bristol pubs

Bristol Pub Guide: Our Advice on Where to Drink

First published 07.06.2018; last updated 12.01.2022
Bristol has a huge number of pubs and bars and an ever-growing number of breweries. If you’re in town for a few days or hours, where should you go to drink?

We’ve been asked a few times for advice on this and so decided that, rather than keep typing up the advice in emails and DMs, we’d give it a sort-of permanent home here.

We haven’t been to every pub in Bristol, although we’re not far off having been to 264 and we’ve visited most of those in the city centre, and most several times.

In general, Bristol pubs are pretty easy to find, and fairly easy to read – chain pubs look like chain pubs, craft bars look like craft bars, and so on – so you won’t go too far wrong following your instincts. There are lots of hidden gems in the suburbs and up side streets, too, so do explore.

And if you want to keep things loose there are some decent crawls with varied and interesting pubs:

  • St Michael’s Hill – Zero Degrees, The Open Arms, The Robin Hood, The White Bear (sometimes), Beerd, The Highbury Vaults.
  • Gloucester Road – too many to list but start at The Inn on the Green and keep going until you’re done, or in town.
  • Kingsdown – The Hare on the Hill, The Hillgrove Porter Stores, The Kingsdown Vaults, The Green Man, The Highbury Vaults.
  • King Street – Small Bar, The Royal Naval Volunteer, The Beer Emporium, Llandoger Trow (German lager specialists), The Old Duke (jazz), among others.

Before we get down to business we must once again thank Patreon supporters like Jonathan Tucker, Peter Allen and Andrew Brunton who justified us spending a bit too much time putting this together. If you find this post useful please do consider signing up or at least buying us a pint via Ko-Fi.

bristol pubs

The Hare on the Hill and the mysteries of pub atmosphere

It’s great when a pub suddenly levels up, even if it’s not always easy to work out what’s changed or why it’s better.

The Hare on the Hill is one of a cluster of pubs in Kingsdown, a hilltop neighourhood north of Bristol city centre.

We’d visited a couple of times in the past and it simply didn’t click with us.

Once, we recall, we were told by the staff behind the bar that we should probably go to a nearby brewery tap if we wanted decent beer.

In general, our impressions were of a lack of warmth and atmosphere, as if it was permanently ten minutes from closing time on a wet Wednesday in February.

Then last year someone told us we really ought to give it another go. It is under new management and, according to our informant, much improved… somehow.

We’d missed the relaunch, perhaps because it happened, unfortunately, in spring 2020. When we could finally get out to pubs again, The Hare wasn’t high on our list of priorities.

When we made our first visit to the new incarnation just before Christmas, we were immediately impressed.

Pot plants at The Hare on the Hill.

It felt as if the heating had been switched on. There was both more light and more warm shadow.

The walls were covered with greebling that we’re certain wasn’t there before: paintings, prints, posters, signs, vases, jugs, kitsch ornaments, Boba Fett figurines and what felt like hundreds of beautiful pot plants.

Interesting music played softly from a record player on top of a piano.

On the bar were several cask ales from local breweries, a choice of lagers from Lost & Grounded, and a selection of Belgian and British beers on keg.

“This is like a different pub,” we said to each other.

As we left, we noticed a fridge full of Belgian and German bottles: Orval, Duvel, Cantillon, Augustiner, Jever, Schlenkerla – a nice slice of the classical canon.

Last night, we went back after dark, and found it no less appealing.

Sitting on a table for two by a radiator, we listened to conversations crossing over each other in the gaps between tracks on Love’s 1966 album Da Capo:

“…it’s about using your bishops tactically…”

“…that little pub in Hotwells that looks like a converted terrace house…”

“…she said they hooked up before Christmas…”

“…I’ve been obsessed with Talking Heads lately…”

“…earned a pint after walking up that bloody hill!”

Looking back at photos of the pub in its previous form, we wonder if it’s as simple as the paint on the walls. It used to be blue, now it’s mostly brown, burgundy and nicotine beige. Proper pub colours.

Or maybe it’s that you can tell it’s being run by people who live in the flat upstairs. There’s a sense of personality and personal investment that was never there before.

Whatever magic has been wrought, it’s rocketed up our Best of Bristol list and will be a regular destination from now on – especially as its proximity to several other excellent pubs invites a crawl.

20th Century Pub beer in fiction / tv london pubs

Lose Bunny Lake, find a pub

The 1965 psychological thriller Bunny Lake is Missing was set in London and, of course, features a scene set in a pub – The Warrington Hotel, Maida Vale.

Bunny Lake was a flop on its original release, and an obscurity for decades. Now, like many lesser-known films of the period, it’s been beautifully restored and released on Blu-ray.

