Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - November 2003
Why should we be expected to adopt Continental drinking habits?
A HOUSE OF COMMONS committee recently urged Britain to adopt a Continental, café-society culture to curb alcohol-related public order problems. In France and Italy they supposedly spend their evenings in convivial family meals where a fair bit of red wine may be consumed but there's never any trouble, whereas here in Britain groups of lads and ladettes go out and get bladdered drinking strong lager and pre-mixed spirits in establishments where you'd be lucky to get anything more than a packet of crisps. That, though, is at best a gross oversimplification, and surely the message underlying this view is that the people who express it basically just don't like pubs. The disorder has far more to do with the nature of city centre drinking circuits than the fact that bars don’t offer food – which, in fact, far more do than was the case twenty years ago.
Pubs have always served a lot of lunches, but evening meals have never had a great part to play in our pub tradition. The British way of drinking, particularly up here in't'North, has always been to eat your tea at home and then go out later to spend some time in the pub. Very often, people are not just simply drinking, they're playing darts, attending club meetings, doing quizzes, or even simply setting the world to rights, all things you can do over a couple of pints, but not over a plate of dinner. A chance meeting over a drink is also much more informal than arranging a meal which would usually need to be planned in advance. So long may it continue - we don't want our locals turned into trendy restaurants, and we want to keep our distinctive, civilised, informal, flexible drinking culture.
Bench seating is quintessentially pubby – so why do designers shun it?
A LOCAL PUB has recently received a thoroughgoing, expensive refurbishment, including the welcome return of real ale in several different varieties. But one thing this establishment lacks is a “pubby” feel, and one of the key factors leading to that is the total absence of fixed bench seating. This surely is one of the defining features of a pub – if there are just loose chairs and tables, the atmosphere becomes more that of a café or restaurant. This particular pub, despite a strong emphasis on food, also has a number of low coffee-type tables surrounded by sofas, which are very wasteful of space and well-nigh impossible to eat off.
Bench seating is cosy, sociable, flexible and space-efficient. It also adds instant atmosphere to a room in a pub. All of the finest pub rooms around here – from the toplit snug in the Swan with Two Necks to the wood-panelled lounge in the Nursery – are distinguished by fixed seating. Many of the most dismal and dispiriting ones, particularly in a couple of modernised Robinson’s pubs that spring to mind, have nothing but loose individual chairs. So why have benches become anathema to contemporary pub designers? It couldn’t be that they’re actually scared of pubs looking anything like pubs?