Thursday 20 December 2018

When is a pub not a pub?

When it’s a bar, of course. While there’s no specific legal distinction, the two carry very different connotations. However, it’s notoriously difficult to come up with a hard-and-fast definition separating one from the other. Now Martyn Cornell has had another stab at it on his Zythophile blog. He suggests that a key distinction is that pubs tend to have a bar at right angles to the entrance door, whereas bars have their counter running along a side wall. Often, this is indeed the case, but it rather breaks down when you have a multi-roomed interior with different entrances. But perhaps bars don’t tend to have multi-roomed interiors anyway.

In general, while you can point to various characteristics that pubs usually have, and bars don’t, it’s always possible to come up with exceptions to the role. Overall, it’s often a case of “you know one when you see one”. I’ve suggested in the past that pubs are often specific buildings designed for the purpose, while bars tend to be part of a larger building. Pubs make use of the upper floors of the building, while a bar may be underneath something entirely different. The licensees of a pub are likely to live on the premises, but with a bar they hardly ever do. And, at least outside urban centres, pubs often have car parks, but I can’t think of a single bar that does. A pub retains its identity through various changes of ownership, while that of a bar is very much tied up with its current trading format.

Sometimes it’s less a question of physical aspects but how businesses choose to define themselves. On Stockport Market Place there are two recently-opened establishments right next door to each other – the Angel and Project 53. Both have a somewhat “crafty” ethos, but the Angel definitely comes across as a pub, whereas Project 53 is unquestionably a bar. With a new name and a different paint scheme, the Angel could be considered a bar, though.

Some Wetherspoon’s, particularly those in their more modern design idiom that are conversions of former retail units, do very much say “bar” rather than “pub”, whereas others than are in existing pub premises, such as the Gateway in East Didsbury, are definitely pubs. And, while their name says otherwise, I’d say that the vast majority of micropubs, going by the criteria set out above, are in reality small bars little different from the keg-only “box bars” often found in similar premises.

At the other end of the scale, there’s also the vexed question of when a pub actually turns into a restaurant. Most restaurants obviously aren’t pubs, but quite a few have the outward appearance of pubs and indeed might once have been one. Strictly speaking, if anyone can come in and have a drink without needing to buy a meal, it doesn’t qualify as just being a restaurant. However, I’d say there also needs to be a test of whether any meaningful number of people actually do.


  1. "....pubs tend to have a bar at right angles to the entrance door." I think this should be "parallel to the entrance door."
    Is this a slow news day Curm? I've had some pointless discussions in my time....

    1. You know what I mean - the bar is at right-angles to your path as you enter through the door.

    2. What about the many drinking establishments with U or L shaped bars?

    3. Hi Curm, I now know what you mean, but I disagree anyway. To me, a bar suggests an owner-barman, behind a bar, polishing the taps, facing the customer as he walks in (can't be bothered de-gendering my comment).

  2. You are of course only speaking from an English perspective. In the Scottish highlands, many hotels have 'bars' which seem to function like a pub in England.

    1. I deliberately avoided getting on to Scotland, as that country has a very different drinking landscape. You are right that in the more rural parts small hotels often fulfil the role of pubs south of the Border. Plus, in the cities, much of the older housing is in the form of tenement blocks which may well have bars in the ground-floor units.

  3. "A pub retains its identity through various changes of ownership, while that of a bar is very much tied up with its current trading format" I think that's key, and is also why micro pubs are bars to my mind.

    I'd give Spoons more status as pubs though, certainly in places where they serve as the main drinking and socialising focus for a town, irrespective of the premises. The Spoons along the A5 in North-West London are a good example.

    1. Oh, Spoons are pubs, not least because of the wide cross-section of clientele, but some are more pubby than others. Another thing that could be said of bars is that they tend to be aimed at a specific "crowd".

      Having said that, the identity of a Spoons would change dramatically if it became a Botanist or a Brewhouse & Kitchen.

    2. I'd agree that micros are often more bar than pub, as a rule, and I'd also argue trying to define what makes a pub is not as simple as bar position. It's more ethereal than that; a feel.

