20th Century Pub pubs

Pubs versus cafes in 1927 and 2024

What is it about pubs that makes them particularly suitable for socialising and ‘hanging out’, compared to cafes and restaurants?

Earlier this week we wrote about a board game cafe which seemed to have many of the characteristics of a pub.

Most crucially, it was busy (it had atmosphere) and relaxed, with no particular pressure to buy anything once you’d taken a table.

We found an echo of this – including a mention of games – in Ernest Selley’s 1927 book The English Public House As It Is:

The public house is a place where people tarry for social intercourse as well as for refreshment. There are, of course, other shops which sell refreshment, i.e., dairies and tea-shops, but one rarely sees a crowd of people congregate in a dairy or tea-shop in quite the same way as people meet in public houses. It is true that people meet in tea-shops and take refreshment and enjoy social intercourse, and also at times play games such as draughts, and dominoes; but the number of people who, for instance, make a habit of spending a whole evening in a tea-shop is small enough to be left out of account. Besides, tea-shops are not nearly so ubiquitous as public houses, except perhaps in the office areas of some of our larger towns and cities.

On that point of ubiquity, things have changed, at least if we substitute ‘coffee’ for ‘tea’.

In 20th Century Pub we wrote in passing about the arrival of the espresso machine in Britain in the 1950s and the threat it was seen to pose to the traditional pub.

Zooming forward half a century, and just picking one chain, there were 41 branches of Costa Coffee in 1995. Now there are more than 2,000.

And the number of pubs has, of course, severely declined since 1927.

But, still, if you wanted to meet a friend, hang out for a couple of hours, without eating a full meal, wouldn’t you still default to a pub?

Well, of course you would – but would a majority of people?

We think the answer is still “Yes” but with a shift definitely underway.

As well as the aforementioned board game cafes, we’ve also noticed in Bristol a growing number of (a) video game bars or grown-up amusement arcades and (b) dessert cafes.

The video game places are interesting. In both of those we’ve visited there was draught beer but you were absolutely free to ignore it. You were paying your way by paying to play games with drinks as an additional amenity.

And the desert cafes will sell you a disgustingly huge plate of ice cream and waffles, or whatever, and then let you and several friends spend hours picking at it. In Bristol, they’re notably popular with young Asian people, who perhaps feel less comfortable hanging out around booze.

Much as we love pubs and enjoy drinking beer, the prospect of a hospitality landscape that includes hangover-free options doesn’t displease us.

As we hinted in our previous post, perhaps what pub operators need to focus on is how they can make people who don’t want to drink feel welcome, and welcome to stay. And think about what they can sell them other than alcoholic drinks.

Of course, you can file that under “Oh, yeah, I hadn’t thought of that”.

From pub grub to coffee to cinemas to ballrooms, pubs have been trying to diversify for more than a century. Why doesn’t it ever quite seem to take?

6 replies on “Pubs versus cafes in 1927 and 2024”

(As a statistically useless example of 1) I’d reckon my daughter – not the one with three children who currently has no social life at all, but the other one who’s still foot loose & fancy free, and as it happens moved to Bristol six months ago – and her circle of friends spend 50% of their socialising time in cafés and 50% in pubs/bars/taprooms.
What would be interesting to explore (but have no intention of stalking her social media output that closely!!) is how the gender composition of social groups effects the percentage splits. One would tend to automatically make the assumption that all female groups would be more café orientated, all male groups more pub and mixed groups somewhere in between, but is this actually true? We need the resurrection of Mass Observation ????.

It still surprises me how in 2024 so many cafes shut at 5pm or even earlier. London and Bristol cafes are probably more liberal about opening hours, but in a lot of provincial England this seems to be the norm still: pubs are one of the few places open in the 5-7pm window before restaurants get going.

Yes, but this is slowly changing with cafes run by and serving immigrant communities. They tend not to be city centre ones, but in Cardiff (and now Bath) there’s a small Portuguese chain called Nata. They also sell Portuguese bottled beer, but I’m only interested in the coffee and cake when there!

It would be interesting to compare how alcohol-free pubs compare to the board game cafes and video-game establishments you’ve visited. Every so often people try to give these dry pubs a try and while there are a few that are established they’ve hardly set the country on fire. But, as you suggest, what’s the appeal of an alcohol-free pub compared to a coffee shop?

As the previous commenter has suggested, hours of operation may be a factor in pubs’ success as social meeting spaces. Many people in coffee shops in the daytime go there to work on laptops, etc. You don’t see many doing that once working hours are over. The disinhibiting effects of alcohol in encouraging social interaction is obviously a factor in pub’s social offering. However, apart from at the bar, in most pubs groups and individuals tend to retreat to their own tables and mind their own business (occasions like Christmas aside).

I suspect the way people use pubs and behave in them is actually extraordinarily complex — a combination of a few easily observed and near-universal norms (like ordering at the bar, sitting where you like, round buying, the prinicipal drinks on offer) and subtle nuances found in every individual pub that pubgoers need social antennae to detect and then adapt to (and tend to do so almost instinctively).

It might be interesting to reflect on what changed about pubs in the bad old days of social distancing, mandatory service, the rule of six and the ludicrous “rules” like the Scotch egg test. These probably affected the ambience of pubs far more than coffee shops and restaurants and might be a good place to start in analysing what makes pubs different.

I imagine that later opening hours and the alcohol option have given pubs the edge – certainly in Ireland till very recently, few cafés had alcohol licences. Even today, the sort of compehensive drinks offer you get in continental cafés is rare. Interestingly, a number of the Austrian and German emigrés who fled the Nazis in the 1930s, including Stefan Zweig and Bertolt Brecht, spent short periods in London on their way to the New World. According to Michael H. Kater’s Culture in Nazi Germany, they found English pubs sorely lacking the possibilities for discussions they were used to from Vienna’s or Berlin’s cafes. This, undoubtedly, had much to do with them being outsiders but the architecture of pubs and the depressingly early closing time probably turned them off too.

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