Tag: Pubs

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Buy the Big Issue!

No, I haven’t fallen on hard times.

This week’s edition, the one with this cover:
has a piece by me on ‘the death of the pub’, and what’s really happening, and why The Pub will never die as a concept.
Oh, and it helps the homeless as well – the only people (apart from skint pensioners) to have a decent excuse for not liking the snow.

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The ‘Death’ of the pub – a global news story

After seemingly trying to destroy the pub for the last few years, the media seem to be having a change of heart, with a flurry of articles mourning the death of the British pub over the last week or two, and even a programme on the subject on the BBC last Friday.

And it’s attracted attention from overseas too: last week in the space of two days I gave a lengthy interview to a Dutch broadsheet newspaper on the subject, and a TV interview to the same country’s equivalent of Newsnight.  Thankfully they went easier on me than Paxman would have.
Knowing a bit of Dutch might help you follow the narrative, but most of the interviews here are in English.  You need to fast forward through the programme to 10 minutes 30 secs.

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Bemused beer bore wonders: is it me that’s stupid, or the pub landlord?

We all know what’s to blame for the fact that five pubs in Britain are closing down every day: the credit crunch, the smoking ban, the government and their cruel tax increase, the supermarkets and their evil low prices, the punter and their insistence on staying home. 

I beg to offer an alternative point of view.  My story doesn’t apply to all pubs by any means, but I’d hazard a guess that most of the places that are being closed down have more rather than less in common with the establishment below.
Tonight me and BLTP went to a rather fine concert by Low at Koko, a very cool music venue let down only by the fact that you have to pay £3.70 for a lukewarm can of 1664 if you’d like a beer with your music.
As with most places in London the noise curfew is 11pm, which means the band usually shuffle offstage around 10.40 and you’re outside 5 minutes later.  You’ve had a couple of drinks, but thanks to the combination of not wanting to miss much of the gig and the fact that you’re paying £3.70 for a lukewarm can of 1664, you’re not pissed.
Just across the road from Koko is The Crescent, a standard format town centre chain pub.  We got into The Crescent at 10.48.  They told us that the bar was closed – chairs were already on the tables, and they were cashing up.  
Now, I’m no expert, but if I was running a pub in an economic downturn which was claiming five pubs every day, and I was twenty yards away from a music venue that I knew would be turning out about a thousand punters onto the streets late at night, and I was the closest pub, I’d take an interest.  Admittedly, if I discovered the gig had been some secret set by Westlife, I’d bar the doors and windows – but I might set up a lemonade stand outside.  But if I knew the band in question had a target audience that consisted primarily of geeks and nervous middle-aged blokes, a few of whom had impossibly cute girlfriends dressed in Amelie-chic while the rest silently fumed ‘how come he manages to find a cute indie girlfriend and I don’t’, and I knew the majority of these people probably wanted one drink to chat about the gig before catching the tube home because it’s a Wednesday and they had to get up for work in the morning, I’d be seeing pound signs.
I’d be thinking, ‘you know what, since the Licensing Act of 2005, I can take advantage of flexible opening, and for the sake of paying, say, two or three staff to work later, I could probably take an extra £500 over the bar in half an hour with a minimum of fuss.  And this happens two or three times a week!  I’m sitting on a fucking gold mine!’  
I certainly wouldn’t be closing the pub EARLY in order to avoid the unnecessary hassle of all these punters coming in cluttering up the place.
It’s not just this particular pub – though it’s a particularly striking example of this phenomenon – it’s a common experience BLTP and I have after gigs.  It was just about understandable when pubs had to close at 11pm – they just set the clocks ten minutes fast to avoid the hassle.  But when you have the option of staying open later, but you’d rather not have the bother… am I missing something?  Or are some publicans their own worst enemies? 

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Happy Hour Again

You must have seen the thing in the news the other day about the call to ban happy hours.  There’s been quite a bit of debate about the fact that cut-price drinks are next in the firing line for the current gaggle of moral crusaders.

