As one might expect I spend a fair bit of time in pubs and bars. Most of the time I linger in beer-centric places, where the beer is paramount. However, I am not a stranger to a blues bar, a hotel lounge, a sports bar or even the occasional nightclub. All have their features.
But usually I find my way back to a pub atmosphere. There is something about a pub that speaks to me and, in my opinion, gives some breathing space for beer and the things that go well with beer, like conversation, relaxed activities such as pool or darts, and a heaping plate of hearty pub food.
So you might appreciate I have given some thought to what makes a pub a good pub. What facilitates an evening of pulling pints, telling tales and generally hanging out with one’s mates? I ask that question with the full knowledge that the answer, obviously, will differ for every individual. We all want different things from our pub experience. Fair enough.
But in the spirit of George Orwell, who once penned the classic essay “The Moon Under Water,” an homage to his perfect pub (which—spoiler alert!—didn’t exist), allow me to pontificate on some of the characteristics that, in my opinion, make for a great pub.
Let me start by saying that unlike Orwell I base my thoughts on real places. I am happy to reveal the locations of some of my favourite pubs in Canada. An incomplete list includes Augusta’s Winking Judge in Hamilton, The Duke of Duckworth in St. John’s, The Henry House in Halifax, Bar Volo in Toronto, Dieu Du Ciel in Montreal, La Barberie in Quebec City and The Sugar Bowl in Edmonton. There are many others that come close to the best-of list–too many to list. There are also likely great pubs I have not yet had a chance to visit. My thoughts are based upon the myriad of pubs I have frequented and appreciated.
The pubs in my mind are, in a way, very disparate places. Some have better beer lists than others. Some are loud, some are quiet. The crowds are quite different in each, as are the overall amenities. But they, I believe, share five qualities that make them exceptional places to drink beer.
They tend to be on the smaller end of things. Cozy rooms that fit the tables in fairly tightly. They get close to being a kitchen party with tables. Some of my favourites break the space into even smaller rooms where only a couple tables fit. It is no surprise that a number of the listed places are converted houses. Smaller makes for a more intimate experience. High ceilings and tons of square footage makes a room impersonal and more sterile to me. Sure, being small makes them harder to get into, but don’t you want to be in a room where everyone had to work to be there?
The atmosphere plays to the cozy nature of the room. It is usually either cluttered with kitschy paraphernalia or offering up local art and other eclectic wall hangings. No sparse, industrial design here; chaos and personality reign. The space feels the opposite of professionally designed. It enhances a sense of hominess and naturalness to the room.
Related to the cozy atmosphere is an emphasis on conversation. There are either no TVs or they are small, few in number, and on mute. Same with music, which is usually low in volume. People aren’t there to watch the game or listen to the latest hits. They are there to talk with their friends and enjoy an evening of social conviviality. TV and loud music just separate people from both each other and their beer.
The place oozes friendliness. The staff are knowledgeable and welcoming. Too often I enter a pub and feel like I don’t belong because either I am not a regular or don’t have the right demographic profile. The ideal pub is where you sit at the bar and within 10 minutes are engaged in an interesting conversation with the stranger next to you while the bartender calls you “brother” or “dear.” At the Winking Judge one day I ended up learning how to play pinochle because they were missing a fourth. Just because.
Beer is taken seriously. The staff know about the beer they are serving and they take care to serve it properly—temperature, pouring technique and even the right glassware. I don’t require a pub to be above serving Budweiser or Coors Light (although that is a bonus), but I do want them to emphasize to the customer the local and/or craft options available.
My criteria may not match yours, and that is OK. But I am confident if you find a place that meets these five criteria, you will find yourself having a very good time. V
Full disclosure: I conduct regular beer tastings at the Sugar Bowl, but loved it long before I started doing them.
Jason Foster is the creator of onbeer.org, a website devoted to news and views on beer from the prairies and beyond.