Café Mulder, Amsterdam

Weteringschans 163, 1017 XD Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –7/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Picture the scene: Amsterdam in winter, one of those dire evenings when gales blow in off the North Sea all the way up De Pijp, whipping sleet in your face. Meanwhile, the going underfoot lurches from ice rink to quagmire with each step. Checking to your right for the cyclist that probably isn’t there (but inevitably will break your arm the one time you don’t bother checking) – and then left to see if any motorists fancy testing how well their airbags work. Each movement of your leg invites a splash of freezing sludge and fresh test of your balance.

Across the roundabout we spot a window glowing like a beacon, heat from the room condensing on the glass, the silhouette of drinkers and the sound of good cheer – it’s a pub – rarely has there been a more fine or  welcome sight.

Shuffling precariously across the ice I spot the sign above the bar confirming the establishment and nothing can stop us now. While there isn’t video evidence to prove otherwise, you may take my word for it, I’ve never homed in on an Amstel sign with such vigour and enthusiasm.

Amsterdam is well-used to this appallingly unpleasant weather and therefore well-prepared in its provision of shelter and booze. In late spring and summer Café Mulder flings open its doors and spreads out into the street front, but on a night like tonight this traditional brasserie turns into a refuge.

Being hugged, wrapped in a fresh towel and ushered inside would be the ideal welcome, but the blast of warmth and prospect of a stiff drink ably substitutes.

The pub was as busy as it looked from the outside, full of folk relieved indeed to be anywhere except outside. Now, ensconced among a mixture of regulars and tourists, a drink and a chat will do the trick very nicely.

Seeing an Amstel sign would normally be a bad omen, but their sickly dross is ubiquitous in the city and it’s genuinely more difficult to find such a place that doesn’t also serve other, better beer. So, here you can choose between a pint of that insipid liquid or a smaller portion of something far nicer for the same price.

Outside of craft beer enthusiasts perhaps, it’s difficult to think that beer drinkers could be too upset by the selections here, especially as the place isn’t wholly beer-focused. The likes of Brugse Zot and De Koninck on tap, and at least 7 or 8 genuinely good bottles provide a stock that, while it could be better in variation and sizes, covers several bases well and isn’t going to let too many people down.

It’s nice to see that the place provides a small selection of food rather than turning itself into a dining room, so if you fancy wolfing down some soup, toasties or bitterballen (I wouldn’t blame you in weather like this) get involved. You can even get a hot boiled egg – very old fashioned and it doesn’t take away from the pub feel.

There’s a bit of extra character too with a pub cat and you’ll note it claims to be the most authentic pub in Amsterdam“. A bold claim (not one it backs up in any way) but this is really for you to explore and see for yourself.

Ronald Pattinson of European Beer Guide fame – a man worth listening to about Dutch brown cafés – commented:

“I’m still regularly pleasantly surprised by Amsterdam’s pub scene. While simple, unpretentious cafés like this survive in such numbers, I’ll pass on the razor blades.”

Mulder fits into the brown café aesthetic beloved of the Low Countries but has a hint of the French brasserie to my eyes, with enormous windows and a more classically corner bar layout.  The pub-like elements come from an impressively ornate bar area and shelf unit, the stylish old décor, rustic furniture and the type of socialising going on within, which certainly on a bitter night swings towards the communal. The sense of history helps too, with a lot of features looking turn of the 20th century.

London is blessed to have a huge number of pubs in the same way Amsterdam does, of a variety as-good-as-duplicated many times over. However, with a few exceptions, many of these London pubs have been made more generic by unimaginative owners or pub-companies, the scourge of character and identity. In London, I suspect this place would have gone the way of Nicholsons or Taylor Walker in the last decade and had its soul expunged, but pleasingly, one of the nicest things to say about Café Mulder is that it is not unique, it is not an oasis surrounded by a desert, but it’s common, frequent to find and that’s what makes Amsterdam still so thoroughly enjoyable. We should celebrate the fact that a place this good is only a notch above the mean average for a brown café in Amsterdam. Is this the inverse of damning with faint praise? I hope so.

Anyway, to boil it down, Mulder is a great place to go for a drink, and you know what? I managed to write all that without a single X-Files joke. Cheers!

For further reading – right hit and click Translate to enjoy this superb article by Josh Wolf, which goes into the rich history of Café Mulder: https://josh-wolf.blogspot.com/2013/11/cafe-mulder-te-amsterdam-weteringschans.html

 

Insomnia, Cluj-Napoca

Strada Universității 2, Cluj-Napoca 400091, Romania
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –6/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Insomnia in the Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca claims the title of the longest continuing pub in town.

22 years (23 in May this year) doesn’t seem to me a long time in the life of a pub, so perhaps this has something to do with the turbulence of the revolution at the turn of the ‘90s, and/or a change in cultural trends? I am from a country where so many pubs have remained open over a hundred years or more, so this strikes me as peculiar.

Cluj-Napoca is a university town and so the nightlife reflects the demands of young people. You’ll struggle to find anywhere (deserving of the label ‘pub’ at least) where young and old people mix as they would in England, or indeed many other countries in Mainland Europe. In fact it was difficult to find the sort of old-man’s drinking hole you’d expect to see everywhere. Another surprise.

Insomnia is very much geared towards a younger crowd – if not young then young at heart – with bright, psychedelic décor, paint thrown up the wall Jackson Pollock style and giant lampshades covered in stretched Insomnia-logo t-shirts. About that logo – a not particularly discreet drawing of two animals humping. That aside, the place is funky and seems to have survived 15 years without looking overly dated.

You will notice from their website a rather esoteric mission statement (some of which might be lost in translation) which is reflected in the bar itself. It is the perigee between taking themselves too seriously and not taking themselves seriously at all. This must come from its early days as an art gallery. While the venue is now predominantly a bar, they still host events of varying flavours – book launches, poetry readings, the odd festival here and there.

 

The bar, as with most you’ll find in Cluj, is set up for sitting rather than standing, which means dealing with table service – not my favourite thing in the world. In Romania I noticed some people become rather upset when they have to order at the bar. Not sure why – getting drinks that way is quicker, direct and you can settle the bill there and then, saving everyone time and effort.

Insomnia also has a slightly different format in that they expect you to settle the bill upon the drinks being served, which took a little getting used to when most table service involves you settling the bill at the end of the evening. I can only imagine they have had some trouble with people leaving without paying – which again could be solved by switching to bar service!

The other gripe is that, quite alike other central European countries, it is possible to reserve tables in advance. Is this a good thing? In practice this hardly ever works well in a pub, as it deters people who haven’t got a reservation sitting in that spot until the reservation starts, costing the bar money and making the arrangement feel off-putting. Also, when the bar is really busy, save for two or three empty tables, simply because of a couple of reservations that may last for only one round of drinks, where is the logic there?