The positions on both side of the debate are very familiar and not worth repeating here.  What I think is fascinating is that the pub happy hour is the only aspect of this issue that anyone is talking about, when in fact the call from MPs has been for a ban on happy hours AND cut-price deals in supermarkets.  Any sane observer of the British drinking experience knows that it’s ten bottles of Carlsberg for a fiver in Asda that’s causing far more trouble than half-price pints between six and seven, but on the whole that’s been ignored yet again.  
No doubt the pub industry will be up in arms about this – it’s yet another example about how the media pick on the pub.  Yet again, the real culprits – the supermarkets – are getting away with murder.
But I think it’s not that simple.  I think the reason for the imbalance in coverage is that the pub remains so culturally potent.  
As of this year we drink half our alcohol at home.  The latest slew of surveys shows that, for the first time in British history, a slight majority of people prefer drinking at home rather than in the pub.  But nobody wants to talk about supermarkets – they’re boring.  The pub and the happy hour are cultural institutions.  To anyone outside the alcohol industry, that aspect of the current proposals is far more newsworthy, far more emotive, than whether or not Tesco’s is going to get its wrists slapped.  
Yes, we should constantly remind anyone in a position to affect the alcohol trade that cheap deals in supermarkets are where the problem really lies.  But we should actually take comfort from the fact that people only want to talk about pubs.  When the regulation of what happens in your local boozer is no longer deemed newsworthy, that’s when we really need to start worrying.

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The Yin and Yang of JD Wetherspoons, part 3

My first post about JDW was a glowing account of their last national real ale festival. My second post about the chain was a scathing attack on one pub’s out-of-control security thugs. For a brand that is supposedly consistent (whether you like it or not) across its 600-odd outlets, Wethersopoons really does offer both extremes of the pub-going experience.

Yesterday we see-sawed back to the good end. I went in my local branch, The Rochester Castle, for a quick pint, saw a beer from the Orkney Brewery (whose Dark Island Reserve is the past beer I’ve tasted in years) and tried a pint. It tasted like it had been diluted with tonic water and lemon, and had a very odd texture. Knowing how experimental Scottish brewers are just now, I had another sip. An assertive summer beer? No. If it was meant to taste like this it was a foul beer, and I didn’t think Orkney capable of that.

I hate taking pints back to the bar. Eight times out of ten some newly-arrived adolsecnet antipodean barman will take a swig, say, “tastes alright to me,” and you’re in a battle of wills then. It’s worse for me now, because a little demon pops up and suggests I point out that I’m a beer expert – which I am – but I still sound like an utter wanker if I say so.

But this one had to go back. I explained to the barmaid that it simply didn’t taste right. She didn’t ask for any explanation. She didn’t taste the beer herself. She didn’t say “well no-one else has complained”, or any other of those passive-aggressive, anyone-who-says-the-customer-is-always-right-must-be-an-arse phrases. She took my pint off me, set it carefully aside, and immediately took off the pump clip of the beer in question, taking it off sale. She asked me what I’d prefer instead, served me a fresh pint, then took my dodgy one to the bar manager.

This is only what you’d expect from any decent pub. But I confess it’s not what I expected from Wetherspoons. Deeply impressive. To redress the schizophrenic karmic balance they seem to maintain in the market, this probably means I’ll be murdered next time I go in.

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From the sublime to the Ridiculous: The Piss Poor Pub on the Park, Hackney

Nice facade. Shame about everything else.
Each of us who cares about beer and pubs has a duty to warn the rest against the potential of being ripped off. After waxing lyrical about the Cricket Inn, I’m therefore compelled to bring attention to the Pub on the Park on London Fields.

It’s a great building in a perfect location, with a beer garden and terrace looking out onto the park, across which lies Broadway Market – a lovely place to get your ricotta and sun-blushed tomatoes if Borough’s a bit too busy. It attracts the shaggy-haired, ironically t-shirted artisanal bread-shopping crowd who love reading their copy of the Guardian while keeping an eye on the football, and markets itself accordingly: a charming array of mismatched furniture, and an excellent selection of ales and speciality beers on the bar as well as the premier league of ‘world’ lagers (you know the brands I mean, and I think most of them are decent beers. But if these are ‘world’ lagers, where do the other lagers come from? Space? Anyway, different topic).

