A few months ago we had to negotiate heads on our beers with a member of staff in a pub more often frequented by elderly men who angled the glass and trickled the last inches with great care: “Look, I agree with you, but I’ve been working here for a while and this lot have got me trained to serve it flat.”
At which point, an interruption from a grey-hair with a sad-looking decapitated pint: “Yeah, proper Bristol style, we’re not up north now.”
To Jess, this idea doesn’t seem so alien: she recalls a general preference for completely headless pints in East London before about, say, 2005.
There, it often seemed to be tied to the question of value, and a refusal to be at all influenced by the superficial: foam’s a marketing trick to make mug punters pay for air, innit?
In Bristol, we wonder if it’s a combination of that, plus the influence of scrumpy cider drinkers, whose pints are froth-free by default.
Maybe we’re having our legs pulled, or perhaps this is more complex than we’ve realised – maybe only certain brands or styles get the millpond treatment – but either way, it would be a bit sad if a genuine bit of local beer culture has been lost.
Even if it’s good news for us as drinkers who very much prefer a bit of dressing around the top of the mug.
As you might have guessed, this is really our way of flushing out more information. Do comment below if you can tell us more.
Last Saturday we made a concerted effort to ‘tick’ a few pubs for our #EveryPubInBristol mission and so ended up in Totterdown, across the river from Temple Meads, wandering among rows of humble Victorian houses.
Our first target was The Shakespeare, a pub we gathered from the 1975 guide was once a bit naughty…
The pub that one of us came very close to being beaten up at… [but] pub guide writers can run faster than nice young men with Nazi badges!
It looked mysterious and inviting, like one of those West London mews pubs, hidden from casual punters. To find it, you’ve got to live in the neighbourhood, or be hunting for it, or be a bit of an explorer.
Inside, it’s all scrubbed wood and mild gastro tendencies, but by no means pretentious: “Unfined? We don’t sell that hazy shit here.”
Less than a minute’s walk away, deeper into the maze, there’s the curiously named New Found Out – another corner, another spill of yellow, but also an air of mischief.
It was plain, bright, and lively in that way which makes it hard to quite relax. But, still, there was a bloke reading Brian Aldiss between puffs on his asthma inhaler, and everyone seemed friendly enough, even if we did feel as if we were drawing a few stares.
Our final pub, The Oxford, wasn’t quite on a backstreet, but was hardly on the main road either. We felt like Goldilocks here: if the first pub was too posh, and the second too rough-and-ready, The Oxford was just right.
We’re sure The Elmer’s Arms was announced as a micropub when it opened earlier this year – real ale, homemade furniture, conversation, no lager, no music, right? Got it.
But we’d also been told to expect something “a bit different”, and that’s what was evident even as we approached the small antique frontage on Old Market, Bristol’s gay village. (Which drops off steeply in every direction to either dystopian post war roadscape, industrial estate or generally dodgy fringelands.)
The pub (“formerly Rainbows; Proud Bar; Lounge; Masons Arms”) was pulsing with dancefloor lights, and there were glowing Trojan Records logos in the window. A suedehead DJ was on display, spinning a vintage 45 delicately between his fingertips as he searched for the next track, while his partner, in two-tone vintage dress, awaited her turn at the decks.
Inside, the front half of the small space was lit low, aquarium colours cycling, while the area around the bar was bright. Behind the bar, in purple tonic suit and with grey statement sideburns, was Elmer himself, dashing back and forth, up and down, looking delighted to be busy rather than put upon.
The beer was mostly craft (def 2) on keg, with a solitary cask propped on a stand at the end of the bar with a damp towel to protect its modesty. We ordered Lost & Grounded Keller Pils (a fine beer) and something hoppy from Lervig the name of which we didn’t write down, and retreated to the darkest corner at the end of the bar.
Most of the other customers were in full mod uniform, to varying degrees of commitment: jeans, Harrington and T-shirts at the lower end of the scale; vintage boots, vintage dresses, vintage suits, Steve Marriott mops and skin-n-fringe at the other.
One veteran from the second time around, perhaps in his late fifties, wore a heavy woollen overcoat in bold checks, sharply creased grey trousers and what looked like handmade shoes in bold tan. He wasn’t showy, just confident in his inner modness. We noticed and wondered about the enamel England flags on each lapel.
“Elms”, as people kept calling him, dashed out between serving drinks to clear a dancefloor and a couple of people went for it at once, shaking cherry red Derby boots in the air and beaming with joy.
We, along with some stray hippies and a handful of real ale sniffers, didn’t quite match the scene, but it was fun to be a tourist, and Ray, something of a lapsed mod, but always too round in the middle and too self-conscious to really pull off the look, muttered something about coming back more appropriately attired sometime…
There’s a story here that people who worry about the loss of pubs ought to find cheering: Elmer’s was a pub, then a bar, then a taxi office, but has been reborn as a pub. A lively one, at that. How often does that happen?
Another strangely normal, typically unique pub. An expression of personality – is that what micropub is coming to mean? – and a haven for a subcategory of a subculture. One more possible arrangement of the standard modular components, with a few custom circuits.
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.
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.
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 Sangwhich hits all the familiar references:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.