In Cluj, all beers seem to have arrived on the same lorry, so you can expect the local brew Ursus and its variants (which are okay at best), and other SABMiller-owned brands including some English beers. The choice here is neither great nor terrible – they have covered several bases, but after a couple of days in the city, seeing the identical drinks everywhere becomes a little dull.

Draft beer is also served in 400ml glasses, a cynical way of gaining 20% on every drink, and quite pointless given the bottle sizes are 500ml and often cheaper. It’s difficult to criticise Insomnia over any other Cluj pub for this, as it is unfortunately commonplace. The upshot is that most people order bottles, not draft beer as they are better value for money – given the expense involved in setting up a bar, this seems hideously counter-productive.

Insomnia also offer what they call “long draft”, 2.5l of beer arriving in an enormous trophy-like stand with its own tap which I saw a few people taking ‘advantage’ of.  You know you are in student land when gimmicks like this pop up.

Anyway, moving back to the positives, Insomnia’s atmosphere inside is lively and well-paced, while the surrounding décor certainly helps keep things upbeat.

Insomnia is also based on the first floor of a historic building, which I often like as bars of that sort always feel quite bohemian. Outside the bar you will step out onto the balcony walkway of an inner courtyard, the typical sort of atrium you get in ex-Hapsburg cities (especially those with Hungarian history). This situation is appealling and adds to the experience.

Insomnia can be found just a few seconds walk from the main square, which is also handy as the main squares of European cities are generally host to far more corporate venues than this. Insomnia, more than others, underlines the all-encompassing young feel of the city, not to mention a European city centre that yet hasn’t been ruined by corporatising everything.

Maybe Insomnia will continue for another 23 years to come – and onwards – or perhaps the economic tides will sweep it away. I certainly hope to find it is going strong when I return, and hope it doesn’t take me 23 years to do so!

I strongly recommend Insomnia for your visit to Cluj, primarily as a fun alternative venue, and a strong all-rounder that does a lot of what it takes to be a good bar well, or really well.

Lastly, be aware Insomnia closes at 1AM, so if you are having trouble sleeping, you’ll need to move elsewhere!

Roncsbár, Debrecen

Csapó u. 27, 4024 Hungary
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –5/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 9/10
  • Value for Money – 8/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  10/10

While ruin bars may be synonymous with Budapest, other cities in Hungary quickly taken inspiration from the design and ethos – it was inevitable they would create their own version. Gázfröccs in Sopron and Csillag EzPresszó in Győr both prove that the bar has been raised. Roncsbár in Hungary’s 2nd city Debrecen, is the most convincing example yet that it’s worth leaving Hungary’s megacity to explore the nightlife in the provinces.

While I love an old boozer, such as Wichmann’s in Budapest, it must be said the standards of décor, atmosphere and amenities in Hungarian pubs have shot up dramatically since Szimpla et al arrived on the scene. Roncsbár (Roncs, meaning Wreck) immediately showed that its up to the task.

Established 2013, Roncs is both a cosy pub, a concert hall, a garden terrace and a arty streetfood courtyard, delivering the alluring appeal we love about ruin bars – a combination of rooms to explore as well as cosy areas to congregate. Unlike unsuccessful attempts to export these to the West, it doesn’t feel the least bit corporate, even when you add bouncers and plastic cups (we’ll get to that in a minute).

There is no shortage of ways to spend your evening here, whether that be for a quiet drink, for food, for music and partying, or games. What’s better, the bar is designed in such a way that it never feels like those people are clashing with each other.

While not as enormous as the likes of the Fogas Ház ‘party complex’ or the ruined mansion of Szimpla, there is a fair expanse of space, and just like those it’s exciting to walk through it all for the first time.

Entering via the front door of the pub, you could be fooled for thinking that’s all there is. It is very pleasant – nothing negative to report – the area is focused on drinks and socialising rather than food – fine by me. You’ll find exposed brick and slightly ramshackle wooden tables. The ceiling appears to be studded with cymbals from drum kits (or was I wrong?). There’s a lively atmosphere and if that was it, then Roncsbár would probably warrant inclusion on our website as an 8/10 pub.

But after you’ve taken in the indoors, have a wander around and look for a side door – this will take you into the entrance way for the ruin-pub aspect proper. The design suddenly explodes into an eclectic whirlwind of bric-a-brac and, if you pay attention, some finely-crafted artwork. The cherry on top of the cake is, in this case, a wrecked (get it?!) aeroplane which looks like it has been hung, interior contents an all, to the inside of the roof.

What’s better, is this is heated in the icy winter and well-ventilated, keeping the place comfortable at all times.

Carry on past the stalls to find a courtyard seating area which will appeal to anyone wanting to watch some sport (big screen, of course) and a terrace garden area – closed on my visit due to the snowy weather – but definitely a further area to spread out in spring and summer. Barbecue? Yes please.

Drinks are about on standard with most Hungarian bars, however their website boasts they have their own-label beer from Rendelkezik (Reindeer?) which I must admit I didn’t see. It’s still possible to get a standard lager for a fair price and nothing here, be it beer, wine or spirits will offend most local or foreign wallets. If you’re outside you will be made to drink it in a plastic cup – on the upside no-one has to worry about broken glass.

Service can be a bit rushed and impersonal in that way all popular places end up being, but that isn’t a reason to mark this place down.

Unlike Budapest, there really is only one place like this in Debrecen, certainly making it stand out. There will always be one or two people of a contrary or conservative nature who take a dislike to these bars. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, but Roncsbár comes pretty damn close.

I love being able to dip in and out of events that are happening, be able to get some fresh air, or have a sit down, and still be in the same place, and still have something interesting to look at.

Please note that Debrecen has a very lively, albeit dispersed nightlife and there are several pubs of a very different style that are also worth visiting. Please see HERE.

There are only a few bars that have earned our 10/10 score, and so congratulations goes to Roncsbár. Long live the Wreck!

 

Keimling, Fürth

Obere Fischerstraße 5, 90762 Fürth, Germany
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

In clarty weather there’s nothing more enjoyable than diving into a warm cozy pub. Franconia is no stranger to such climatic conditions and the pub offerings are generally designed with that in mind.

It is January after all, so when we emerged from the U-Bahn station at Rathaus (from our weekend stay in Nuremberg) we were faced with a deluge arriving from above. Fürth old town is a pretty one, with a classic Bavarian/Franconian appearance, clock tower, steep tiled roofs and timber-houses, enough for an hour or two pleasant wandering, but it took us only ten minutes stroll around getting soaked through before resolving that we needed to get to a pub – and quick.

After researching in advance I had one pub in mind as an outstanding potential venue – Keimling.

