Is there such a thing as the perfect pub?
As pub goers we all have our preferences and there are some pubs that always seem busy whilst others struggle to attract any custom at all. What is the magic ingredient that makes for a popular pub?
George Orwell famously eulogised about his perfect London pub as the mythical ‘Moon Under Water’, but I suspect that this perfect fictional vision would not be to everyone’s taste. Indeed, Orwell recognises that this is not always the ideal as ‘the qualities one expects of a country pub are slightly different’.
So is it possible to define the perfect pub?
No, I think not, it is far too subjective. I believe we can, however, identify some of the key characteristics of the perfect pub, the details of which may change according to individual taste.
The qualities that Orwell lists in his essay are quite specific, but they make a good start for our consideration. My thoughts capture many of the same general themes, which I would put into the following six broad categories:
Like Orwell, I do not consider beer to be the most important element of the pub. Sure, it has its place, and we will come to that later, but I think the most important thing is the staff.
In The Moon Under Water the barmaids are motherly; they “know most of their customers by name, and take a personal interest in everyone”. For my personal tastes I wouldn’t necessarily wish for my barmaids to be motherly, but the bar staff should show an interest in their customers and make them feel welcome: regulars and strangers alike.
What form this takes may vary depending upon your taste in pub. If you like a quiet, traditional pub, this might be the archetypal mine host, who knows you by name and will spend the evening putting the world to rights with you. In a busy city centre pub, however, this is unlikely to be possible, but the staff should still greet you with a smile and be pleasant, or maybe engage in banter.
This is probably the least controversial requirement for the perfect pub; it makes a huge difference and it really shouldn’t be that hard. It’s surprising, therefore, how many pubs fail at the first hurdle with surly, uncommunicative bar staff.
This is a broader and more indefinable category, which Orwell puts at the top of his list of qualities. He waxes lyrical about Victorian architecture and fittings with “no glass-topped tables or other modern miseries”. He also puts great store by a good fire in the winter.
All of this appeals to me greatly, especially at this time of year, but it is not to everyone’s taste. Some people prefer those ‘modern miseries’: the more traditional pub can be off-putting for women and younger people. My wife certainly favours a more contemporary, airy, light atmosphere. In the summer I too prefer something brighter, and a good garden becomes more important (something else that Orwell is very keen on).
Some pubs have an atmosphere more welcoming towards families, which is clearly important for some. Although I share Orwell’s views on making pubs welcoming to families in theory, in practice I generally run screaming from anywhere that is too family friendly. This is because children are often left to run around at will, screaming, shouting and generally being a nuisance – such a pub is unlikely to be on my perfect pub list.
“In the Moon Under Water it is always quiet enough to talk. The house possesses neither a radio nor a piano”, which very much plays into CAMRA’s preferences, but others prefer their pubs to be more lively and music can play a large part: probably not provided by radio or piano, but by juke box, a live band or, at the far extreme, blaring disco music. It is likely that you may favour different pubs at different times depending on your mood.
The important thing about atmosphere, however, is that the pub has some. As I said, this can be an indefinable quality: I’ve been to otherwise bland modern pubs which have it, and otherwise pleasant, traditional pubs that entirely lack it. Atmosphere is difficult to define, but it probably owes a lot to the staff and to the community, which we will come to next.
This is another subjective category, which may be closely linked to the atmosphere. It may manifest itself in many different ways.
At the most basic level, this is simply the type of people that the pub attracts: its regulars. At the Moon Under Water the clientele “consists mostly of “regulars” who occupy the same chair every evening and go there for conversation as much as for the beer”.
In other cases, the pub is genuinely the heart of the community and hosts skittles, darts or football teams, or puts on charity events. Or maybe the pub is a music pub and attracts a clientele based on their love of certain types of music.
The type of community you are attracted to is a very subjective thing, but if the pub is able to make you feel at home, surrounded by like-minded people, you are likely to enjoy it and keep returning. Of course, in this case one person’s pub heaven is another’s pub hell.
Should a pub sell food or should it not? This can be controversial, with purist beer lovers eschewing pubs that serve any kind of food, but others preferring the full-on gastro-pub experience. At The Moon Under Water you can get lunch, but not dinner, but it does have a snack counter.
Personally I don’t mind if the pub sells food, but the perfect pub must have somewhere separate that you can sit and just have a drink, and be made to feel welcome if that is what you want to do. That is not to say that I don’t like foodie pubs: if what I want is a nice meal out, I will often seek out this type of establishment, but it is more a restaurant than a pub.
And so, finally, we get to beer, which you may have thought that I would open with.
I consider the provision of good beer to be an important part of the perfect pub. Orwell is very specific on his requirement for a good draught stout; I am less prescriptive, but I do mean real ale. And, for that matter real cider too, ideally. I am less taxed than Orwell by the notion of what type of drinking vessel they are served in, but I do draw the line at plastic glasses.
Having said all of that, this is a very middle-aged, middle class view of the perfect pub. Many of the traditional back-street community pubs don’t stock real ale and their regulars have no interest in drinking it, so why should they.
The provision of good beer on its own is not enough to make my perfect pub: without getting the other aspects right it is still not going to be a good pub. On the other hand, a pub with good staff, good atmosphere and a good community feel could be an excellent place to drink, even if the beer’s not up to much.
So, what have we learnt here?
Not much I fear: the perfect pub is in the eye of the beholder.
However, to be someone’s perfect pub, I think there are some key things to get right, and they need not be expensive or difficult things. Pubs also need to identify what market they are targeting and do it well, not try to appeal to everyone: you can’t please all of the people all of the time.
So those are my thoughts, what have I missed? Let me know in comments below.