What makes a really good pub?
Discover olive magazine’s formula for the ideal boozer, from beautiful beer to good pie skills, and what should be barred for life. Written by Tony Naylor.
Good pubs are wonderful things, which is why, in Britain, everyone has strong opinions about what this means. This national debate has inspired prominentwriters (George Orwell wrote a famous essay, The Moon Under Water, about his imaginary ideal pub), has given rise to one the UK’s biggest pressure groups, CAMRA, and it continues to fuel many passionate, late-night conversations in the places in question. Naturally, at olive, we have plenty of ideas about what makes a terrific local. With fantastic food, quality beer and a warm welcome in mind, here’s the olive blueprint for the perfect modern boozer.
We love a proper, homemade pub snack: the seismic sausage rolls at Canary Wharf’s Gun (thegundocklands.com); the era-defining quail’s scotch eggs at Heston’s Hind’s Head; the runny scotch egg at The Harwood Arms. But we’re no snobs. We can’t abide pretentious pubs that only stock wasabi peas and hand-fried root vegetable crisps over Scampi Fries or Mini Cheddars. Devilishly tangy, an umami explosion, Doritos were surely lab-engineered as the perfect partner for a cold pint.
A loveable landlady/lord
The heart of any great pub. Ever-present behind the bar, visibly leading their young team from the front, the expert landlord or landlady is ebullient and efficient, as ready with a joke for a regular as they are with an intelligent wine recommendation for a stranger. They are founts of knowledge. A great landlord can mix a fine bloody mary and knows what a brandy balloon is, but can also point you to the nearest cashpoint.
Real food at realistic prices
A pub is not a restaurant. We don’t want tablecloths or menus that mimic Michelin- starred establishments. A real pub will serve a core of classic pub mains at under £10: sausage ‘n’ mash, burger, fish ‘n’ chips, augmented by a blackboard of gutsy, rustic seasonal specials which change daily.
With such specials, a chef can flex creative muscle, using cheaper, unsung cuts, but without lapsing into fancy restaurant food. Think mackerel and braised oxtail, local rabbit and lamb’s breast, rather than scallops or sea bass. In the pub, you shouldn’t feel obliged to eat three-courses and, at lunch, it should serve soup, gussied-up sandwiches and lighter plates.
Homely from home
Whether it’s an ancient rural inn or a newly refurbished city-centre boozer, a pub should feel like a pub: woody, welcoming, warm and muted in its decor. We’re thinking crackling open fires along with flagstone or wooden floors and an emphasis on original features. Any retro-modern makeover should be modest, the colours dialled-down, furniture plain salvage. There should be newspapers strewn about, nooks and crannies where a couple can hide, and one or two big tables where a group can catch-up. We would much rather drink in a proper pub, that still has a lively games room (pool, darts, sports TV), than a prissy stage-set, which has been blinged-up expensive wallpapers and ludicrous designer furniture.
A truly local local
The best pubs are firmly embedded within a network of like-minded artisan producers and retailers. We love to see CAMRA-approved local beers on the pumps, pork pies from an award-winning town butcher on the bar, nearby farms name-checked on the menu. A pub known for its traditional county dishes or its regional cheeseboard is invariably a fantastic pub.
In 2014, this means not just well-kept cask ales, but also edgier craft-keg beers, big, bold hop-forward US imports and a judicious selection of bottles which run the gamut from hip micros, such as London’s Partizan, to a classic German pils such as Jever. Staff should know their kölsch from their IPAs; need to use the right glassware for those precious Belgian lambics; and the entry-price for a pint must remain low. Many pubs are cynically exploiting the current explosion of interest in good beer by ramping up the price of even dull, traditional English bitters. Such profiteering is sacrilege. Beer should be a pleasure for all, with a pint costing no more than £2.80. Seek out pubs that have a local brewery producing a beer exclusively for them; it’s a sure sign that said pub is serious about its beer and it will often be a bargain pint.
Family friendly - up to a point
Children should be welcomed, catered for on the menu and, perhaps, provided with a corner, stocked with toys and colouring books, where they can congregate. But this is not a crèche. If there are kids running around, screaming and creating havoc, then the staff should get a grip... of their parents. Likewise, those parents have to tolerate the boozy blokes at the bar who are getting a bit boisterous, or that table who’ve been drinking white wine all afternoon, and whose laughter could shatter glass. Fundamentally, this is an adult space. Well-behaved dogs should be tolerated, too.
A short, zippy wine list
The era of boxed-wines on the bar and an offer of ‘sweet or medium?’ is behind us, thankfully. The bigger danger now is trendy pubs flirting with, say, natural wines, which are best enjoyed in a specialist wine bar. In a pub, we want to drink, natter and relax, not think too hard about terroir. We want a short, sharp list (if it won’t fit on a blackboard or one side of A4, it’s too long), which still packs a few surprises. Outside of the old dependables – new world sauvignon blanc on a Wednesday; chablis for a treat – we love to see a couple of bottles on there, a viognier, godello, a riesling, that offer more complexity. We want wines we can linger over, not throw down, served in elegant stemware, not chunky tumblers, with significant by-the-glass choice.
Honest cooking, artisan skills
The pub is a bluff, no-nonsense space, and its cooking should reflect that. There should be no faking it, no buying-in from corporate caterers. We want meat butchered on-site and used cleverly to keep costs down. We want the brigade to make and bake everything from the pub’s legendary daily pie, to its gravy and the crumble from scratch. We should see all this happening, too, in a busy open-kitchen where the chefs are forever deboning, blitzing, churning, hefting boxes and cleaning down. The kitchen should be the visible engine at the heart of the pub, its energy contagious. And why stop there? The informal nature of a pub makes it the perfect place for an enthusiastic team to diversify into baking and butchery classes or meet-the-brewer nights.
No pressure to eat
The British pub is in crisis: 26 shut every week. Serving food is essential if a pub wants to survive. However, food can only go so far. Without drinkers, without a core of regulars at the bar, having a laugh and spreading their rosy, three-pint glow throughout the pub, the building becomes a dead, lifeless shell. Any pub, therefore, even a dining pub with a dedicated restaurant section, needs stools at the bar and a number of undressed, unreserved tables, where people can drop-in and eat or drink ad hoc, or nurse a half while reading the paper. Otherwise, it simply isn’t a pub.
What we DON'T want
Cocktails: This isn’t a swanky ‘nitespot’. It’s a pub. And have you seen the queue at the bar? Please, put down that crushed ice and pull us a pint.
Bangin’ tunes: We’re here to talk, not shout. See also: karaoke, covers’ bands, trad. jazz on Sundays.
Wi-Fi: Encourages suits with laptops to hold meetings in pubs. Isn’t that what Starbucks is for?
Neglected beer: It says ‘cask beer’ outside, but there are more pumps off than on. what beer they have tastes stale and the staff clearly don’t care.
Throwback pub food: Prawn cocktail, frozen scampi, onion rings that taste as if they were made in 1978.
Written by Tony Naylor @naylor_tony
Main image: The Swan at Southrop