So far so good – the perfect pub – until you order something to eat or drink.

They had Grolsch Weizen on tap. In bottle this is a stunning wheat beer, all the moreso for the low expectations you probably have when you see the word ‘Grolsch’ on the label. That’ll teach you to be snobby about big brewers. So I ordered a pint of it. The barman had never heard of it before. I had to point it out to him on the bar. He gave it to me in a Stella glass. Nice touch there mate. I also ordered a half a Leffe for my wife, which was also served in a Stella half pint glass. And then the world turned upside down.

“Seven pound seventy please, mate.”

“I’m sorry? I thought you just said it was seven pounds seventy for a pint and a half of beer just then!”

“That’s right. These beers are a little expensive, just over five pounds a pint.”

Over five pounds a pint is not ‘a little expensive’. It’s taking the piss. Even the Rake , often criticised for its pricing, wouldn’t charge this much for these beers, and their staff warn you in advance if you’ve ordered something super-expensive. The only beers they charge this much for are those that are rarely available on draught, and beers that you shouldn’t be drinking in pints anyway becauise they’re above 7%ABV. By contrast, here were two premium, ‘speciality’ yet freely available commercial brands, served in the wrong fucking glassware by a man who wasn’t even aware that one of them was sitting on the bar he stood behind for six hours a day. I had been well and truly robbed.

After all that, the beer was deeply average. It tasted like Hoegaarden, not Grolsch Weizen, and these are two quite distinctly different wheat beers.

I then made the mistake of ordering food. All the main courses were basic pub fare and every dish came with chips. In this situation, with nothing better to choose from, I usually order fish and chips. I’ve been lucky recently, getting fish in pubs how it should be: crisp, golden, light batter, soft flaky fish inside.

In Pub on the Park, my luck ran out. My fillet of fish – if indeed that’s what it truly was – had clearly spent much, much longer in a cardboard box in a deep freezer somewhere than it ever had in its native aquatic environment. The batter was thick and wooden, the deep, shit-brown colour of the last thing in the bottom of a deep fat fryer that hasn’t been cleaned for a long time. There was a thin layer of something white and runny inside it. The chips were carboardy oven chips.

I would have complained if I thought this was in any way below the standard they aimed for, but as our plates were wordlessly plonked in front of us by a scowling woman who answered our query about salt and vinegar by pointing to a table on the other side of the pub, where we had to go and fetch our own knives and forks and salt, vinegar and sauce, all in those unbranded, cheap, nasty little plastic sachets you only ever see in dives and dirty motorway service stations, I knew there was little point.

The whole meal was inedible. Given that I left it, any server who cared one shred about what their customers thought would have asked me if the meal was OK. As the scowling woman came back to collect our still-full plates, she didn’t say a word.

Pub on the Park is a down-at-heel, no-strings, back street boozer pretending to be a well-run, modern food and drink pub. Judging by how busy it was yesterday, it’s getting away with this deception. Don’t go there. Tell everyone you know not to go there. If this blog post changes one person’s mind about visiting this pub, and deprives it of the twenty quid I wasted in there, I’ll be happy.

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Food of the Gods: the Cricket Inn, Totley, South Yorkshire

Times are tough for pubs, no-one’s disagreeing about that. On Wakefield Road, between Barnsley and the village of Mapplewell, where I grew up, there are about seven pubs over four miles. When I was up there in July, five of them were boarded up.

Running a pub was never the post-retirement, easy option many people see it to be. But even today, if you put the work in, and you know what you’re doing, you tend to do OK. I’ve never, ever seen a pub that does great food and a fine and interesting selection of well-kept ales on its uppers. Never. Just a few miles from those ghost pubs outside Barnsley, when the Acorn lads took me round Sheffield we found pubs like the Hillsbrough Hotel and Kelham Island Tavern were packed to the rafters. We literally couldn’t squeeze through the door at the Fat Cat. These were clearly destination pubs that knowledgable drinkers had travelled to. The lesson for the local is that it needs to cast its net further afield.

