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The Oakes Weekly - Nov. 7th, 2002

Things I Look For in a Great Pub
Oakes Weekly November 7, 2002      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

<P>I love pubs. I know, I know, it's hard to believe, but it's true. Pubs kick ass. I could spend days in a quality pub. If I were to ask what the key word in that last statement was, you might figure "quality" was the key. But to me, "pub" is the key. In fact, in North America at least the phrase "quality pub" is redundant. I've seen shite pubs in the UK, but not in North America. We have lots of bars that masquerade as pubs, but they aren't pubs. There are a number of defining elements to the word "pub", and quite frankly very few establishments in North America come close to meeting them. Those few places that do, however, are worthy of reverance simply because of their scarcity.<P>The first element that to me defines a pub is a comfortable feel. 'Pub' is of course short for 'public house', so you should feel as comfortable at the pub as you do at your house. Maybe not 'sit around in your boxers scratching your ass' comfortable but quite comfortable nonetheless. In Toronto we have a lot of "pubs" with English-sounding names, lots of Guinness and Bass on tap, and plenty of "pub" decor. But they're not pubs. You sit at the table and some serving wench with a forced smile comes by and pretends she gives a rat's ass about your needs, but mostly just wants to get you your food and a couple of pints and get you out the door again. That's not a pub. At pubs, you order at the bar. At pubs, they don't have a lot of staff working there so anybody who visits with any regularity at all will know the staff personally. They're not friendly because they're angling for a bigger tip, they're friendly because they know you. And if it's your first time there, they'll know that, too, and take the time to chat with you and make you feel like you want to be a regular. That's the worst part about visiting the great pubs in England - even after one pint you hate to leave and you start imagining what it would be like to live around the corner.<P>The second element is the history. The best pubs have some kind of history. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street in London has been around for hundreds of years, and Dr. Samuel Johnson was a regular. Other pubs have connections with Shakespeare, or Michael Collins, or any other famous figure. Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem was a gathering point for crusaders before they left for the Middle East. Sometimes the great story is very much a local one, just as long as its great. <P>If the pub does not have much history, it should at least feel as though it does. It should not have a neon signs. It should not have fruit machines (video gambling). It personally hate sitting in a beautiful Victorian pub and the barkeep punches my order into a bloody computer screen. Is that really necessary in order to determine the change back from a fiver on a pint of bitter? Televisions should be like children, seldom seen and even more seldom heard. Big football or rugby match - no problem, but I don't need CNN with my stout, thank you. Don't get me started with canned music. I hate it. If you've ever visited a pub and found the patrons singing or playing their own music, you'll know what I mean. If a pub insists on canned music, they should avoid pop music like the plague, and keep anything else at a low volume so as not to distract from conversation.<P>That's a big one - conversation. The sure sign you've found a great pub is when you can just casually strike up a conversation with the other patrons. Sometimes you think that you're in a decent pub, and try to join a conversation, and are either ignored or stared at like you just cursed somebody's mother. Remember, pubs are supposed to be friendly, like your own house but with members of the public there. A public house. If everybody is isolated at their own tables with big invisible walls around them, it's a restaurant or a bar, not a pub. Conversation in a pub is called craic. Good craic covers many topics, but in a civilized manner. People don't get offended when you disagree - you are just arguing your point and are fully entitled to your opinion. Even if it is completely misguided. If you take your words to a personal level, you can be sure that you'll be asked to leave, though some of your teeth might not make it out simultaneously. Because you don't go into someone's house and fling insults, so therefore you don't do it in a public house either.<P>The last thing that I find crucial to a great pub is the beer. Sometimes there will only be a small selection, as few as one or two, but they are well-kept. They should be cask-conditioned, too, though in North America you'll usually have to settle for a couple of handpumps amidst a line of keg taps. Nitrogen has no place in a real pub, nor does swill lager. Some pubs make a point of offering lots of different beers. I love these kind, because there is something for every mood. Sometimes you want a hoppy bitter, sometimes a maltier one, sometimes a stronger one - it's nice to have choices. In England, it seems like all of the pubs, even the good ones, have the same bottles on offer. They can have nothing but wonderful cask ales on draught, but the bottles will consist of Stella, Bud and Strongbow. I have the highest respect for pubs that offer diversity in their bottle selections - the Ship & Mitre in Liverpool, the Bag O'Nails in Bristol, Archer Ale House in Bellingham, Washington, the White Horse on Parson's Green. It is nice to know that if you want something German or Belgian you can find it, and a good list of English bottles will triple or quadruple the selection of real ales on offer. I also appreciate pubs that take the effort to carry a real cider or perry as well. These can be tough to find, even in the West Country, but proper cider is miles away from the stuff you're used to, and well worth checking out if you get the chance. Not only should these quality products be available at a good pub, they should be the drink of choice. It is not enough to merely have one hand-pump in the corner - if everyone is chugging cans of Stella or sipping tooth-rotting cocktails or alcopops, that is a sure sign that it's time to move on.<P>There are a lot of little details that can make or break a pub too of course. But a comfortable atmosphere, a little bit of history, good craic, and great beer are all essential elements that no pub can do without. So many pub operators and managers seem to have so much trouble putting these things together, to the point where their establishments can scarcely be considered pubs any more. So for those who do take the time and effort required to get it right - I thank you, and look forward to paying you a visit someday. <P><P>Josh's Top Ten Favourite Pubs (in no particular order):<P><P>The Wenlock Arms, Shoreditch, London
Archer Ale House, Bellingham WA
The Winking Judge, Hamilton ON
The Bag O'Nails, Bristol
St. Urho's Pub, Helsinki
The Granite Brewery, Halifax, NS
The Ship & Mitre, Liverpool
The Blind Tiger, Greenwich Village, NYC
Smokeless Joe's, Toronto (doesn't look like a pub, but all the elements are there)
The Star, Belgravia, London


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