What is it that makes up the right ambience, feel, vibe, in a bar or pub? It’s one of those things I imagine to be quite intangible, but I wonder whether that’s really true… I write this waiting for a meeting in Farringdon, so rather than buy an expensive and disappointing coffee in a chain, I’m sitting in the diner-cum-style bar*, ‘Smiths’ of Smithfield.
This bar is at least 10 years old, and it hasn’t changed substantially in that time. I know this because a Dutch man with a deeply glottal, spittle-projecting name told me about it. Phonetically, Herrrrrt ten Karrrrrrte was aghast that I wasn’t aware of this bar, and that it was a stockist of the beer that we shared a mutual commercial interest in. It turns out that Herrrrrrrt had discovered it on a long weekend break from his home in Holland; what had started with the intention of a romantic break of discovery, museums, long walks in royal parks with his partner, hadn’t got much past an alcoholic breakfast at Smiths, which turned into a lunch and eventually into high tea, all fuelled by the rich and distinctive taste of Grolsch.
It’s a formula that has been much aped now, but this bar is still a bit of a ‘Daddy’. Industrial chic is probably the term – the old metal pillars treated with Hammerite, holding up huge spans of pitch pine; metal ventilation ducts all New York loft style; exposed concrete, roughly set, and railway station touches like a rotary display board that in any other place would announce arrivals or departures…here it announces house blend breakfast smoothies. The ‘innards’ are ‘out’ards’ so to speak, like those de-skinned anatomy models doctors use. It’s not, in short, the place where a couple of decades ago you would have dreamed of serving food and beer from, and for that very reason, it was, and is, a triumph.
‘Triumph’ – yes, I admit it’s a subjective statement; but sitting in a full bar at 9am on a Thursday seems like a good barometer to me. People working in the leisure trade tend to bang on about two things (a) ‘woe are us’ our pubs are closing, and (b) the saviour is serving food. Both fill me with ire. Mitchells & Butler’s do a total disservice to their (acquired) pub legacy by declaring themselves ‘agnostic’ about beer and now planting their flag very pointedly in ‘restaurant group’ terra firma. This is missing the point, pretty widely. Because what makes these places successful is the guest being able to decode what the bar is about. Perversely enough, M&B do this pretty well with their ‘unbranded’ brand, Castle – essentially a series of draught focused bars, that stock a combination of more unusual and eclectic draught beers, ciders and spirits. They serve food but the orientation is drinking. Likewise, a Toby Carvey serves beer, but you know that really it’s a mid price restaurant, or a Vintage Inn, whether we may decry it or not, does feel like a pub (the focus is on the bar as you enter). It’s just that their focus will be on food in the future. In an different orbit, a chap I know has a ‘formula’ for his drinking pubs: they are oak-led (floorboards, bar, chairs, tables); the cask pumps are the entire focus of the bar; it’s smart old brewery memorabilia and a lit fire. ‘Smiths’ is successful because its food and drinking is so seamlessly integrated in the way that some of the great North American ‘casual dining’ bars are. I remember going to ‘The Keg’ in suburban Toronto once, where there was a guest list of beers, local beers on draft (sic), beer and food pairings, and a ‘special’, cooked with beer. A great beer bar in any other name, but the food was totally integrated and, I’m led to believe, that ‘The Keg’ is pretty typical. ‘Smiths’ does this effortlessly too…in the mornings and at lunch, it’s an American diner, London style. But come the evenings, you move upstairs for food and downstairs becomes the hub.
There’s a big part of me that agrees and sympathises with the plight of the British pub, now being sponsored by CAMRA. For me, it’s a particular concern in smaller communities, and where other facilities have closed or been axed over time. But there’s another voice too – that of inevitability and innovation. Great, inspiring, successful bars and pubs are floating to the top – those that don’t innovate, don’t inspire drinkers to visit, well, they will fail. That’s competition folks. The key is to take the time to learn the lessons of success and strap on the big brass balls to do something about it. Complaining about our fate will not get us anywhere.
*’Style’ bar…sorry about that. It’s like saying ‘Cool’ Bar. The very act of calling it that proclaims as deeply uncool, and hence unstylish. Although in this case, it is.
© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012