While I was up north, Thornbridge took me to a pub I’d happily travel two hundred miles to for dinner – their latest aqcuisition, the Cricket Inn.

The pub is just outside Dore. Every northern town these days seems to have a village or suburb they proudly boast is home to the biggest concentration of twats – sorry, that should have said ‘millionaires’ – outside Knightsbridge. This usually means it’s where the local footy team and their WAGS park their sports cars and it-bags. Dore is Sheffield’s version, and the old animosity between Barnsley fans and Sheff Wednesday fans in no way influences my belief that local residents Chris Waddle and Carlton Palmer don’t exactly compete in the glamour stakes with Wilmslow, where there is a profusion of far bigger twats.

But we don’t really do that kind of glamour in South Yorkshire. The Cricket stands at the foot of a low range of Pennine foothills, dry-stone-walled fields rising gently to the bruise-coloured ridge. Even when the drizzle is siling down – and you have to assume it will be – the view is diverting.

Inside, the pub is a warren or rooms with stone floors, oak beams and muted, earthy Farrow & Ball-style paints. A mixed collection of solid tables, chairs, benches and old school pews create an informal, relaxed ambience, and the clincher is that you can’t book a table anywhere. This isn’t a gastropub, just a pub that does really good food. And how.

The Thornbridge lads – Simon the CEO, Alex, Paul – had mentioned that we might be popping in. Chef Jack, had replied, “Oh, I’ll put a few snacks on for you then.” So we didn’t need to look at the menu, but I did anyway. It’s a big A3 sheet. One side manages to give a brief history of the pub before going on to explain the principles of beer and food matching and supply a few recommendations, all in less than about 200 words. The other side boasted big wooden sharing platters, British Isles seafood, home-made pies, Sunday roasts and sandwiches, many with suggested pairings of Thornbridge ales and other beers.

And then Jack appeared with a piece of slate about a foot and a half square. “A few snacks” were piled upon it: pork crackling, sausages, gravy, fries, olives, anchovies, prawn skewers… there was far too much here for one table. And then another, identically-sized slate arrived, groaning under ribs, potato wedges, monkfish cheeks, steak & kidney & cow-heel pie, home-made black pudding.

Simon leaned over to me. “You’ve got to watch Jack. He’s a feeder. I come in here to catch up with some work and at half nine in the morning he’s sidling up going, here, see what you think of this, or try a plate of this.”

The ribs were marinated in a sticky, viscous mix of Thornbridge’s strong, inky St Petersburg porter, orange juice, Demerara sugar, brown sauce, garlic, ginger and Tabasco. The meat slid form the bone.

I ate the first nice Scotch egg I’ve ever had. Jack spends an hour making them. It’s his ambition to make a Scotch egg that’s still soft in the middle. Given that you have to boil the egg first, then shell it and cook it again inside its meat casing, this would require a considerable degree of skill. He’d almost managed it with this one.

And then, the food of the Gods. Simon, who is right about most things, made a colossal mistake when he described the piece de resistance as a Sheffield fishcake. As any fule kno, it’s called a Barnsley fishcake. We were both in a good mood, so we compromised and christened it a Yorkshire fishcake. (It’s listed on the menu, diplomatically but a little boastfully, as the ‘Cricket Inn fishcake’.) If you think a fishcake is a small disc deep-fried in radioactive orange bread crumbs, you had a cruelly deprived childhood. If you think a fishcake is all salmon and herbs mixed up and pan-fried, you’ve been spending too long in middle-class gastroworld. A Yorkshire fishcake – a true fishcake – is a collection of fish offcuts sandwiched between two large scallops of potato, covered in crispy golden batter, served with mushy peas – like it was here – or curry sauce. It was the taste of my youth. Here it was matched with Thornbridge’s Lord Marples, a delicious caramel colour and a deep, sweet flavour. Together in the mouth, this sweet maltiness combined with the fish to invent new flavours and textures, spiralling off into heaven.

This was good, honest pub food, the kind of dishes that have been served for generations, but treated with the same degree of dedicated perfectionism you’d expect in a top restaurant. What better template could there be for today’s pub? The Cricket is not the first pub I’ve encountered with this philosophy – the Marquess in Islington springs to mind very quickly – and every time I find a pub like this business is booming, and the walls are filling up with awards and adulatory press clippings. This is how you do it. It’s not the only way to beat the crunch, but it’s a very joyous one.

