English Pubs - A User's Guide
Created | Updated Jun 6, 2007
How do you use a pub? A strange question, granted. However, there are many unwritten laws and eccentricities surrounding the English public house that many do not realise. For those of us who may otherwise feel a little daunted by frosted glass windows and low rumblings about the 'gunners' and the 'toffs', read on for handy hints and tips about the 'local'1.
So, where do you go for a drink? Pubs in England vary hugely in style and atmosphere. In some streets there may be one pub full of loud music and young drinkers packed together, a pub next door that's all space and serenity and a third that's full of families eating meals. Pub Guides are usually very reliable as to what to expect. Something to bear in mind about England are local dialects. It is all very well asking for a drink, but if you cannot understand what the staff or patrons are saying to any level then it is best you try elsewhere.
However, the best advice is to simply use your common sense. Does the pub look inviting to strangers? Are there frosted windows with broken glass outside? Is there a constant stream of people from the bookmakers across the road into the pub? Are there groups of businessmen sitting outside eating and drinking? Is the pub situated on a busy road, near a river or in the middle of a council estate? Always have a brief look and if the first impression is not okay, then think about walking away. Some pubs are strictly for locals only and you will generally recognise that as soon as you enter.
The traditional local pub has also become something of a rarity, being increasingly replaced in some places by a fast-growing phenomenon - the chain pub. With many different varieties, these often characterless establishments lean more towards bistro or steak house style and while some are quite pleasant and may offer various deals to lure patrons in (such as cheap rates for students) they are mostly identical nationwide in every way, from the gawdy decor to the smiling staff members. English pubs are generally fairly open about their variety and make no contentions as to whether they are family orientated, for the lads and ladettes, strictly for the locals or minor extensions of His/Her Majesties Correctional Facilities. However, as with literature, don't always judge a book by its cover.
Getting A Drink
Walk up to the bar, lean on it and wait for someone behind the bar to serve you. Don't shout at the staff for service, just try to catch their eye. Eye contact is the key to getting served, and 'smiling eyes' may even speed the process up a little2 (Unless of course the pub is particularly busy and noisy, then a shout to one of the staff like; "A pint of bitter when you can please." is certainly permitted, but could ostracise you also, use your common sense when attempting this particular method.) Unusually for England, you should not queue - if you can see a space at the bar, go and lean on it. Bar staff are generally quite good at serving people in order - the person who has been waiting longest should be served next. Clutching a monetary note in your hand and occasionally wafting it under the nose of the bar staff may also increase your chances of getting served, but don't be too obnoxious. Subtlety is the key. Just standing at the bar and chatting nonchalantly whilst clutching the note may be enough for some staff to acknowledge the fact you'd like a drink, but don't count on it as bar staff are for the most part busy and may only serve you at a time when it best suits their routine or workload. Another factor to perhaps add to the equation of obtaining a drink is the social ideals of beauty. An apparently attractive person may well get preferential treatment from bar staff. This shouldn't happen, but it does. If all else fails try an off-licence3, but under no circumstances return to a pub with bought drinks from another supplier.
Once you have the bar staff's attention, take a look at what is available. Real British beer is served by pulling a tall lever called a hand pump. Each hand pump has a little label telling you the brand and usually its strength. There are many to choose from such as beer, lager, ale, stout and even scrumpy. There is more often than not a house beer as well. When you have decided upon your chosen beverage inform the person serving you how much you want ('a half' or 'a pint') and the brand name (eg, Carling or Theakston's). You need to give a brand name as pubs usually have more than one type of bitter or lager. The beer available is different in many pubs. The beer in one pub may be completely different to that in the pub next door. There are often regional variations, and it can be quite an adventure to try the different brews in each part of the country, from all four compass points4. Feel free to experiment. Bear in mind you may have need for certain assistance the following day.
You are entitled to a full pint. A good server will offer to top up a pint if it is very frothy. You can ask for red or white wine or soft drinks, or any of the bottles in the fridges or on shelves behind the bar. If you can see it you can order it!5 Spirits are sold in standard fixed measures. If you ask for a large or double drink (eg, scotch or vodka) you will get two measures in the glass and therefore pay more. You will be expected to pay immediately, in cash. Some pubs will now accept most forms of EFT (Electronic Funds Transfer), but cash is still the preferred method of business transaction. If you want to tip the bar staff it is not frowned upon, but neither is it customary. The best way to suggest you are pleased with your service is to tell your friendly drinks provider to 'pour one for yourself'. You then pay for the extra drink and it is up to the individual staff member to either pour one for themself as suggested, or pocket the cash you provided for that drink.
