Friday 8 January 2010

Café or Pub?

There was talk the other night in the pub about onomatopoeiae. Strictly, of course, such a thing is one or more words that imitate or suggest the source of the sound they are describing. Now a pub isn't a sound, well they can be quite noisy, but it's a building. Think about it though, if you had never heard of a pub the sound makes you think of some smelly, damp, squelchy thing you'd avoid if you found one by the side of the road. Of course, unfortunately, sometimes this is actually the case when it comes to pubs.

Now there are plenty of bloggers out there telling us how bad pubs are. It's no wonder nobody goes in them, they should just jolly well tidy themselves up, oh and also at the same time provide cheap booze and nosh into the bargain. I run a pub and therefore I understand all too well how difficult it is for a publican to balance price against customer expectation of quality. The problem is where exactly to pitch their product; at the cost conscious customer or the quality conscious customer?

One of the things that the publican can do very little about is the building. OK, a lick of paint here and a few nice comfortable chairs there, a big plasma screen telly, if that's what will work and maybe, if he's flush with cash, knock a wall down between two rooms to make a nice open plan type of affair. But, bottom line, he's stuck with the bricks and mortar he has. For many pubs that is not a problem, once the inside is good and there is a customer base that grows things can be great.

One busy week last summer, on our day off, we managed to get to a town late afternoon. It's nice when we are out to get some food made by somebody else. We spend all our time trying to make other people happy we might as well enjoy some TLC ourselves. Because I like pubs and beer and like to help to support our industry we search out pubs to eat in. However, because we always seem to get away late, due to this supplier needing to be phoned for an urgent delivery, or some other administrative humdrum necessity, we quite often get to town after lunch is finished. The rural pubs that we do enjoy visiting for lunch would already have stopped serving and so we decided to explore a town that is well known for good food.

On this occasion it was approaching 4pm. We walked past several new build café type places, which I thought looked nice, but decided on a traditional pub. This particular town is a little unfamiliar to us so pot luck was required. We chose a nice traditional Victorian facade pub, it was difficult to see inside but I'm normally happy to take pot luck.

Once inside a pub I feel uncomfortable turning around and walking out just because the pub turns out not to have the facilities I like - it seems a little rude. On this occasion I should have realised as soon as I saw the very obvious and slightly overbearing plasma screen TVs showing dart games. However, I do know that every pub has to play to its clientele so we stayed and ordered a pint of the one hand-pulled beer. Sadly, it would seem, that was off and the suggestion by the landlady was that the cask had failed to sell quickly enough. I found this interesting as the pub clearly was not a quiet one.  The fall back position of nitro-keg Guinness, which I have not had to suffer for some time, was accepted with reluctance.

After all we were only looking for lunch. A quick look at the lunch menu confirmed the usual suspects of Cumberland Sausage, Cottage Pie, ubiquitous curry and other similar traditional rubbish. No doubt the darts fans would be right at home with this along with their pint of bland mass produced lager or nitro-keg John Smiths. One thing was for sure the prices were extremely reasonable and three lunches plus three drinks came to less than £20.

Conversely, I could have chosen one of the nice cafés with their big windows letting in bags of natural light giving an airy and less stuffy environment altogether. The lack of distracting and frankly offensive in-your-face sports channel and an increasing number of interesting bottled beer selections make my recent eating experiences in licenced cafés much more pleasurable than the traditional town centre pub. Indeed, it is my experience that pubs generally don't do wonderful food, its beer soaking stodge prepared to a budget. Equally, the buildings of traditional pubs can often be constraining and creating a situation where the style organically drifts towards my onomatopoetic description I began with, as much due to the desires of the regular drinkers as to anything else.

Regular followers of my views will rightly wonder why I write this negative view of pubs. I regularly get upset at writers who simply state that pubs, generally, need to try harder. My point here is that the general view of the pub is that it has to provide a traditional environment that fits the desires of the established customer base. New build cafés and modern refurbished bars often provide a better, more modern style but then get accused of being overpriced and snobby.

I'd finally like the reader to consider the constraints the building that is the pub puts on the operator. Many traditional pubs which "should try harder" have an uphill struggle against such things as accessibility, food hygiene, fire safety and other reasonable legislated conditions of operation. Many pub operators are doing a great deal of work just to keep up with these and are having a hard time competing with more modern new builds and refurbishments.

Equally, it can be difficult for a pub to portray the style to the passer-by. Many traditional pubs are in Victorian buildings which might well portray a romantic notion but high window ledges and narrow windows can make it difficult for the passer by to get any sort of glimpse into the interior. This is a problem that concerns me about my own place, short of propping our door open, which makes the bar cold, we find it difficult to portray an open "feel" from the outside. We've tried placing an A-board by the road, several times, but the number we have lost due to them being blown over or run over is depressing.

If a pub is delivering a service that is satisfactory for the bulk of its customer base then where is the problem? Despite the example pub above not being to my taste it is an operating pub that provided a service that was popular with some. Further more, it goes to make me wonder whether we would in fact be better off ceasing to worry about the pubs that close, perhaps some buildings are better off being put to alternative uses.


Richard said...

Coming over Hardknott Pass your pub always does take me by surprise - I can never remember round which stretch of road it is and then suddenly, wham, there it is. Indeed the first few times (on the way to Fisherground) I'm not sure any of us were even sure it was a pub as we catched a quick glance on the way past.