We did as much damage as we could to the slates before begging for them to be taken away. I heaved a sigh of relief, which turned into a whimper of fear as chef Jack reappeared with a big apple pie in a traditional 1940s white tine dish with blue piping, nine different ice creams, a Bakewell pudding, crème brulee, a chocolate sponge and a treacle tart, and a cheese plate. And lots of custard, “Cos everyone loves custard,” he said, as he covered the last available inch of the large table top.

Thornbridge were already the most exciting and innovative young brewery in England. As they continue to seek out pubs they can do this to (the pub company, BrewKitchen, is a joint venture with Richard Smith, Sheffield’s most celebrated cook), they look like raising the bar on what a pub should deliver too.

You could almost forgive them all for being Wednesday fans.

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Official: pubs are better than Ant and Dec

It’s true. Pubs are nearly as good as the Queen. But not as good as fish and chips. But then… what about fish and chips IN A PUB? Being eaten BY the Queen? How good would THAT be?
What am I talking about?

A Cornish Pasty, yesterday. Better than real ale. Not as good as pubs.

A new survey of 7,000 people conducted by Holiday Inn asked people in the UK what they loved most about Britain. And despite relentless bad publicity, misinformation, the smoking ban, soaring beer duty and cheaper-than-water beer in supermarkets, “old-fashioned British pubs” came in at NUMBER THREE, behind Her Maj in second place, and fish and chips in pole position. This means that the great British pub is officially cooler than:

  • The Beatles
  • Manchester United (yeah, I know – we hardly needed telling that)
  • James Bond
  • Steven Fry
  • Er… the NHS

So why is the pub struggling so much? Well, there’s a clue in the way this story was reported in The Express, which refers to the pub as a “nostalgic symbol of a bygone Britain”. Pubs are fine when seen in the same light as red telephone boxes and cream teas, it’s just the modern pub we don’t like.Except we do.Fashions in the on-trade are cyclical, and the very best pubs today are redicovering the joys of the traditional English pub – its decor, its menu, its range of cask ales – and presenting them in a way that’s appealing and contemporary rather than retro. This survey is proof that people respond to that. Incidentally, real ale made the list at number 40. Not as cool as Routemaster buses, Glastonbury or Cornish pasties. But way more loved than Pimms, David Bowie, the E-type Jag, Prince Harry, and – oh, sweet joy – the bride of Satan herself, Margaret Thatcher. Erm, Morris Dancers just sneak in at number 50.

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24 hour drinking: the truth

Who’s calling me a twat?
To Camden last night, to see My Bloody Valentine.
“Hey Pete, was it a good gig?”

PARDON?

“I said was it a good gig?”

CAN’T HEAR WHAT YOU’RE SAYING! IT WAS A REALLY GOOD GIG BUT THE TWENTY MINUTE FULL-ON DRONE IN THE FINALE, YOU MADE ME REALISE, WAS SO FULL-ON CONFRONTATIONALLY LOUD IT MADE MY TROUSERS SHAKE, I FEARED A NOSEBLEED, PEOPLE WERE RUNNING FOR THE EXIT HOLDING THEIR EARS, AND THE WHOLE THING HAS LEFT ME A BIT MUTTON!

(If you’re feeling like you want to challenge your perceptions of reality, turn the sound on your computer up to FULL and imagine this lasting twenty minutes. This one is not as well shot, but gives a better sense of the PANIC and RAPTURE evoked by the full piece).

Anyway, with our ears ringing, Chris and I, via sign language, decided to go for a swift pint. It was 11.05pm in Camden, one of the most happening, cool parts of Swinging London – sorry, that should have read Swinging London – a city that prides itself on giving New York a run for its money as a fun-filled carnival that never sleeps.

The first six pubs we passed were closed.

Obviously, no restaurants were open. It was a Tuesday night for God’s sake! People have to WORK tomorrow! Were we MAD?

