Creating the right atmosphere in a pub is rated as more important than the beer, the food or the prices, according to Pete Brown. Here he looks at the difficulty in finding that balance.
I’m writing this column in a pub. I’m here because I’m researching a new book on the British pub. It will review more than 300 pubs, the top 50 of those in detail, and will celebrate why the British pub is so special, so unique among retail establishments.
Every time pubgoers are asked what they look for in a pub, ‘atmosphere’ tops the responses. More important than the beer, the food or the prices, it needs to have that proper pub feel.
Pubs and pubgoers know this. George Orwell said it in his legendary essay The Moon Under Water in 1946, and market researcher Mintel says it every time it releases an updated report on the pub market.
So it’s astonishing how elusive the perfect pub atmosphere can be.
The pub I’m in has appeared in several good pub guides. It’s an historic pub — on the walls are pictures of the place during the years, grainy black and white photos of men with moustaches and those flat caps that seem comically large to modern eyes. The ceilings are low, the bare stone floors and old furniture give a stylish, farmhouse kitchen look. The pub is on a river, and we can look out of the window and see gaily painted barges puttering past.
The pub I’m in also has a massive plasma screen on one wall. The set is on, tuned to daytime TV programmes no one is watching. The sound is off, but close caption subtitles are on. I try not to look at it, but the movement and flashes on screen constantly draw my eye back, against my will. A speaker behind my head is blaring out ’80s power ballads. Even if you liked this kind of music, it’s probably something you’d play mid-evening rather than over a quiet weekday lunch. A massive fruit machine sits dead centre on the wall opposite the bar. If you want to gaze out at the beautiful view, the machine’s flashing lights are smack in the middle of it.
See the problem?
There are only two choices here. The first is that someone has thought about what kind of atmosphere they want to create here, and that person had absolutely no idea what appeals to people in specific situations. They probably put on fluorescent strip lights and heavy metal music when they want to get romantic with their partner, or sit and watch EastEnders after inviting friends over for drinks.
The second is that, in a reasonably large pub in a prime location, no one has given any thought to atmos-phere at all.
I’m astonished how often this happens. I’ve come away disappointed from so many pubs that are centuries old, or are architecturally unique, or have the best views over rolling countryside you can imagine, or are famed for their cuisine or beer list, because no attention has been given to the most important aspect of what makes pubs appeal to people.
All of which makes my admiration for those who get it right even greater. If you understand how to create the right atmosphere, you don’t need any of the above attributes to create a great pub. Sure, atmosphere is created by people, the publican first and foremost. But it’s also in the subtle arrangement of the furniture, a quirky choice of decoration, the way the chalkboards are written, or something so subtle, you can’t even detect it.
These are the pubs I’m writing about; the pubs I want to drink in, the pubs I simply want to be in. It would be great if there were more
of them around.