France pubs

It is possible to have fun drinking beer in Paris

In the past, we’ve struggled to enjoy drinking beer in Paris, but this time it’s worked out well, and we found some great places.

There’s some disconnect between British and French manners that can make hospitality experiences challenging.

That’s one reason we haven’t been there for a while. Not avoiding it, exactly, but not prioritising a return visit either.

And, look, Brussels is just over there!

This time, though, on our way back from Italy, we scheduled a few nights there and tried again, applying things we’ve learned over the past couple of decades.

The industrial interior of Fauve Paris with concrete bar, metal fixtures and a small brewery in the background.

Say hello when you enter a bar or cafe

This sometimes happens in the UK but mostly in smaller establishments.

You wouldn’t cut towards the bar to greet the staff in a branch of Wetherspoon, though, before finding a table.

In France, we’ve found, people will do exactly that, effectively announcing their arrival, and getting (quiet, possibly unspoken) permission to take a seat.

This is true (we think) even in craft beer bars where service may be at the bar, and there’s loads of English being spoken and on signs. It might not feel like it but you are still in France.


Is “We were sitting there” a scam?

It was either terrible pub etiquette, or a low stakes con.

Two men get up, put on their coats, and slip out of the door. They leave two pint glasses on the table, each with less than an inch of beer.

After five minutes, a party turns up and spots the table. They hover for a minute before deciding to go for it.

They take the (not quite) empty glasses to the bar and get comfortable, ordering drinks, ordering food.

Then the two men return, after almost fifteen minutes. Astonished, aggrieved, they say: “Excuse me, but we were actually sitting there. We had beer left to drink.”

The new party at the table is mortified, even if it is plain that they know they’re being treated like mugs.

Reluctantly, they surrender the table and, through gritted teeth, say: “Let us buy you a drink…”

The bar staff, perhaps aware something odd is going on, step in and offer to replace the drinks on the house.

If it’s a scam, it’s a small one. What did they get? Most of a pint each. But when a pint costs more than a fiver, perhaps it’s worth it.

Maybe they do this every time they visit a pub, getting four or five free drinks over the course of an evening.

And if it’s not a scam… what on earth were they thinking?

We all know the rules.

You leave your coat. You leave a book on the table. You put a beer mat over the glass. You say to the people on the next table (us): “Can you keep an eye on our table?”

A nearly empty glass on a table only holds it for five minutes. Even a full glass probably only gets you twenty.

Pub people – was this a scam, or just bad manners? We’re intrigued to know about any low-level fiddles you’ve encountered.

bristol pubs

The lost pubs of Bristol’s central ghost town

One of Bristol’s weirdest features is its central ghost town where, on inter-war maps, seven pubs were marked.

The ghost town in question is otherwise known as Castle Park and it was once the core of the central shopping district.

It was badly damaged during World War II and the decision was made after the war to clear it rather than rebuild.

Now, it’s a pleasant (if sometimes spicy) green space containing the bombed ruins of two churches and some hints of the old street patterns.

A map showing modern day Castle Park with the old streets roughly marked and the locations of the seven pubs.
BASE MAP SOURCE: Open Street Map.

Let’s start our pub crawl on Bristol Bridge, heading into town along High Street, and pause to think about The Posada, AKA The Posada Wine Vaults.

It stood exactly where you can now find a weird little concrete obelisk with a door, leading down to tunnels beneath the park.

The edge of Castle Park with concrete buildings and street furniture.
The obelisk (left), the old Norwich Union building (1962) and the remains of St Mary-le-Port Church.

It was a 19th century building, erected when the road was widened in the 1860s, we think. In 1877 it was known as The Posada Espanola.

It survived a massive bombing of central Bristol in November 1940 before being finished off in another raid in 1941.

Next, let’s turn left onto Mary-le-Port Street. Except it’s not there any more, so we can’t, really, but we can cut through the park to look at the ruins of St Mary-le-Port Church hidden behind the brutalist Lloyds Bank and modernist Norwich Union building.

A tatty path through the park with a church tower in the distance.
Looking along Mary-le-Port to St Peter’s Church.

Then follow the path that tracks the old street pattern towards the site of The Raven. C.F. Deming, author of Old Inns of Bristol, published in 1943, reckoned The Raven dated back to the 17th century and was “mentioned in 1643”.

Interviewed for an oral history project in 2005 Dorothy Bullimore and Emily ‘Emmy’ Taylor recalled drinking there:

Dorothy: They used to have pigs’ feet up Hodders on a Saturday night and there was a little pub next door to it and after you’d finish shopping you’d sit in there with all your carrier bags at your feet. We used to go in the pub with my husband’s brother- he worked for Hodders, the butchers. 

Emmy: It was a tiny little pub in Mary Le Port Street.

It had already gone when Old Inns of Bristol was published, destroyed by bombing.

