Our Advice on Beer and Pubs in Bristol

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 152 down with, we think, about another 250 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 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.

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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.