traveling and meeting other cultures: ideas, destinations, reviews and tips
London Pubs for Dummies, Part 1: A Biased Opinion
Lightbox (44) Tags: alcoholic-drinks england europe food london pubs restaurants united-kingdom Posted: Jan. 24, 2010 by Serge
The King's Arms Pub near Victoria Station, London, UK
Many pubs in London have displays with brief description of history and other bits of interesting information
Coat of arms is a frequent theme in pubs' decor. Other symbols and even stylized portraits are often used as emblems identifying specific pubs
Other not very creative signs advertizing, for example, brands of ale and beer, are often found on pubs' premises. We found that Fuller's is £2.50 is everywhere. Is this a price collusion or just happens?
The Shakespeare - another pub very close to Victoria Station (actually, in front of it). Unmistakably without any character, with strangers being most of patrons.
This display on the corner wall of The Shakespeare's building tells me that fish and chips (also known as "fish 'n' chips") is perhaps the most popular dish in UK. Also, if you click to enlarge the photo, you will see the shabby conditions of pub' premises.
Duke Of York - yet another transient pub near Victoria - with reasonably priced beer and horrible food.
If there is such thing as a typical London pub, Duke Of York (near Victoria Station, London, UK ) could be the one. Let's look inside - bar area.
The handles of handpumps - this pub attribute is almost universal and it makes your heart feel good. Pump handles are often used as symbols of cask ale.
Duke Of York is rather big pub with warm and cozy environment where customers may enjoy a tranquil atmosphere without much TV.
One of cozy corners in Duke Of York, London, UK
When I travelled to London for the first time, I was so enthusiastic about having an opportunity to visit this mecca of brewing industry with it hundreds and hundreds of pubs. Well, as often the case, especially when expectations are too high, the reality makes you put everything into perspective.
But before I start, I want to make a disclaimer: if you are a Londoner (or, anyway, live in UK), do not read this post since it is an opinionated piece that reflects only my perception and experiences related to pubs in London. I have no intention to talk London's pubs down, and I truly believe that Londoners may have their own reasons (which I unconditionally respect) to love their pubs. These notes are nothing more but an attempt to understand better my mostly negative reaction to pubs in London whereas I actually love beer and am supposed to mostly like pubs. It is also a warning and an attempt to lower other travelers' expectations.
I guess an abundance of "reviews" of pubs in London on the Internet contributed significantly to the negative tone of my writing . It looks like Londoners cannot but share with the world audience their petty grievances related to their personal and often unlucky experiences in pubs:
To be fair, I have to say that some Web sites, publish useful information about pubs as part of their own pages. But when it comes to comments or sites that rely on users' submissions as the main review device, such reviews quickly become annoying for caring too much about small, unimportant things without any attempt to give somewhat broader context.
I also think that this massive effort of reviewing pubs in London is akin reviewing newspaper stands. I admit I exaggerate a bit but the point is that pubs in London in many instances are just a commodity to get your pint of ale and move on. There are no special expectations; often, they are nothing more than just a bunch of beer pumps under the roof with a guy to handle them. Then, why is this fuss? Does it help feel better? Does it alleviate the burden on someone's soul? Or, simply nothing else to do?!
By the way, I do not consider my writing as any sort of reviewing even if I mention specific pubs in London. I am just generalizing observations and thoughts regarding my disappointment with what I had been about to enjoy. Alas, it did not happen. And in my attempts to understand why, I am looking at food served in pubs. I suspect that one of the things that really ticks me off is that talk about so-called gastro pubs - an alleged new trend in London, "a fusion between pub and restaurant that promises not only a place to drink, but also good-quality food" (Fodor's 'see it series', London, 2009, page 246).
Are you kidding me?! What fusion? Yes, most of pubs, at least in Central London offer food. Many pubs have dining rooms/restaurants where a typical arrangement is to have them in a separate area, for example, on the second floor. So, if that's what is meant by new trend, I can understand. What I cannot understand is that part about good-quality food. Because almost universally it is not.
