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.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Our Advice on Beer and Pubs in Bris­tol”

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.