When you think about the iconic parts of London that define the city, Big Ben, the London Eye, and the red double decker buses are usually among the first that come to mind. But taking selfies in front of Buckingham Palace or a walk through the British Museum won’t come close to giving one the cultural experience that an authentic London pub will. “Pub culture” (as it is known to foreigners) is to British life what summer barbecues are to American life.
Now, I must make it very clear that a pub in Britain is not to be confused with a “bar” as we understand it in the States. The British will not let us get away with this comparison. “Pub” is actually short for “public house” which, dating back centuries, was a place open to the community for drinks, games, and an all-around good time.
Many of these principles still dictate the pub etiquette and customs practiced today. A pub is a place for companionship, casual conversation, or a good rugby/football match. While alcoholic drinks are the norm, a pub is not the place to drink excessively or take shots with a group of loud, testosterone-oozing men, and the bartender would not have any problem serving just a cup of coffee or bottle of Coca-Cola. After a day of work, a boss will often invite one of their employees out to have a pint or two—many people go to the pub by themselves every day after work for just one drink to unwind.
The biggest distinction that’s immediately noticeable is the pace at which everything in the pub runs. I found this out after sitting at my table for 30 minutes waiting for my order to be taken. Unlike the States, there are no waiters or waitresses in any hurry to serve you. Take your seat, remove your jacket and of course your scarf, then go up to the bar area and order your drink and food on your own time. After you pay you can go sit at the table with your drink and wait for your food to be served.
“Pub grub” is what you will be able to get—generally soup, sandwich, Sunday roast, or the classic fish and chips (just don’t eat the mashed peas that look like a glob of bright green mashed potatoes that lunch ladies would serve out of an ice cream scoop in the cafeteria).
In the U.S. we are used to seeing politicians appearing in candid photographs hunting for ducks to seem like “one of the folks.” In Britain, to curry favor with the voting base, members of Parliament will make sure the press gets a picture of them outside the local pub with a pint of lager in one hand and a hand-rolled cigarette, or “fag” if you will, in the other.
It would be impossible to understand British culture without understanding pub culture. It is so ingrained in the fabric of the country that you have to experience it yourself to fully understand. But don’t take my word for it …cheers!