Everyone has their idea of what an English Pub should be. For my part, my idea of a pub was heavily influence by British comedy imports I watched on PBS as a kid. By heavily influenced I mean to say that that was my only influence to any and everything British. Growing up isolated in a small Texas town, we didn’t’ have munch in the way of exposure to anything British. English to us was something you put on the cue ball to at the pool hall.
Ask five people what their idea of a pub is and you will get different five answers. Unless they are just coming from the pub, in which case you will probably get five dissertations about their “local” and how American’s don’t understand ale and why is that all we want is cold lager.
Pubs in London are funny. They cater to our sense of old London. You can find many, many pubs with “ye old English” exteriors and interiors carefully designed to trigger that warm, cozy feeling. But, there is some truth behind the image of a pub being filled with old wood, brass and watercolor drawings of cricket players. Pubs, or Public Houses, by their definition, are central to their neighborhood and communities. It is the great equalizer between all classes in the town.
After spending time in England and visiting a number of pubs, purely in the name of research, mind you, I have determined that what a pub is supposed to be turns out to be a very individual thing, so I include a few notes on a couple that fit my bill as a classic pub.
This little pub was really discovered by my wife during a visit to London in 2011. It is stuck in the 1940s from the decor to the music.
Food-wise, they are a step up from classic pub fare. I recommend the banger and mash or the fish and chips. They don’t do anything exceptionally original, but both dishes are excellently prepared and presented.
This is a quiet pub that is truly local. Hidden in a neighborhood in near Russell Square, it is well off the tourist circuit. You need to search for this gem. It would be difficult to stumble upon it because it is buried deep within a neighborhood and well away from the tube station.
In this case the pub is larger than the restaurant. It was built in 1946, end of WWII. The place has literally changed very, very, little since. They add a certain kitsch element by playing ‘40’s era music, but I am a sucker for that. The food is a step up from “pub grub” and their fish and chips are excellent. The atmosphere is such that I really expect everyone around a piano to break out in a chorus of “White Cliffs of Dover” at any moment and if you don’t get that reference you haven’t been watching enough British Comedies on PBS.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
It took several visits to this old establishment to convince me that I liked it as a pub. I avoided this place for a while just because of the “Ye Olde” on the sign. That is until a friend of mine actually took me there and I eat my words, along with some fish and chips.
The historic claims of the Cheshire are dubious, which are the best kind of claims for a pub, and they have no firm grip in anything resembling history. Cheshire’s claim to fame is the it was built, or rather, re-built in 1667, which rather happily coincides with the Great Fire of London, in which most of the pubs were destroyed and the fact that Dr. Samuel Johnson was a regular.
A list of famous people who actually did visit this pub reads like a who’s who of Victorian and Edwardian literature: Mark Twain, Charles Dickinson, G.K. Chesterton, Alfred Tennyson, to name a few. This is a far greater claim to fame that Dr. Johnson, but who am I to question marketing decisions?
Ok, the food is nothing to write home about. It is an interesting place because of it’s history, so don’t go for the food. The real magic happens in the front room.
What I call the “front room” exemplifies everything I ever thought a pub should be. A small room with a gloomy charm, from the grey afternoon light seeping in from the high glass-paned windows to the rickety pock-marked table right down to the sawdust on the floor, this small room represents everything I could ever want in a pub on a Saturday afternoon.
At every point, every pub was the new place. What’ s to say that the pubs and sports-bars of today won’t be the classic British pubs circa 2012 in fifty years? The whole point of the public house is to be public. It is a gathering place for people. Have you ever noticed that each pub is different, but the feeling it creates is the same?
One place I visited in Somerset, The Manor House Inn, was the classic place you find in the country all over England. It includes a restaurant that serves locally sourced food. But the heart of the place is the little area known as the local. It’s usually a small area and most patrons stand, drinking the local ale or, in the case of Somerset, local cider. It really is the place where the news is spread, gossip is passed.
I sat and listened to three men, who were obviously there everyday, talk about fishing.
On the afternoon I was there, they were discussing the on-going controversy of live bait vs a spinner lure.
“That must be the life, sittin’ round fishin’ all day” said the first.
“You know when the water calm, the best thing is a fly.” said the second, ignoring the slight to his character.
“But you have to be even with the water for a spinner because of the angle,” said the other, demonstrating the angle for lure in relation to the bank.
“Well a fish isn’t daft, you know, it isn’t going to swim upwards chasing a shinny thing…” chimed in the older of the three.
This conversation went on for about twenty minutes. The man with the spinner caught two “pretty good” sized pike.
A pub is what you make of it. It can be dive bar, a sports bar, or even god forbid a chain restaurant, but a “pub” is a state of mind. All the atmosphere in the world doesn’t mean a thing without the people to fill it.