Bristol Pub Guide: Our Advice on Where to Drink

First pub­lished 07.06.2018; updat­ed 07.02.2019

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 risk pub­lic humil­i­a­tion, and the fury of local beer geeks and pub­li­cans, by giv­ing it a sort-of per­ma­nent home here.

We haven’t been to every pub in Bris­tol – in fact we’re 203 down with, we think, about anoth­er 150–200 to go – but 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: St Michael’s Hill, Glouces­ter Road and King Street all have runs of var­ied and inter­est­ing pubs close togeth­er, one after the oth­er.

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.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Bris­tol Pub Guide: Our Advice on Where to Drink”

Classic Pubs in Posh London

Meeting up with friends at the weekend we decided that, instead of trawling round the usual haunts from our post-student days, we’d take the opportunity to test out another section of Green & White’s Guide to London Pubs from 1968.

With a plan to catch the last train out of Lon­don back to Bris­tol we did­n’t want to stray too far from Padding­ton and so picked the sec­tion enti­tled ‘Chelsea’ which includes The Vic­to­ria not far from the West Coun­try ter­mi­nus. Based on a review of the pubs’ own web­sites, and pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ences with this kind of exer­cise, our expec­ta­tions were fair­ly low.

The book's map of Chelsea.

We went first to a pub we did know, The Star Tav­ern in Bel­gravia, where we used to drink occa­sion­al­ly even before we start­ed blog­ging, when we both worked in West­min­ster. Green & White say:

The Star Tav­ern… is one of the hand­somest pubs in Lon­don, both out­side and in, con­tem­po­rary with its sur­round­ings. It is a fine Geor­gian mews pub (a rare Fuller’s house in this part of Lon­don) built on gen­er­ous lines and – being away from the hurly-burly of the main roads or busi­ness areas – free from that mad­den­ing tidal crowd which packs more cen­tral pubs at lunchtime and evening open­ing.… The Star is the kind of place you might expect to run into James Bond, and if he is not famil­iar with the pub, he should be.

Approach­ing The Star is still mag­i­cal, through a stuc­coed arch and over cob­bles, and into the pub­’s warm trac­tor beam glow. Inside it felt approx­i­mate­ly (runs cal­cu­la­tions) 32 per cent less ‘authen­tic’ than we recall it, hav­ing appar­ent­ly had a vis­it from Fuller’s cor­po­rate style police. But there were still plen­ty of nor­mal peo­ple knock­ing back pints (“They get a lot of but­lers and door­men in,” some­one said at one point) and the over­all feel was of a secret refuge, espe­cial­ly in the implied snug by the counter. Fuller’s ESB tast­ed as good as we’ve ever had it, with the qual­i­ty of the Lon­don Pride not far behind.

Door at The Antelope.

Next, we made a brief detour to The Ante­lope – not in the 1968 book but also in a mews and with sim­i­lar ‘clas­sic’ sta­tus – to pick up anoth­er of our mates. This pub, too, was stun­ning­ly cute. In this part of town, in 2017, it ought to have gone full grey-paint-gas­tro but, no, it was dark, well-worn, sparkling and inti­mate, all cor­ners, cub­by­holes, ale and gin. The beer (more Fuller’s) was great there, too.

Back on track we pushed on to The Nag’s Head which upped the ante con­sid­er­ably. How is this pub real? With its Adnams ale and creak­ing floor­boards it feels as if it’s been trans­plant­ed from South­wold or per­haps more specif­i­cal­ly the South­wold of 1985. Or maybe it’s a film set? It is tat­ty in the best sense with an eccen­tric lay­out which means you can find your­self sit­ting below the lev­el of the bar star­ing at a rack of knives under a sag­ging union jack, or next to a vin­tage end-of-pier pen­ny slot machine by a roar­ing Vic­to­ri­an range. NO MOBILE PHONES say the signs but nobody – not the cou­ple snog­ging intense­ly at the bar or the mous­ta­chioed bloke in mul­ber­ry-coloured waist­coat and bow-tie doing a cross­word – looked as if they par­tic­u­lar­ly want­ed to.

The Nag's Head.

The Wilton Arms a few doors along was a com­par­a­tive let-down being too bright and too Shep­herd Neame, with Spit­fire at its nail-pol­ish-remover worst. Even so it was rammed and row­dy with more gen­uine pub char­ac­ter than many oth­ers in Lon­don – a mir­a­cle con­sid­er­ing the ster­ile acres of pris­tine man­sions for absen­tee mil­lion­aires that sur­round it.

Sad­ly The Grenadier, the clas­sic of clas­sics, was closed for pub­lic order rea­sons (there is a Christ­mas fair in the park near­by and the author­i­ties are appar­ent­ly con­cerned that peo­ple will stag­ger to the pub from there and cause trou­ble for the well-to-do mews dwellers) so we fin­ished with one more in the Star. There the whole par­ty sat in qui­et amazement.“I can’t believe I’ve nev­er been to any of these pubs before,” said our mate, a born-and-bred Lon­don­er who has been to Italy more times than he’s been to Bel­gravia.