It’s a short walk from the stop and a pleasant one, along one of the main streets and then down a steep lane. A charming and enticing little lane spurs up to your left but carry on down until you see a small beer garden – you have arrived.

Keimling (translated as Seedling) is so named after a seed-trade facility which formerly existed on the premises. Evidence of this remains apparent as you walk in, with the drawers and cupboards re-purposed into the new pub structure, most notably to the left of the bar as a corner-bar top. The bar’s logo and mascot is a seedling emerging from a wooden house, which can be seen in wood carving in the corner to the left of the bar.

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I really like the use of space in Keimling. You’ll enter to find a small bar directly facing the entrance and inviting partitioned benches to your right. The alley leading to the toilets also manages to find space for a dartboard (N.B – careful not to leave the gents toilet without checking if a dart is headed towards your face!) There is a small standing area to the left of the bar with ledges and corner area with stools, which has been constructed from the cupboards and drawers I mentioned above.

Carrying on past behind the bar leads you to a subterranean cellar ‘snug’, a very characterful little quirk of the pub which I can imagine being handy for gambling and plotting – among other things. The rest of the pub space is a large, more communal back-room area akin to a quaint pub restaurant, with windows looking out over the street.

The style is rustic, a quintessential traditional pub of a kind you’d hope to see everywhere in Northern Europe, especially on a rainy day. Apparently the owner Wenzel has not altered this appearance since the 1980s; hopefully it will remain intact for another 40 years to come.

The rock soundtrack is a clever touch as it brings in a younger crowd and prevents the risk of the pub becoming too genteel and middle-aged. Staff also vary between young and middle aged so there is a nice communal mix, and it feels like the community are coming together, in that great way a pub should do. The music is also a throwback to the pubs long-standing connection with live acts.

It’s a typically Germanic thing to combine the quaint with the visceral – in this case the almost twee decoration that you’d expect to find in your Grandma’s living room with hard rock music.

Adding further to an impressive list of positives is the selection of beer. Not only do they offer the Franconian speciality Rotbier (red beer) on tap, but they offer their own label beer, Keimling Dunkel, a rich, thick and dark beer that was at once flavourful as it was easy to drink. You’ll note a host of other local ales, which are about quality over quantity.

Don’t sweat about the prices either. As with most places in Franconia a half-litre of beer rarely exceeds 3 euros 5 cents, considerably lower than in the West.

Service is assured and courteous, and despite being English ausländers they were kind to us – it’s a friendly place.

Keimling also offers food, a handy thing for any pub, though I cannot comment on that so much as my real interest is in the pub and the experience.

The optimum time to arrive in my opinion is between 7pm-9pm where you can watch the pub transform from sleepy (albeit with a rock soundtrack) to a bustling neighbourhood venue, with every bit of seating space occupied.

It’s always a great sign of a pub when it makes you feel like you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

If there was any room for improvement I would suggest keeping the volume of music down in quieter times. Many pubs believe loud music compensates when it is quiet, but I believe the opposite, it simply emphasises the absence of people while making it more difficult to speak. This is not a big problem with Keimling, but a little recommendation nonetheless.

Fortunately Keimling is very easy to reach, even if you are staying in Nuremberg, because the U-Bahn links to Fürth in a simple 10 minute journey, and Keimling is only 5 minutes up the road from there. There are pubs in the city I live in, sitting at work right now, that would take me longer to get to.

For my money it’s worth doing. Perhaps only WeissbierHex in Nuremberg old-town directly competes to a similar standard, so I’d say Keimling is the best pub in the Nuremberg/Fürth area.

As their website states, quoting Terry Pratchett:

If you don’t turn your life into a story, you just become a part of someone else’s story.

Now there’s a romantic philosophy to justify pubgoing, if ever there was one.

Have you visited Keimling? Any comments or suggestions? We’d love to hear from you!

A Baiuca – Fado Vadio, Lisbon

Rua de S.Miguel nr.20, Alfama, 1100-544 Lisboa, Portugal

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –6/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Although you may read reviews referring to A Baiuca as a restaurant, the homely open-kitchen style, late-night drinking and the music-focused atmosphere make this place definitely worthy of the name pub – indeed the doors themselves present A Baiuca as a ‘Taberna’, which is near enough to meet my threshold.

That said, there is an entrance fee which covers the flow of wine and ginjinha and the musical main event, Fado, dramatically mournful Portuguese folk music which translates as ‘destiny or fate’, but symbolising a bohemian, or vagabond lifestyle, signposting what you might expect in the performance.

 

This may seem off-piste so far considering the beer halls and pubs covered on the blog, but be aware I have offered a degree of latitude to this venue on account of the authenticity and character, and I am seeking to provide a broad range of options.

Lisbon’s traditional working class neighbourhood the Alfama is the perfect setting for a place like this. Wandering up and down the maze of winding streets on the hillside is atmospheric at any time of year.

 

 

 

A Baiuca is not the easiest to spot at night – I remember we ended up locating it by peering through a metal garage door which seemed to correspond to the co-ordinates after wandering around in a circle. The front door itself was shut, but after a couple of knocks the owner met us at the door and arranged our seating, only after payment was made.

At the time of the visit our fee was 10 euros which at the time seemed very reasonable considering the wine and music were both very good.

We gathered on a communal table in a small room, most places taken already, and were made to feel welcome with a couple of glasses of red wine. There is no stage, and the musicians simply perform in the corner of the room. Each song is dramatic and passionate and the performers looked extremely well practiced at the style. An overkill of maudlin music doesn’t seem like the basis for a night out, but the songs are short, melodic, often intense and were received enthusiastically by the room.

There are a great many corporate joints in the city centre offering Fado performances in a large restaurant with a full sit-down meal, and while there is always a place for that, this is where to go for the real McCoy, stripped back, homely and raw, following an unbroken folk tradition.

After considering the experience overall, I think aside of the entrance fee, it occupied a very similar social space as going to a pub, both in terms of the homely working class surroundings and manner of drinking.

Our visit extended long into the early hours of the morning leading to a very uncomfortable wake-up call the following morning to the airport!

There are a few other traditional Fado venues in the Alfama, which I am sure warrant exploration, but I can strongly advocate visiting here if you prefer real and rustic above sheen and pretension. Finding this place on our final night in Lisbon more or less made our holiday.

P.S – I would recommend reserving tables if there are more than two of you, or if it’s the off-season with it being such a small space.

Have you visited A Baiuca? Please let us know!

U Zlatého Tygra, Prague

Husova 228/17, Staré Město, 110 00 Praha 1, Czechia

Nearest Square: Staroměstské náměstí

Nearest Metro Stop: Staroměstská

Hours: 15:00 – 23:00, Monday-Sunday

Reservations: +420 222 221 111

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
  • Style and Décor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 8/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Anyone with a mild interest in the European bar scene or the city of Prague will no doubt have heard of U Zlatého Tygra (At The Golden Tiger), the historic Czech pub and city institution based slap-bang in the tourist hub of Prague’s old town.

