When is a pub not a pub?

By Sophie Atherton

- Last updated on GMT

Identity crisis?: 'If people can go in and have a few pints in a decent bar without feeling as though they should be ordering food, then it’s a pub.'
Identity crisis?: 'If people can go in and have a few pints in a decent bar without feeling as though they should be ordering food, then it’s a pub.'
Sophie Atherton wonders if the pub is in the eye of the beholder after a friend has a confusing experience

A friend of mine had a perturbing pub-based experience recently. I say ‘pub-based’ but well, see what you make of it. Said friend lives very close to the sea in the south of England. “Something weird happened to me in my local and I need your take on it,” she told me. I awaited a tale of intrigue or possible misadventure!

It happened on a Sunday during a bank holiday weekend. She’d been for a walk with her husband. They’d worked up a thirst and gone to their local for an early evening pint, as they often do. Once inside they were confronted by a cordoned-o‑ bar with the sort of retractable barrier normally used in airports and such. She thought there’d been a spillage or an accident, but then spotted some laminated signs which read ‘Queue from this end’.

As there was no one else waiting, she walked round the barrier and went to the bar in the normal way. “I must have had a bit of a look on my face, because the bartender asked if I was all right and said I looked confused.” She gestured at the barrier and explained she found it a bit odd. He said things had got ‘too busy’ so they’d had to ‘cordon off’ the bar. As she placed her order, my friend remarked she’d never come across anything like it in a pub in several decades of frequenting them. Quick as a flash the bartender retorted, “But this isn’t a pub!” My friend was taken aback to be told her local pub wasn’t a pub. “It’s my local pub,” she replied. To which the bartender, rather scornfully she felt, came back with, “What sort of pub has rooms you can rent?” She decided against trying to explain to him about inns, paid for the beer and joined her husband at a table with a sea view. She didn’t want to upset the bar sta­ff, but was put off­ by the cordon and the attitude of the bartender. “When is a pub not a pub?” she asked me. I said I’d ask around.

A generational thing?

One industry pal said he could think of quite a few places where the main and central drinking spot is also a hotel or possibly a restaurant. “If people can go in and have a few pints in a decent bar without feeling as though they should be ordering food, then it’s a pub.” He wondered if the bartender’s attitude was a generational thing, before adding, “A queuing system in a pub is probably one of several strong indicators that I shouldn’t be in there! It is not a ‘pub’ as I know them, with all the associated rules and etiquette.”

I asked ‘da yoof’ in the shape of my stepdaughter, who is nearly 20. She said a cordoned bar queue would put her off­ entirely. It wasn’t something she’d seen or would expect to see, but she didn’t have a concept of an inn any more than the bartender did. I still felt no closer to a satisfactory answer, so I asked a fellow writer. Jerry Bartlett is one of the co-authors of my book 30-Second Beer. “If it looks like a pub and quacks like a pub I’d say it’s a pub. It’s all about feel,” he said. But what about this new ‘queuing system’? “Never come across it. It would probably be fair, but would destroy the feeling of being in a pub or bar. It’s a sign that there’s not enough sta­ff.” It’s fair to say I get on with Jerry because we often agree on this sort of thing.

Another writer friend, and seasoned drinker, hasn’t encountered a cordoned queue in a pub either, but has noticed people queuing in a line in a small local tapas bar. “It’s a pain in the arse! I’m sure it makes people slower with their ordering because there’s no one physically next to them jostling for bar space,” she said.

My friend at the seaside took some comfort from these views but is still upset about being treated so dismissively in a ‘pub’ she’s used as her local for more than four years. “I realised it does say ‘Bar, Restaurant, Hotel’ above the door but that’s just marketing flimflam to me. I’ve always thought of it as a pub.”

The moral of the story: Unless they are seriously misbehaving, beware telling your customers they’re not where they think they are. Or they might find somewhere they’d rather be.

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