It is odd, giv­en that these pubs are rec­om­mend­ed in the 1968 guide, the 1973 edi­tion, many edi­tions of the Good Beer Guide, Roger Protz’s 1981 rar­i­ty Cap­i­tal Ale, and so many oth­ers. Per­haps it’s because we’ve all been trained to assume the worst – that what was good 30 years ago must almost inevitably be either gone or gone to rot today, and that Lon­don in par­tic­u­lar Ain’t Wot it Used to Be. But here, in these mews pubs at least, pro­tect­ed from the real world by the sheer weird­ness of West Lon­don, there’s some kind of per­sis­tence.

If you haven’t been, and espe­cial­ly in the run up to Christ­mas when twinkly and twee is in order, do treat your­self.

Hitchhiker’s Guides to the Beerosphere

Inn guides, whether spon­sored or not, have long been a fea­ture of the British way of life – part of the fab­ric you might almost say. But they have tend­ed to con­cen­trate more on the places which find them­selves on cal­en­dars and Christ­mas cards and not at all on the pubs which are the warp and woof of the brew­ers’ invest­ment.

Derek Coop­er, The Bev­er­age Report, 1970.

The very first edi­tion of CAM­RA’s newslet­ter, What’s Brew­ing, from June 1972, con­tained an impor­tant state­ment of intent: work had begun on a guide to pubs which would focus sole­ly on ‘the mer­it of their ale’ with­out regard to ‘His­toric val­ue, trendi­ness, out­side sur­round­ings or oth­er such cri­te­ria’. It was to be called ‘the List’ and, as we would say these days, was to be ‘crowd-sourced’ – that is, col­lat­ed from the rec­om­men­da­tions of mem­bers all over the coun­try.

In addi­tion to their focus on food, music, go-go dancers and archi­tec­ture, rather than beer, pre­vi­ous pub guides also had oth­er flaws.

  • Geo­graph­i­cal cov­er­age. Egon Ron­ay’s pub guides, from 1963 (as far as we can tell), tend­ed to focus on Lon­don; as, of course, did Green and White’s guides to Lon­don Pubs from 1965. Even when Ron­ay went nation­al, Lon­don got far more than its fair share.
  • Method. Derek Coop­er mocks the ‘spe­cial­ly trained team’ who sur­veyed c.1,000 pubs on Ron­ay’s behalf: what made them qual­i­fied to judge? This review of the 1983 edi­tion ques­tions how they chose which pubs to con­sid­er and whether they had enough data to work from, hav­ing vis­it­ed too few.

CAM­RA’s List emerged as the Good Beer Guide – a sta­pled, 18 page leaflet – and, even­tu­al­ly, in 1974, became a 96-page print­ed and bound book, with the help of the print­ing arm of board-game man­u­fac­tur­er Wadding­ton’s. (Beric Wat­son, the fir­m’s Man­ag­ing Direc­tor, was a ‘tra­di­tion­al draught’ drinker him­self and had, in fact, pub­lished the unfor­tu­nate­ly titled Hand-Pulled Beer and Bux­om Bar­maids, a guide to pubs in Leeds, c.1971.)

The first  run of 30,000 copies of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide (GBG) sold out with­in six months of its pub­li­ca­tion in April 1974, despite (or because of, Brew­dog-style…?) some head­line-grab­bing con­tro­ver­sy over its sug­ges­tion that Wat­ney’s should be avoid­ed ‘like the plague’, cen­sored by the print­ers at the last minute, and amend­ed to read ‘at all costs’.

It seems, pret­ty instant­ly, to have become an insti­tu­tion – the per­fect Christ­mas present for a beer-lov­ing rel­a­tive, a nice fit for the glove box of the car. By the time the sec­ond edi­tion went to print, how­ev­er, the real­i­sa­tion had dawned that pubs could come out of the Guide as well as go in, and some land­lords sulked, just as they do today.

The 1976 edi­tion of Ron­ay, while it still makes plen­ty of men­tion of food, looks to us like a bla­tant attempt to imi­tate the look and tone of the GBG. The sim­ply-titled Pub Guide includes an entire page on ‘Real ale ver­sus keg’, some­how man­ag­ing to explain the whole ‘con­tro­ver­sy’ and the suc­cess of ‘per­sis­tent com­sumer pres­sure’ in pre­serv­ing cask ale, with­out men­tion­ing CAMRA. The term ‘real ale’ is scat­tered through­out, marked against those pubs offer­ing it, though with­out quite going as far as to use it as a bench­mark for qual­i­ty.

These days, Des de Moor’s CAMRA Guide to Lon­don’s Best Beer, Pubs & Bars and Will Hawkes’ Craft Beer Lon­don iOS app rep­re­sent some­thing of a return to Ron­ay’s approach – geo­graph­i­cal­ly spe­cif­ic, and ‘curat­ed’, with no real pre­tence of democ­ra­cy – but retain the GBG’s relent­less focus on beer above all else. Mean­while, ‘user-gen­er­at­ed’ pub review web­sites offer the oppo­site: access to the unedit­ed reac­tions of thou­sands of pub-goers, each offer­ing a rat­ing based on their mood, the state of the toi­lets, whether their dog got a bowl of water, and, just occa­sion­al­ly, the qual­i­ty of the beer, aver­aged out to a more-or-less mean­ing­ful num­ber.

Forty edi­tions lat­er, the GBG, slap-bang in the mid­dle between those two approach­es, keeps com­ing out, and keeps sell­ing.