Reading about the pub’s stories, its literary connections and seeing the photos of Bill Clinton and his ilk tucking into schnitzel and beer sat among locals may generate a degree of excitement alone, but I will be up front with you about the good – and not so good – aspects of U Zlatého Tygra.

 Let’s begin with the good stuff first, of which there is plenty!

The pub signage with its bas-relief tiger and gold lettering is striking and one of Prague’s true icons. The sign indicates not only the business but also the historical identity of the building, which pre-dates its current use. The interior has hosted various previous operations such as a patriotic café and reading room before the second world war, and undergone rebrands such as U černého tygra (The Black Tiger), U kopáčů (The Dice), and U Kraftů (The Craft) in the past. Its literary leanings continued through the 20th Century, not least due to the patronage of writer Bohumil Hrabal, (now made permanent life President) who had a favourite area of the pub in which he would hold forth on the topics of the day, and just as often sit there quietly absorbing the atmosphere and consumed in his own thoughts. Hrabal passed away shortly before the turn of the century, but the pub keeps his memory alive in the best way possible, with tributes that are lovingly well-pitched but don’t turn the place into a shrine.

The entrance is based down an alleyway rather than on the street-front which I generally quite like as this increases a sense of cosiness and clandestine activity, vital for building the atmosphere in traditional venues like this. Heading inside, the design and layout is an archetypal Czech pub with communal tables, bench-seats installed along the walls, wooden panels, cream (going on yellow) walls and those curved arches so typical of the pivnice style. The stained glass windows (with tiger insignia) allow light in but effectively block out activity from the busy street, creating that cocoon-like feel that most of the best Czech pubs offer.

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Look around and note many framed photographs which present the three key themes of the pub – tigers (of course), famous patrons from sport, art and politics and, as could be predicted: Pilsner Urquell. This lager, while brewed by Plzeňský Prazdroj in Pilsen, not in Prague, is nevertheless synonymous with Prague and  Czechia due to its ubiquity. The Golden Tiger was only the second pub in the city of Prague to secure a contract to service it so there is a long-standing connection not likely to be severed or altered any time soon.

When you consider the old town mean average price for a half-litre of Pilsner Urquell, the prices here are fair-to-middling given the central location, and the first pint of it arrives without your say so (as does a second and a third unless you make a point of putting the mat over your drink). Beware, if you turn up thirsty you could easily find yourself processing several glasses in short order. This is one of those pubs where it’s virtually impossible to leave without at least two.

A slight quirk is an insistence on using 0.45l glasses meaning they gain 10% on each beer. Annoying and cynical, but not worth fussing over too much.

The place sells very little else to drink (see their menu here), and even has a policy of not serving spirits! Highly unusual as nearly every other pub in the country will offer you at least Slivovitz, Becherovka or Fernet Stock.

U Zlateho Tygra was for decades and up until the war a bit of an all-boy’s club, refusing women service and directing them to find the nearest cinema while the menfolk held forth in the pub. However, this culture was broken in fittingly macho fashion by a woman called Lady Helenka, as the tale goes:

“She came here with her fiance Vaclav Prymek, who was an officer and an army pilot. When Lady Helenka was stopped at the door, she promised to keep track. And when the waiter counted the lines on the bill, there were 44 of them. Lady Helenka managed 22 beers that evening, as did her future husband. The waiter laid a white napkin in front of Helenka on the floor, kneeled down and said: Madam, this seat by the counter will always be yours, even if the Egyptian king Faruk comes in.”

22 pints? Sounds crazy but you wouldn’t rule it out.

Now some bad stuff. A famous pub is, as you’d expect, a popular one, with the problem that it cannot accommodate locals and tourists at the same time without losing its appeal pretty quickly. Therefore they have struck some form of compromise.

You may or may not be aware that Czech pubs permit reservations even for the right to perch on a bar stool. This system, so unlike the first-come-first served approach in English pubs can result in disappointment. At U Zlatého Tygra you may as well forget even trying to turn up in the evening unless you have reserved your spot well in advance, though it may be worth enlisting a Czech friend to help secure that.

In the evenings, as there are reservations it feels almost like a private member’s club where you need to stay all evening to get full value for the exclusivity.

Here comes the compromise: there is a way in but it relies on your being prepared to begin drinking mid-afternoon, not always everyone’s favourite starting point. Turn up at 2.50pm, 10 minutes before opening time, join the queue (which at this point may be snaking around the front of the building), and if you’re in the front 30 or so you should be assured of a seat unless you’re in a large group. If you see people pushing in at the front then choose whatever retribution you see fit.

This may not be a concern of yours, but I feel a certain duty, given that I am waxing lyrical about the place, to point out that U Zlatého Tygra is not a museum, and the enduring appeal is because it is not spectacular but authentic and traditional. Even though there is some nice stained glass and a sturdy preserved atmosphere, it’s hardly La Sagrada Familia. Therefore, treat it as the pub it is meant to be – eat, drink and be merry. If you show the staff the respect you would show a host who invited you in, you will not be badly treated.

Inevitably, the authenticity can be occasionally vandalised by some tourists who believe it to be a fairground ride instead of a pub. Their behaviour is offset in amusingly curt fashion by the servers who adopt an uncompromisingly stony-faced approach to anyone who isn’t their mates and anything they regard as bullshit (quite a long list).

This is – depending on your point of view – chauvinistic, deeply cynical in order to maintain their asset, or their absolute right as publicans.

While this can be intimidating, consider it a pushback against the place being overrun with tourists and gentrified, as it surely would be without a little resistance.

While it is easy to have a pop at tourists, in one sense their custom helps keep the philosophy of the place alive –  people from all walks of life sitting around together and enjoying themselves. The pub website explains further through this anecdote:

“There is the story, in which the pre-war French Prime Minister Herriot visited U Zlatého Tygra. He was accompanied by the section chief of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a permanent guest U Zlatého Tygra. They bought pork neck with bread and mustard and fitted incognito in the beer hall . While Herriot was drinking, showed to the opposite side and said : “There is sitting the chair of the Chamber of the Deputies of the Parliament Malypetr, but the gentleman sitting next to him I do not know . ” – The section chief said: ” There is sitting a master of painting from Melantriška. ” Herriot greeted again and then whispered : “But there is sitting the president of the Administrative Court , but the gentleman next to him I do not know. ” Also the guide did not know. Then their neighbour to the right said:” This is a manufacturer of funeral lamps from Karlovka. ” – Surprised Herriot turned to that neighbour and asked : ” And who are you ? “That gentleman raised up his glass and answered” I am a caretaker from Skořepka, please . ” – Then the Prime Minister declared : ” Gentlemen, fault! Democracy is not in France but here ! “

Once the crowds are seated, and after their first beers have been extinguished the atmosphere inside quickly gets going. Among them, comfortable and surrounded by the excitable friendly crowd, with dishes of hot food emerging from the kitchen, it really feels like the place to be.

