You know it when you find it, but you can’t create it just by ticking boxes
IN MY RECENT column about Wetherspoon’s, I made the point that, while they may tick a lot of boxes as to what people look for a pub, with very few exceptions their establishments are notably lacking in that elusive quality of “pubbiness”. This is something rather akin to an elephant, that you recognise instantly when you come across it, but is very hard to describe exactly.
It’s often said that a church is essentially a congregation, not a building, and the same is true of pubs. While having an unspoilt traditional interior can make a major contribution, it doesn’t create atmosphere all by itself. I’ve been in the occasional immaculately preserved pub that came across like a sterile museum piece, whereas others with no architectural merit whatsoever were places that just seemed to work and where you would immediately feel at home.
On the other hand, some feeling of intimacy helps, even just an effort to break up large open-plan spaces into smaller areas. Bench-type seating promotes sociability by encouraging customers to look into the centre of the room and interact with each other rather than sticking to their own little groups at separate café-style tables. Small round three-legged tables are often preferable to big rectangular ones thast would be more at home in a restaurant. A real fire in winter is always a welcoming sight.
The key function of pubs has always been as a place for people to meet and socialise over a few drinks, and so it’s good to see groups of drinkers clustered around the bar, and a mix of customers of different age groups. A variety of ages amongst the bar staff is also good, as is giving the impression they might actually use the pub as customers rather than just doing it for the money.
A good pub will have some regular customers who just call in for a drink, even if only once a month; it won’t be wholly dependent on diners or casual trade. The playing of pub games, even just the normal staples of darts and pool, suggest that people are using the pub as a social meeting place, and a jukebox rather than pre-selected piped music means that some consideration is being given to what people actually want to listen to.
Then there is evidence that the pub serves a community function, such as hosting sports teams and social functions, and having a noticeboard promoting local events, businesses and attractions. And it’s always a positive sign if you can see the pub being run in an individual way rather than just according to a corporate masterplan, for example pub pets such as cats and dogs and tropical fish, pictures and memorabilia with some local significance, even just an assortment of cards pinned up behind the bar with nuts and other snacks.
Some of the obvious things that detract from pubbiness are those associated with an excessive concentration on food, such as tables laid with place-settings and “Reserved” signs. A notice saying “please wait here to be seated” has no place in any self-respecting pub. And, while there’s nothing wrong with pub-branded polo shirts, putting your bar staff in waistcoats and bow-ties is completely out of place. Pastel colours, either inside and outside, are never a good idea, and neither are low sofas, not to mention being a very inefficient use of space.
But, at the end of the day, pubbiness is something that develops gradually over time and cannot be instantly creating simply by ticking items off a list.