It’s 15C, windy and raining, horizontally. Not a great day for exploring mountains. Sounds like a pub is in order.
Pubs are the great British social institution. Dogs and children are welcome, though you do have to smoke in the garden. (I find this a great improvement, but others feel it is an overbearing aspect of the nanny state.) The best are local, almost community centres, that feel like one big family room. The worst are commercial and somewhat impersonal. None are as awful as an American bar. They’re more than just a dispensary for alcoholic beverages. No self-respecting village is without at least one pub.
Originally they were inns and stopping points for the masses. Back before trains when nearly everyone walked, it took more than a few hours to go from one end of the island to the other. Once King Henry destroyed the Abbeys and Monasteries that housed travellers, public houses evolved to fill that role. While some still do, most pubs now don’t have overnight rooms. You’ll also read about licensing rules and pubs closing at strange hours. These were introduced to help win ‘the war to end all wars.’ The first one of those wars, a hundred years ago. One of the best things labour ever did was to revoke the rules. Now pubs are open when there’s a market for their services. (which means in the country, don’t count on them being open out of hours). By the way, the drinking age is 18.
Pubs come in basically three flavours: free house, brewer associated, and chain. Chain pubs are franchises like McDonalds, reasonable places, but nothing super special. Brewer associated will have a brewer’s name over the door. They get a deal from or may be owned by a brewery. In Berkshire around Reading a fair number of pubs used to have ‘Courage’ over the door which was a nice touch. Free houses are owned outright by the publicans and serve whatever beers they want. Free houses are usually the best, the most idiosyncratic, and typically British you will find. I aim for them, and so should you.
Ordering: Typically you walk up to the bar and wait your turn. There will always be some ‘locals’ i.e. people who haunt the pub as their almost primary residence. You may have to wait a bit to be noticed. Be polite. They will pointedly ignore a ‘loud Yank.’ Beer comes in pints and half pints. Ask for what’s the best bitter and you won’t be disappointed. American beer is lager. A typical ‘lady’s drink’ is lager and lime. You cannot get that in the USA, so even if you’re a bloke, give it a try. Cider is alcoholic. You can get a variety of soft-drinks for the children. The fruit squashes are very sweet. You also would order food here. It’s good manners to know what you’re ordering before you go to the bar. After all other people are waiting for their drinks.
Pub Food: The French believe the British can’t cook. They also believe chicken is suitable for vegetarians. At least they’ve got something right. The thing about the British and the English in particular is they won’t complain. Some restaurants take advantage of this to serve awful food. The good ones won’t. The British also became accustomed to pretty bloody awful food during an unfortunate event in the middle of the 20th century. And they never were fond of snails – or frogs.
Good pub food can hold its head up with respect to any cuisine in the world. Things to try are: fish and chips, Sausage and chips, and meat pies with or without chips. I’d skip a ploughman’s. They tend to be overpriced. You may be offered ‘mushy peas.’ They are an acquired taste, but you should try them at least once. Never mind that they look like something the cat regurgitated. You may get a chance to have ‘black pudding.’ Take it.
Pizza has made it to the UK. It’s served as pizzas. Each typically the size of a plate and for one person.
Digestive biscuits are a delight. The base biscuit is similar to graham cracker, and you can (should) get them covered in chocolate. Ginger nuts are another biscuit worth tasting. American children often subsist on digestives when visiting the UK, since everything tastes a little different.
Bacon is different. It has meat in it. Lots of meat. Enjoy it while you can.
Sausage. My in-laws wonder why my wife and I binge on this when we’re here. Especially why we have the inexpensive plain sausages. It’s a unique and addictive flavour. One you can’t get back in the good ol’ USA.
Baked Beans. I only mention this because some people are in for a surprise. I wouldn’t bother with them in the UK. No where near as good as in the USA.
Fruits and Veggies. There’s a huge variety here now. This may change with Brexit. With apples especially, look for varieties that aren’t found in North America. Strawberries are also much nicer than you can get at home.
Cheese. The UK has its own varieties and they are excellent. Try Leicester, Cheshire, Wensleydale, Stilton, and mature (local) Cheddar. The orange brick cheese in the US will pale in comparison.