If you buy a lot of drinks you can ask for a tray, and sometimes the bar staff may even ask you where you are sitting and bring the drinks over to you and your friends. If ordering food with your drinks the pub may also offer a tab system in which you simply put a tally on all your food and drink and pay at the end of your pub experience. However, it is best that you develop a good rapport with the bar staff before asking for credit, as some pubs offer tabs that can all too often be abused - they may run into huge monetary figures and perhaps even lead to individuals being barred from the premises by the landlord.
You CAN leave drinks at the bar if it is quiet. It is an unwritten rule that another person's drink is to be left untouched while at the bar. If it is forgotten about - someone will not drink it, the bar staff will merely tip it down a sink. Be aware, though, that there is a certain danger at leaving drinks at the bar. Some people find it amusing to 'spike6' drinks. Spiking is illegal and has also been linked to further crime such as theft, assault and even rape.
This is sometimes a confusing occasion for visitors from outside England. A group of drinkers usually drink in rounds. For example, if there are four of you, one person buys a round of drinks for everyone in the group (four drinks). The next person buys the next round and so on. This way only one person from each group of drinkers goes to the bar, which makes it less crowded. A drinker in a big group would probably not want to buy a round for everyone as it could be pretty expensive. In these situations the group often organises itself into smaller, cheaper rounds - although some will set up a 'kitty' or 'whip'7 fund where one person in the group will be designated holder of the 'kitty' and will always order and pay for the groups drinks. Be careful, the 'kitty' holder MUST be trustworthy!
You should look to offer to buy a round of drinks at the appropriate time. When you are drinking in a round with other people, try not to drink faster than them. The person who is getting the next round in will wait until most people have nearly finished their drinks before they go to buy it. You don't have to have a drink in every round but you should still buy if it is your turn. The round system is open to abuse but if you drink much more than you buy for other people - it will get noticed!
Where To Drink
Once you have a drink, you need to find a spot to enjoy it. Some pubs are divided into a variety of separate rooms. Among various names are the tap room, vault, public bar, saloon bar, smoke room and snug. There could also be the lounge, dining room, beer garden and cellar. Each of these particular rooms may have a different type of clientele. Some are self-explanatory, others are best experienced first-hand, but most are easily distinguishable at first sight so don't be too concerned about fitting in. You'll know whether you're welcome or not! In most pubs there is a bar and a lounge. If unsure, use the lounge, as a bar may well be full of regular patrons and you could feel a trifle unwanted. Once you have chosen a location you have the following options:
Sit/stand at the bar - Solitary drinkers who want a chat tend to do this. If it is quiet, a good bar-person will try to engage you in conversation. There is also the obligatory 'regular8' who may also want to talk to you. Approach with caution and begin a conversation at your own discretion. Be mindful, though, that many people will NOT talk to you. Especially if you don’t know them or you speak with an accent unfamiliar to them9.
Stand elsewhere - Groups regularly stand all night drinking even when seats are available - yes, it is strange.
Sit at a table - If there are not enough chairs for your group then drag them over from other tables. Check nobody is using the chair first, though!
Go outside - Some pubs have a beer garden - an enclosed outdoor space with seats in it. Some beer gardens are fantastic, some are rubbish. You still buy drinks the same way - however, be aware of local drinking laws where the consumption of alcohol in a public place may be a criminal offence.
No matter how hard you try there may be occasions where you commit a faux pas of some sort. These are some of the more common:
Spilling a drink - If you spill your drink it's a bit clumsy. However, you can purchase another providing you have sufficient monetary funds at your disposal. If you spill another patron's drink you are expected to apologise profusely and offer to buy them another. Not necessarily what they were drinking, mind you. It is their choice. You erred, you must suffer the consequences. If you spill your drink ON another patron you have two options:
Grovel and offer apologies/money/favours, attempt to dry them with the nearest available towel/napkin/coat and offer to buy them a drink10.
