Generalisations about beer culture

When is a pub not a pub?

The Adam and Eve pub in Westminster, London

If you ask most people to define a pub as opposed to a bar, restaurant or club, the conclusion will usually be a statement along the lines of: “It’s hard to say, but I know one when I see one.”

After our irritating experience in the Greenwich Union a couple of weeks back, we’ve been giving this some thought.

Could the defining features of a pub be informality and the dominant presence of beer?

  • Table reservations are one thing: pubs where you have to reserve a table stop feeling like pubs.
  • Food in pubs is a good thing, but table cloths, candlesticks and cutlery laid out when you arrive probably mean you’re in a restaurant.
  • If you’re expected to eat,  then that’s not very pub-like.
  • If there are bouncers then it’s either a bloody rough pub or some kind of club or bar.
  • Dress codes (when actually enforced…) are not very pub-like.
  • If the wine list has had more thought put into it than the beer, it’s probably a 1980s wine bar disguised as a pub.
  • We’re fans of continental-style waiter service, but is it something you’d expect in a pub?

It’s tempting to add that places with more chrome than wood are bars, but that’s entirely superficial.

If you can wander in wearing jeans and trainers and just order a pint at the bar, then it’s a pub, regardless of the decor.

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Table Turning in pubs


We had a nice afternoon in one of our favourite London pubs soured on Saturday when we were more-or-less asked to leave to free up the table for a reservation. When we queried whether it had to be our table, given that there were lots of others without reservation signs on, we got a very stroppy response from the bar manager.

The practice of moving people or hurrying them along to squeeze in a second sitting is annoying even in real restaurants, however sensible it might be from a business perspective. But the questions of whether you should be able to reserve tables in pubs at all is a sensitive debate for many British people — it’s a level of formality that seems somehow to undermine the very idea of what the pub is about.

People in Germany seem to cope with it, but maybe that’s because there the reserved signs appear (often with profuse apologies) four hours in advance of the booking, so you’ve got plenty of time to finish up, or just choose another table. In the Greenwich Union, we were given an hour — hardly enough time to eat desert and have another drink.

In the couple of hours we were there, we enjoyed cask conditioned Meantime IPA (7.5%, and not as good as from a bottle) and gained a new appreciation for the fruity, sherbety draught Meantime Helles (4.1%).

So, the Union continues to be both brilliant and annoying. God knows we love the beer, but it might be a while before we go back.