There are two reasons for that. First of all, the offering is very limited - so-called traditional cuisine with dishes like Bangers and Mash, Fish and Chips, Shepherd's Pie as well as various combinations of bacon, eggs, vegetables. By the way, do not get me wrong: if locals like this stuff, I am all for it. I am not the one to dictate what Londoners should and should not eat. And if there is a market for such food, be it! Actually, I myself do not mind once in a while to have dishes like this. But fellow travelers, be warned - that's essentially all you can find in pubs as far as food is concerned.
In addition to poor offering, the quality of food is often horrific. In many instances it is clearly microwaved without even making sure that it's done thoroughly so that the middle part of whatever you eat is not cold. Sometimes I am wondering, where do they get their peas which are often akin small metal balls than vegetables? And steaks you cannot even cut with your knife because they are more like heavily vulcanized rubber rather than something eatable.
So, what is this gastro-pub new trend? A movement from worse to bad? To be fair, I want to mention that there are pubs where you can find a bit better food. One of such places is The Old Bank of England where for about £40 you can have a good full English-style lunch for two (of course, with beer). Unfortunately, places like this are more exception than a rule.
Now about service - an important component of any drinking or food experience. Let me tell you this - if you are a tourist wandering around London, you have actually better chances of finding a pub where you can get what you want quickly without any problems. This is because your pub hopping and crawling may take place where and when pub traffic is low. But when there are crowds of folks demanding their share of ale you will certainly experience problems - I am talking for example, about after office hours or pre-theater hours. At times like this, the service in most pubs is at best uneven. And it's difficult for me to blame staff or management. They hire as many hands as they can to balance between lazy hours and busy hours. And when waters are overwhelmed with guests, they get slow and make mistakes. It's inevitable.
But let me get back to beer so that I can hopefully enlighten fellow travelers without pub experience in London on beer offerings at local pubs. The problem is that many of them are owned by breweries. Now, let me ask you a question - if I make a beer and own a retail outlet where I sell beer, would I sell beer made by my competitors? Of course, not! So, you get the picture. By the way, there are not that many brewers in London. The largest two are Fuller's-Smith-Turner Brewery (founded in 1875) and Young’s Brewery (founded in 1831). So, don't be surprised that most beer you will drink will be either Fuller's or Youngs. In an attempt to offer more alternatives in pubs, in particular, at so-called tied houses, A Supply of Beer law was passed in 1989 aiming at getting tied houses to offer at least one alternative beer (known as a guest beer) from another brewery. Unfortunately, this law has now been repealed - you see what I am saying?
After my first initial excitement of being in several nice traditional London's pubs and enjoying their atmosphere, I quickly realized that I had been drinking the same few beers, no matter where I went. Not only it is next to impossible to find in London's pubs beers from other countries be it Belgium or Czech Republic. That I could at least understand. But it is equally impossible to find many other beers produced in UK - in the first place, I am talking about micro-brewed beer. Actually, being just a casual traveler in London, I am aware of only one place which I can qualify as having a very good selection of beers - Market Porter Pub, in Borough Market area (address: 9 Stoney St, London, SE1 9AA).
Since I started again talking about drinking, I cannot but mention proud displays on pubs' walls advertising "fine" wines and spirits allegedly available in pubs with such displays. You know, so far I thought that only here, in America, many people have no clue about what is good wine and what is bad wine. But perhaps it runs in the family. Actually, London is a place where you can easily find best French and Italian wines (and often at much better prices). Just go to any decent store or restaurant. But since "fine" wine does not exist in pubs, what's the meaning of those displays?
It's quite possible that in my disappointment I've been missing something - some secret truth about pubs that all Londoners know, but I don't get. Well, lucky they are those blessed believers because I think there are no secrets. Indeed, with minor exceptions, pubs in London have become a commodity where you have a gulp of bitter or porter with after-work crowds during happy hours (usually on weekdays between 5 pm and 7 pm) and go home. But if this is true, please stop submitting meaningless and endless pub reviews and please stop talking about new gastro trends.