Tuesday, June 19, 2012

RE: Pubs, Part the Second

The first comment from my previous post came from a noted Portland beer blogger who had visited England for the first time back in November, and got to experience his first pubs. Or, was that first visit to the Raleigh Hills McMenamins the first? That's the question; do we have pubs here in America? What is a pub? Is it OK to use it as a familiar synonym for a bar or tavern or a restaurant that brews beer (brewpub)?

I grew up near, in and around Ithaca, NY. When I graduated from college (1985) I moved back, bought a house, and got a job working as a software engineer for Cornell University. On the edge of campus is "Collegetown", a few blocks of streets on a steep hill leading down to the city. It contains all the necessities of off-campus life: markets, apartments, a great bagel shop, coffee shops, restaurants and bars. I quickly took a liking to a pizza joint called The Nines. The best deep-dish pizza I've ever had, cooked in a square pan in an upstairs kitchen and dropped to the bar below in a dumbwaiter. There was a great beer selection for the time, live music periodically, and rough tables scattered around for slouching in for a pint and a good book. I felt comfortable there.

Shortly afterward a couple of lawyers from New York City renovated the old Chapter House and installed a small brewery. It was fantastic, just as I pictured a British pub to be. I could order a slice of pizza from a tiny back kitchen and a pint from the bar and meet my friends, or just sit in a corner over a book with a bowl of the free popcorn from the constantly humming machine. My old jazz band, the Spam Fisted Butchers of Jazz, managed to convince the owners to let us play there a few times. Sadly, the brewery is no longer there, but the last time I was back it still had a pub-like character and I enjoyed my brief stay.

I thought of those places as pubs, but what was it about that first pub outside Victoria Station in London in 1991 that changed my perspective? I'm still trying to figure that out. Having been back and forth to the U.K. numerous times, I still feel like I'm chasing the greased pig as I attempt to define, let alone articulate, the differences. Fragments of "Pubs, Part the Third" are starting to form in my Slowly Decaying Cortex (tm).


Alistair Reece said...

Pubs are difficult to define, even for us Brits - more so perhaps for perpetual expats like myself, whose concept of the pub is likely swaddled in nostalgia. All this before we get to the idea of a "good pub".

Attempt to define it though I shall. A pub is a place where you feel as much at home as when actually at home, where you pay for a decent pint, a fine convivial atmosphere and where the regulars instinctively know if you want to chat or just be left to your pint and your thoughts. It is a place you can spend a day with a book and nobody things you are strange for doing so.

The pub is like the crossroads in days gone by, the place you meet to catch up with the world, to conduct whatever business you may be in and perhaps find that special someone (the likes of eHarmony and Match can sod off with their anti-socialising agenda).

The pub then is ultimately home from home, an escape, a refuge, a haven.

Jack R. said...

I lived in the UK for 12 years [3 block 'tween 1977-1999].

I never had a local. My pub experience was generally pub lunch with co-worker with and occasional 'boys night' and lunch/dinner while travel within the UK.

Velk_Al's "convivial atmosphere" is spot on and it also applied to the bar of most small hotels visited.

Convivial, relaxed, unhurried, welcoming are apt adjectives. Perhaps an attribute of the British 'drink service industry' than merely the public house. Don't know.