Pubpaper 576 – What makes a good pub

Posted: 7th October 2010 by admin in Pub Paper, Writing

This article appeared in issue 576 of Pubpaper.

It’s not just a single thing which makes a good pub, its the right combination of a number of factors which all add up a result worth more than its constituent parts. It doesn’t take all elements to be perfect, but get the correct ones right and a pub will have a good chance of success, inversely get the key ones wrong and it will be hard to survive. There are four key elements to what makes a good pub people want to come to, these are the beer, the atmosphere, the landlord and the pub itself.

Getting the first three right can overcome a deficit in the last one. I’ve been in several “spit and sawdust” pubs where the décor looks like a wood panelled 70’s throwback design wise, but it served good beer, possessed a friendly landlord and had a good atmosphere. I’ve also been in plenty of pubs, recently refurbished, nice to look at, but lacking in decent beer, a friendly atmosphere, and with a series of nameless shift managers milling behind the bar.

There are a few exceptions to the rule, my most memorable being The Falcon at Arncliffe in the Yorkshire Dales. A surly landlord who still levels the head of your average beer with a knife from a bar smaller than my kitchen table, and in a badly designed building where walkers and non walkers are ghettoised, despite being in prime walking country.

The most important element to get right is the beer, both in quality and cellar management. Why do we go to a pub, it’s because of the beer, otherwise you’d go to a wine bar, cafe or coffee shop. If it has good beer, then the place has won half the battle. Word spreads quickly of a good real ale pub, when did you last hear of “The Mainstream Lager Pub of the Season Summer 2010”, never as it is not a celebrated product. Of course most real ale pubs serve mainstream beers (the best known exception being Samuel Smith pubs) to cover all bases, but you don’t go to a pub because they have a fantastic batch of Stella on, like you do because they have a great pale ale or stout on at the moment.

The second most important aspect is the landlord as he can make or break a pub, he can attract or repel customers, or even worse attract the wrong kind of customers. Being a long term fixture in a pub helps, people know you and visa versa, it endears some sense of loyalty from customers if they are treated right. If the landlord puts people at ease then people will come back again, however it only takes one bad experience to put you off a place for a long time, an example being me getting ill after meal from a long established restaurant in Halifax town centre 8 years ago and I have refused to return there since, despite my wife having been there since and enjoying several meals.

The third thing a pub needs to have is a good atmosphere, this is driven from the landlord and the people who drink in the pub. I’ve been in some pubs where the pool ball stops in mid air as you walk in while everyone checks you out, even worse I’ve been in one just outside centre of Dublin, where upon ordering a pint I was advised to have a half (the place turned out to be a republican pub I found out later). These places you never visit again. However the pubs that do welcome you enjoy repeated patronage and recommendations. Word of mouth is a powerful force, whether it be positive or negative.

The final and least important thing about the pub, is the building which houses the bar. This may seem strange, but as long as the place is clean, there is somewhere to sit and put your drink down, and you can get served easily then everything else is secondary and a bonus. Wetherspoons when it was building its chain in the late 90’s marketed itself promising no TV’s, no music, just a good pub. When you are reading the paper or chatting with friends you don’t notice that the design on the bench upholstery looks a bit dated or that the table could do with a re varnish, you just enjoy the pub for what it is.