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The London American: A Primer on British Pub Etiquette – Your Guide to Having a Pint in London Plus List of Cool Pubs

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Here’s a primer on some pub etiquette for your next trip to London! The first week I got here, I heard someone invite a friend for a pint. I asked if this actually meant “a pint,” not like the American “a coffee.” Asking someone for a coffee never actually means having a coffee; you might end up with a chai, a triple mocha espressocino deluxe, or a double venti triple espresso latte with a shot of caramel or whatever your coffee-like product of choice is. A pint is a pint. It’s a pint of beer or a pint of cider. If you’re having a good time, it might turn into multiple pints. Here seem to be a few rules for the drinking of pints:

  • It will inevitably be in a pub, due to a number of factors. First, the selection: pubs will have a much wider range than one’s home. Second, the space: pubs are probably going to be bigger than any central London living room. Third, socializing: pubs are a place to bring together all your friends in one place.
  • The choice of pub is based on a) its proximity to home/work, b) its beer selection, and c) its quiz or events, in that order. Most neighborhoods will have many pubs, and groups of acquaintances choose one to be their central hangout place. Case in point: The Winchester in Shaun of the Dead. Sometimes, though, groups or individuals will choose a non-local pub for its drinks. It will also happen that groups will choose a pub for its pub quiz or Curry Night. However, those who attend are usually just visiting their local pub.
  • Everyone must have a drink. Whether it’s a pint or a glass of wine (for the sophisticated) or a lemonade (for the non-drinker) — everyone must have a drink. (It is just fine to be a non-drinker. No pressure.)
  • Although there are few gender stereotypes in drinking these days, there are a few still floating around. A female bartender friend told me some men refused to buy her a full pint, as it’s ladylike to drink half-pints. On the flip side, men who drink half-pints will definitely be laughed at. Cider is more feminine than beer, but men will drink it, too.
  • It is customary to buy rounds. One person will buy for whoever’s finished, and he/she will get treated the next round.
  • Expect to stay late. Pub afternoons can turn into pub evenings can turn into pub nights. If the pub doesn’t serve food, make sure you like crisps.

Again, it’s important to reiterate the fact that in Britain, people drink all the time. I was recently in a pub at lunch time and saw some businessmen on lunch break downing their pints. This just does not happen in the U.S., probably since we’ve suffered the ill effects of Prohibition, and also lack the wonderful pub culture they have here. Here, the pubs are full from lunch time on. People eat lunch and have a drink. Then workers who finish early go and have a drink with their co-workers. Then students and people who get off work at 4 go and have a drink with their class/workmates. Then people at 5, etc. THEN things get bounced around: some people will switch pubs to go see friends who work different hours. People might switch it up again after dinner-time (often a liquid-dinner, but sometimes a pub dinner), and go to a pub that plays dancing music or maybe has a live band. This can go on until 11, when pubs close (presumably due to noise restrictions). People just keep chatting with their friends and downing pints until it’s time to go home.

I’ve also found that people in pubs are incredibly friendly. I once walked in from the rain, dripping wet, cold and tired, and was offered a place at a table with two elderly people who gave me good restaurant recommendations while I ate. I’ve been watching Six Nations rugby over the past few weeks (yeah Italy!) in one pub, and we keep running into this same man who has by now told us his entire life story. It’s kind of like Cheers, except we still don’t know his name.

Pubs generally announce outside whose ale they serve or who owns them – ownership isn’t a terrible thing, it just means they’ll have consistent food (generally just-ok quality). Wetherspoons is a big chain that has lots of specials on tap and quite cheap food. Nicholsons always haa a delicious menu with vegetarian options. Different brewery ownership includes Adnams and Fullers. “Freehouse” indicates that it is independently owned. Don’t take that as “better than Adnams” — they both offer great pub experiences.

So, here are the London pubs I’ve been to and especially liked.

  • The Lamb on Lamb’s Conduit, Bloomsbury: My favorite local pub. They have some nice beers on tap, but not much in the cider department. Delicious lamb burgers, but the menu rotates frequently. All delicious, and on a very lovely street. It’s part of a chain of pubs that keeps some guest rooms above the dining area. Founded in 1727.
  • The Holly Bush in Hampstead: Absolutely delicious and great atmosphere. It’s in a 1790s house and serves Fullers.
  • Any Wetherspoons pub: I go to one near Lincoln’s Inn Fields. They consistently serve a great variety of ales, the best selection of cider in town, and as I always go on Thursdays, I get to partake in the Curry Club (a curry, rice, naan, 2 poppadoms, and your choice of pint for £5.99). Kitschy, not much atmosphere, but they have big tables.
  • The Pembroke on West Brompton, Earl’s Court: Beautifully redecorated 1860s pub with large windows. Downstairs does great gastro dining, and upstairs shows live sports with comfy seats (but you have to book ahead for major sporting events). Drinks are expensive, but a good selection. They also sell Piper’s crisps, which are significantly better than Walkers.
  • The Dovetail on Jerusalem Passage, Farringdon: Definitely worth a visit. Very small and can get quite loud, but it’s the best place for a fine selection of Belgian beers. They only have one brand of cider, but it’s quite tasty. Very cozy interior, and people frequently share tables with strangers. The bar staff are friendly, and the food is fabulous. You can get a pint of chips! One of two places I’ve found in London that serves a bison burger; they also have a great portobello burger for the vegetarian-inclined.

A note on drinking: it is a common misconception that because of the lowered drinking age in Britain (18), people are exposed to drinking younger and thus can handle their liquor better than Americans. This isn’t true! There are still episodes of wild partying à la keggers, but pubs are generally not the scene of such raucousness. Drinking seems to be done to while away the time more than any purposeful intoxication. Be safe!

A good website to use is Beer in the Evening, which reviews pubs all around the U.K. Although defnitely wander around your neighborhood and check out where the locals go, as it’s always worth a try.

Author: Stacy

Stacy is a graduate student in archaeology currently living in London. She enjoys visiting museums, riding the tube, splashing through puddles, and giving directions to lost tourists. She also writes a blog about pies.

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  1. The Holly Bush was (partly) gas-lit until very recently, but it seems it wasn’t Y2K-compliant as it was ripped out in 1999.

    Jamie Oliver, the chef, used to live opposite but got annoyed with drinkers shouting “Oy, Jamie, do us a fry-up” when leaving at closing time

  2. You must be very young, Stacy. Not drinking in the US has nothing to do with prohibition but probably everything to do with MADD in the 90s. Between prohibition and MADD it was a common occurrence to drink at lunch and to meet up after work for drinks. Probably a geographic thing also … Some places have an abundance of neighborhood bars, some places have only nightclubs, some places have nothing! You ate right about the pub culture … Before that terrible era of disco, every urban neighborhood and small town had a neighborhood bar … similar to a pub. Sadly, They are now few are far between.

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