I think permanent elevated signs, say, 300yds either way down the road, letting people know there's something coming up, might help out a lot. By the time you see an A-board it's too late to stop for something you're not even sure what is (especially on that narrow little road).

I imagine with 30 seconds warning you might get a few more people sat in their cars saying "hey does anyone fancy a stop-off here" and pulling in for a pint.

Cooking Lager said...

That’s the trouble with pubs mate, their personal fiefdoms run for the whims, prejudices and benefit of the owner and not the paying punter. I’ve even encountered pubs where they don’t let you put brown sauce on the organic sausages ‘cos the owner don’t like it. What’s that about? You slag off pubs all you like, I’m with you mate.

You wanna go to a nice Spoons. £1.99 ham egg & chips. 99p cask bitter. Pubs run for the customer.

Brian, follower of Deornoth said...

I would suggest that a useful sign outside would show the opening times. I walk in the country frequently, and as a consequence I'm also gasping for a pint frequently, when I come across a pub. It isn't open but that's no problem as I'm in no especial hurry, but I'd like to know what time it opens (11, 11:30 or 12, 4, 5, or 6 or perhaps not at all today). But a number of pubs don't show this when it can't be that hard to do. I'm in no hurry but I'm not going to wait on the off chance.

Whorst said...

You Englanders appear to have your own set of problems when dealing with going out for a drink. That's why people like Cookie enjoy drinking Cooking Lager in the privacy of their own home. Your alcohol is ridiculously over taxed, which is part of the problem. And who in the *&^%$ uses a microwave to warm up frozen food that's listed on the menu?? Your culture as a whole doesn't want to pay for quality. When I worked in a pub, I remember having to walk around the corner to Sainsbury's to get some frozen bangers. We cooked them by chucking them into the fryer along with frozen chips. That's culinary art is it?? Then there's the whole cask ale thing. The product that has the ability to turn to warm vinegar at the point of sale because no one gives a toss about it. Next time I come to the island, oh and believe me, I'm coming, and someone serves me a pint of warm, flat, vinegar, I will instruct them to stick it up their ass! I'm not playing the polite yank anymore, especially when someone's trying to rip me off! Hey, take total blessed when you get a chance.

Paul Garrard said...

I don't have a problem with basic, some would say, boring micro food as long as it is warmed all the way through and served with a smile and some interest in my wellbeing as long as the pub serves one real ale, and it's of an acceptable quality. What I object to is a pub that is run by people who think the world owes them a living and anything will do. Thankfully places like that are fairly rare, and if they close who cares?
I certainly don't.

Rob said...

Whorst has a point with the tax thing. To be honest most pubs a go to are slightly dissapointing. But places like yours Dave deserve a following. Hell London has some great pubs, and places like York, Leeds and the likes have great places but the Woolpack brings awsome food and drink to the desolate Cumbrian countryside.

Tim said...

I don't really get the UK and the fascination with drining in pubs. There are great parks, fast food restaurants, and greasy spoon cafe's which would benefit nicely by hving a wet trade. Who wants to drink in places that are frequented by pensioners, smell like farts, and the definition of fashion is the fat bloke wearing a beetroot stained singlet?
Some pubs get the balance right though and are great places to get pissed in.

Barry said...

"I don't really get the UK and the fascination with drining in pubs."

Says it all really.

Whorst said...

Cut it out Bear, I have done some blogger research, I know who you are. Don't worry, I ain't tellin'. But calm the &^%$ down. Pigman and you should be tight. Sort out your differences and I'll write a special track for the reconciliation. Speaking of tracks, I've got a new one that will be unleashing on the new combined brilliance, anti-matter, Blogger Scum Correction Program, "Piss It Up The Wall!" It's a little story about how I joined forces with The Doctor und Pigman.
It just might make you weep!

Tim said...

"Says it all really"

By reading most UK based blogs you would think that people only drink in pubs, at home or at beer festivals.

There are plenty of other places you could enjoy a beer in an environment that is not a pub.

Rob said...

Yes true, I found by the beach in Maui was a good place. But Daves place brings the environment and exceptional food to the equation.

Tandleman said...

I have no problem walking out of a pub if it doesn't sell anything I want to buy.

After all I don't buy a sofa when I toddle round the furniture shop, just to be polite. The difference is only scale.

Rob said...

Tandleman has a good point. During my stag night one or two pubs were walked out of or avoided. I have thought this for some time now, but a session on quality beer is like a batting innings, you need to elect the right shots in the right places. Playing at dodgy balls only leaves you exposed to being out. Just like making the most of a crap pub when others are better is basicly selling yourself short.

scouse said...

I have just noticed that the Wasdale head has been sold. The new owners are from south and have been in the pub game, but from past experience of new owners from the south buying into the walking areas they tend not to really understand the differnce in people they get as customers. Will they want to keep brewing or go to buying in beers? All new owners want to stamp their mark on any new venture but if they fail with the Wasdale Head, and I have seen what non walker pub owners can do, normally sell out to pub chains for big profits. For me this is what you try to prevent with your pub, keep brewing and being different it is what we come to see you for.

Anonymous said...

Let's hope they don't try to turn it into the Sharrow Bay. Horses for courses. W