bristol pubs

Why isn’t The Kings Head in Bristol our answer to Whitelocks?

Great as the relaunched Kings Head might be, it’s not that must-visit symbol of the city. Nowhere in Bristol is.

What do we mean when we talk about this kind of pub?

We wrote about what we called the Universally Recommended Timeless Institution Pub in 2021 after a trip to Leeds:

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…

When this post resurfaced recently in a Twitter conversation about pubs, The Kings Head came up as a Bristol nomination.

In fact, it was nominated by Kelly from Good Chemistry, the brewery which has taken the pub on.

We replied, diplomatically, that this was an interesting thought.

And it is almost right:

  • historic interior
  • universally recommended
  • broad beer range

So, why doesn’t it feel like The One?

For starters, it’s too small. Delightfully small. Incredibly cute, you might say. But with 30 people in, it’s full.

Secondly, no pies. No fish and chips. No bangers and mash. Though we did once see a man take delivery of a pizza called The Beast.

We don’t mind the absence of food, and many would find it an asset. But it does mean you can’t really send out-of-towners there for a lunchtime sesh.

Oh, yes, and it doesn’t open until 4pm from Monday to Tuesday, and at 2pm on Sunday. Again, very sensible in business terms, but not necessarily tourist-friendly.

Finally, there’s the location: what is that bit of town? Victoria Street is handy for the central station but has no real identity of its own.

Between the Blitz ruins of Temple Church and the wall of post-war office blocks, it’s not a place you hang out.

Now, if The Kings Head was in Broadmead, or Corn Street, or by the harbourside… But Bristol’s post war planning left the city without a distinct centre, and Broadmead is utterly publess.

To summarise, then – and here’s the bit you can quote, Kelly! – The Kings Head is one of the finest pubs in Bristol.

Its interior is gorgeous and has only been enhanced by typically tasteful, minimal tweaks by Good Chemistry.

We’d advise anyone visiting Bristol to make the 10-minute walk from town and at least try to get in.

We’ve had no trouble snagging a seat at the bar on our last couple of visits and have found it hard to leave, with beers like Fyne Ales Jarl on offer.

It ain’t Whitelocks, but it’s bloody good.

Well, what about…?

  • The Highbury Vaults – a wonderful pub that ticks most of the boxes but is too far out of town, up a bloody great hill.
  • The Llandoger Trow – great beer, not cosy, strangely lacking atmosphere, totally lacking pies.
  • The Swan With Two Necks – we love it but it’s on an industrial estate and has one big room, and is pieless.
  • The Commercial Rooms (Wetherspoon) – not built as a pub, tatty rather than historic these days.
  • The Old Fish Market – not built as a pub, too corporate, rugby lads and business boys.

We do have our eye on a candidate, though, which we’re hoping to visit tonight for a reappraisal. An update will follow.

For more advice on where to drink check out our Bristol pub guide updated for 2023.

16 replies on “Why isn’t The Kings Head in Bristol our answer to Whitelocks?”

A very good read, and agree about lack of plainer pub grub and limited opening hours acting against nominating a single must-visit pub for a city.

Not sure what that pub would be for Sheffield, for instance. And if the trek out of the central shops to the Highbury Vaults (about 10-15 minutes) is too far then the same would apply to the Fat Cat in Kelham Island which would tick the “pub grub” box. The Marble Arch in Manchester is also, by some folks reckoning, a good hike out of town and in many cities the best pubs just don’t do food anymore.

Love the Kings Head after just three visits. Interested to note that each time I’ve been, employees of other Bristol brewers were drinking there, wearing branded fleeces and talking shop. Given location and size I’d also categorise it as a “hidden gem” or “insider tip” rather than flagship city institution… But maybe it could grow into something approaching that over time, as it acquires a bit of a patina?

I was in the King’s head pre and post covid in my only two visits to Bristol. Both times a Friday night. I did prefer the first visit, but probably more to with being by myself the second time. And they had pork pies, whereas on the second visit I had to suffice with bacon fries…

We do give it a spot in our main guide as it’s central, good beer, cosy. But small, and you have to caveat with “not on a sunday”.

Martin – the Marble Arch in Manchester is an institution, but it does not do “pub grub” – the food is well spoken of, but it’s meal-shaped and a bit spendy.

I don’t know where you’d go in the centre of Manchester for pub grub in the old-school pork pie/cheese and onion barm sense. I remember being disappointed in the food ‘offer’ – or lack of one – on a town centre crawl back in 2018, but I did at least find a pork pie (two, in fact, one of them substantial enough to come with cutlery & pickles). On more recent visits neither of those places was doing any more than crisps.

Merchant Arms meets much of the criteria except for convenience and proximity. So, I’ll wager you’ll pick The Orchard Inn: excellent rolls/pies, ciders(obv), 3 cask ales from the barrel, proximity to touristy Spike Island….

The Hatchet and The Bag (of Nails) are the repeat destination Bristol pubs for me when I visit. Although that might be reflected in my gen-X alternative culture persuasion. The Bag was noticeably more pungent last time I visited though.

The Bag unfortunately is rancid now. I used to genuinely love the place (when it only had Malcom and Beresford) and the beer is still in tip top condition and remarkably cheap, but it stinks, and I own two cats, so I’m not against them!

Too small is an odd argument against the Kings Head, give that Whitelocks, unless it’s been really changed since I was last there, is pretty narrow and cramped. And didn’t have the multi-room layout of a classic Leeds pub.

For me the classic Leeds pub is the Cardigan Arms. Though maybe that’s because it was my local when I lived in the city. I liked Whitelocks, but it was a bit of a poncey city centre pub. And it didn’t sell Teleys. How could you be a classic Leeds pub without Tetleys on draught?

A couple of people have said this. Perhaps we’ve understated just how small the Kings Head is. Whitelock’s is definitely substantially bigger! And maybe being a tiny bit posh (relatively) is part of what we’ve got in mind, now you mention it Bar staff with smart shirts. Polish and Brasso.

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