The experience: A proper, indoor English pub crawl
The Reason: Because, if forced to spend one more evening sitting at a bistro set on a frigid sidewalk feigning interest in conversation, I may have given up on London life entirely
The smell of beer dripping freely from the tap, freshly sanitised mahogany surfaces, and eggs in the deep fryer. The feeling of yesterday’s mystery liquid sticking to the bottom of your shoe. Someone else’s purebred cocker spaniel eating whatever you’ve spilt under your table. The sound of people using their outdoor voices indoors, and slurred, pint-fuelled proclamations of love filling the air. This is Saturday afternoon at the English pub.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, allow me to remind you that on May 17th indoor dining reopened in the UK. Lately, it’s been raining a lot in England, metaphorically and otherwise, and the social significance of this event cannot, and will not be overlooked. I’ll paint you a picture:
Imagine you’re standing at the gates of heaven, and it’s really drab and boring outside, it’s been a merciless winter, and God (who is a male for the sake of this illustration) waltzes up in a casually unbuttoned flannel shirt with a notepad and pen. He looks, dare I say, kind of hot, and he says jovially, “You can all come on in! The bar is fully stocked and I’m ready to take your order!” In that moment, you might feel like you could literally kiss God in gratitude. You obviously wouldn’t, because that would be weird, and people have been damned for th
As a Canadian who moved to London in January in the eerily quiet state of lockdown, I’ve been eager to immerse myself fully in this cherished cultural cornerstone that means so much to so many. Guenther Steiner, an Italian engineer, once said, “I learned English in a pub. I didn’t learn it in school.” And while I’m neither Italian nor an engineer, I totally understand what Guenther means. If you want to truly get to know a person, you go to their heart (or contact their ex-girlfriends.) If you want to get to know England, you go to the pub.
There is nothing special about the pub, and that’s what makes it so special. The food is perfectly passable, the wine list has usually been slapped together from a wholesale special at Bargain Bins, and the beer is, well, beer! What more could you ask for? You’re not visiting the pub for a Michelin star experience. You’re visiting the pub to be comfortable. You’re visiting the pub to be taken care of by a borderline rude and slightly abusive server. You’re visiting the pub to sit on an old, wooden chair, or else in an old, gin-stained velvet booth.
You can wear whatever you want to the pub. That’s half the beauty of it. But because this is a fashion brand, and because we’re all flying a little too close to the sun with our “athleisure” wear these days, I put my best foot forward in a selection of Rotaro’s new spring arrivals.
That’s the thing about the pub, you’re equally allowed to look lazy or fabulous. All things go. It’s a “come as you are” kind of place. I have a feeling a lot of happily married couples met in one. I have a feeling a lot of divorced people met in one too. It’s an electric container, ripe with beginnings, endings, and all the in-betweens.
Of course, I couldn’t rely solely on my subjective assessment of the pub. I realised I would need insight from seasoned patrons to authenticate this piece. No one has ever called me shy, and thus I took it upon myself to tour around the Cock & Bottle interrupting people’s private conversations and asking them, like a drunk Barbara Walters, exactly what they love about these historic public watering holes.
I generally enjoy surprising British men with direct questions like, “Do you ever think about your own death?” so, asking, “Why do you personally love the pub?” felt like a soft toss. Once the fear of being abruptly approached by a blonde tourist in a lilac blazer wore off, their defenses crumbled, and their souls started speaking. “It’s a place where we feel safe,” said a young gentleman with good bone structure in a striped, nautical sweater. “It’s our second living room. We can just be ourselves.”
“We don’t filter ourselves here,” said his friend who was larger and sported a thick beard. He looked like someone you wouldn’t want to catch on the wrong side of a barroom brawl, and when he added, “We say whatever we want and there is no political correctness,” I got the sneaking suspicion he may be the type of gentlemen who says what he wants everywhere, but I took it as a glistening gem of insight anyways.
“It’s been so long since we’ve been together in person, this feels really good,” said the third, who had to finish his drink before sharing that sentiment. I got the sense that if I lingered at their table any longer, we might light a few candles, hold hands, and start telling each other silly secrets from our childhood, so I moved on to the next establishment and wished those merry men and their lager well.
As the day unfolded, more poignant Pub Codes of Behaviour emerged. The classic Pub Pick-Up was attempted at The Cow by a man who tried to employ his dog, Peaches, to get our attention by unleashing her and sending her, rather forcefully, in the direction of our table. Peaches clearly didn’t get the memo as she bee-lined for an elderly couple enjoying a hot brisket at the back of the bar instead. He kept hissing, “Peaches!” and motioning unsubtly in our direction. I could tell this was also Peaches' first time in a pub. Hard to imagine she wasn’t a dog of divorce, with that kind of name.
At The Westbourne, we were greeted by a bouncer who took the liberty of telling everyone at the door that he was from “the most southern state in the US,” inviting you to guess what state that was, and since it was his job to block the entrance, your guess was mandatory. I guessed Florida because I took US geography once when I was six. “Bingo!” he said with a big sparsely toothed grin. I did not win anything for my answer. Later, because I’m a magnet for the eccentric, I circled back and asked him what he liked about the pub, to which he immediately answered, “Nothing.” Fair enough, but I lingered longer than was comfortable, fishing for fruit. “Fine,” he said, exhausted by my persistence, “English pubs aren’t like American pubs. They take it more seriously here. They drink harder and love it harder.”
It has long been a suspicion of mine that there is a wise messiah hiding inside of every doorman. That is the magic of the pub. It makes poets of bouncers. It makes philosophers of stockbrokers. On its best days, it makes lovers of lads, allies of adversaries. It makes this cynic wax romantic. It makes us all want a big, cold pint.
If this hard and heavy year has taught us something, it’s that life doesn’t owe us anything at all. But I do believe England owes itself the pub. Get out there, or rather in there, and enjoy it.
Try or not to try: This one’s rather obvious. Try it nightly, unless you’re allergic to gluten and gentrified cocker spaniels.
The 3 Pieces I wore to the Pub:
Stine Goys Lilac Blazer
Rent Now From £29
Line By K Ribbed Midi
Rent Now From £20
Written by Sam Ellis