Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - July/August 2019
It’s hard to pin down the difference between a pub and a bar, but you know one when you see one
WHEN it’s a bar, of course. While there’s no specific legal distinction, the two carry very different connotations. This is not to say one is better than the other, but they’re certainly not interchangeable. However, it’s notoriously difficult to come up with a hard-and-fast definition separating one from the other. Beer writer Martyn Cornell has recently had another stab at it on his Zythophile blog, where he suggests that a key distinction is that pubs tend to have a bar at right angles to your path when coming in through 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 rule. Overall, it’s often a case of “you know one when you see one”. Pub names usually start with “The”, but bar names seldom do. 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. Bars are often aimed at a specific, identifiable “crowd”, while pubs seek a wider and more general clientele. 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 different decor, the Angel could be considered a bar, though.
The different connotations of the two categories will often influence how an establishment wants to be seen. One well-known London craft beer place took exception to being considered for a “Pub of the Year” award, because they identified themselves a bar. To them, a bar was modern and progressive, while “pub” suggested something stuffy and old-fashioned and very possibly belonging to Greene King or Punch Taverns.
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 that are in existing pub premises, such as the Gateway in East Didsbury, are definitely pubs. However, their general atmosphere and wide customer mix are very much those of pubs regardless of their design. 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, and whether non-diners are made to feel welcome.