Most people who visit London for the first time are hard-pressed to find a traditional place to eat and drink like the English. In fact, most of the Brits are more likely to have a curry or a Chinese takeaway than the expected fish and chips of old. International flavors all seem to settle now in the capital city, and that leaves tourists with one last guaranteed “English experience” – and that’s a trip to the pub.
The “local” or “public house” (from which pub is taken) has been a second home to many in London, and has been for years. It’s not surprising to find three generations of the same family all relaxing at the same time, since people grow up knowing that their friends, families and neighbors will be the ones sharing a drink with them when they enter. Meals are simple and rustic, and you can actually find quite decent fish and chips at most. (Also, be sure to try a hearty and traditional Sunday roast dinner there, where a little more quiet crowd may be found reading the papers and watching the games on TV). Over one hundred years ago, painted signs hung outside to identify the establishments to the patrons who were unable to read. Anyone could say “Meet up tonight at the Frog and Boot” because everyone could recognize a sign featuring (you guessed it) a frog and a boot. Fascinating combinations of names, all filled with meaning years and years before, continue to be found all around London: the Hope and Anchor, the Swan and Sugarloaf, and the Bull and Bush.
Pub etiquette is usually lost on the uninitiated. You need to step up to the bar and place your order; no one will serve you at your table. One of you should buy the drinks at the often-crowded bar while the rest go and find a table. As with everything else in London, there is a queue, so you must wait your turn to be served. You can size up the situation pretty well as you approach the bar, and the bartender is usually good about seeing who is next. You should pay for drinks when you receive them, although many places will also let you run a tab if you’d like. Good news: there is no need to tip when ordering drinks at the bar! If you’d like to, though, you’re welcome to buy the bartender a drink (or offer the equivalent amount in cash). If you accidentally spill someone’s drink, offer to buy them another. Drinking in the street is usually prohibited by law, but you can easily tell if it’s okay when there are tables outside or if others are nearby on the sidewalk near the entrance.
Basics on ordering drinks: Real ale is stronger than ale (or bitter), and ale is stronger than light ale, and lager is much more what we’re akin to in the US. Stout, like Guinness, is also popular. The phrase “ice cold beer” is not usually found in Britain, so beware. You can order either a pint or half-pint. Of course, you can also order wine and many different mixed drinks. If you want something different, try a cider (which is exactly what it sounds like, only alcoholic) or a shandy (an unbelievable mixture of beer and lemonade). Pimms is a popular gin-based drink in England, and you can have it mixed into a Pimms cocktail or Pimms & Lemonade. Traditional bar snacks include crisps and pork scratchings which, to the Americans, are simply potato chips or pork rinds.
Currently you may smoke in certain areas of, but new legislation may make 2006 the last full year you’ll be able to do so. Another new law came into effect late in 2005 making it possible for pubs to apply for 24/7 licenses, and many pubs have done so. The legal drinking age is 18, although 16 and 17 year olds can drink beer, alcoholic cider or wine with a table meal as long as they’re accompanied by an adult. Even children are allowed in pubs, provided they are with an adult and they don’t drink! Don’t be afraid to ask if you’re uncertain. Because of the easy availability of taxis and public transport, it is easier to prevent yourself and your companions from drinking and driving. Public intoxication does happen, but it is strictly dealt with by police.
Finally, if you’re looking for history along with your pint, seek out one of the oldest working pubs called Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. Located in Fleet Street, it originated in the 1500s and was rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666. Dark and gloomy, as it was centuries ago, you can hoist a drink just as Dr. Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens did years before you. If you’re lucky, escape downstairs into the often-closed cellar rooms and do some exploring at the below-stairs bar.