Best pubs and bars
I might be a little biased, but there is nothing anywhere quite like a British pub. It’s part of a community, a way of life and a haven to relax for as long as you like. In the summer, as an English friend put it, you’ll likely be at an outdoor table in a sunny garden drinking a warm beer with a wasp floating in it (and you’ll bloody well enjoy it!). Ale will often be served cold in the UK – friends and myself prefer it that way – but traditionally it’s served at room temperature. The summer pub garden in Britain can be a beautiful place to while away the time. At most other times of year, you can happily go to a pub from the moment it opens – sometimes mid morning – and you needn’t feel weird or guilty for drinking alcohol right away. If you want, before they open you can lean against the entrance door (reading a book) so that when the staff open the pub, you’ll fall in. It shows you’re keen.
The ideal British pub has a roaring real fire, and a dog or cat sleeping in front of it. The British pub is your second home, and no one will rush you, you don’t give tips when you buy drinks and if you want to spend five hours chatting to mates or reading Thomas Hardy then that’s fine. And in that time if you only drink two beers, no one will bother you. I used to take my university text books or prescribed novels down the pub in the 1990s, but I didn’t get much study done.
Bars/pubs in North America and elsewhere in the world can of course be wonderful too, if not the same. There are some great ones in New York to be sure.
Anyway, here are some of our favourites from places we’ve been (before I met my wife I travelled to places like Morocco, Lebanon and Peru too but I don’t remember bars so much):
The Windmill Brewery
My brother Martyn’s favourite watering-hole. It’s wonderfully picturesque, and does some top quality ales and a big variety. The windmill is a separate entity to the pub but it certainly makes it look unique. We enjoyed a sample flight of beers on our last visit. Here’s a few on their beer list below…
Pokey but fantastic, traditional brown bar. I never knew there are a few Gollems until I saw a map just now, but the one in Amsterdam centre is the only one I know. An impressive range of beers. You have a small lower section, and a small upper seating section…and a big blackboard of alcohol choices. If you like beer you should definitely go when in the city!
The absolute ultimate in beer bars, the mecca of Belgian ales, is here. There is a drinks catalogue on each table that’s as big as many of those yellow pages phone books used to be!! When Marie and I went, they had over 2,000 different beers to choose from!!! A great, atmospheric grotto of a place to drink in too.
Most are in bottles of course, and when you put in your order the staff will track down what you want as if you’ve just asked to see a copy of Don Quixote in Swahili at the Bodlian Library.
A note on strong beer
When it comes to strong beers, I find Belgian ale very drinkable. 9%, 10%, 11%…a lot are not only full of delicious flavour – of course – but are pleasant. With strong beer elsewhere – in UK and the USA especially – beyond around 8% can be challenging. A brewery will talk in poetic terms about its multi-stage processed, complex dark ale with glowing pride. But, in the U.S that 9.5% IPA can make your eyes water, and in the UK a pint of 10% Old Black Hole will suck in your soul. You might pretend that you enjoy it, whilst you can’t wait for the experience to be over!
I personally enjoy beers between 4%-7%, though there are exceptions. Both Marie and I love Troegg’s Mad Elf around Christmas. It’s 11% and delicious (spices and cherries in the recipe), though I may take three weeks to go through a six pack at home…
Anyway, back to our favourite pubs:
Of course there are a multitude of terrific pubs in London, some dating back to the Middle Ages like The Cittie of York (from 1430). But I’m going to pick one, without getting overwhelmed.
The Viaduct Tavern
I just read that it’s the last surviving Victoria gin palace in London. It opened the same year as the viaduct: 1869. It’s opposite where Newgate Prison stood, and it’s said that some of the debtor’s cells were under the pub. You can ask to view them (we did!).
The Viaduct is just a classic example of a historic pub, with an impressive interior with etched glass panels. And Fuller’s ales (Fuller’s Brewery is in Chiswick in London).
Our favourite pub in the world, quite likely…
- I have to pick The Bell in Harborne. For nostalgia mainly, and for the beautiful little green area it’s in. You’re only 3 plus miles from Birmingham city centre but it’s like a bit of lush countryside. Very comfortable and friendly, with green bowling played outside. The food has gone from great to just good back to great again, and last time we went it was excellent. A fine Sunday roast.
We met up with my dad a lot here when we visited the UK, and we see extended family here too. It’s also about four minutes walk from where I lived.
We love it. They usually have a couple of guest ales.
The Bartons Arms is the oldest pub in Birmingham, in the more urban area outside Aston. It’s tiled interior is dazzling, and a real statement. They do a great range of Thai meals too.
Two other ornate places we often go back to are The Old Joint Stock (a former bank off Newhall street), and the Bacchus Bar on New Street.