Looking at the wrong person - While in a bar it may seem to be your perogative to look about and stare at other people. Don't do it. It's rude. The meerkat11 approach is acceptable if you are looking for friends, but refrain from looking at somebody else's girl/boyfriend. You may get into trouble.
Taking somebody else's seat/drink - There is only one thing you can do. Apologise and get them another or replace taken item. Quickly.
Most can be avoided and rectified quite happily, however there may be some pubs where you would be wise to leave before harm befalls your person.
All pubs have some sort of food available for purchase behind the bar. Potato crisps, peanuts, etc. A traditional English bar food is the packet of pork scratchings. Pre-packaged deep fried strips of pig skin which are salted. Sounds awful, tastes fantastic - especially with a pint!12
Some pubs will keep bowls of salted peanuts on the bar, but this is becoming a rarer sight with the risk of contracting various sorts of illnesses from these hives of bacteria. Imagine, if you will, a young gentleman at the bar reaches in to grab a handful of salted peanuts to have with his beer. He then swigs from his pint, and wanders to the toilet. He ‘forgets’ to wash his hands after toileting then grabs another handful of peanuts from the bowl on his return to the bar. Along you come, a little peckish and have some of the aforementioned peanuts. A general rule of thumb is to avoid bowls of peanuts and the dry sandwiches on offer behind the bar. Unless of course you plan to feed a small dog outside the pub and not entertain your own digestive system with a veritable roller-coaster ride of interesting churning and grumbling.
Many pubs now offer cooked meals at certain times of the day. Ask at the bar if cooked food is available. There will be a menu at the bar and there may be a specials board. This shows dishes that are only currently available for that day. You order food at the bar and may be asked to pay for it straight away. Pub food can be fantastic - some have been granted awards - generally the more people eating at the pub the better the food is likely to be. Do not, however, take your own food into a pub that offers cooked meals as this is akin to taking your own beer/wine/spirits in.
Pub food is not a new innovation, however, as public houses have been serving soup and bread and many other types of traditional English fare to patrons since they first opened their doors, such as the counter meal13 and the obligatory mixed grill/platter with chips. This 'pub-grub' can be one of two things - excellent or suspiciously lacking in dietary fundamentals...
English pubs are generally open from 11.00am to 11.00pm, but changes in licensing laws have enabled landlords to apply for 24 hour opening rights. All that needs to be done is for the operator of the pub to fill in the appropriate application forms with their local council. Many fear the worst, with binge drinkers and students having access to alcohol 24 hours a day, however in practice most landlords do like to get some sleep in, so most pubs still appear to be closing around 11.00pm. Some will remain open a little later if the pub is busy and the still serving, so patrons can continue drinking until the landlord says 'on your bike', in those pubs that have extended or 24 hour licenses.
However, not all do, so most pubs in England still only serve alcoholic drinks every day from 11.00am to 11.00pm, closing at 2.00pm or 3.00pm and then reopening at 6pm for the evening. The ring of a bell and a shout of 'last drinks' will be made, and if you are in the right place at the right time, you may even find yourself involved in a lock-in. The publican closes the curtains, turns down the lights and music, locks the door and you carry on drinking into the night. This is highly illegal and hence a rare event. Seize the opportunity if it comes!
Who Can Use A Pub?
Most pubs will accept all kinds of people onto the premises - men, women and children (although it is ultimately up to the publican/landlord as to who will be admitted). In the world of today women can go into pubs. And no, not just to serve behind the bar. Either alone or accompanied, women are welcome in pubs, the only difference in the way women are treated is that if a man asks for a drink he will get a pint, whereas a woman will more often than not be served a half-pint. Children are allowed into pubs, but not usually into the bar. More and more pubs are also becoming wheelchair-friendly with lowered serving bars, access ramps and disabled toilets. This practice is not particularly widespread though; however, with changes to legislation it should be nationwide eventually.
