As a college student in the early ’90s, I was accepted into a one-term exchange program for my English degree. I’d be living and studying in London for three months. And, unsurprisingly, London turned out to be even better than I imagined. I loved the confusing streets that, without a good map, are impossible to navigate. I loved how everyday shops were located in buildings older than the United States itself. Hell, I even liked being reminded ad nauseam to “mind the gap.” And I loved the pubs. Man, I really loved the pubs.
But I was a young Midwesterner and Chicago seemed like a more realistic place to live, so that’s where I wound up. I’ve been here for the last 16 years. For the last four, I’ve been happily eating, drinking, and living in Chicago with my wife, who happens to be British.
At the end of last year, my wife was offered an amazing promotion. The catch? The job is back in Oxford. After much discussion on the pros and cons of life in the UK versus life in the US, we’ve decided to go for it. We’ll be moving next January.
This is very exciting—we get to move to a beautiful and historic old city with gorgeous meadows and parks, a terrific farmers’ market and excellent pubs. Best of all, it is in close proximity to London—40 minutes on the train. But it also fills me with a good deal of sadness. I adore Chicago, too. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ll miss, what I’ll gain, and the differences between the two cultures. On the plus side, I’m going to be spending a lot more time in pubs!
Drinking in pubs
Pub rules aren’t really that difficult to follow, contrary to what you may have read. But they are very different than American drinking establishments. Just follow these easy steps and you’ll be fine:
1. Order at the bar. As popular as some pubs are, there is never table service. Squeeze up in there. Trust that the people behind the bar know how to do their job. If you wait patiently and DON’T wave around your 20-pound note, you’ll be served in the order that you showed up to the bar.
2. Don’t order a cocktail. Seriously, just don’t do it. Don’t even say the c-word! The term “cocktail,” when uttered at a pub, is considered exceedingly girly. You can order a gin and tonic but they won’t know how to make anything more difficult. And even if all you want is a g&t, you better make it a double, because the pours are measured and tiny. Get ready to spend 7 or 8 pounds for that double, too. If you want cocktails, go to a bar or lounge. London has some of the world’s best. So when you’re in a pub, man up and order a pint! If you can, try to avoid Fosters or Stella. You’re in Britain. Show some respect and order a good English beer. And don’t be afraid of the hand-pulled, just-a-bit-cooler-than-room temperature bitters and ales. They may be relatively flat, but many are delicious and, if you are eating, they go great with pretty much everything. If you really want a Guinness, for god’s sake, do not order an “Extra Cold.” That junk is strictly for Americans. If you must have your beer so ice cold, just stay home and buy beer in cans that change color when they reach their optimum guzzling temperature.
3. You’ve surely heard this before, but don’t tip. They won’t accept it. If you really want to, you can offer to buy the barkeep a drink at the end of the night. He or she will charge you for a pint and pocket the money. Don’t question the logic. It’s just the way these places work. NOTE: This is very different than drinking at a bar or lounge in England. Those bartenders DO expect tips, so don’t be cheap.
4. If you’re with a group of English, you’ll probably be drinking on the “round” system. One at a time, everyone around the table will get up, take orders, and buy the drinks. Do not try to get out of it. No one will ever mention it to you, but everyone will notice. And if someone orders a double whisky or another expensive tipple, them’s the breaks.
5. Be prepared for disgusting toilets. It doesn’t matter how nice the pub is, the men’s “toilet” will always be wretched. If you’re in a clean “Gents,” you’re probably at a chain pub.
The death of the English pub?
A lot has been written on the death of the British pub and traditional pub culture. If you’ve read much Anthony Bourdain, you’d think it was nearly impossible to find a pub that will still serve you a good pint of ale and a meat pie, because they’ve all become abysmal “gastropubs.”
Well, as much as I like old Tony, he’s wrong about this one. There are still plenty of good pubs in England—especially in London. And there are some excellent gastropubs out there, too. The good ones still serve well-made traditional foods—pies, fish and chips, bangers and mash, along with more non-traditional fare that you can choose to avoid, if you want. I’d rather have a house-made fish pie by a skilled chef in a gastropub, than one taken out of a box and popped in a microwave, which is what you’re likely to get in a regular pub.
But I digress. If there is a problem in regard to British pub culture, it’s the fact that many of them are being bought by and turned into chain pubs. Although usually clean and cheerful, having a beer in one of these soulless, cookie cutter joints is about as cool as drinking in a TGI Fridays. But it’s easy to avoid these. With a little research and maybe a bit of trial and error, you’ll find great pubs almost anywhere in the UK. Here are some of my favorites pubs in London:
The following three pubs are all in Central London and are all owned by Samuel Smith’s Brewery. On top of making a wide variety of very good beers, the brewery takes pride in buying old, Victorian-era pubs and restoring them to their former grandeur. Expect stained and etched glass, beautiful wooden moldings and other characteristic features.
The Princess Louise
Imagine if Oscar Wilde opened a pub shortly after returning from his influential visit to America’s Wild West. That pub would look sort of like this amazing establishment. 208 High Holburn, Holburn WC1V 7BW
The John Snow
This pub is located a few feet from the infamous pump that was the source of contaminated water during the horrific cholera outbreak of 1854. Dr. John Snow mapped the cholera infections and was able to track it back to a single pump. The discovery was a huge breakthrough in medical research in the interest of public health and the spread of infectious disease. Drink up! 39 Broadwick Street, Soho, W1F 9QP
A welcome oasis just a few steps from the craziness of Oxford Street, this lovely pub’s best feature are the stained-glass windows that immortalize various sporting champions of the time. 12-13 Wells Street, Fitzrovia, W1T 3PA
These two are completely independent and a bit off the beaten path of Central London. That said, both are well worth a visit.
Located just a short distance from the cool vintage and record shops of Brick Lane in London’s East End, this beautiful, dark wood pub is perfect. Sure, they have a good selection of beer and cider, but there’s something else about the establishment that makes it special. It’s one of those rare places that you walk into and never want to leave. The food is good, as well. Apparently, it was once owned by the notorious Kray twins and operated by their mum. (If you’re interested in that kind of stuff.) 73 Cheshire Street, E2 6EG
The Southampton Arms
Look for the sign declaring: “Ale, Cider, Meat” This is where you want to go for hard to find independent ales and ciders and a selection of very tasty pork pies. A great place to spend a lazy afternoon. 139 Highgate Road, Kentish Town, NW5 1LE