Another heritage pub with a classic interior, the Crowd Posada is another we’ll go back to.
You know…where do you start on British pubs without writing a book? CAMRA (Campaign For Real Ale) did that already. You’ll find some amazing country village pubs too. I’d recommend getting the CAMRA guide.
Our favourite American pub:
- The Ginger Man is more like a British pub perhaps. An almost endless choice of all kinds of beers from all over the world. The pub can be quiet or busy. We like to catch it mid afternoon on a Saturday before the real crowds kick in. You can order up your own flight (paddle), which is exciting. They give you a card to fill out, and you then pick your five or six from a menu of….I forget but I think around 50 or 60 beers, some of them unusual. They have a few rarer beers than run up to around $35 a pint, but obviously you won’t get to pick one of those in your flight!
We don’t know as much about these, but we know what we like. I’d recommend you get yourselves off to Spuntino Italian Wine Bar & Tapas in Westbury, Long Island, if you love wine and small plates. It’s a favourite of ours.
Valencia, Spain for cider
I lived an hour from Valencia for about six months in 2004. In 2009 my brother and I were in a great bar where we enjoyed a cider or three. In Spain the bartender will pour your cider into a small glass from a great distance from the barrel spout, and they’ll do that with great flare and bravado. I believe the bar was probably Olhops (I remember it began with an ‘O’). At any rate, Olhops seems to be highly rated for its craft beer and cider in 2020. Lizarran do a nice cider too.
Marie and I plan to try some cideries in Pennsylvania over here at some point.
Cork and Kerry, Floral Park in Long Island, New York. It’s a little low-lighting, hush hush and is a speakeasy behind a coffee shop but that’s part of the fun! They have a sister cocktail bar in Rockville Centre that is also a speakeasy, advertised outside as a museum!
El Rey Mexican bar and restaurant in Philadelphia is a favourite too. And there’s a speakeasy through the kitchen at certain times!
That’s just a few of many we enjoy. In Britain, the Alchemist is a chain of cocktail bars that does wonderful concoctions.
For an occasional treat we immensely enjoy tiki bars. In Chicago, down a semi secret flight of stairs is Three Dots and A Dash. A little pricey but a treasure. We also had a fun time at Mother of Pearl in NYC and The Highwater in Astoria, Queens.
Our first flirtation with a tiki bar (and a zombie cocktail) was back in Birmingham in England though. A few years ago we went along to the city suburb of leafy Moseley which has a very lively tiki bar in the back garden. Well, it was lively pre-Covid. Though seeing the way that crowds are not social distancing after re-opening, it’s probably even livelier and busier than ever now?!!
Martyn’s favourite bars:
And here are some of my brother, Martyn’s top bars from various countries! Martyn has travelled through Europe more widely than I. If he wishes to write a few words on each, I’ll paste it in. These are my words and those of the bars’ websites, after following up with some light research myself:
In Amsterdam, Hannekes Boom is a shack-style bar on the dockside, with recycled and found furniture! A few minutes walk from Centraal Station. Fun in the summertime, it’s ultra casual and almost like a beach bar. A young vibe, with dj evenings.
Klub Kulturany, Krakow
A laid-back, local underground cellar bar. Lots of rock music, so not a place to take your knitting! Lonely Planet has an entry on this bar. It mentions its multiple, cosy rooms. Karaoke twice a week. I tried to find some good photos on bing/google images, but there are just grainy ones as I imagine it’s low lit down there!
One More Kino Bar, Sofia
An arts space and open-air cinema with a bar specializing in cocktails! So a wide variety of entertainment!
In lively, ultra ex-Pat Benidorm, La Cava Aragonesa looks a haven! Food is said to be great, and the menu changes daily. Plus skewers, and tapas of course. The photos speak for themselves, from their own website…
In Madrid, Tupperware. Full of pop art and movie memorabilia and a huge art mural, this is a club with a difference. And with a variety of ages. It’s on Madrid’s official tourism website!
Spunka bar is in the capital, Vilnius. It gets mostly rave reviews. Excellent ale list, and friendly. Was this here when I went to Vilnius in 2004? I don’t remember!
The Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden is a classic, and preferable to the touristy – if handy – Punch & Judy. This is from the pub’s own website ‘history’ tab!
“The pub acquired a reputation in the early nineteenth century for staging bare-knuckle prize fights, earning it the nickname ‘The Bucket of Blood,’ and the alleyway beside the pub was the scene of an attack on the poet John Dryden in 1679 by thugs hired by John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, with whom he had a long-standing conflict.”
I remember the pub well, and going there with friends more than once. I’d check if it’s open during covid.