Pubs will also have age limits stated on the door. The legal drinking age in England is 18 years of age. Establishments may restrict certain age groups from entry with signs ranging from ‘Over 21 Only’ to ‘No Children Allowed’. If a pub is child-friendly there are often allocated family/dining areas. Play areas, highchairs and baby changing rooms may be provided, but don't expect it in every pub you go into. People between the ages of 16 and 18 are not permitted to buy alcohol from the bar, but can drink alcohol with a meal (as long as they are accompanied by their parent/guardian). Some establishments will allow people between the ages of 14 to 18 into the bar, but will have strict regulations on the purchase of beverages and food at the bar and where in the pub they may frequent.
Pubs will also allow dogs, especially those used by the blind, partially-sighted or deaf and many will allow any kind of animal into the bar.
There may also be dress codes at some establishments, with dirty working clothes, football shirts and inappropriate footwear preventing entry onto the premises. However, other establishments cater solely for tradespersons such as builders, coal miners and other people who get ‘dirty’ when at work and are not fussy about attire. Both types are equally accepting of someone who wants a beer though.
Many pubs provide various forms of entertainment for their patrons.
Big screen sporting events - Many major sporting events are telecast in pubs and it is a great atmosphere. When going to a pub to watch an event there are things to be aware of;
If you notice the pub bedecked in the colours of the team you are supporting, by all means wander in and sing the team song as loudly as possible. If however, the team you are supporting is not noted and you are wearing the opposing side's colours it is advisable you find another drinking house. Many English sporting supporters have little tolerance of rival team supporters, especially after a few ales.
When entering the pub try not to get in the way of the screen. This will infuriate the patrons of the pub and make you immediately unpopular with the bar staff.
Remember though, everyone is there to enjoy the game. It is quite common to buy the stranger standing at the bar a drink when the team you are both supporting scores/wins/injures an opposing team's player.
Games - There are a variety of games to play at pubs, the most common being:
Pool. Pool tables in pubs are either in a small room by themselves or in a crowded room among other tables and chairs. There is quite often a fee for use ranging from 10p to £2 a game. Some pool tables have little room around them. It is considered very bad form to:
a. place drinks on the table.
b. smoke over the table.
c. push people away from the table.
If you would like a turn at the table while someone else is playing it is customary practice to place a coin upon the table. This will show you are interested in a game. Some venues may have more than one table where a particular will be allocated ‘Winner Stays’. This is where whoever wins a game will remain at the table and the next person interested is the ‘challenger’. Be wary of semi-professional players who would gamble your odds of beating them! Coins will run along the table for each willing participant, sometimes as many as a dozen varying denominations will be found along a pool table edge. While playing, be careful not to knock these coins to the floor. If they are in the way of you making a shot, simply slide them further along the table. Again, be wary not to knock the coins off or palm one when you do this as you are liable to incur the wrath of potential players.
Also, when playing, remember to observe your fellow pub patrons. If they are in your way when you want to take a shot, tap them on the arm or shoulder and say 'Excuse me.'. Most will move out of your way for you to take your shot and some may even offer advice and hush their conversations as you attempt to pot a ball. Cues are available either by the tables or behind the bar. Most pubs frown upon players bringing their own cues to a pub, especially when there are neither pool tables nor pool competitions at the establishment.
Darts. Do not walk in front of a dartboard while a game is in progress. A chalkboard should be nearby. Put your name on it if you want a turn. Other than that, simply be aware of fellow patrons around the dartboard. You can use pub darts, but are quite welcome to bring your own. Remember, though, that if you carry darts in public you are deemed to be in possession of an offensive weapon and the local constabulary can arrest you for it. Keep them in an appropriate case.
Other pub games include dominoes, bar billiards, skittles, bar skittles and Scrabble. Many pubs have teams that you can enter if you become a 'regular' and there are frequent inter-pub competitions.
Jukebox - The jukebox can be a very strange machine. Some pubs will have one and prefer you don't use it. Some will want you to spend as much time deciding what post-pop one-hit wonder to choose to listen to as you spend time at the bar and some will ask that you abuse them all night. There is no apparent etiquette surrounding the jukebox, but it is common sense that prevails. If you walk into a quiet pub where there seem to be more elderly drinkers and a quiet atmosphere, don't walk to the jukebox and put on the loudest heavy metal song in the collection.
