The Joy of Pubs – A Quick Guide to London’s Drinking Culture

John Sheerman

You are visiting London; excitedly making plans to do some shopping, catch a play and one of our famous walking tours. Stop! You are forgetting about one of the most quintessential London experiences, a visit to a proper honest-to-goodness pub. Here are a few tips to make the most of your experience and avoid annoying the locals.


1. How to spot a pub

Typically a pub has a name like ‘The Red Lion’. Seriously, there are about 600 Red Lion pubs in Britain and 26 in London alone! A pub will have an old-fashioned sign hanging outside with a picture of… you guessed it, a Red Lion. Pubs come in all shapes and sizes but they have 3 things in common: a welcoming atmosphere, wipe-clean surfaces and a wide array of alcohol-based refreshments.


2. Ordering in a pub

Pubs don’t do table service for drinks. The only way you’re going to get a drink sitting at a table is if there’s a leak in the ceiling.

Walk up to the bar, say hello to the bartender and make your order. If you’re lucky they might offer you a tray for large orders but I wouldn’t count on it.


3. What to drink in the pub?

Whatever you want! It’s your money and your liver. Beer, wine, cider, even soft drinks are acceptable in modern London. Order that cranberry juice with pride. If you fancy trying something you can’t order just as easily back home then try a Real Ale. If you’ve heard rumours that British ales aren’t chilled or fizzy that’s correct but many of them are delicious, refreshing and make a change from the generic lager you usually drink. Most bartenders will let you sample a couple before you make a final decision and there are plenty to choose from.

Side note! Resist the temptation to order a Mojito or a caramel decaf latte. You wouldn’t order lasagna in MacDonald’s would you? Stick to what they are good at!


4. Pub Grub

Not long ago most pubs limited food options to crisps, nuts and pork scratchings (an acquired taste) but today the majority offer a range of classic ‘pub grub’ such as sausage and mash, fish and chips and burgers. These meals aren’t going to win any prizes but if you’ve been marching around the city all day its hearty food at a reasonable price. Tell the barman where you are sitting and someone will bring it over when it’s ready.


5. Tipping in pubs

If you want to give your bartender a little extra when ordering a pint then go right ahead. There is no hard and fast rule here but it isn’t generally expected. It will be a welcome surprise to any bartender if you tell them to keep the change or offer “one for yourself” which basically means, take a couple of extra pounds on top. If the pub offers table service (and some do), then it’s much more common to tip as if you were in a restaurant, around 10-15%. Staff will often add a service charge to your bill automatically for bigger groups.


6. Queuing in pubs

British people love to queue! If we could add a new sport to the next Olympics then queuing would be it! And we’d win too! Strangely though, the pub is one of the rare places where queuing has never taken off. Just find yourself a place at the bar, wait your turn and pray the other customers have a basic sense of honour. Be warned, if you are in the pub on a Friday or Saturday night getting served can be a lottery.


7. Closing time!

There are lots of bars and clubs that stay open until the wee small hours but your typical pub is NOT one of them. Most pubs open their doors at around 11am and shut them again at 11pm. Don’t worry, they’ll give you a bit of warning. At 10.50 a bell will ring to announce “last orders” and give you enough time to scurry to the bar for a final round. Sunday can be even worse with many pubs closing at 10.30pm.


8. Where to find great pubs?

Pubs have been closing at an alarming rate in recent years, converted into offices or apartments but luckily in central London, you are never more than a short walk from a pleasant little watering hole.

Try to avoid the really busy spots like Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square. It’s always worth venturing a little further off the beaten path where little pubs are tucked away on quiet side streets.

Finally, let’s get you started with a few recommendations and then it’s up to you to search out some gems. Good luck!

The Princess Louise – Holborn

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese – The Strand

The Jerusalem Tavern – Clerkenwell

The Harp – Covent Garden

The Ship & Shovell – Charing Cross


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