Letter From London: What Dallas Bars Could Stand to Learn from English Pubs
It rests in an alley and used to be a preferred haunt of Charles Dickens. We ain't got that here.
Lee Nichols / flickr
The differences between the drankin' scenes in London and Dallas become evident when one first sets foot into one of the many cozy but ornate public houses that dot the landscape of what barmen and pint-seekers alike call the best city in the world.
The English "pub" and our "bar" are not directly synonymous. Watering holes, like humans, are probably 99 percent the same the world over, but the differences in the remaining 1 percent make the British pub and the Dallas bar appear as far apart as the cities are in miles (or kilometers, which I still don't get after nearly six weeks). And just because we're living in the New World doesn't necessarily mean we've improved on everything the Old World Imperialists gave to us.
Here are just a few things Dallas bars might want to think about importing from the English pub:
A pub is often a history lesson in itself. When you get right down to it, isn't enlightenment part of what we're looking for when we go out drinking? Oh, it's not? Well it is in London. You don't know how many stories told in East London start with "We were just drinking a bottle of cheap wine and talking about art history."
Two of the older pubs within walking distance of my group's lodging (I hesitate to say "flat," as I've already been made fun of by management for using the British term for apartment in casual email correspondence) had great history to them, and a few bus stops away lay one of the most historic pubs in England, the George Inn. Fleet Street's Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, rebuilt a year after the great fire that devoured the City of London in 1666, has poured pints for regulars including Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens, whose darker characters may have come to life in the gloomy pub with little to no natural light.
George Inn, by London Bridge, was also rebuilt after the fire of 1666 (it was a substantial inconvenience, I'm told). Its Old Bar used to be a waiting room for coachmen and passengers, and its Middle Bar is a bygone coffee house, frequented by none other than Shakespeare. Just because Dallas bars can't import that historical significance doesn't mean having a beer can't be a slightly more high-minded affair than Americans take it for.
Pull a pint
There's just something to a barman/barmaid having to physically exert him/herself to get me my jolly juice. Some make it look like the last few turns of the lug wrench, as if they were changing a tire right there at the bar. On the service industry's side, customers seemed less likely to complain when their server had to pull the pint instead of simply watching it flow from the modern taps.
What comes out is often that warm-ish swill that forces an American to cringe upon first sip, though. But even that tends to grow on you — maybe not enough to promote its adoption in the States, but there's definitely something to pulling a pint like it's in some pool in the place's cellar.
We really should sing to one another more. The camaraderie and sense of community just gets bumped up a notch. Picture this: Your buddies have just witnessed you pay for a brand new, full-to-the brim pint, and when you get back to the circle, they pelt you with "We love to drink with [insert your name], cause [insert your name] is our mate! And when we drink with [insert your name], he gets it down in 8! 7! 6! 5! Et cetera. You've never in your life been as happy to chug a whole pint of Guinness.
If you get it down in 8, the circle is obliged to get you your next beer. It's a more-than-fair trade.
Exmouth Arms, Clerkenwell, London
We've certainly got a lot to say about our right to bear arms in this country, and many Brits aren't shy about letting Texans know their differing opinions on the matter. They think we're nuts. I thought after visiting the Queen's Arms, the King's Arms, the Founder's Arm's, College Arms, Argyll Arms, the Bricklayers Arms and Exmouth Arms that these places must be where the British are hiding all of their guns. Not so.
The origin of naming a pub Someone's Arms (which, by the way, I'm trademarking the name 'Someone's Arms' as a name for my fictitious bar as soon as possible) is uncertain. Does it refer to the namesake's family coat of arms? Maybe. Did 'arms' come from a bastardization of 'alms' referencing medieval times when pubs would take up a collection for unfortunate street people? Could be.
All I know is that it burst my bubble to learn that there weren't Hot-Fuzz styled arms depots behind false walls in these pubs.
The conversation drowns out the music
Not the other way around. If you want the club experience, London will gladly gouge you for a crowded room with synth-pop hits blaring while you sweat and stink on the poor souls immediately surrounding you. You can get more than your share of live music as well — just not usually at the neighborhood pub (unless its a guy and his acoustic singing Beatles and Oasis covers).
But at a pub, the roar is one of hearty conversation, laughter and the clinking glasses of toasts to this or that. You don't need to shake your ass to Nikki or bang your head to Lamb of God while sucking down a pint after work. The pub is a quieter place: no one is double-fisting or ordering drinks with a -bomb ending, and this proper British phenomenon makes for a more peaceful pint.
Centers of community
Everyone goes, and not just to get drunk. There isn't the certain kind of American stigma attached to someone who goes out to the pub for a pint on a Monday. At one of my favorite little neighborhood haunts, the Old China Hand, they move the table tennis and foosball tables to another room for square and round dancing on certain nights of the week. Youngs drink next to olds, suits next to joggers, tourists next to locals in the come-as-you-are pillars of community.
At home, we are largely saddled with destination drinking districts. Unless you're lucky enough to live where the cool kids drink, you have to get in your car that you can't afford and drive and be seen arriving at the group of establishments that most closely mirrors your personality. It's so much easier, so much more nonchalant in London, until you get the bill.
An English pub also looks out for its neighbors. Since residents inhabit the flats adjacent and on top of the pubs in most cases, they won't stay open until 2 or 3 a.m. like the clubs or late bars will. Employees and hand-written signs often remind comers and goers to shut the hell up as they file in and out of the place, because neighbors deserve that consideration. It fits in well with the culture of British politeness and regard for the guy sitting next to you, a little of which we could definitely afford to bring home.
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