That gives us an opportunity not only to see the pub as it looked almost 60 years ago but also to freeze the frame, zoom and enhance, to see what details we can pick up.

First, a disclaimer: this is a real pub, not a studio set – there are enough clues to be sure of that. But, of course, it is filled with studio extras, not real drinkers, or so we assume.

That means some of what we see is sort of real, and some sort of isn’t – although the film is intended to feel real rather than presenting that romantic fantasy version of London so often seen in American productions.

In fact, Laurence Olivier, as Superintendent Newhouse, makes that point very well, in dialogue written by novelists Penelope Mortimer and John Mortimer:

“Ever been in a pub before? Here it is, the heart of Merrie Olde England. Complete with dirty glasses, watery beer, draughts under the doors, and a 23-inch television.”

Oh, yes – the television. A novelty in pubs in the 1950s, by 1965, it’s a fixture – almost the centrepiece, in fact, front and centre above the bar. It shows the news first, then a performance by The Zombies. Middle-aged and elderly drinkers seem transfixed by it.

A pub television.

Never mind the TV, you’re probably thinking – what about those bottles beneath it.

In this shot, and others, we’ve got:

  • Babycham
  • Courage Brown Ale
  • Worthington Pale Ale
  • Guinness
  • and some others we don’t recognise, but you might

There’s also some very prominent point-of-sale material for SKOL lager.

Bottled beers

What about draught beer? There’s a very obvious Courage Tavern Keg Bitter font in several shots, a draught Guinness font, and a single lonely cask ale pump-clip advertising Flowers.

Tavern Keg Bitter

That last one is a bit confusing because Flowers was a Whitbread brand by 1961 and this pub was definitely a Barclays (Courage) pub. Perhaps this is a bit of set dressing by a production designer who – can you believe it? – didn’t especially care about brewery ownership.

There’s also some background detail for students of pub grub to enjoy. Jars of pickles. Boiled eggs. Pies. Miserable sandwiches. And a full but unconvincing steak, seafood and oyster menu.

Full dining menu

What’s also clear is that this was a handsome building. Green and White’s The Evening Standard Guide to London Pubs from 1973 says:

A dominant building at the north end of Warrington Crescent… the Warrington is a glowing example of faded splendour, possibly due to the fact that it has never really been taken up by the Maida Vale elite. It has one of the most imposing pub entrances in London, with its own ornate lamp-standards and a coy lady holding a torch in a niche on your right as you go in. Fascinating interior with some art nouveau stained glass, only slightly marred by some more recent murals, a salmon-pink ceiling hung with chandeliers, and a crescent-shaped bar with a brass footrail. Probably the best example of an Edwardian pub in London.

The exterior of the Warrington
Painted sign on the door: LOUNGE
Art Nouveau windows

Apparently, it’s still worth a visit. Next time we’re in London, plagues and regulations permitting, we’ll try to pop in for a sad sandwich and a bottle of brown ale.

london pubs

Notes from London in the season of the plague

London, a week before Christmas, mist around the tops of the skyscrapers, and the pubs are as quiet as country churches.

We had this London trip in the calendar for a while, planned around a work commitment, and designed to get a load of pre-Christmas family and friends stuff ticked off at the same time.

As news broke about Omicron, we considered cancelling, but those family obligations made it feel right and necessary to get on the train.

Then, as it happened, things got cancelled and we were there with not much to do except go to the pub.

As it had been a while since we last visited London, we had an urge to check in on old favourites – both pubs and breweries.

It’s interesting how we still perceive Fuller’s and Young’s to be essential touchpoints, even though the former is now a multinational and the latter isn’t brewed anywhere near London. 

We’re not alone in this: we noted that CAMRA’s London Drinker magazine still starts its brewery news round-up with news from those two, bloody-mindedness tied with nostalgia.

On the first night, our target was a Fuller’s pub in the City of London proper. Based on our observations of the Tube the day before, we guessed rightly that most places would be pretty quiet and, sure enough, our first stop, the Hung, Drawn & Quartered near the Tower of London, had only a handful of people trying to make the best of things beneath its high ceilings.

There seems to be a strange pattern with flagship Fuller’s and Young’s pubs which is that one of the cask ales will be outstanding, one will be fine, and one will be tired and/or about to go to vinegar. But you never know which it’s going to be.

In pre-Covid days, Jess would often ask for a sample just to find out which one was on shift as the stunner that evening. On this occasion, we had a pint of each and found that it was good old London Pride that was really in the mood to sing.

When it’s tired, or even a bit less than fresh, this beer can taste like cornflakes and dishwater; when it’s good, biscuity malt, flowery hops and stony bitterness harmonise beautifully.

