or canteens that looked a bit like them. Maybe that assumption is wrong.

You also reminded us to check a source we’d overlooked: Alexander Part’s inter-war book on running ‘licensed houses’. He barely mentions coffee in the three volumes, and only then in the context of hotels.


Thanks very much for your reply. I’m not sure that you are right in your assessment , to be honest. You need to remember that ‘pubs’ themselves in the mid to late-19th century were a pretty mixed bag. An awful lot will have been extraordinarily simple beerhouses – one or two basically furnished rooms, with no bar counter. It was only in London and the larger towns (Bristol being one of them) that you would have found places that we would recognise as pubs today. With very few exceptions, most of the places we recognise as pubs today date from the 1880s or later.

The earliest version of what would later be called the ‘Coffee Tavern Movement’ started in Leeds in the late 1860s, when Temperance campaigners started buying up existing pubs and beerhouses, stripping out the alcohol, and re-purposing them under the title of ‘British Workman public houses’ (the ‘British Workman’ being a popular monthly journal of the time, with a strong Temperance influence). So those were, as the the phrase of the time had it ‘public houses without the beer’, and ‘British Workman’ was for years shorthand for a Temperance pub.

It’s worth tracking down a journal called the ‘Coffee Public House News’ online. A niche publication if ever there was one, it was the house journal of the Coffee Tavern Movement and was published monthly between 1878 and 1887; Google have put it up free online. It includes reports on the progress of the ‘movement’, reports on new openings, but most importantly a fantastic archive of pictures of the coffee taverns that were opening nationwide. There are also adverts for the firms that fitted out and supplied furnishings for coffee taverns – marble-topped cast iron tables, mahogany bar counters with marble or copper tops, bench seating, bar-back shelving with elaborately engraved mirrors, they are all there. Take a look at those and tell me that these are not pubs in all but name.

What really did for coffee taverns in the early 20th century was the appearance of alternative amusements that didn’t involve drinking. They had always had to provide alternative amusements to keep people there (the great majority had bagatelle or billiard tables, and also had libraries and games rooms where customers could play chess, draughts, and other games). One of the main sponsors of the movement once said that their greatest challenge in keeping people out of the pub was that it was easy to go to the pub and drink a gallon of beer, but it was difficult to go to the coffee tavern and drink more than a couple of pints of coffee or cocoa.

A lot of coffee tavern companies went into administration just before WWI. The chairman of the Halifax company was asked by the local paper why they had decided to wind up the company, when only five years before they had been paying a 10% dividend on their shares. He replied “cinemas and trams”. The cinema provided a cheap venue for entertainment that didn’t involve drinking, whilst the tram allowed workmen to go home for lunch rather than buying it in a coffee tavern – the availability of cheap food had always been one of their main selling points.

I should say that I am currently writing a book on the built heritage of the Temperance movement – one of the main chapters is on coffee taverns.



Andrew, there are earlier references to “coffee rooms” in what sound like ancestors of the modern pub, starting from the second half of the 18th century, a century before the examples you mention. Do you know how these fit into the picture you’re outlining?

For example, searching the Old Bailey Online archive (one of my favourite sources for snapshots of Londoners going about their business in past centuries –, the first reference I could find to a coffee room in something we would probably recognise as the ancestor of a modern pub was in 1762 at The Three Pigeons, Brentford.* Checking all the pre-1800 cases mentioning a “coffee room”, 23 of 87** seemed to occur in a venue not described as a “coffee house”, and often one described as a tavern, an inn or a public house.*** These mentions seem to grow in frequency in the late 1780s and into the 1790s.

**Not including two references in connection with the mug house riots of 1716.
***Often the suspect/witness/victim hadn’t been drinking coffee in the coffee room, but one assumes it was available! This is also true of some of the cases involving venues explicitly described as coffee houses, perhaps indicating my foolishness in trying to impose modern ideas of pubs onto the past…

Thing we might have triggered ‘Cunningham’s Law’ here – “The best way to get the right answer on the internet is not to ask a question; it’s to post the wrong answer.”

