I know I’ve already posted about pubs, but I really do love them. I’ve recently had the experience of visiting some in the U.S., and thought I’d take this opportunity to go on a slight tangent; call it an argument for why you should visit London pubs.
I think pubs are one of those essentially British (or Scottish/Irish/Welsh) traditions that entirely resist exportation. There’s just something about the age, the atmosphere, the patrons, the whole package that just can’t be replicated, although there are some good attempts. And some poor attempts.
One problem I see is that our culture values “authenticity.” Recipes are always believed to be better when they came from someone’s grandmother. On vacation, you always look for a place where locals eat, not where tourists eat. You want your waiters in an Italian restaurant to actually be Italian, and the chef had better have immigrated here. I could go into a lot more anthropological detail than this, but let’s leave it at “we like our food to be authentic.” Just like everybody knows that Taco Bell isn’t real Mexican or Johnny Rockets isn’t really what the 1950s were like, everyone recognizes that pubs in the U.S. aren’t really British.
Pubs in the U.S. are really restaurants that serve beer on tap. They try to cultivate the atmosphere of a pub with wood paneling and beam ceilings, but they sort of miss the point: pubs are all about the booze and the company, and food is sort of an afterthought. America really replicates this with the sports bar, or something like Cheers — a little neighborhood bar where people just hang out. Maybe it’s been there since the 80s, or maybe since the 20s. They serve food (but mostly beer), generally things like nachos and fries and hot dogs. And they’re all about an activity: watching sports and hanging out with your pals and some beer.
Think of the word “pub.” It brings up images of old men in tweed suits, an old wooden bar, maybe a shady sheep deal going on in the corner. I’ve actually talked extensively with a former sheep farmer at The Pembroke, one of my favorites. Perhaps there’s a roaring fire. An elderly man serves cool beer from the taps and his wife brings up a fresh-baked pie. You feel cozy, comforted, full, welcomed. Well, this is the ideal pub that you might encounter somewhere in the countryside. The closest I’ve found to this might be the Lamb or the Seven Stars, but it’s definitely not a Wetherspoon’s.
They all have elements of this, and enough of them have enough atmosphere to make them “authentic.” But here’s the rub: it’s really, really hard to export authenticity. I think Greek restaurants do it best, followed by Italian restaurants owned by Italians, and then something like a fancy Beijing cuisine restaurant decorated with actual Chinese furniture. But others hardly come close to that feeling. Pubs try as hard as they can but never quite cut it.
Item one: Booths. Where do they get the idea that pubs have booths? Pubs should uniformly have mismatched chairs. Every American pub I’ve been to has booths; this is wrong, as booths are an item of Americana commonly found in chain restaurants. And a real pub, even if it is a chain, never wants to act like a chain.
Case in point: Firkin and Pheasant, a pan-British pub on the north side of Chicago. Last time I was there, every seat was a booth. Every one.
Item two: the service. While British pubs are friendly in the British-polite way, American pubs are American-friendly. This means great big smiles, how-can-I-help-you-today, would-you-like-a-refill-on-that? British pubs (except for a couple gastropubs I’ve been to, but not all gastropubs) generally have counter service whereas Americans have table service. Again, this is because American pubs are really restaurants. You come in, take a table, order, pay and leave. In British pubs, your friends scramble for a table while you hold a place in the bar queue. Then you retreat to your table and stay there for as long as possible, perhaps until closing time. Then you move on to another pub.
Case in point: Cullen’s in Chicago’s Lakeview. They seem to have rebranded themselves as a “bar & grill” since I last went, but it definitely used to call itself an Irish pub. The service there is so friendly you just want to tip them more. They’re really great. And also really quick. They have you in and out so you can head off to the theater next door or the bar across the street. It’s very dear (in the American: cute, in the British: expensive). People come for the stew, I believe, not the Irish beers on tap. And Magners just tastes watered down in the U.S.
Item three: real pubs have flowers outside, even in the winter. It brightens up London’s streets like none other. Just walking by somewhere like the Prince of Wales in Covent Garden was enough to drive away the dreariness of winter. If you know of any American pubs with flowers, please let me know so I can congratulate them.
Item four (the big one): they are all so caught up in making themselves authentic that they kind of miss the point. Recently, I went to a self-proclaimed “Irish pub” in Minneapolis with a bunch of Brits. The Local is obsessed with being Irish. Outside, they hung an Irish flag; they name a majority of their mixed drinks after some piece of Irish culture, such as the “Irish Wolfhound” and the “Emerald Cooler.” Here’s a clip from their website:
… from an 80-foot bar featuring a hand-carved back bar, numerous nooks and crannies for exchanging secrets, and ample space in the Whiskey Lounge for telling flat-out lies. Celebrate the highs and the lows in our Boardroom, Kissing Room and private event rooms, The Hollow, The Sanctuary and The Choir.
Root for the home team (a long way from home) in this large feeling, larger than life welcoming, joke telling, story creating, song singing (Being Irish ourselves, Irish lads need not apply), how’s-your-father asking place to make time stop. If you want to relax, it’s the grounded beauty on the other side of the bar you might try, where we offer a high dome, a sixteen foot high focal point, short snugs with tall ceilings, and cut glass reflecting the lighting of another era.
Our doors welcome you into the old world. In contrast with reputations in the lore of the Irish, our food is high priority. Fish & Chips, the classics and more than a few ringers for the worldly eaters. The craic is good. There’s always something to watch, even when the rugby isn’t on the screen. Come find a corner of the bar to lean up against, a snug to gather friends inside, or a lovely pub table to watch the world go by as you imbibe the finest pour.
I am always critical of establishments that offer friendship on their menu.
It advertises another pub on an “Our Friends” page as offering “an original Irish experience.” I just want to know why Ireland feels so much like Minneapolis. The waiters (table service) were friendly, nobody ordered drinks, nobody was at the bar despite it being lunch hour, we were secluded in a quiet room away from other patrons, and at the end we tipped like 20%. Toto, I don’t think we’re in Cork anymore. I was not even assuaged by the fact that it’s owned by Irish people — it no longer matters. It’s American now. Also — the whole point of writing this — my chicken pot pie was covered in mashed potatoes! Don’t they know that’s what you do with a cottage pie??? I would have been better off with the bison burger. It was an okay pie, I’ll give them that. But it wasn’t a British pie. It was as if I’d gone through the looking glass into a Disneyfied version of Britain.
Anyway, if you want real pubs, you’ll know where to find me.
P.S.: if you want a real Irish experience in London, visit The Harrison on occasional Sunday nights for a free Irish session. About 15 musicians show up with an array of instruments and play wonderful violinists. It’s a great place to listen, and if you’re a budding musician you may be able to take part. Next session is May 15th at 8 pm.