For a moment, we relaxed. There was plenty of room, all was calm, all was bright. Then a group of people came and sat on the table right next to us – a bit odd in a mostly empty pub. 

That prompted us to move on to a pub we’d always wanted to visit but which had always been either too busy, or totally shut. That is, The Swan, next to Leadenhall Market.

This is pub is more passageway than building to the extent that most of the pub furniture was outside rather than in. As it was a fairly balmy evening, we sat outside, just to one side of some kind of work Christmas do, and enjoyed Jack Frost, Fuller’s seasonal special.

We hadn’t really appreciated this in the past and certainly early on in our blogging days used to moan that it was yet another brown beer in a range already full of them. We thought it was pretty dull and pretty sweet. Perhaps the addition of blackberries makes it hard to hit a consistent flavour, or maybe we just didn’t know what we were talking about. This time, at any rate, we found it exotic enough, with a touch of fruit, but generally edging into a Burton Ale territory, much like Young’s Winter Warmer.

Once we’d had that thought, we needed to find Winter Warmer itself so, the following day, we headed for The Founders Arms, a modern riverside Young’s pub which really is a lot better than it needs to be. It has an amazing view across the river; interesting, surprisingly decent food; and, of course, a solid line up of Young’s beers, plus St Austell Proper Job and others. 

Winter Warmer was on and, as the barman proudly announced, “Fresh from the keg.” (Cask.) It was as good as we’ve ever had it – something like a beefed-up mild with rich chocolate and smokey notes.

The Original (AKA Bitter, AKA Ordinary) was zesty, dry and delicate.

And the Special was vinegar, but changed without any bother.

We’ve often declared that The Royal Oak on Tabard Street is the best pub in London but we haven’t visited since the change of management and the refurb, at least as far as we can recall.

The refurb was fairly gentle but the pub has lost a lot of its greebling – no doubt the property of the previous guvnors. No more strawberry pink mugs. No more tatty paperbacks. Grey wallpaper instead of rich red.

The Harveys beer is still superb. Sussex Best remains the English Orval (we think we coined this phrase, so we’re going to repeat it) but, this time, somehow managed to taste both funkier and cleaner than we remembered it.

The funkiness had also leaked across into the Old, which is really a sort of best mild, but had got drier not through hops but yeast character.

Cask Prince of Denmark (2019 vintage) was well on the way to becoming full-on Imperial Stout with waves of coffee, port, old wood and leather.

And finally, an honourable mention for Christmas Ale, which we’ve only had in bottles before and never found very exciting – it’s just sweet! But on cask, it reminded us of something like Gordon’s Finest Scotch Ale: a Belgian-ish take on a sweet British beer. With a bit of strawberry jam to follow, too.

We had half the pub to ourselves here but realised after a while that the only other customers, on the far side of the bar, were former colleagues of Ray’s from his Civil Service days. We had a chat, considered joining each other on one table, but decided against it. Another time, perhaps.

The classics checked off, we went off in search of something more adventurous.

At Mother Kelly’s in Bethnal Green, Siren Caribbean Chocolate Cake was as delightful as ever and lured us into trying their White Chocolate Pancake Stack, which was a bit of a mess. Like drinking maple syrup in coffee or, rather, a splash of coffee in some maple syrup.

Round the corner (ish) at the King’s Arms, we were pleased to find Burning Sky Porter – another of those straightforward but interesting dark beers that seem to be quietly in fashion right now. This pub was busier but everyone seemed to be committed to keeping at arms’ length from strangers and there was a reassuring breeze through the open door.

On our last day, we trekked to another old favourite, The Pembury Tavern, to drink our way through a full range of Five Points Brewing beers.

Lots were good but the standouts were (cask) Pale Ale, which is evolving towards Fyne Ales Jarl territory, and Railway Porter – which must now be The Main London Porter now Fuller’s can’t be bothered.

Actually, saying that sounds disrespectful to Five Points, and to this absolutely superb beer.

It tastes how you imagine a beer from the turn of the 20th century might: dense, smoky, warming, with bitter chocolate and coffee character, but beautifully balanced with subtle hops. 

We just could not stop drinking it and stayed for several more than we were planning to.

The pub wasn’t dead but it wasn’t busy either. Pleasant for us but worrying for them, no doubt.

Fingers crossed for January.


The exploitation of publicans, 1838

Publicans often find themselves at the mercy of the aggressive business practices of breweries, pubcos and landlords – and that’s apparently been the case more-or-less since the modern pub came into being.

