The pub is a uniquely British institution. Explaining what constitutes a good or bad pub—and especially what pub culture is—to those who haven’t experienced it for themselves bears a certain weight of responsibility. There’s a subjective quality to what makes a good pub, a nuance that really depends on what type of experience you’re seeking and arguably how you want to spend the next day (hungover or not).
A pub can be a sanctuary: a place to while away your Sunday afternoons with friends with a glass of wine (or three) and a Sunday roast. It can be a filler spot, purely chosen out of convenience, a place to grab a quick drink before going onto your final destination. From live music, comedy shows, sports games to drag shows, DJs and boozy brunches (or even just somewhere to sit and read a book), a pub is the watering hole equivalent of a jack of all trades.
Another way to distinguish one pub from the next is from its menu. Pub food has in the past been pretty standardized—you could expect to find burgers, pies, fish and chips, as well as some regional variety thrown into the mix. However, as food culture has developed, with more and more of us expecting good quality and interesting choices on our plates, pubs have had to keep up with trends, for better or worse.
Below is a non-exhaustive list of the types of pubs (and their food) you are bound to encounter at some point in the UK: the good, the bad and the overpriced.
Usually on the “bad” end of pub food scale, its only saving grace is that the poor quality reflects the lower price range. Think: burgers, nachos smothered in plastic cheese and chips accompanied by sauces that come in sticky bottles or sachets that are impossible to open and require at least four per portion of chips.
Closely related to the standard “pub grub” pub is the chain pub. You’ll find chain pubs littered all over most of the UK’s big cities. Sometimes disguised as posh pubs (see below), their food will be bang average but with an inflated price tag as the ambiance is slightly less sticky than your average pub (they might have added a few candles and use old wine bottles as table markers to trick you).
The most notorious example of a chain pub in the UK is the Wetherspoons franchise. Wetherspoons is a no-frills establishment and definitely doesn’t masquerade as anything other than what it is. Known for its affordability, it has a love-it-or-hate-it reputation. Regardless, a trip to a “Spoons” is a rite of passage and has been a godsend for many students over the years for its cheap booze and dinner deals.
At the time of writing, you can feast on a Full English (sausages, baked beans, eggs, bacon, hash browns and toast—don’t get me started on what counts as a “true” Full English) for £5.80 at a Spoons near you. Compare this to the sad sourdough at your posh pub, and it’s a no-brainer, right? The huge menu is overwhelming, and you’ll find everything from curries and jacket potatoes to sandwiches and pub classics as well as dessert, which will definitely be a chocolate brownie in a massive bowl floating in vanilla ice cream. One thing you can guarantee is that your food will be served quickly, as it makes its journey from freezer to microwave and to your table.
The concept of the gastropub began in the ‘90s with attempts to elevate the standard pub grub to a more gourmet offering. The result is now the definition of over-priced. This is the pub you’d probably book rather than stumble into, as there will be a menu with few feasible options for staving off hunger. Think: nibbles, the standard being nocellara olives and two slices of sourdough bread with salted butter for at least five British pounds and overpriced small plates, including croquettes, that are priced per piece. For the mains, you’ll find pub classics like burgers, but you’ll have to pay extra for your triple-fried chips, as they’ll be cooked in beef dripping or goose fat instead of your ordinary oil.
Mocked but simultaneously lauded by the middle classes, there is, however, a time and a place for a posh pub. For example, by the seaside, a fresh moules mariniere is much more appreciated than on a London pavement, and a joint of roast beef with potatoes and fresh greens at the end of a country walk is definitely tastier than when it’s consumed at a hipster haunt in Hackney.
Finally, it’s impossible to ignore the eponymous Sunday roast culture. To reserve a table for your Sunday roast, you’ll need to have the date in the diary at least two weeks in advance. Be prepared to be disappointed if you’re a vegetarian, as the nut roast, roasted celeriac or cauliflower steak are likely to run out within the first hour. The judge of a good roast is usually based on the quality of the trimmings, not just the meat, and this can be done on both quantity and quality—no one wants a soggy roast potato, but equally, no one wants a single soggy roast potato either…
In theory, the pub where you order your food in is a great idea. The pub has set up a deal with a local food business that fills in for the pub’s lack of cooking space. In reality, they’re usually a nightmare, as trying to organize a group of drunk people to not only pick what they want to eat but use a phone to order and collect food from outside the pub is never going to work.
When the order-in the pub works, it’s great. A notable example was The Good Measure in Bristol where a Japanese restaurant had a pop-up. It had a small but sweet menu, and the responsibility of relaying orders was left with the bar staff. It left a great taste in everyone’s mouths—along with the katsu fries, sushi, okonomiyaki and fried chicken to boot.
The pub that only serves snacks is rogue territory. At a minimum, you’ll definitely be able to get yourself a packet of crisps, usually the bog-standard flavors like cheese and onion, salt and vinegar and plain salted. The next tier is nuts—and not the fancy kind. Rather, these nuts will be served in silvery packets with enough salt per gram to raise your cholesterol in a heartbeat. Finally, you enter a realm not for the faint-hearted: dried, pickled and processed meat snacks. Pork scratchings, pickled eggs, cockles, peperami meat sticks and in your trendier spots, maybe beef jerky or biltong. Good luck!
Notable entries include Thai, pizza, and mezze, and with this style of pub, the food is usually either very, very good or very, very bad. Thai food in pubs is more common than you might think, and the trend apparently dates back to a very specific pub, The Churchill Arms, which started the trend in the late ‘80s. Luckily, Thai tends to be one of the better options, as the chefs always seem to know what they’re doing. With pizza, it’s 50/50 as to whether you’ll be served a wood-fired glory or a sad thin-crust-based pizza that doesn’t touch the sides. Mezze? Don’t bother. Just go to a restaurant instead.
I am a horrible London snob and am therefore ill-equipped to speak about the specifics of pub culture outside of the English capital. However, one thing I can attest is that the price of a pint is significantly lower than any London pub. I paid £6.80 for a pint of Peroni recently, and all I can say is never again.