Brown: In search of pub perfection

By Pete Brown

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Brown: In search of pub perfection

Related tags Pub Fa cup Brown

Pete Brown takes on the challenge made by a friend to visit his favourite pub, but not to mention it in a book he is writing for fear it will become uninhabitable if others know about it...   

I find myself with the extremely high-quality problem — though it remains a problem nevertheless — of having to write three books simultaneously this year.

One of them is a celebration of the British pub, and will profile 50 pubs that just have some magic about them: perhaps they sell great beer, maybe the architecture is stunning — or maybe not. What matters is that they’ll all possess the key attribute that everyone from George Orwell 70 years ago to market researchers today say is so important... atmosphere.

When I tell people I’m working on a project like this, they often have strong opinions and recommendations. My favourites are those that are given grudgingly.

I had one last weekend. A friend who grew up in east London told me about his favourite pub.


It’s in the middle of a rapidly gentrifying area, but has retained its homespun authenticity.

“You should definitely check it out,” my friend said, giving us directions. “You’ll love it. But don’t put it in your book. You’re not allowed. If you do, all the idiots will find it and then it will be ruined.”

(He didn’t really say “idiots” — he was far more colourful.)

There’s a delicate balance with the perfect pub. We want it to do well, and we want the people who run it to enjoy the financial success they deserve. But that essential atmosphere is created not just by the publican (though they are usually the single most important factor) but also by the people who drink there. We justly celebrate that a great pub caters to everyone, but we only feel truly comfortable if we feel it caters specifically for people like us — whoever ‘we’ are.

When we found my mate’s perfect pub last Saturday lunchtime, we had ordered our perfectly conditioned pints of cask ale and taken them to a seat already occupied by a dozing pub cat before we realised that the — er... — idiots had beaten us to it.


Four young people in the corner were competing to outdo each other in a competition to be the most annoying person in the world. They didn’t realise they were doing that of course: like oversized children playing Let’s Pretend, they were imagining themselves as improvisational comedians on stage — the stage being the banquette seats and table they kept jumping on.

In the 15 minutes it took us to drink up and leave, a dozen other people entered the pub, and either left straight away or bought their drinks and took them outside.

When we left, this wonderful pub was empty apart from the four idiots and the barman who was clearly a friend of theirs, seemingly quite happy for them to scream and climb on the furniture, because he didn’t have to do any work while they kept the pub empty.

Maybe I sound like a grumpy old man. But the problem was not that they were young and mistaking themselves for the funniest people in the world. We’ve all been that age, precocious and self-important, imagining how fabulous we must look.

The problem was that they’d transgressed the unwritten rule about how the pub self-governs and self-regulates.

As pubgoers, we quickly develop an ability to recognise the level of atmosphere in a pub and remain within its zone. If we walk into a pub with a big screen and the FA Cup final is on, and everyone is shouting at the screen, we’ll cheer as long and as loudly as we can if the team we support scores a goal.


But if the pub is quiet, and we’re the only ones watching the game, we’ll probably confine ourselves to a fist pump and a half-whispered “Yeeesssssss!”. We learn that the pub is a shared space and we don’t treat it like we’re the only people in there. We learn not to overstep the boundaries and draw undue attention to ourselves.

We learned these rules as junior drinkers, tolerated if we were a year or two under age so long as we kept our heads down and treated other drinkers, and the premises, with re-spect. If we didn’t do this, we might have been cautioned by more senior drinkers. If that didn’t work, we could expect to be thrown out, even barred.

A generation that forges its relationship with alcohol outside the pub doesn’t figure out how the pub works. They neither know nor care about the invisible fabric that makes the pub work as a shared social space.

I’ll be respecting my friend’s wishes and leaving the pub out of the book. But I’m still glad for the experience. Sometimes, a disappointment is as good as a perfect find if it helps you realise and articulate what makes a truly great pub.

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