Fiona Stapley, editor of the Good Pub Guide, examines how the blurring of lines between pubs, restaurants and cafes has affected the public’s affection for this great British institution.
Pubs make us happy – and they do so in a way that other businesses simply can’t. As the wise Dr Johnson said: ‘There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.’ It’s also heartening to learn that a recent Oxford University study fully endorses this! Apparently, people with a local pub near their home were ‘significantly’ happier, more satisfied with their life and had more friends (and also drank more moderately).
Step into a well run pub and you’re greeted by gentle laughter and the murmur of voices, the sight of ale being pulled at the pump, the smell of good food, maybe a snoozing dog on the hearth by a roaring fire and, all importantly, a friendly smile. Good pubs are run by naturally hospitable people who provide an equally warm welcome to regulars and visitors – everyone should feel at home and valued.
A pub is where the various rites of passage are celebrated – not just births, deaths and marriages, but the first drink, the first job, perhaps even the first kiss. As the hub of a local community with customers from all walks of life, there’s no need to make an appointment as there will always be someone there that you know, gossip to catch up on and news to share. We feel we belong, we matter and for a while the cares and clutter of daily life are left behind – and this makes us happy.
It’s the air of mischievous energy and the inclusive sense of humour that, according to one of our top publicans, are key factors to enjoying both his own and other pubs. Plus the fact that he’ll see someone walk through his door looking a bit weary or wilted and watch them leave later with spirits lifted and head held a little higher. And that makes him happy – he feels he’s done a good job.
But enjoying a pub isn’t simply because we’re with friends or family in a convivial atmosphere; it’s because pubs have changed so much over the last few years to suit our changing needs. There are those, of course, who feel that some pubs have lost their true identity. That they are no longer the traditional boozers they used to be, with too much emphasis now placed on food and on modish décor that involves stubby candles in glass jars, rugs on bare boards and a sea of Farrow & Ball paintwork. But pubs – and their landlords and landladies – are nothing if not adaptable. To run a successful pub you must pay attention to what your customers actually want from you and keep a keen eye on other nearby businesses.
In recent years, pubs, hotels, restaurants, coffee shops and cafés have seen a blurring of lines, with all of them now treading on one another’s turf. Pubs started to take business from restaurants quite a while ago when customers wanted less formality and more flexibility in what and when they chose to eat. Keen young chefs took note of these changing demands and you’ll now find some of the best food in Britain in a pub rather than a restaurant. A pub can offer a wide range of meals from breakfast (traditionally the staple of a café) to cake and morning coffee (move over, Starbucks) and on to imaginative, contemporary dishes fit for any special occasion. And as people’s lifestyles change (and this seems especially apt for younger customers) they want to be able to eat at a time of their choosing – and of course with many pubs now open all day, this is easy to provide.
More and more people enjoy spending a few days away from home, and whereas hotels and guest houses were once the obvious option, pubs have jumped on the bandwagon by refurbishing rooms above the bar and renovating old outbuildings – all to a very high standard. Over a third of our Main Entries now hold a Good Pub Guide Stay Award.
What appeals to our readers is the winning combination of a chatty bar with a cheerful mix of customers and a bedroom just upstairs.
Some pubs have little delis offering local and home-made produce and takeaway meal options. Others keep a room free for book clubs, knit-and-natter groups, live music or even small conferences. And, of course, many have set up outside catering services. You name it and pubs will have thought of it. It’s this entrepreneurial spirit that will keep pubs alive and kicking for years to come, despite all the doom and gloom you read about in the press. Pubs hold all the trump cards and are the worthy winners in this free-for-all marketplace.