Old buildings overhanging a narrow shopping street.
Mary-le-Port in the 1930s via Know Your Place Bristol. An entrance to The Swan Hotel is to the right.

A little further along we find the site of The Swan, just about where the diagonal path down the river meets the terrace in front of the ruin of St Peter’s Church.

Deming calls The Swan “one of Bristol’s most picturesque buildings” but adds:

Like many other notable Houses, The Swan had been neglected for many years, and its decayed timbers had fallen into such a sad state that, in conjunction with other circumstances and in spite of many requests to retain the building, its preservation was found to be impossible.

The Swan was demolished in 1936, after someone bought the whole corner site for redevelopment. The building that replaced The Swan was then so badly damaged by bombing that it had to be pulled down.

A stone structure in the park.
The site of The Bank Hotel. The path to the right roughly marks the line of the rear of the building.

Rounding the corner of Mary-le-Port onto what was Dolphin Street we next find the site of The Bank Hotel, on the waterside. There used to be two urinals here, hanging over the river, which we guess were for customers of the pub.

An 1884 guidebook says this pub got its name because it was built on the site of a branch of the Bank of England which was opened there in 1827, but later moved.

Now let’s walk back along what would have been Dolphin Street to Newgate – that is, across the park to the junction with Union Street where the falafel stand is now.

Newgate was originally Narrow Wine Street and about here stood The George Inn.

The Galleries Shopping Centre beyond a line of trees and hedges.
From the site of The George looking across Newgate (Narrow Wine Street) to The Galleries Shopping Centre.

The George Inn was certainly old and there was a brewery on the premises in the 1810s.

A Popular History of Bristol (not a hugely reliable source) dates it to the 17th century and suggests it was named in reference to St George, rather than any monarch of that name.

By the 1930s it was one of six Fussell’s pubs in Bristol.

In 1940 a 24-year-old soldier, Corporal Ernest Newman, robbed the landlord of The George at gunpoint, before being chased and captured by police. That’s an interesting glimpse into what Bristol was like during wartime.

A scrappy corner of the park with fences and paths.
The site of The Cat & Wheel near an exit from the park.

At this point, follow the path back to the ruin of St Peter’s Church and go through the water garden. At the end of the garden a path curves down. Near the bottom is where Little Peter Street used to run and where two pubs stood side by side.

The Cat & Wheel and The Bear & Rugged Staff were both 17th century pubs but the former was rebuilt in the early 20th century.

An Edwardian pub with signs advertising George's Pale Ales.
The Cat & Wheel. SOURCE: Know Your Place.

Both, amazingly, survived the Blitz and were trading until the late 1960s. They were demolished in 1969 as part of the creation of Castle Park.

The Bear & Rugged Staff then donated its name to The Welcome Inn, an interwar pub at Southmead.

This was the final stage in the clearance of the area, which the city planners had decided to do as far back as 1943.

Shopkeepers and local wanted to restore the shopping district to how it had been but the planners were keen to do away with what had been a mess of narrow streets.

Some people are still annoyed about this decision today.

And that’s the end of the tour. If you want to continue hanging out in Bristol’s pre-war shopping district, fire up one of these two sites to layer old maps with new ones:

And if all that walking around pubs that aren’t there has you feeling thirsty check out our guide to the best pubs in Bristol, updated for 2023.

This has been an interesting exercise and has given us a partial answer to our question about why Bristol doesn’t have a central pub equivalent to Whitelocks in Leeds. It would probably have been one of those described above, if they’d survived.

Main image adapted from ‘Ruins of the Church of St. Mary-le-Port with St. Peter’s in the background’ by Beryl Thornborough for Bristol Siren Nights, 1943.

20th Century Pub beer and food pubs

Pub carveries: another slice, madam?

For a couple of decades in Britain, there was no greater treat than a trip to a pub with a carvery – like Christmas dinner any day of the year.

The concept is this: customers line up and file past a hot counter where various joints of roasted meat are on display. Slices are carved on request, often by someone in an apron and a tall chef’s hat. You might have one meat, two, or even three.

Then you shuffle along and are either served, or serve yourself, roast potatoes, vegetables, Yorkshire puddings, and any other ‘trimmings’ that might have been supplied.

“I think I remember my first carvery,” says Ray. “My Uncle Norman got excited about the concept and insisted we all had to go to The Brent House. Me, my brother, my parents, and my grandparents. As a ‘growing lad’ the idea that you could have as much food on your plate as you wanted seemed so cool.”

In a comment on Patreon Tania McMillan said:

“I think perhaps there’s a certain generation that lived through rationing who saw carveries as the ultimate indulgence and celebration… the very fact you could have more than one roast meat on the same plate was such a novelty. The only other time anyone would generally experience that I guess would be the traditional Christmas dinner where there might be turkey and ham on the same plate! So going to the carvery was like it was Christmas and a celebratory meal, for a fixed price.”

