For Americans, pubs can be mysterious places. They’re similar enough to U.S. bars to be inviting, but different enough that, until you learn the ropes, you can often feel like at each visit you may find yourself feeling as if you’re violating a set of unspoken rules about what to drink, what to eat, and even about how you’re meant to act.
To unravel the secret codes and customs of pubs and pub etiquette, I went to a couple of experts- a publican* who we’ll call “J” and a barman who we’ll call “C.” Between them they have 30+ years experience working in pubs catering to tourists and locals.
The following is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation, which serves as an enlightening guide for Americans on how not to make arses of themselves in English pubs.
So first off, tell me what is a publican anyway?
J: The manager who runs the pub is the publican.
How do you feel, as a publican, when a group of Americans walk in to your pub?
J: I like the Americans, but usually you can hear them before they walk in. They get a bit excited and sometimes I feel they want people to know they’re Americans. They’re big, brash and loud.
C: You hear lots of “totallys” and “likes” and “awesomes.” I think most Americans view pubs in the way that we view American diners. It’s a tourist experience to them. You come to England, you go see Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London and then you go to a pub. I think that’s why Americans are sometimes more loud and exuberant, because it’s more of a tourism experience than just going out to drink and eat with a few friends.
Do Americans try to tip you? Is tipping really wrong in English pubs?
J: People read guidebooks that say you shouldn’t tip in London. If you look at central, west-end pubs, you get a lot of people that work in offices and they tip. The culture’s changing here, and in the big cities, it’s normal to leave a pound for good service. It’s still not like when I went to New York where if you don’t tip you won’t get any service, but it is changing here. I’ve had American tourists that bought a drink for four pounds and left a five pound note for a tip. I would say to them, ‘that’s excessive.’
What do Americans get right when they are out in pubs?
J: Americans are genuinely interested in history and the history of the pubs here. The last pub I worked in had been there since the 1520s, and that pub has been there since before there even was an America. It’s amazing that you can step in somewhere where people were drinking and enjoying themselves before the USA even existed.
What do Americans get wrong in pubs?
C: They assume you have an entire supermarket worth of ranges. A genuine English pub- you come in and can see what they have pretty easily, or you can see the menu. Americans will sometimes come in and ask “have you got x, y or z?” They’ll assume you have every single type of beer, whiskey, vodka, whatever, that’s ever been invented.
Do Americans ask for lite beer?
C: They do- it’s happened a few times
J: We say to them do you want it light in calories or light in colour?
C: I usually give them a Mexican beer like Sol, but I can’t see why if you’re drinking lots of beer that you’d be worrying about counting calories. I don’t get that at all.
How do I know a good pub from a bad pub?
J: Walk into the pub, and if someone smiles at you, you know it’s going to be a good pub. If you walk into a pub and they’ve got miserable faces, it’s a bad pub. Is it busy, is it clean, are they drinking nice beer? The things that are advertised- are they up to date, or from 2 weeks ago?
C: It’s easier to tell a bad pub than a good one. Generally, they’ll have lots of gambling machines. If there’s more than one fruit machine, it’s probably a bad pub. Also, if it’s loads of croaky old men sitting at the bar, not really talking, and all watching sky sports, then go somewhere else.
What’s an ale, what’s a bitter what’s a real ale?
J: They’re all different names for the same thing. It’s the same as publican, landlord, manager. All the same thing.
Should I drink real ale?
J: If you want to taste something that’s traditional and brewed in a way that’s very similar to how it was brewed hundreds of years ago, try real ale. We call it real ale because it’s real, it’s living- the secondary fermentation happens downstairs in our cellar. That’s how fresh it is. I’ve seen bars in Boston where they have 90 taps. If I walk into a pub and it has 90 taps, I may not fancy that because I’ll be thinking- ‘how long has that been sitting there? When was the last time someone had a drink out of that?’
Is English beer served warm?
J: We serve it cellar temperature- 11-13 degrees centigrade. Americans are always saying to me: “I want something cold- give me something cold.” What I say to them is- you go to an American barbecue- everyone is drinking bud, but no one ever finishes it. When it goes down to 1/3rd of a bottle, no one finishes it, because when it’s warm you can taste what it really tastes like. You taste our beer, it’s been produced the same way for hundreds of years, it’s been perfected.
Will you let the Americans try an ale before they pay for it?
J: If it’s a decent pub, you can always try an ale before you order it. If you asked to try the Glenfiddich or the Glenmorangie whiskey, we might throw you out, but here, you let people try things. If I went to the states- something that to you might be well-known, like sarsaparilla- you might know it and it might be normal for you, but I would need to try it first.*
Mostly beer is sold in pints- is it considered okay for me to order a half pint?
