Notable Pubs: The Rhubarb Tavern, Barton Hill, Bristol

The Rhubarb Tavern

The Rhubarb is a rare survivor – an old backstreet pub that hasn’t gentrified or closed down, where locals still drink.

It’s one we’ve had on our #EveryPubInBristol tick-list for a while having noticed the unusual name on the Pub Stops of Bristol poster that hangs above our usual spot in our local.

A quick Google told us what to expect: a pub catering to its locals, down-to-earth, but not unfriendly to strangers.

We walked there in darkness through eerily quiet industrial estates, past wasteland and roadside caravan shanties, and finally into a residential area with the smell of weed on the air as squat, muscular dogs were taken for their evening walks.

The pub, by a railway line and opposite a hulking, boarded-up Victorian school building, dazzled from afar: there’s a painted sign advertising Georges & Co Ltd, either fake, or a recreation of a lost original, but convincing; decorative brickwork with swags and other pseudo-classical details; and fairy lights. The building is oddly truncated – there surely ought to be an extra floor or two – which only adds to the sense that this is a pub just hanging on in hostile territory.

The history is a bit vague. Its apparently old, though we can’t dig up a definitive founding date, but came into something like it’s present form in the late Victorian period, finding renewal with the growth of the Great Western Railway.

On Saturday evening we found it busy, if not perhaps quite busy enough for its size.

A large family group with children was enjoying a table-obscuring, wonderfully aromatic feast of Caribbean food, centred around a tray of rice the size of Captain America’s shield.

There were multiple TV screens showing football along with several furiously illuminated fruit machines. Some strange lighting scheme meant that one entire corner was cycling through the Joel Schumacher Batman Forever colour scheme of lurid greens and purples. Several people were staring towards this electrical storm, either watching match highlights, or perhaps just hypnotised.

Brew XI beer pump.

The sight of Mitchells & Butlers Brew XI on cask was momentarily startling but the barman assured us that, no, the pump-clip wasn’t just a nostalgic decoration and, yes, they do actually serve it. We had to order a pint, of course, having a weakness for orphaned brands. (Brewed by Brains these days, the internet tells us.)

He then did something we’d like to see in more pubs: not liking the look of the first pint, he sniffed it. “Hold on,” he said, before consulting a colleague who said: “Pull a couple of pints through and try again.” Our man pulled through four pints in all before giving up and suggested GWB’s Hambrook Pale Ale instead. What he didn’t do – what happens too often – was give us the dodgy pint and hope we wouldn’t know better. And the Hambrook, after all that, was pretty good.

Despite the bar being decked with bunting advertising Carling there was a plastic moneybag over the keg handle signifying that the bestselling lager was off: “I’ll have to have Grolsch, then, won’t I?”

Local twenty-somethings played pool in the back bar and a tentative group of what seemed to be foodies arrived for dinner, placing a complex order punctuated by the barman’s gentle murmur: “Yes, sir… Yes… Yes, sir… Thank you, madam…”

A bloke perched on a stool and drank a pint while he waited for takeaway which emerged from the kitchen in four bulging carrier bags. On his way to the door he stopped to banter with what seemed to be his neighbours at the feasting table, telling an appalling dad joke that made the six-year-old giggle with delight. He left waving, and being waved to.

Our favourite detail? On the dark red patterned carpet, a freestanding yellow sign with a handwritten note sellotaped to it: ‘Carpet wet, please go round’.

A strangely normal pub. Uniquely typical. A different arrangement of the same old pieces to create something that is all itself.

Bristol and the Berni Inns

The Berni Inn chain is fascinating for various reasons, not least because it originated here in Bristol.

This is something that only really dawned on us recently as, taking an interest in the history of Bristol pubs as we do, we kept coming across references to Berni Inns in old guidebooks and local histories:

HOLE IN THE WALL
Free House *** F
Queen Square
A Berni Inn, but don’t be putt off. Just make for the back bar, The Tavern Public. Here find beautifully served Wadworth 6X (yes, in a Berni) and Worthington E in peak condition — both on handpumps. Sandwiches at reasonable prices also available. Quite small friendly bar with comfortable seats, thick carpet and jovial old locals.

Insofar as we were much aware of Berni Inns at all, this kind of thing was not what we had imagined. For decades they were the punchline to jokes about the tackiness of aspirational lifestyles in post-war Britain, famous for bringing prawn cocktail and black forest gateau to the masses. For example, here’s a song from Victoria Wood’s 2011 musical That Day We Sang which hits all the familiar references:

There are no shortage of articles summarising the history of the Berni Inn chain but — this one by Bristol-based writer Eugene Byrne is good, for example. The story is also covered, with some lovely archive footage, in this 2015 edition of the BBC’s Timeshift.

To save you a click, though, here’s a precis, based on Mr Byrne’s piece, the obituaries of Aldo and Frank Berni in the Guardian for 17/10/1997 and 01/08/2000 respectively, and various other sources.

Frank Berni was born in Bardi near Parma in Italy in 1903. He was brought up primarily by his mother because his father was abroad in South Wales running temperance bars. When he came of age, Frank joined his father in the family business in the UK. He was soon joined by his brothers, Aldo, born 1909, and Carlo.

