Going to a British pub, for a beer or food, is one of those experiences that you have to have in London. Partly because it’s tough to avoid, but partly because you will never have a hope of understanding Britain unless you’ve spent at least a little time in the pub.
Until recently, pubs closed at 11pm. There were other licensing laws that allowed other types of establishments to be open and serve drinks later (such as dance clubs, etc.), but pubs were limited to 11pm. A new law recently came into effect which allows pubs to apply to be open later. You’ll now find that some are open until midnight or 1am, and some have licenses to open around the clock. However, most still seem to close at 11pm.
Ordering drinks & food
It’s sometimes amusing for locals to see tourists at a pub. They’ll sit down at a table, and wait virtually forever to be served. But that’s the thing… there is no table service in pubs. If you want a drink, or even if you want food, you have to order it at the bar. I’ve heard stories of some people waiting nearly 45 minutes before they figured it out, but those people were also engrossed in a football match.
When you order food, the staff will typically ask you where you’re sitting, and/or give you a number to display on your table. They’ll bring it out when it’s ready. (There are very occasionally pubs that do have table service, but these are rare.)
Tipping is never an easy topic, except perhaps at British pubs. The general rule? Tipping isn’t done. The staff are paid well enough that they don’t need anything extra, and it’s culturally just not done. That said, if you really feel like you’re being rude by not tipping, just say something along the lines of “… and one for yourself” when ordering. The staff will buy a drink for themselves and charge it to your order. But even this is very rare.
Queueing for Drinks
The British queue for everything. This includes a queue at the bar getting a drink. Please be mindful of who was there before you. Typically bar staff are good about keeping track of who needs to be served next, but the last thing you want to do is cut in line. It’s a big offence to Britons.
Pubs are an integral part of British culture. Over three-quarters of the population go to pubs, and over a third are regulars (at least once a week). They often serve the role that coffee shops do in the United States, as a community meeting place. In smaller towns and villages, the pub is truly the centre of socialisation for the people there. Everyone in the country has an opinion about their “local,” the pub they are closest to or are a regular at. The only problem in London is that the city is so dense that any number of pubs could be your “local.” For example, I live within a ten-minute walk of at least 12 proper pubs, and I think of three of them as “local.”
One of the best things about British pubs is that you can take drinks outside, and there are often tables and benches outside to sit and enjoy your drinks with friends. Walking around London on Thursday and Friday afternoons in the summer, you will see pubs with tens or hundreds of people spilling out into the streets outside. Scenes like the photos at the top and below are commonplace.
The London Traveler Says
Even if you’re not a drinker, you should at least stop by a pub for a meal. Pubs are really at the centre of British culture, and you’ll never truly understand the country unless you’ve spent some time at a pub. With around 60,000 pubs across the UK, you’ll always be near one!