Fascinating discussion, thanks for joining.

That’s interesting. I haven’t looked in any great detail at pre-19th century coffee houses, although my impression is that many of them actually sold alcohol as well as coffee, and later, tea. They seem to have been quite exclusive establishments – while the 17th/18th century type of coffee house seems to have been in decline by the early 19th century a number of the better-known ones evolved into exclusive gentlemen’s clubs. Markham Ellis’s ‘The Coffee House – a Cultural History’ charts that evolution; he describes the coffee house as very much aimed at the merchant and upper classes from the start, and definitely not places that would have welcomed everyone.

Maybe the appearance of ‘coffee rooms’ in taverns and inns was an attempt to tap into that more up-market clientele.

Thanks – that seems a sensible suggestion. Most Old Bailey cases don’t give you much of an idea of a pub’s layout and what rooms it had on offer (other sources would probably be better for this), but I did notice a few that did. For example, in 1795 the Bell Inn, Friday St had a coffee room and a tap room*, while the Guildford Arms, Guildford St had a tap room (also referred to as a bar) below stairs and a bar and a coffee room above stairs (indeed the proprietor stated that the Guildford Arms had “two bars”, a clear indication that the coffee room was something different in character to the other rooms).** In both cases, it would make perfect sense that the coffee room would have higher status to the tap room or bar. If it’s an attempt to compete with or defend against coffee houses, then B&B’s conclusion above (“almost certainly a reaction to the arrival of Starbucks et al from the late 1990s onward”) is an interesting case of history perhaps repeating itself.

** (it later became the Guilford Arms in Guilford St and was seemingly still trading in 1960, but was subsequently demolished –

The Wetherspoon’s approach certainly solves the problem of coffee orders causing queues at the bar. The coffee may not be brilliant, but there again neither are many other things on their menu.

I’ve always taken the view that coffee in pubs should be treated as a menu item, not a bar item.

I’ve often used the Somers Town Coffee House – though never for a coffee – which dates back to the early eighteenth century, when it was a coffee house, and then a tea garden before being rebuilt in the 1920s when the adjacent block of council flats was put up.
Never a pub, and hot chocolate rather than coffee, but in Marston Road, Stafford was the Cocoa House, constructed by the owners of various shoe factories in the area in the 19th century as a lunchtime alternative to the many nearby pubs

In the early 90s I once turned up to a pub on Dartmoor on a Saturday afternoon in winter, soaked and frozen, so asked if I could order a cup of tea to warm myself up before ordering a pint. Bar staff looked at me as if I’d asked for a lump of moon rock, despite seeing at least two tables of people having lunch with cups of tea. If you don’t have the facilities and it’s busy I can understand it, but it put me off that pub forever.

We’ve definitely been in pubs that offer tea and coffee, and have signs offering tea and coffee everywhere, but whose staff *really* don’t want you to order it.

“When did pubs first serve coffee?” and “when did pubs begin serving coffee as they do now?” are two very different questions – and the answer to the latter is almost certainly “when they felt the need to compete with Starbucks” (or more probably “when they felt the need to compete with the people who were competing with Starbucks”). I went to Spain for a few weeks when I was 18 and spent quite a lot of time wandering from bar to bar, having a glass of wine in one and an espresso in the next. After returning home I was walking round Croydon with a friend (who had also been to Spain) and suggested stopping off somewhere for a coffee; he looked at me as if I’d gone mad. It just wasn’t a Thing (although it had been a Thing in the late 50s and early 60s), and it continued not to be A Thing until, well, Starbucks.

Wondered where Yates Wine Lodges come in this. Originally they sold sardines, flour and tea as well as their famous Australian white (fortified!) They Always offered hot nourishing food such as soup but I don’t recall coffee. I do remember one very raw wet Monday morning in Manchester we spent from 10am when they opened to when our train went around 1pm drinking a hot toddy (Australian white with fresh lemon) in each of the remaining five Lodges. In a way they were the equivalent of Wetherspoons today,

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