Frank and Aldo Berni.
Frank and Aldo Berni from Hotel and Catering Review, March 1968, via Facebook.

In 1929, Aldo and Frank used a £300 inheritance from their mother to buy a cafe in High Street, Exeter, which was successful enough to fund expansion into Plymouth and Bristol.

During World War II Frank and Carlo were interned as ‘enemy aliens’ while Aldo, who had a British passport, was at first called up, and then assigned to Home Front work because of his poor health.

After World War II Frank and Aldo acquired Hort’s, an upmarket cocktail bar and restaurant in Bristol. Tom Jaine suggests in his obituary of Frank Berni that they might have got the money to fund this bold move from reparation payments for Blitz damage to their pre-war properties which just happened to be in the most heavily bombed cities in the West Country.

Like motel entrepreneur Graham Lyon the Bernis sensed that there were interesting things going on in America that British people, exhausted and bored by wartime austerity, might be ready to welcome.

Frank Berni visited the US in the early 1950s and came away inspired by American steak bars which made money by carefully controlling margins while maintaining the appearance of generosity and good value. He was also impressed by the consistency of chain restaurants which were capable of serving identical steak meals in identical surroundings anywhere in the US.

When meat rationing ended in Britain in 1954, they pounced, taking on The Rummer, a historic pub in central Bristol.

Berni Inns logo, 1964.

In a short essay for The 60s in Bristol (ed. James Belsey, 1989) Mary Ackland offers some details we’ve not come across elsewhere:

The Rummer is a rabbit warren of a place with cellar bars and rooms large and small as well as a history as an inn which dates back to the 13th century. They called in a clever designer, Alex Waugh, who created several restaurants and bars under one roof and cultivated an olde worlde, lived-in, almost shabby look. No-one need feel out of place in this atmosphere! Alex Waugh made a famous remark to the Bernis when he arrived. “If you’ve got cobwebs, keep ’em. If you haven’t, I’ll make you some.” Now that was very clever for 1955.

“The Rummer was the protoype”, she writes; “The Revolution quickly followed.” There were nine Berni Inns in Bristol by 1964, clustered around the city centre.

The Berni Inn model seemed to answer a need for accessible luxury. On the one hand, steak and wine felt sophisticated and posh British people brought up on fish’n’chips and brown ale. On the other hand, everything about The Rummer was designed to make eating out unintimidating.

The Rummer, 2018.

For starters, the fact that they hermit-crabbed their way into pubs, retained a pub-like character, and called themselves Inns, gave people something to latch on to. (See also: gastropubs.)

Then there was what Martin Wainwright called “the crucial role played by chips as a bridge between traditional fare and the glamorous… world of sirloin and black forest gateau”.  (Even if they did call them ‘chipped potatoes’ on the menu.)

Finally, there was the simplicity of the offer as summarised by Mary Ackland:

The brothers planned down to the last detail. They were determined that every last worry about eating out would be removed… The fixed-price, limited item menu ensured that customers knew exactly how much they would be paying. The wine list was cut to just 16 names, eight red, six white and two rosé.

The limited menu wasn’t only easy for customers, it also meant that the kitchens could be run with minimal equipment by interchangeable staff using a meticulous manual.

A menu.
SOURCE: Ronnie Hughes/A Sense of Place.

The chain went nationwide until there were 147 branches all over the country, all following the same formula. Frank and Aldo sold up to Grand Metropolitan in 1970. The chain continued to operate until the 1990s when Whitbread bought 115 Berni Inns and, deciding that the brand was effectively dead, turned half of them into Beefeaters.

Knowing a bit about the Bernification of Bristol helps makes sense of the 21st century pub scene in the city. Many of those famous, historic, potentially brilliant pubs are apparently still recovering from their long stretches as part of a food-focused chain. We don’t think we’ve ever heard anyone recommend The Rummer or The Hole in the Wall, and the Llandoger Trow, though it has its charms, is essentially the bar and breakfast lounge for a Premier Inn.

It goes without saying that we’d like to hear your memories of Berni Inns but especially the extent to which you recall them feeling like pubs, or otherwise.

Reading the descriptions of plush furniture, wooden tables, and chips with everything, we can’t help but wonder if most pubs aren’t Bernified in 2018.

Main image, top: a detail from an advertisement for Berni Inns in Bristol on the back of the programme for the Bristol 600 Exhibition published in 1973.

A Surprising New Local

Our neighbourhood has a new place to drink, and a new type of place to drink at that: a specialist bottle shop with bonus beer on tap.

Bottles & Books opened as a shop only at about the same time we moved to Bristol last summer. Combining beer with comic books it never quite seemed right, with not quite enough room to look at anything comfortably, or to fit more than two browsing customers at once. A month or so ago, though, it moved into the empty shop unit next door, to great effect.

Bottled and canned beers are clearly organised and laid out with plenty of space to browse. The hippest of hoppy beers are refrigerated while most other styles are on open shelves for now – perhaps not perfect by 2018 standards, but a marked improvement on another nearby beer shop which keeps many of its beers on display in a hot window.