Whilst seated you will note a stout tapster working flat out to replenish glasses, pausing the flow only to greet and converse with the stamgasty whose presence ensures this most Czech of pubs stays that way.

Due to the tourist trade it’s not somewhere I would choose to go every week – there are other places to go in Prague for an authentic traditional pub experience, without the hype and tourist hordes (Hostomicka Nalevarna, for example, which you can read about by following the link), but there’s no doubt the Golden Tiger has a certain sprinkling of magic borne from its history and ultimately its significance. Try it on different dates and times of day in order to work out when to absorb the most local flavour. As hackneyed as it is to say, you can’t really miss out on a pint in U Zlatého Tygra while in Prague. Which, as discussed above, means two.  This really is a pub to be reckoned with.

 

Au Daringman, Brussels

Rue de Flandre 37, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 6/10
  • Style and Décor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Rue Des Flandres, in St. Catherine quarter is a great road for a bar crawl, host of several venues varying between good and great. In my view Au Daringman belongs to the great category, not only for the street but for Brussels more widely – I know, high praise in a city jam-packed with great bars.

The primary reason I reach this view is that despite the bar scene across Europe turning increasingly corporate, this brown café still feels like a personal venture. Despite being surrounded by crowds of people, passing trade of tourists and the daily grind, Au Daringman supplies an oasis of calm, moody contemplation during the day and an alternative-feeling cosy haunt at night.

Upon arrival you’ll note an attractive red exterior with old Stella hoarding, partly obscured by the greenery cascading down the front of the entrance, a look which is typical for a street with plenty of side-alleys and greenery.

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In the afternoon the bar is managed by the charismatic Martine (the pub known locally as Martine’s or Chez Martine), the managing in the quiet hours extending no further than being propped up on a stool reading a newspaper or a book, filing her nails, peering over the rim of her specs and drinking coffee.

On first appearances there doesn’t appear to be all that much maintenance required of Au Daringman other than a morning clean, watering of the plants and the odd keg change/clean of the lines, but it is clear the enterprise is a labour of love.

This café is so named because the original owner was a boxer and member of the Daring Club de Bruxelles in the 1950s and 1960s, a Molenbeek-based football club whose players were referring to as the Daringmen. Read further here.

Au Daringman also proves what a solid basis the ‘brown café’ is as a concept to work outwards from. Let’s compare other Brussels venues: Le Coq is the archetypal Belgian boozer, Monk is an elegant historical recreation, and Au Daringman is the off-beat jazz era cousin, with artistic leanings. Yet all of these still belong to the same pub family.

There are lots of interesting touches to the decor, from the cubist textured wood paneling, to a board with what appear to be scores from a local table football league. Apparently the bar has been going since 1942 – it looks like most of the bar hasn’t been significantly altered since the 1970s.

The simplicity extends to the beer choices on tap – it’s very standard stuff. Stella, Leffe, or Hoegaarden. In Belgium at least, all three of these are a reasonable standard.

While it may not be apparent – at least not during my visits – they also boast a host of bottled drinks, some of the well-known Trappist, Abbey and lambic Belgian ales along with some lesser-seen ones such as Gageleer.

On my last visit I spent two hours here quietly, with no book and no telephone function (imagine that in this day an age).  The beautiful simplicity of sitting among the wood paneling and minimalist jazz memorabilia, enjoying a beer and alone your thoughts sums up what Au Daringman is about during the day. Au Daringman wants to make you feel at home, but also quietly oozes cool.

While the bar becomes a lively place in the evening, almost transformed in doing so, some essence of the place goes missing when it is crowded. However, that goes with my impression, which may not be yours. As with Monk, I recommend visiting in the early evening when it begins calm then slowly starts to bubble up.

Despite Instagram cataloguing the world, you won’t find much online presence for Au Daringman, as presumably its location on Rue De Flandres makes advertising superfluous.

Yet another brilliant Brussels bar and an essential visit on the ‘brown café’ circuit in the city.

P.S – Sadly Martina does not own the building itself, so this is a bar that may be on borrowed time. All the more reason to visit while you still can!

Further reading:

http://becinbrussels.blogspot.com/2012/05/au-daringman.html

Have you visited Au Daringman? Perhaps it is your local. Please get in touch with any feedback or comments regarding the above!

U Kuděje, Olomouc

Krapkova 236/20, Nová Ulice, 779 00 Olomouc, Czechia
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 10/10
  • Style and Décor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 9/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  10/10

Evenings in Olomouc are a tough time to get seated. Wherever you turn, each hostinec, hospoda, pajzl, minipivovar or  výčep seems to be full. It is no exception when it comes to U Kuděje. Yet, frustrating though that is, there is all justification to persevere as you are searching for a drink in one of the best pubs in the city, if not in the whole country.

At first appearances Hospůdka U Kuděje may seem unremarkable. A Czech pub in a half-step basement of a very Czech city building? – seen plenty of those before. Wooden furniture from the Austria-Hungary era, with traditional ruralist décor? A well-trodden choice, too but the true quality of U Kuděje is the combination of a number of smaller things contributing to a greater whole, known as genius loci, or spirit of a place. Which we will now come to.

U Kuděje is not based slap bang in the centre (it could potentially lose a fraction of its charm if it were) but a short walk west on the fringes between Olomouc’s old town and a residential neighbourhood west of Čechovy sady.

U Kuděje is named after the writer Zdenek Kuděj, the closest and perhaps long-suffering friend of Jaroslav Hašek, who were both part of an anarchist/bohemian literary scene in the early 20th century, so is a fitting tribute to someone who spent huge amounts of time in pubs. You will find theirs and others’ works available to read (in Czech, of course) within the pub. Here is a short explanation of the pub and connection to the writer: http://www.memorialmatejekudeje.cz/?cat=14

Drop down a short set of stairs outside to the basement level and enter, where the bar area greets you immediately, with a list of beers attached above the bar. The place feels warm and bunker-like and you will almost certainly find people sat at stools around the bar, and a cast of regulars sat on tables to your right. To your left is a small lounge area with people deep in conversation and set into the ritual of the place itself.

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The pub has the atmosphere you’d expect from a neighbourhood dive and you’ll quickly notice from the interactions there are folk sat around who know each other well. This in my opinion is the core of the pub’s appeal, the warmth and simplicity of a social scene that people invariably seek out when given the choice.