The format is supposed to suggest the bountiful plenty of a mythical medieval banqueting hall, or a Pickwickian country inn.

The most famous branded version was the Toby Carvery chain, which span out of Bass Charrington’s Toby Inn in the 1980s. Its name and logo evoked the Toby jug, a symbol of traditional British pub culture – a rotund Falstaffian figure.

“Greed is good”

The 1990s was the heyday of the carvery, at least according to a rough tot up of the number of times the word appeared in British newspapers over the course of the later 20th century. From 60 mentions in the 1950s, it was up to 60,000 by the last decade of the century.

But of course there are those early outliers. An early report of something called a carvery, albeit not in a pub, appears in a 1959 newspaper story about the popularity of self-service all-you-can-eat “Billy Bunter restaurants”. It includes this anecdote:

“There was a man in here the other day who calmly slipped all but a complementary fragment of a joint Into his newspaper and transferred it to his briefcase. I must have flickered an eyelid because he came up to me and said: ‘lt tells you to eat all you can for 12s. 6d. – right? It does not tell you to eat it on the premises – right?’”

Coventry Evening Telegraph, 31 December 1959

Self-service was an important part of the carvery offer when it was a new idea.

The kind of behaviour described above perhaps put paid to that.

Certainly by the time we ever got to visit one, there was someone at the counter wielding the blade, keeping things civilised.

Illusions of plenty aside, like so many British experiences, it often feels more like a school canteen: “Move along, don’t be greedy, follow the rules.”

It’s a perfect setting for passive-aggression: you can ask for more, and we’ll keep serving you, but we’ll let you know when you’ve asked for just a little too much. And do you really want to hold up these nice people in the queue behind you?

But if, like Ray’s Uncle, you are confident and without shame, you might walk away with a mound of food bigger than you have any reasonable hope of eating.

In a comment thread on Patreon Michael Young discussed his tactical approach in the carveries that can still be found around Newport in Wales:

“I’ve learned to just pile your plate as high as possible and polish it off in one sitting as opposed to going up for seconds.”

Eyes bigger than your belly

It feels as if the high point of the carvery is over and they’re much rarer nowadays than 30 years ago.

So much so that we couldn’t decide whether to talk about them in the present or past tense for this piece.

Tania McMillan has noticed the same, with Birmingham in mind:

“I remember when they were more common. There used to be one in Selly Oak that students would go to for a massive feed when their relatives came to visit. That pub then changed over the years, to become a ‘sizzling steakhouse’, then one of those yellow student pubs. I think it’s now been demolished… There was another carvery-focused pub up the road too which again has ended up being demolished.”

As with many pub-related trends, we suspect there are various challenges contributing to this decline.

First, fashion, of course. Doesn’t a carvery feel old hat, like Spud-u-Like or a prawn cocktail?

Then there’s the openness of it all. How do people feel about all-you-can-eat displays post-COVID-19?

And have people perhaps become fussier about the quality of their food?

Perhaps they’re less willing to pay for potatoes cooked hours or even days before, or for damp cabbage kept warm under a heat lamp.

It might be fair to say that as the gastropub rose, the carvery fell.

But it’s no doubt the margin that’s the biggest problem.

How much would you expect to pay for a carvery meal?

In the mid-1980s it would have been around £4, which is £18 or so in today’s money. It wasn’t cheap, but it felt like good value.

Now, in 2023, our nearest Toby offers a midweek meal for £9.79, with the option to ‘go large’ for another £1.99.

And Brent House, which is still trading, and still popular, charges a bold £12.99 for a midweek carvery.

Back in Cornwall, we remember talking to people in our local pub who were outraged when a local pub put the price of its carvery above £10 for the first time. Suddenly, they felt it was a “rip off”.

How do you deliver a carvery at around the £10 price that feels right and natural to customers, in a long period of wage suppression, topped with a cost of living crisis?

By skimping on the offer, of course, and by counting the pennies.

“Feel free to go back” says the Toby Carvery menu carefully, “for more vegetables.”


Two decades of overlooking the obvious in central Manchester

Manchester has many wonderful old-fashioned pubs that, for some reason, we’d overlooked until last weekend.

Why haven’t we spent more time in The Peveril of the Peak, The Britons Protection, The City Arms, The Circus or The Grey Horse?

First, there’s our obsession with The Marble Arch. When we’re passing through Manchester with only a few hours to spare, our instinct is to head somewhere we know we like, with reliably enjoyable beer.

It was difficult to resist on our most recent trip, but resist we did.

Then there’s the fact that, on previous trips to the city, we’ve had missions to complete.

In 2016, researching 20th Century Pub, we needed to visit and photograph a Wetherspoon pub in East Didsbury, another Wetherspoon on Deansgate, a post-war Sam Smith’s pub in Withington, various estate pubs… Classic Victorian pubs weren’t on the agenda.