Pubs in America; Or, Trying Too Hard

24 Apr

I think pubs are one of those essentially British (or Scottish/Irish/Welsh) traditions that entirely resist exportation. There’s just something about the age, the atmosphere, the patrons, the whole package – that  just can’t be replicated, although there are some good attempts. And some poor attempts.

One problem I see is that our culture values “authenticity”. In my opinion, Ciao Bella is a much better restaurant than Spaghetti House because it is a more accurate representation of Italian cuisine (Anna P agrees). Recipes are always believed to be better when it came from someone’s grandmother. Everyone likes to eat in an Asian restaurant that has real Asians in it. I could go into a lot more anthropological detail than this, but it’s late at night and you get the point. We like our food to be authentic. Just like everybody knows that Taco Bell isn’t real Mexican or Johnny Rockets isn’t really what the 1950s were like, everyone recognizes that pubs in the US aren’t really British.

Pubs in the US are really restaurants that serve beer on tap. They try to cultivate the atmosphere with wood paneling and beam ceilings, but they sort of miss the point: pubs are all about the booze and the company, and food is sort of an afterthought. America really replicates this with the sports bar, or something like Cheers – a little neighborhood bar where people just hang out. Maybe it’s been there since the 80s, or maybe since the 20s. They serve food (but mostly beer), generally things like nachos and fries and hot dogs. And they’re all about an activity: watching sports and hanging out with your pals and some beer.

Think of the word “pub”. It brings up images of old men in tweed suits, an old wooden bar, maybe a shady sheep deal going on in the corner. Perhaps there’s a roaring fire. An elderly man serves cool beer from the taps and his wife brings up a fresh-baked pie. You feel cozy, comforted, full, welcomed. Well, this is the ideal pub that you might encounter somewhere in the countryside. The closest I’ve found to this might be the Lamb or the Seven Stars, but it’s definitely not a Wetherspoon’s. They all have elements of this, and enough of them have enough atmosphere to make them “authentic”. But here’s the rub: it’s really, really hard to export authenticity. I think Greek restaurants do it best, followed by Italian restaurants owned by Italians, and then something like a fancy Beijing cuisine restaurant decorated with actual Chinese furniture. But others hardly come close to that feeling. Pubs try as hard as they can but never quite cut it. Item one: Booths. Where do they get the idea that pubs have booths? Pubs should uniformly have mismatched chairs. Every American pub I’ve been to has booths; this is wrong, as booths are an item of Americana commonly found in chain restaurants. And a real pub, even if it is a chain, never wants to act like a chain.

Case in point: Firkin and Pheasant, a pan-British pub on the north side of Chicago. Last time I was there, every seat was a booth. Every one.

Item two: the service. While British pubs are friendly in the British-polite way, American pubs are American-friendly. This means great big smiles, how-can-I-help-you-today, would-you-like-a-refill-on-that? British pubs (except for a couple gastropubs I’ve been to, but not all gastropubs) generally have counter service whereas Americans have table service. Again, this is because American pubs are really restaurants. You come in, take a table, order, pay and leave. In British pubs, your friends scramble for a table while you hold a place in the bar queue. Then you retreat to your table and stay there for as long as possible, perhaps until closing time. Then you move on to another pub.

Case in point: Cullen’s in Chicago’s Lakeview. They seem to have rebranded themselves as a “Bar & Grill” since I last went, but it definitely used to call itself an Irish pub. The service there is so friendly you just want to tip them more. They’re really great. And also really quick. They have you in and out so you can head off to the theater next door or the bar across the street. It’s very dear. People come for the stew, I believe, not the Irish beers on tap.

Item three (the big one): they are all so caught up in making themselves authentic that they kind of miss the point. Recently, I went to a self-proclaimed “Irish pub” in Minneapolis with a bunch of Brits. The Local is obsessed with being Irish. Outside, they hung an Irish flag; they name a majority of their mixed drinks after some piece of Irish culture, such as the “Irish Wolfhound” and the “Emerald Cooler”. Here’s a clip from their website:

Founded on December 17th, 1997, The Local celebrates over a dozen years of enduring loyalty and adoration for its many offerings, from an 80-foot bar featuring a hand-carved back bar, numerous nooks and crannies for exchanging secrets, and ample space in the Whiskey Lounge for telling flat-out lies. Celebrate the highs and the lows in our Boardroom, Kissing Room and private event rooms, The Hollow, The Sanctuary and The Choir.

Root for the home team (a long way from home) in this large feeling, larger than life welcoming, joke telling, story creating, song singing (Being Irish ourselves, Irish lads need not apply), how’s-your-father asking place to make time stop. If you want to relax, it’s the grounded beauty on the other side of the bar you might try, where we offer a high dome, a sixteen foot high focal point, short snugs with tall ceilings, and cut glass reflecting the lighting of another era.

Our doors welcome you into the old world. In contrast with reputations in the lore of the Irish, our food is high priority. Fish & Chips, the classics and more than a few ringers for the worldly eaters. The craic is good. There’s always something to watch, even when the rugby isn’t on the screen. Come find a corner of the bar to lean up against, a snug to gather friends inside, or a lovely pub table to watch the world go by as you imbibe the finest pour.

It advertises another pub on an “Our Friends” page as offering “an original Irish experience”. I just want to know why Ireland feels so much like Minneapolis. The waiters (table service) were friendly, nobody ordered drinks, nobody was at the bar despite it being lunch hour, we were secluded in a quiet room away from other patrons, and at the end we tipped like 20%. Toto, I don’t think we’re in Cork anymore. I was not even assuaged by the fact that it’s owned by Irish people – it no longer matters. It’s American now. Also – the whole point of writing this – my chicken pot pie was covered in mashed potatoes! Don’t they know that’s what you do with a cottage pie??? I would have been better off with the bison burger. It was an ok pie, I’ll give them that. But it wasn’t a British pie. It was as if I’d gone through the looking glass into a Disneyfied version of Britain, or maybe Wee Britain in Arrested Development.

Anyway, if you want real pubs, you’ll know where to find me.


One Response to “Pubs in America; Or, Trying Too Hard”

  1. Emma August 12, 2011 at 9:46 pm #

    “I think pubs are one of those essentially British (or Scottish/Irish/Welsh) traditions…..”

    Ahem! What about English? As I’m sure you know Britain is made from ENGLAND, Scotland and Wales (Northern Ireland being part of the uk, but not part of Britain)… Please dont leave us out, or assume we’re happy being called “British”. I am very proud to be an English girl. :) Much pie-love ;) xx

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