      It's something I struggle with on my Pubblog: when is something too much like a restaurant? When is it a bar, not a pub? When is a hotel bar "pubby" enough to get posted?

      I decided on two rules, one being a hard and fast "a drink must be purchased" to exclude places so rough you walk out (fortunately, the standard is set low there), and the other is "it must *feel* sufficiently pub-like"- so the bars I visited on holiday recently in Lanzarote don't count because they didn't feel right, but a hotel bar might, and I don't think you can actually define that by architectural characteristics.

    3. The Stafford Mudgie21 December 2018 at 17:16

      "Oh, Spoons are pubs" but I recall quite an argument about that on a now closed discussion forum,
      And Tim himself does use the term "venue".

    4. Ah yes, but that was about whether they were "proper pubs", which is something rather different. And another thing that is hard to define precisely, but you know it when you see it.

  4. The Stafford Mudgie21 December 2018 at 19:08

    No, my recollection is that there was quite an argument as to whether or not they were pubs - and that the assertion that they were NOT Proper Pub met with disagreement only from our old friend in Partridge Green.

  5. Isn't "bar" more of an American term, only coming into popular use here recently? In the past, in England at least, the bar was strictly only the counter where drinks were served, and not the name of the whole premises. Other establishments, such as hotels, restaurants and nightclubs would have a bar within them; anything else was just a Pub. Maybe it was different in big cities with cosmopolitan trade, such as that London. I know that Scotland is different; they traditionally have bars in shop-type premises and not so many pubs.
    I remember wine bars being a fad in the 1980s. I avoided them!

    1. The Stafford Mudgie22 December 2018 at 17:44

      Yes, in England the bar was the counter{s} where drinks were served but until the 1980s most pubs had at least two rooms, most commonly the Public Bar, or Bar, and the Lounge.

  6. When is a pub not a pub?

    When it doesn't have regulars? If a bar does, then it becomes a pub too.

    I generalise.

  7. I can't see anywhere else to put this so...

    A very Merry Christmas to you Mudgie.

    Appreciate your posts (even if I don't comment myself) and many thanks for the links on the left which helped me to find (almost!) too many Brit Beer Bloggers to follow. :)


    1. Not enough typos for you, Russ? ;-)

      Anyway, Merry Christmas to you too :-)

    2. The Stafford Mudgie25 December 2018 at 09:14

      Yes, it is indeed appropriate for even the most curmudgeonly of us to wish everyone well on this special day.
      And as the year draws to a close we can reflect on the marvellously thought provoking articles that have made this a very special site.

    3. ...blushes...

      Says the man who has been known to pen the occasional thought-provoking letter to "What's Brewing" :-)

  8. If it has regulars then I reckon it's a boozer... Merry Christmas ��
    Britain Beermat

  9. Have to be honest. I was expecting a better punchline.

  10. Reprinted with kind permission - something I penned on this theme for the October/November 2012 London Drinker magazine:


    Err... when it’s a bar, apparently. No, I didn’t find it amusing either.

    Having penned a successful food and drink blog for the last couple of years, I spent the better part of the summer months on a rather enjoyable quest to find my ‘London Pub of the Year’ – an award which was ultimately won by the excellent Craft Beer Company in Clerkenwell. So far, so good.

    The Craft and three of the four other pubs which made my top five (The Harp, The Southampton Arms and the Catford Bridge Tavern) all expressed thanks and appreciation, as did many other pubs on the shortlist – even some of those with not entirely favourable reviews seemed to appreciate the publicity.

    But one finalist – The Euston Tap – responded not with gratitude, but a rather brusque ’we prefer to be judged as a freehouse bar, not a pub’.

    I won’t bother with dictionary definitions, but having been to the Euston Tap several times, I’m fairly sure it’s a place where the primary activity is drinking draught (cask and keg) beer. Anyone over 18 is welcome. They sell crisps and pork scratchings. People drink outside, sometimes while smoking. Yep, that sounds very much like a pub to me!

    Which begs the question: Why the belligerent attitude from an otherwise very nice pub? There, I said it.

    Yes, it has a bar, but then so does every pub (well, almost every pub – there are a small handful of notable exceptions). What’s wrong with being a ‘pub’?