It’s an indie shop so costs a little more than the supermarket, but not outrageously so, and the range is certainly more exciting.

Keg taps.

The draft setup is neat and discreet — a handful of taps on the wall behind the counter with a small menu chalked on a board. The selection tends towards the strong, intense and trendy — Verdant and the like. They are served in measures of one-third and two-thirds and there are tables in the window and (for now) on the pavement outside.

We’ve popped in a couple of times now and found it surprisingly busy. On another occasion, walking home from work, we looked across the road and saw it heaving. So there is clearly pent-up demand for the craft beer experience out here in the suburbs.

The owners of the local micropub, The Drapers Arms, seem sanguine about what might look like competition because, actually, there is almost no overlap: Bottles & Books is about keg and packaged beers, The Drapers cask only; the former is focused on foreign beer and High Craft, while the latter tends towards the traditional.

From our point of view, it looks like the convincer to get people on the bus and out to Horfield where there are now the makings of a decent afternoon’s crawl with enough variety and quality for anyone.

Bottles & Books is at 354-356 Gloucester Road, Bristol BS7 8TP, and is open six days a week, 12-9pm. It currently closes on Sunday but there are plans to open seven days a week down the line.

Session #135: Sepia-Toned Pubs

The Session, when bloggers around the world get together to write on the same subject, is a fragile thing, only ever one dropped ball away from disappearing altogether. This month’s was looking dicey until Al at Fuggled stepped in heroically to save the day, proposing for Session #135 the topic ‘Sepia Tones’. Here’s our contribution.

Over the past few years we’ve spent a lot of our time thinking in monochrome, thumbing through decaying papers, and staring into the eyes of long-dead brewers and pubgoers. But something about Al’s particular choice of words made us think not of archives but of a particular category of pub that we’ve sometimes struggled to describe.

The Blue Bell, York.

We’ve sometimes used the shortcut ‘proper pub’ but calling them sepia toned is rather more poetic, and also implies less of a judgement against other less ‘proper’ pubs.

The Marble Arch, Manchester.

These are places dominated by shades of brown, from the dark wood of the bar to walls either stained with nicotine or painted to look that way. The prints on the walls are yellowed, the paintings dark and varnished to death, the photographs jaundiced.

Swan With Two Necks, Bristol.

The beer probably sits somewhere on that stretch of the colour spectrum, too — perhaps Courage Best, Bass, Tetley, or some other brand from a long-gone brewery frozen in the flash-bang of nostalgia, fading away with mishandling and neglect.

Two pints of Courage Best.

They have them on the Continent, too, where the clue is in the name: brown cafes, or brown bars.

A Belgian Brown Cafe.

Here’s one test: take a photo in a sepia-toned pub and compare it to one  of the same place from a hundred years ago — can you see much difference?

QUICK ONE: An Unexpected Beer in an Unexpected Pub

The Beaufort Arms, off Durdham Down.

Trying to visit every pub in Bristol takes us out of our way sometimes, as on Saturday when the mission nudged us up a side street towards The Beaufort Arms.

It’s on a steep, narrow lane called, oddly, High Street, which feels more like part of some windswept coastal village than somewhere two minutes walk from Whiteladies Road. Backstreet pubs are an endangered species in general which made this one seem all the more noteworthy.

“It’ll be poshed up,” we thought, but as we approached we saw plastic patio chairs lined up on the pavement outside, signalling otherwise. A young man was sat on one of them eating a Miss Millie’s fried chicken meal from a box nesting in a carrier bag, swigging from a can of energy drink.

Inside we found a single large room psychically divided into public bar vs. games-room/deadzone. Everything was brown and warm, dim and well-worn, the walls covered in nick-nacks and in-jokes, photographs cut from newspapers and holiday postcards from regulars. The accents were West Country, not west London. Most people seemed to be drinking cider, including cans of Natch, the availability of which divides a certain type of serious, old-fashioned Bristol boozer from the designer-gin and craft-beer lifestyle exhibitions.

In this context we were rather startled to see Theakston Vanilla Stout on offer. No, scratch that: we rather startled to discover the existence of Theakston Vanilla Stout, and even more startled to find it here. Not as startled as the woman behind the bar seemed when we ordered a pint of it, though, along with a half of St Austell Tribute as a safe fallback.

Our astonishment intensified further when it turned out not only to be in good condition, but also a quite brilliant beer. We (Jessica especially) have been fascinated by Tiny Rebel’s Stay Puft Marshmallow Porter for the past few months, half-repelled by its kitsch, artificial character, but unable to stop dipping back in. This Theakston beer was in remarkably similar territory, loaded high with sickly candy-bar flavouring, but somehow also irresistible — full of beans if you like, ho ho. But also cleaner than the Tiny Rebel beer, and without any pretence of being hoppy. If Young’s Double Chocolate is to your taste, or those Saltaire beers that seem like they’ve had Nesquik syrup squirted into them, then you’ll enjoy this one, too.

That’s two impressive “cask craft” (their phrase, not ours) beers from Theakston in the past year, for those who are keeping count. And another pub for our growing list of The Proper Pubs of Bristol.