Continuing to dig around in the archives for information on 19th century gin palaces we came across a wonderful letter to the editor of the London Weekly Dispatch from 6 May 1838. It is entitled ‘On Buying A Gin Palace’ and opens like this:

An advertisement appeared in a Morning Journal a few days since, and if you will permit me to make a few observations upon it, you may perhaps save many inexperienced persons from being victimised.

The author, ‘S.J.M., late Mincing Lane’, goes on to quote the advertisement in full:

A first-rate gin-shop to be sold for £3,500, situated in a leading thoroughfare. It was fitted up regardless of expense, three years ago, and is held on lease for an unexpired term of 25 years. Trade, wholesale and retail, £4,500 per annum at a profit of 23 per cent. Any person unacquainted with the trade may be initiated by the party quitting. A person with £1,300, his own money, may be accommodated with the rest. Apply by letter, to A. B.

We tried to find the original of this advertisement but it doesn’t seem to be available online. We did, however, find quite a few from the same period using very similar language. Here are a couple:

A handsomely fitted-up GIN-SHOP and PUBLIC HOUSE, in a main thoroughfare, to be LET, for about one half Its real value – a respectable Brewer's house – the coming-in will not exceed £180. – circumstances having occurred which will be explained to purchaser, which causes this sacrifice to be made. Apply at Mr. Norman's, the Bull and Pump, High street, Shoreditch.
Morning Advertiser, 18 August 1838. SOURCE: The British Newspaper Archive.
TO PUBLICANS and Others – To be LET a most desirable public house and gin shop with a full-price trade of about seven butts in porter per month, with ales and spirits in proportion, most desirably situated in a good thoroughfare and commanding neighbourhood-coming-in £200. For cards to view apply at Mr. Austin's, Auctioneer, No. 20 Southwark-bridge road, Borough, near the Fox and Hounds Wine Vaults.

Morning Advertiser, 5 July 1838, SOURCE: Ibid.
Morning Advertiser, 5 July 1838. SOURCE: Ibid.

S.J.M. wanted to blow the lid on some of the tricks and tactics behind these ads which they called a “barefaced attempt at swindling”:

I do say, and with the experience of more than a quarter of a century, that a more shameful robbery could not be planned than is meditated by the unknown authors of this advertisement. The highwayman that robs at noon-day, or the burglar at night, is less culpable than these swindling rascals, who plunder the unwary by wholesale with impunity, under the mask of being principal houses in the trade. A robber risks his life or liberty, and if even he escapes detection, the parties robbed have still other resources left them wherewith to replenish; but this motorious tribe of plunderers commonly effect the total destruction of their victim.

Their analysis of the advertisement breaks it down in detail; we’ve added a few line breaks to make it easier to digest:

“A first-rate gin-shop situated in a leading thoroughfare.” Now if all that is meant were honest, as the house is not described, why not name the street? I will give the true reason: because if the street were named, the house most probably would be known, and some of its former victims would soon spread the fame of its swindling owners and occupiers…

“Fitted up regardless of expense,” as if all the outlay were not included in the amount demanded for the lease. Fudge! But the reader will see through this as he proceeds. Next, “trade wholesale and retail, £4,500 per annum.” Note the words “wholesale and retail,” as if gin shops generally had a shadow of what is in reality a wholesale trade, particularly when considered with the next allegation, “at a profit of 23 per cent.”

Now, to all that have more money than understanding (for it is to such alone this advertisement is addressed, and all others must see through the villainy at the first glance), the reason the wholesale department is coupled with the retail, is to prevent the fresh-caught victim from complaining; for if he should not in the first ten months realize over the counter £500, instead of £4,500, he could not proceed by action to recover his outlay for the false representation by which he has been deluded, as the rogue could say, he had not remained a year in the house, and perhaps the last month or two would have brought the wholesale connexion to town.

The really juicy stuff is around the buying price, however, where S.J.M argues a particularly nasty trick is being played.

First, that value of £3,500 is established – out of the reach of most people. And, S.J.M. suggests, basically a fiction.

But then, when the seller suggests that, actually, you only need £1,300 to buy your way in, it sounds like a bargain. They, or someone, will then cover the rest of the purchase price. “So then”, S.J.M. says, “the novice, male or female, widow or orphan, is invited by these heartless villains, if they have but £1,300 in the world…”

This suddenly sounds a lot like Charles Dickens explaining the London waste trade in Our Mutual Friend, or the operation of the legal system in Bleak House, and makes us wish he’d tackled brewing, breweries and pubs in the same depth.

It also echoes the conversation around pubs in the 21st century – that rents are kept enticingly low to lure people who can then be exploited in other ways.

From the 1830s, to the 1980s, to today, does anything ever change?

Main image: illustration by George Cruikshank from 1833 via the British Museum.