    They explained to me that they don’t like being called a ’pub’ because ‘there is a big difference between us and Greene King / Punch pubs’.

    This made absolutely no sense to me. I’m no great fan of mega PubCo houses or the beers they sell, but just because some pubs are indifferent or bad doesn’t devalue the concept of the ‘pub’, does it?

    Are they going to stop selling ‘beer’ because Fosters and John Smith’s Extra Smooth aren’t very good beers?

    Maybe I’m old-fashioned but to me the ‘pub’ symbolises all that is right with the world – convivial, welcoming and a place to drink good beer. It seems a little sad not to want to be associated with these connotations.

    Now consider the ‘bar’ (a term with which the Euston Tap are absolutely fine, apparently). What does ‘bar’ say to you?
    The bars in restaurants, nightclubs, theatres etc. are usually little more than a sideshow – one goes to these places to eat, dance or watch the show, rather than specifically to drink beer.

    Wine bars and cocktail bars immediately conjure up images of overpriced 1980s excess, and a distinct lack of good beer.
    And what about the depressing Hotel bar, where bored people sit awkwardly after attending the first day of a Sales conference. Again, usually rather expensive, and probably not too interesting in the beer department.

    Then there’s the Hotel bar’s even sadder, lonelier cousin, the ‘Mini bar’ - a small fridge containing a few miniatures and a can of Heineken!

    I guess the people who run the Euston Tap are free to describe it however they please, but given the choice, I’d much rather be in the pub, and if I were in the business of selling draught beer, I’d much rather be a pub.

    1. Thanks Ben. But this underlines one of the cultural connotations of pub vs bar - that pubs are stuffy and old-fashioned, while bars are modern and trendy.

    2. The Stafford Mudgie28 December 2018 at 18:32

      What a splendid article.
      Now I realise why for over a year I have used the Somers Town Coffee House or Doric Arch rather than the unconvivial and unwelcoming Euston Tap.

    3. Indeed. I wonder if now, some years on, they regret alienating those of us who like pubby pubs?!?

      I did actually get an apology (and a free pint) in the Euston Tap in 2016 - several years later...

  11. It's worth noting - albeit a small detail - that real pubs are always called "The ...." - The Bull's Head, The King's Arms etc, whereas bars rarely adopt a moniker starting with "The" They're always called something like Jim's Place or Bar 52 etc. Of course, many real pubs have morphed into restaurants now, where the bar area is little more than a "holding pen" for people waiting for a free table and where you're about as likely to find a genuine crowd of regular friendly locals as you are to find a family of cockroaches in the new, squeaky-clean kitchens, which confuses the issue somewhat. But the few real pubs which do still exist, are always "The [something]." Worth remembering when out and about and looking out for somewhere to stop for some quick refreshment (or new to an area and on the lookout for a suitable "local") - if it's smallish with little evidence of a huge new extension (often a conservatory) stuck on the side, doesn't make a big deal of advertising special offers on food (a handwritten blackboard is fine, a big permanent-fixture sign isn't) and it's called "The ....." - it's a pub!

    1. Another one that generally holds true, but where there are exceptions. For example, Hales Bar in Harrogate is definitely a pub, while the Piccadilly Tap in Manchester is undoubtedly a bar.

    2. The Stafford Mudgie30 December 2018 at 14:40

      The Piccadilly Tap was shut at 9.30am a fortnight ago so I used the Piccadilly Tavern which was more like a Wetherspoons than a tavern.
      It had got some proper strength beers on though including Old Dairy's 6% Snow Top.
      I had the London Never Mind The Kent Hops which was very hazy although I didn't want to show my age by asking if that was intentional, and the bar staff probably wouldn't know anyway.

    3. Is that what used to be the Goose? On the right hand as you walk up from the station in the direction of Piccadilly Gardens (which mostly aren't gardens any more).

    4. The Stafford Mudgie30 December 2018 at 15:37

      Yes, previously the Goose.
      And just short of Tim's venue.

  12. I'd never considered the bar being at a right angle to the main door before. Maybe if the first thing you see when you enter are the beers on offer and after greeting the publican you have to make your choice. That won't separate them most of the time either, but you've got me thinking.


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