A busy pub full of locals can be intimidating at first, and if you can’t see anywhere to sit you may be forced to hang at the bar (also awkward if there is no leaning room). Take a full look into the pub and if there is a spare seat ask “je tu volny”, and hopefully someone will yield. If you arrive as a group in the evening without a reservation, then all I can say is: Good luck. Yep, unfortunately Czechia does not do first-come-first served in pubs and will reserve tables for loyal locals at the expense of fly-by-night tourists and turf you out of your seat when the time comes.

U Kuděje’s big thing – atmosphere aside – is a focus on regional Czech beer, which is very good news for any fans of unfiltered and/or unpasteurised lagers (me). Offering 5 or so on tap at any one time, this is a sensible number that helps ensure freshness, and a little rotation for new and recurring brands. The beers are also served on porcelain plates built with recesses to collect spillage – this is very old fashioned but seems to be making a comeback of late.

They may try to suggest that these beers are good for your health but quite frankly, who cares? If it makes you feel better then yes, yeast can in theory help repopulate your stomach with good bacteria. However if you need it repopulating because of an excess of beer the previous night then that rather negates the point, doesn’t it? Prices are reasonable, perhaps on the high side for Olomouc, which isn’t a problem given Olomouc is an extremely affordable city.

The pub snacks at U Kuděje are typical for Czech pubs – expect the usual cheese, ham, pickles but keep a look out for Moravian cheese if that’s your thing, as that’s quite the regional speciality.

Lastly, take a look at the opening hours – few places open later on a Saturday than they do during the week, but U Kuděje is one of them This place is does a short 5 hours service on weekends, and opens at 3 during the week. This makes it doubly difficult to try and get into.

Although U Kuděje may be a tough nut to crack as an outsider, I personally couldn’t think of too many pubs on my travels I’d prefer to make the effort to ingratiate myself in. You’ll find the true atmosphere and camaraderie of a mixed crowd partaking in a time-honoured tradition, rate authenticity, not to mention enjoying some of the freshest, well-kept and well-poured lager available.

Have you been? Any comments or suggestions? We’d love to hear from you. Please get in touch, particularly if any of the above requires amending.

The Seven Stars, London

53 Carey St, London WC2A 2JB
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 7/10
  • Style and Décor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 5/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Claiming to originate in 1602, the building itself containing The Seven Stars has survived The Great Fire of London, and – just as impressively in my view – the next 400 years of change unscathed, all the while serving as a public house. It’s a remarkable feat that places  it as  one of London’s core heritage pubs.

Many pubs trade on their history, (and that of The Seven Stars is an interesting read) , without backing that up by being an enjoyable place to drink in the here and now. Thankfully, The Seven Stars is not one of those places: it’s a little cracker.

Carey Street has a row of townhouses that are overshadowed by the enormous London County Court, Royal Courts of Justice and LSE library, so it is quite easy to wander halfway past The Seven Stars before realising. It’s a very quiet street and doesn’t seem the most likely place for a pub to be situated these days, though that makes it a perfect venue for those in-the-know. The frontage of The Seven Stars is squat and compact with the predictable (but entirely appropriate) gothic signage. It looks like a small place and it is – there’s no TARDIS effect once you walk inside.

 

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Although micro-pubs may now be reversing the trend for enormous, open plan pubs, none of them are made quite like this old thing. You’ll walk through the entrance to find a low-beamed venerable establishment with a bar directly opposite the entrance, and a narrow space set over two rooms. There are stools to sit at the bar and drink, and tables decorated with checked tablecloths and candles (a little dressy for my tastes, but it did make me think fondly of Den Turk in Ghent, which is not dissimilar).

For the last decade or so, The Seven Stars has been the domain of a ruff-sporting and locally famous pub cat who sadly passed away not so long back. Nevertheless, I have been informed a new cat has entered the premises! If you venture into conversation at the bar with the owner Roxy, she may expand on the and possibly get into the tale of one punter who mistook the cat bowl for bar snacks. Don’t be shocked – anything can happen in London.

The décor and ‘lived-in’ nature of the pub is where most of its character comes from, a pleasingly ungentrified and carefully preserved sense of welcome that tends to strike an immediately positive impression with people regardless of any preconceived ideas. This impression is important to cling onto for when you order a beer (or food), because those London prices hit hard and hit deep. This isn’t worth singling The Seven Stars out for, however, that’s just how things are. It is worth bearing in mind a lot of lawyers drink here.

Nevertheless, you’ll find a set of well kept cask ales from regional breweries served via hand pump – it’s a decent if unspectacular range which will keep you satisfied for at least a few.

In a similar way to Whitelock’s in Leeds, the toilets are located above the pub itself via a satisfyingly creaky staircase, where you will also pass by the kitchens and a room crammed full of odds and ends. By any standards these days (particularly London’s), this is a characterful and individual place that isn’t interesting in the Farrow & Ball school of interior design or repainting itself to remain ‘on-trend’ every ten years.

As mentioned above, the pub is popular with local lawyers and court staff, and due to the small size you may find yourself unable to grab a seat. However, trade is brisk in the evenings so be patient and things will move along – grab your chance when you see it. There’s nothing like being seated to enjoy the atmosphere of a tangle at the bar in a traditional pub such as this.

As the lights from the outside dim, and those from the inside take over, there can be no question of whether this is a pub of outstanding merit.

Although The Seven Stars may have lasted 400 years, the obnoxious pace of gentrification in the last 30 years means that pubs like these perpetually under threat from people who simply want to run poor facsimiles of bars they’ve seen elsewhere. This is a pub that demonstrates the importance of being your own thing. That’s worth something.

I’ll leave you with this anecdote from their website:

While enjoying a few Friday afternoon wind-down drinks, a group of 15 or so lawyers (young ones) entered the Seven Stars awkwardly and decamped nearby. There then began a cacophonous symphony of table and chair scraping, until they had blocked all passage in or out of the bar. Regaling of a most competitive flavour followed, ever louder, underwritten by a desperate, pleading “notice me” subtext. Its volume only matched by the ethereal transparency of its content. We drank up and moved on – our seats snatched hungrily into their possession before we got to the door. Congratulations, you’ve emptied the pub! Not all lawyers are like this, true, but this was selfish and shameful behaviour. Hopefully, few noticed.

Have you visited The Seven Stars? Any comments, feedback or suggestions for our write-up? Please get in touch!