C: I might rib you a little bit about it.
J: I wouldn’t walk into a pub and ask for a half, but I think it depends how old you are. I used to have a group of guys who came into the pub, and they’d only drink halfs. They’re old, they can get away with it. If you walk into a pub on your own and ask for a half, they’re going to think you’re up to something dodgy. Is he here to steal someone’s bag?
How do I order a beer? I remember years ago people asking for a ‘mild’ or a ‘bitter?’
J:Well back then there was never that much choice. You had a bitter a lager and a mild and a stout. The service industry has changed a lot. Years ago, people would come up and order a vodka. Now they order vodka and we say, which vodka would you like, a grey goose, a Smirnoff. We give them a choice now. It’s a bit Americanised I guess you can say. There’s more choices.
C: The old guys still sometimes order that way- they’ll come in for a pint of bitter and then I narrow it down for them- do you want a London Pride?
J: Years ago, you’d have the one bitter, or the one mild. You also had accompaniments for each drink. You’d have all these bottles that they would pour into their drinks to mix them up. Like a barleywine would be mixed with a mild. Just to give you a bit more kick and variety.
Are children welcome in pubs? How about dogs?
J: You do have dog pubs- dog-friendly pubs, but not really in Central London. We do food, and we really don’t want to have a dog slobbering around. You can smell a dog pub.
C: If children come at lunch, that’s fine. But when it’s 10 o’clock on a Friday… I had this just the other day, the father and mother were playing on their phones and the son is walking around the looking for someone to talk to.
So pubs are more like restaurants than bars?
C: They’re just…. pubs. It’s a unique thing. It’s the public house. London is lots of little villages, or at least it used to be, and the pubs would be the centres of each little part of town. An informal town hall.
J: It’s the centre of the community, so people can go into a public house and meet their friends, have a few drinks, have a chin wag, a catch up. It’s nice. Yes, maybe you bring your kids- it makes it easier for families to meet- if your kids are well-behaved.
Americans are often surprised to see people standing outside the pubs, drinking. Do you do beer to take away?
J: There are two licenses, you have an “on-license” and an “off-license.” If you have an off-license you can sell alcohol to take off the premises, as long as it’s in a sealed container. Years ago, we used to do beer to take it home in these cardboard boxes, where you could pour in two pints. My father used to go to the off-license with a jug and he’d get it filled with draught beer, and then he’d cover it up with a tea towel and take it home. There’s also a license where you can have drinks from the pub while standing outside.
C: As long as you’re within the boundaries of the premises.
In the states when you order a cocktail, the bartender will just pour. Here you use those little measuring things. Are you just being stingy bastards?
J: Believe it or not in America, you’re doing the same. When you’re learning to do cocktails, when you’re becoming a mixologist, you’re training to count how fast that liquid pours out of there. When you free pour into a glass- in your head you’re counting ‘2, 3, 4…’ and you know that’s 25ml that you’ve just poured into that glass. It may look like more in America, because you’ve got all that crushed ice in there.
What food do Americans usually order in pubs– fish and chips?
J: No, it’s pies, generally. I had a guy here from San Francisco, he ordered a steak and ale pie, and he was so happy with it!
What’s the deal with every pub having a ‘sunday roast?’
C: The traditional thing that people in this country who were religious would do, would be to go to church and then come back and have a big family meal. It doesn’t really happen any more in family homes, it happens in the pub. If you go to church or if you watch football in the morning, you then go after to the pub to have your Sunday roast.
J: It’s roast beef, or chicken (or pork or lamb). It comes with roasted potatoes and broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage or carrots, with pork and sage stuffing, and you can also have Yorkshire pudding with it. It’s very traditional and if it’s cooked right it is the best meal.
Do you know any “A man walks into a pub jokes?”
J: A horse walks into the pub and the barman asks: “Why the long face?”
C: Two mushrooms walk into a bar, and they say they won’t serve them and they say “hey, we’re just two fungis!”
What’s your final word on pubs for our American readers?
J: Find those good pubs. Find those traditional places. You need to look on Tripadvisor, find them.
C: When we go to the states, we try the things that are typically American. Trying a real diner- that was important to us. We went to American bars as well. It was very nice thing to do. I always wanted to go to a drive-in movie- because that is the culture. When you go to Egypt, you go to the pyramids. When you come to England, you should go to the pubs.
*Editor’s note: Sarsaparilla is not only not common in America, outside of Bugs Bunny cartoons, I’ve never actually seen one.