Fruit Machines - These are gambling machines, hence only available to people 18 years of age and above. They are called fruit machines because the original concpet was to find three matching fruit to win a prize. Sometimes referred to as 'one-armed bandits', the English pub fruit machine is more commonly a push-button affair focussing on a theme of some sort, much like pinball tables (eg, Monty Python). There is an increasingly popular trend towards quiz machines based on television programmes like The Weakest Link and Who Wants to be a Millionare as they are more interesting for patrons, many crowding around the machine to play in teams in the attempt to win a fortune. This is unlikely, however, as there is no minimum payout limit to the machines - providing the landlord with a natty little money-maker. Some pubs will have fruit machine 'regulars'. DO NOT attempt to use the machine if they are standing at it. Nor when they move to the bar to get a drink. It is theirs and they WILL get their money back. Some time near the end of the universe.
Live Music/Comedy - Some pubs have a regular night when bands or comedians will perform. There may or may not be a cover charge14 and there may or may not be seating. Normal pub etiquette applies again, with the added 'no heckling' rule. Unless of course the act is rubbish.
Theme Nights - There are often theme nights over a week; for example Students' Night, Ladies' Night, Karaoke Night and Quiz Night. Many of these are a lot of fun and normal pub etiquette is applied when these theme nights are on.
Adult Shows - Some pubs offer adult entertainment in the form of strippers and/or topless bar persons. No admittance for persons under the age of 18 and etiquette is generally the same with the common practice of a simple 'look - but don't touch' rule. Tip if you like, there will either be a jar at the bar or the performers will ask audience members themselves.
There are many different features at every local, but the following are pretty well widespread;
All pubs have free ladies' and gents' toilets for the customers' use. The location of these toilets within the pub may be a rather hit-and-miss affair though and some pub toilets may seem to hark back to Dickensian England...
You get a fresh glass for each drink. Some older establishments may refill your glass if you are drinking the same beverage. It saves on washing up and means you have your 'own' glass - a nice touch, some are inclined to think. Bar staff should collect the empties from around the pub. Some pubs appreciate it if you can return your used glasses to the bar, as it makes for faster bar service if they don't have to go and collect empty glasses themselves.
People often go to the pub alone to meet friends or work colleagues or just about anyone at all. You do not have to go in with other people. However, if you do enter a pub it is thought to be polite to at least buy one drink from the bar, even if you are just using the amenities. There is an old English by-law however, harking back to the days of coaches and horses that states an inn is legally required to give any passing traveller water, so if you're gasping the landlord can't refuse you a pint of tap water!
In quiet pubs it is not unusual for lone drinkers to read the paper or a book while drinking. Leave these people to their literature. DO NOT engage them in conversation. They are there for the quiet and can well do without noisy interruption.
As of 1 July, 2007 smoking in English pubs was banned. Some pubs may allow smoking in designated areas outside, but this is rare. You might find a pub (or landlord) that opposes the ban and allows smoking in the premises, but this is unlikely due to the hefty fines applied. If you do smoke, you'll find yourself puffing away somewhere else other than in the lounge or snug at the local.
Pubs can be great sources of local information - about what's on locally, where to find historic landmarks, what restaurants to avoid, etc.
Many pubs have a variety of ornaments scattered around the premises which some people like to collect - particularly beermats, bar towels, ashtrays, drip trays, wall mounted paintings and brand-marked pint glasses. If you want to take any of these items it is best to ask the staff - however, many a pundit has developed quite a collection of aforementioned bric-a-brac. Be careful if you slip one under your jumper as you leave; if you're caught you'll be severely reprimanded15.
Pubs are busiest on a Friday night and Saturday night and get busier through the evening. Some pubs have doormen/bouncers to control patron numbers going in16.
Drinking elsewhere in the British Isles
While the above hints and tips are recommended for the patrons of English pubs, the same ideas can be used in most other drinking houses within the British Isles (Scotland, Wales and Ireland). In fact, pretty much anywhere in the world. There's just more than a few exceedingly English customs to be aware of...
For more about pubs and the English way of drinking try going into one near you. Remember, be sensible when drinking alcohol. Know your limits. Always have a way of getting home such as a designated driver. Another idea is to put £10 into an envelope with your name and address written on. In dire circumstances where you can’t tell a taxi driver where you live just hand them the envelope with fare and address all in one easy to use package. Most importantly though, have fun!