Long live the British pub! Despite fears for its future, it remains a quintessential part of British culture. It’s not going anywhere, but it is in transition as patrons’ demands for something new and different – but not too different – have risen.
A pub is not just a place where you knock back a few pints, nibble on fish ’n chips, then leave. To its customers, it’s a home away from home – a kind of living room on a bigger scale where tourists can hang out with locals. And, as Chris Wisson, a London-based senior drinks analyst with Mintel (a market intelligence agency with offices worldwide), points out: “Pubs are deeply ingrained in the community. They are places where people want to go to socialize. And that’s never going to change.”
What is changing are the ways pubs attract customers. Even the most established places have upped their game and offered something new and unique. The latest incarnations are rooted firmly in tradition, but with modern flourishes. How much is there to love about British pubs? Let us count the ways….
The one thing that has changed the most in British pubs is the quality of food. There was a time when pub grub was an uninspiring afterthought. But with a collective boost of awareness around what constitutes good food, menus have been revamped. The traditional favourites like bangers and mash remain, but these days, more likely the bangers came from the farm down the road and the mash made with organic veggies.
Must visit: The Hand and Flowers in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, is indicative of how pub food has changed. It has earned two Michelin stars, courtesy of the acclaimed chef, Tom Kerridge, host of BBC’s Best Ever Dishes. In the village of Bray in Berkshire, the legendary Heston Blumenthal (ex-Fat Duck) has put his talents behind The Hinds Head to earn it a shiny Michelin star.
2. Updated looks
Even in the new gastro pubs, super contemporary décor would look out of place. Patrons still want cozy so expect roaring fireplaces, wooden floors, chalkboard menus, more wood for tables and chairs. It’s a distinctly rustic feel with exposed beams, polished brass fixtures and classic flock wallpaper. Now, that tried-and-true formula is morphing to create brighter and lighter spaces. Expect to see more open kitchens, bigger windows to let in more natural light and soft furnishings like drapery to go bold with bright punches of color. And those regal depictions of royalty and country vistas hung on the walls are giving way to artwork produced by local artists.
Must visit: The pride of Aberdeen, Scotland, Cock and Bull, has been awarded Gastropub of the Year honors for three years in a row. Its modern take on pub décor means high ceilings, ample windows and a color palette with gold, green and chocolate brown. Meanwhile, it stacks its menu with updated bar snacks like haggis balls and smoked mixed nuts.
3. A welcoming vibe
With many people nesting at home with their entertainment systems, today’s establishments have to offer more reasons for people to visit and hop on a bar stool. That’s why there are more trivia nights, poetry slams, streaming sports events and high-caliber live bands. Pubs are where the action is. And don’t worry, the piano and dart boards aren’t going anywhere.
Must visit: The Castle Hotel in Manchester has deep roots dating back to 1776, and has reinvented itself a few times. After an extreme makeover in 2009, it’s re-emerged as a prime spot for local bands that rock the stage and shake the Victorian-era wooden skylight. Another music-centric favorite is The Bell in Bath, a hopping place, now owned by 536 of its customers who bought it in 2013.
4. The news on brews
“Pubs now have been doing a good job offering a wider selection of interesting things to drink,” says Wisson. That certainly rings true when it comes to beer. British pub owners have wholeheartedly embraced the craft beer trend. While there’s also wine and cocktails, beer still reigns supreme with loyal followers. It’s not surprising: Beer was the first alcoholic beverage produced in Britain. Today, more than 800 breweries are creating suds for an insatiably thirsty market. The pace is being set with an estimated 80 breweries opening each year. Don’t count out the cider drinkers. They are pushing British cideries to new heights fueling an increased demand for fruity flavors, everything from lime to pear.
Must visit: Wenlock Arms in The Angel neighborhood of London is a traditional, 19th-century ale house that pours a well-curated selection of cask ales, keg beers and ciders from all over Britain. This pub is known as a ‘free house,’ a traditional label that means they can buy beers from any company they choose.
5. Attracting a crowd
The faces you’ll see in a British pub these days will also include women and families. Mintel research showed 58 per cent of Brits went to a pub to eat in one month (October 2015) and 50 per cent visited for just drinks. Half of pub patrons bring along their special someone to sip and sup with, while more pubs are ensuring that kids also feel welcome by offering child-pleasing menus and a family friendly atmosphere.
Must visit: The Farmhouse Inn in Cardiff, Wales, keeps the kids thoroughly entertained with in a play area well stocked with Gameboys, a Wii, and Play Stations so parents can tip back a pint in peace. Meanwhile in Bristol, breakfast for youngsters means a kids’ menu with scrambled eggs and soldiers or pancake dippers at The Gloucester Old Spot.
6. The right location
Though British pubs are closely tied to neighborhoods, a local vibe can still be found in establishments even in busy tourist hubs. That’s reassuring to visitors to cities like London where out-of-towners can still have an authentic experience right next to iconic landmarks like Tower of London or Big Ben. Of course, the heart and soul of the traditional British pub resides in the quaint villages dotted over the English countryside. They serve as glue to the communities there and have oodles of rustic charm – seemingly untouched by time.
Must visit: In London, The Gun takes a modern, elegant approach to food and drink in the heart of London’s Canary Wharf, offering Instagram-worthy views of the Thames River. The pub tradition runs deep here. There’s been one on-site for more than 250 years. Prefer your pub experience to be in a more intimate setting? Grab a table at The Carpenters Arms in the wee village of Felixkirk, North Yorkshire. It’s a cozy spot (think roaring fireplace, red walls and exposed brick) that wins awards for its contemporary menu offerings.