Proletaryat, Poznań

Wrocławska 9, 61-838 Poznań, Poland
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 6/10
  • Style and Décor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 9/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Soviet-themed bars have quickly become a staple part of the Eastern European bar scene. It must be due to the tonnes of old communist bric-a-brac that has been purloined from flea markets over the years. It’s remarkable how quickly this ephemera has been regurgitated, often in an apolitical way. Now, shorn of the memory of state repression, paranoia and hardship much of the era’s junk has been re-purposed and exhibited, capturing people’s nostalgic fondness for the idealism, optimism as well as the iconography of the era. Ideal for adorning a moody Polish bar such as this one in Poznań.

Proletaryat isn’t exactly lined with volumes of Das Kapital; instead you’ll note a large bust of Lenin staring at you out on the street. Enter to find a display of fairly impressive social realist paintings, disproportionately large portraits of Lenin and Marx, hung in front of rich crimson paint, with emblems and military insignia thrown in. The central bar area also expands further into an interesting looking  terrace-style back room where the cool kids hang out, that seems a little separated from the central premise.

There may be a vague leftist feel to the crowd here (perhaps its just the students) but in the main it does seem to be led by decoration rather than a hotbed of any political grouping.

 

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That said, the decoration is impressive nonetheless, it’s a very stylish place to go for a drink, without being particularly pretentious. The crimson and lamplight works well for a shady atmospheric slow sup, while at night it gets more raucous and one of those truly buzzing city centre bars where the lack of space and abundance of booze creates its own head of steam. This is a great example of decoration that allows a venue to work well in different ways at different times.

The location down one of the main city centre streets means it feels in the middle of the action – which in Poznan is pretty bloody active. You can expect to witness the type of revelry usually preserved for English city centres on an evening. It was quite an eye-opener, but I had previously been warned about it by some Poznanites (Poznanians?) during a separate trip to Wroclaw (another excellent city). The levity  doesn’t emerge from English stag parties or boys-on-tour either – in Poznan it’s mainly locals doing their homespun thing. Wodka i piwo can be a dangerous combo.

Aside of the tongue-in-cheek atmosphere, Proletaryat offers its ‘own’ beer as well (from what I can gathered, this is brewed elsewhere at Browar Czarnków and labelled accordingly), which is cheap even by Polish standards nowadays. The jasne (light) and ciemne (dark) beers are both fresh and well balanced. Not the finest ever brewed but tasty certainly and designed to knock back in volume. Apparently the vodka is served with a pickle here if you are interested in going native.

Any pub crawl around Poznań would be improved by a stop off at Proletaryat, as despite the increasingly familiar concept of the Soviet-themed bar, a good concept doesn’t stop being good just on account of its familiarity. Besides, they do a decent job of and it feels like its own thing rather than a cookie-cutter version or a clone-bar. If you haven’t been to one of these type of places before, then go at least once for the novelty value. If you already have and enjoyed it, then this bar is not to be missed!

Here I am:

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Hostomická Nalévárna, Prague

Soukenická 1192/17, 110 00 Nové Město, Czechia
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 9/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

‘Vycep Soukenicka’ in a previous life, it seems this spot has served as an in-the-know local’s pub for quite a while before this recent rebrand.

The new name springs from a village south west of Prague, Hostomice, which isn’t much further along than Karlstejn and its enormous castle. You could decide on a trip out if the weather’s nice, but when they’ve set up what is ostensibly their Prague tap house in one of the nicest old pubs in the city centre, there’s a convenient excuse to stay put.

I urge you to mark this pub on your map of Prague as this area of the city between Josefov district and Florenc metro is a little short on pubs worth a damn. I often find myself having to head through it, and invariably choose this place as the pub of choice.

The difficulty is, once you move east from the old town (let’s say, from U Parlamentu/U Pivnrce) area and through Josefov, the traditional Czech pubs disappear and are replaced by cocktail bars and glamorous-looking (but probably seedy) ‘gentlemen’s’ clubs. Josefov is a fascinating district for many reasons but purely on pub terms, I wouldn’t get your hopes up. This malaise extends past the Powder Tower and the Štefánikův bridge to be honest, all the way into Karlin. With one notable exception.

For traditional Czech drinking (the kind where you’ll be rubbing shoulders with normal Prague folk while chugging pivo) the newly christened Hostomická Nalévárna is the best option in that half-mile radius. If you’re planning a pub crawl, particularly if you’re staying near Náměstí Republiky this place will be a godsend to help join the dots together. In fairness, it isn’t a long walk from the old town anyway.

Pivovar Hostomice has a great reputation for their beer, which is handy given there aren’t any  beers from other breweries available at this pub. From the several visits I made they offered an unfiltered 10°  světlé výčepní (light lager), 12° světlý ležák (premium lager) and a 13° tmavy, (or dark) lager on tap as a general rule. They may have specials on rotation but if they do, they weren’t exactly advertising the fact. I’m just glad when I visited in March, no-one was drinking green beer, (brewed every Easter and bafflingly popular, even among locals).

 

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Their prices are a steal considering it’s Prague city centre, with their 10 degrees light lager as good as being £1 for a half litre, and the others barely a few crowns more. This good value extends to the other options available, such as the wine (which my partner found almost as cheap as beer elsewhere around the city).

One of the more intimidating things for a tourist, leaving the traditionally large pivnices in Prague city centre behind and heading to a local drop-in pub is the more direct interaction with locals, and this is something you’ll need to factor in during your visit. Knowing your p’s and q’s goes a fair way in Czechia. The tapster here is a polite enough young man who will speak in Czech  if he thinks he can get away with it but is hospitable to outlanders who play by the house rules. He serves as both tapster and server given the small size of the place. At the very bare minimum, muttering ‘dvyeh piva prosim’ will procure two of their light beers. Fresh, unfiltered and delicious, I may say. The unfussy branding and lack of a corporate feel reminded me of the often brandless, but out of this world fresh Kellerbier and Vollbier you can find in Franconia and Bavaria.

Moving onto the pub itself, it’s a small cosy sort of place with a small bar on your left as you walk in, and a compact seating area in behind. Click here for a quick slideshow from the brewery’s facebook account. I managed to be seated on each occasion I visited which seemed unlikely given the place seats perhaps 25 people at most, and is never empty. The amount of wood you’re surrounded with is typical of these kind of places, and a look I enjoy very much, even if I do wish they offered cushioned, upholstered seats like most English pubs.

The folk around you vary from quiet couples in their 30s, jovial groups of youngsters and old folk playing cards and setting the world to rights. A classic cross section of people who appreciate the virtues of a traditional pub. There’s a big TV hanging at the back of the room for if the going gets dull, which will be playing whatever sport is going. There are those desperate moments in life where Japanese basketball or youth curling competitions suddenly become diverting.

I enjoyed the fact that they hadn’t been bothered to remove or paint over the old sign, which is entirely appropriate as they haven’t done anything to the interior either. That may have changed (and some evidence suggests it has) but the interior remains pleasingly old school. All the Hostomice stuff seems merely transient, which gives me the hope that even if for whatever reason they cease as an ongoing concern, another group will come along to keep the fires burning.