Eventually we came to Camden Lock, and The Ice Wharf, a Lloyd’s No.1 (Posh Wetherspoons) pub. Stencilled on every window (there are a lot of windows) were the words OPEN TILL MIDNIGHT. Hey, we thought, we’re in luck.

On the door of an almost empty pub on a Tuesday night were two black-clad bouncers. They stopped us as we tried to go in.

“Sorry, you’re too late,” I lipread one of them saying.

“You’re open till midnight,” I replied.

“No we’re not.”

“Yes, you are, it says on all the windows, very clearly, open till midnight.”

“Yes, but only for people who are already in here.”

“It doesn’t say that, it says open till midnight.”

“Well, it’s very late now.”

It was 11.18pm.

“I know what time it is. We want one pint and then we want to go home.”

“Well, you won’t have enough time to finish your drinks.”

“Yes we will! Forty minutes for one pint is plenty of time!”

We were sober and reasonable. he really didn;t want to let us in, but eventually he relented. If I wasn’t cool enough to get into a Wetherspoons pub then things were clearly looking grim. But I soon realised it was the bouncers, rather than us, who were the fucking twats of the piece.

We got our tasty pints of ale and sat down. At a table near us were four studenty looking lads. OK, they were sharing a big pitcher of WKD, but that’s a crime against taste, not a crime against humanity, and anyway, the pub had just served it to them. One lad went to the toilet, and while he was away his mate slid down along the banquette seat they were occupying, till he was half-sitting, half lying back. He wasn’t collapsed. His eyes were open. He was carrying on a quiet, lucid conversation with his friends. His feet were not on the seat.

When his friend came back, the recumbent lad sat upright again to allow him to sit down. But the bouncer wasn’t far behind. As Toilet Boy sat down, the bouncer told them both to leave. Toilet Boy had “spent too long” in the toilet, and his mate had “been lying down”. Against the fact that the lads were not slurring, swearing, or behaving anti-socially in any way whatsoever, these crimes apparently constituted behaviour not befitting a Wetherspoon’s pub. The boys were indignant, but not violent, threatening or abusive. They protested, and asked to see the manager. Eventually a boy of about fifteen appeared and claimed that he was the manager. When the lads put their case to him, he refused to listen. His words were “I’m in charge on that side of the bar, he [the bouncer] is on charge on this side. It’s nothing to do with me.”

Thinsg were clearly about to get nasty, and we moved to the other side of the large, empty, quiet pub, and took a seat next to a young couple. As soon as the bouncer and his mate had finished ejecting the four lads, he came over and threatened the man in the couple with eviction unless he removed his baseball cap. Maybe there’s a rule about headgear in Wetherspoons pubs – is it so we can all be surveilled properly as we drink? – but to anyone with even half a brain, this bloke sitting with his girlfriend was about as threatening as Kayo Odejayi in front of goal.

I posted on here recently about how you had to give JD Wetherspoon their due. For all their faults, they really do care about cask ale. But here were Wetherspoons bouncers going out of their way to create an atmosphere of tension and incipient violence, spoiling the night of every single person in the pub, not just those they roamed around picking on. And here was a bar manager in charge of a large Wetherspoons pub saying he had no responsibility whatsoever for the well-being or satisfaction of his customers, admitting that this bouncer, who was clearly out of control, was a law unto himself.

If anyone from Wetherspoons reads this blog – sort yourselves out. Get a sense of perspective. Employ people who are going to stop fights rather than start them, and bar managers with a sense of responsibility to their paying customers. Even better – in situations when bouncers are obviously not necessary, don’t have them at all. The boredom turn these small-minded, vicious pricks into the very aggressors they’re supposed to be keeping out.

If anyone else is near a Wetherspoons and fancies one quiet, late night drink – I urge you to find somewhere else instead.

We did eventually get another pint at a pub down the road. They allowed us in and served us without comment. They allowed us to drink in the beer garden till 12.30 . When the beer garden closed, they asked us politely to move inside, where we could carry on drinking if we wished. But like most people, we checked the time, and left quietly. There were no bouncers, and there was no anger, aggression, or trouble.

Go figure.