You can see from the scores at the top that the place is a decent all-rounder, the only shortcoming being a relative lack of amenities, but this comes with the territory. Each pub deserves a license to be what it wants to be. Not all pubs need or desire to serve cooked food, or host events. Sometimes a cosy seat, a good cheap pint and a load of old wood is all that’s required. Hostomická Nalévárna is there for you when those times arrive.

This place typifies that often impossible urge to drop in to one more pub on the way home, that is so beautifully brought to life in Czech literature.

Pub goers everywhere, rejoice in the fact places such as this exist! Use it or lose it….

Have you visited? Any comments or corrections? Please get in touch via the comments or our Facebook page!

Briody’s, Dublin

 97 Marlborough St, North City, Dublin 1, Ireland
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 6/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 8/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

For all the blabbering on we could indulge in about such things as décor, history, live events,  and so on, it is occasionally easy to lose sight of the more humble qualities of a good pub, those of simplicity and authenticity.

A bar’s interesting décor can sometimes divert from the expense or low quality of the drinks, occasionally the unpleasant atmosphere as well. All too often a pub’s history is used as a fig leaf to disguise the fact the interior has since been vandalised and transformed into a chain-operated place devoid of character. A lot of pubs run a pub quiz, food nights, karaoke, live music but are thoroughly unappealing nonetheless. That’s no magic bullet.

It takes a degree of resolve these days to run a pub that doesn’t bother with half of that, isn’t trying to be anything it’s not, doesn’t care about mythologising, widening demographics, or trying to get each customer to pay the absolute limit of what they’re prepared to.

It would be tempting to call such a place ‘quaint’ but there is a patronising element to that word, bordering on ignorant, which I dislike, and which Briody’s doesn’t deserve. I didn’t think Briody’s the least bit ‘quaint’ on my visit. It is however a simple honest boozer that has thought about what to improve,what to keep and what to maintain very carefully.

 

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I like the small size – you have a small lounge area on your left, in front of a bar stretching along the room, with comfortable upholstered bench seats lining the wall. It is as big as it ever needs to be, and has a degree of cosiness without ladling it on too thick. It’s a nice lounge, your living room with a bar and a few other folk in it, essentially. Perfect for quiet contemplation, reading, good conversation and so on. There’s an upstairs which I understand is for hire for students cramming for exams, meetings and so forth.

One thing you can never tell from the outside of an Irish pub is how good it’s going to be once you walk in. Nearly all of their exteriors have a rather studied look, with the ubiquitous Gaelic script, or at least a typeface aged enough to suggest a traditional interior. However, this often has little to do with what you’re presented with when you walk in, and it takes a keen eye to distinguish your plastic paddy pub from the genuine places frequented by locals.

One commonality in Dublin, is the sight of a ruddy-cheeked, broad-chested man of borderline retirement age doing the serving, usually dressed very smartly in a plain Daz-white shirt, black trousers and shiny shoes and belt. There’s a certain formality to this which conveys command. Maybe not wholly consciously, but I believe that’s intentional.

These fellows are usually quick-witted and not short of a few comments to make, especially if they haven’t seen your face around their pub before. It’s usually jovial jesting at most, and you’ll notice the standard of welcome in Dublin a notch higher than most European cities, apart from perhaps the most tourist-ridden places where the demand on the service and the churn of staff makes that difficult.

No such worries at Briody’s – taking a seat there feels like you are being added to a painting. Here’s where you find your more raw Dubliner accent, blue language aimed at the Gaelic footy on TV, and most thankfully, an excellent pint of Guinness. You know you’re in for a good pint of the stuff when the cream on top forms an almost-film like layer when it settles. It’s not cheap in Ireland these days, but a pint is cheaper in Briody’s than many places elsewhere in the city centre. Anything like that is welcome on the wallet.

This explains why  locals head down here (many of whom the bar staff know by name) but there are other factors. Despite being 5 minutes walk from the Spire on O’Connell Street, most locals don’t venture down Marlborough Street running parallel, instead sticking to and clogging up the main arteries of the city. Given other areas of the city are studded with pubs – mediocre ones – all of which are crammed full, it’s a strange feeling that somewhere like Briody’s could plough its own calm furrow, almost hiding in plain sight.

https://www.dublinbypub.ie/pubs/briodys-marlborough-st/

“Setting foot in the pub, you immediately feel like you are on familiar territory. Just like wandering into your grannies, you know you’re in good hands. The interior is typical of a good local boozer; tiled flooring greets feet upon entrance before a pristine carpet overtakes the rest of the floor space. Lighter wooden tones are well complimented with beige embossed wallpaper. The seating proved to be tremendously cosy in its simplicity while classic drink brands and sport are the themes exhibited in frames upon the wall. We took a particular shine to a bittersweet portrait of Paul McGrath seen in his heyday sitting at an unidentified bar holding a creamy pint aloft.”

It is one of those pubs that you wouldn’t see what the fuss was about until you’d spent a good while visiting the so great many mediocre ones first.

Comfortable, authentic, friendly, and simple. That’s the way it is, and the way it wants to stay. Perhaps deep down they may not welcome me saying this, as this is their refuge rather than a tourist hub, but here we are. I can’t ignore you.

Have you been to Briody’s? Any views, or corrections? Please get in touch on the comments below or via our Facebook page!

Gas Lamp, Lviv

Virmens’ka St, 20, L’viv, L’vivs’ka oblast, Ukraine, 79000
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 7/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 8/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

As Lviv brought the kerosene fuelled gas lamp to the world in 1853, it is only fitting that this is expressed in the city on some level. You’d expect a museum to be the best place to exhibit this but slightly surprisingly it takes the form of a bar – Gas Lamp.

Although aspects of the display are museum-like, to all intents and purposes the gas lamps are for decorative purposes, with little information on their design or origin. I have visited some pubs and bars which featured information labels on their antique without making the venue too stuffy-feeling (U Veverky in Prague, for example), but in Gas Lamp, providing you are here for a drink over and above a history lesson, you don’t feel like you’re losing out for the lack of information too much. Besides, the venue holds one of the biggest collections of gas lamps in Europe, so there is a lot to look at.

On busy evenings, an old man in a top hat, holding his gas lamp will guide you past the ‘fathers of the lamp’; two bronze statues, one of Jan Zeh sitting at his table (by the front door) and another, if you look up, of Ignacy Lukasiewicz poking out of a third-storey window. Read about their place in history here.

You are then led downstairs into a cellar. Counter-intuitively you have to crouch under what appears to be blackened rock, only to ascend a spiral staircase into the ‘bottom’ floor, which is on the first storey of the building. When you reach it you will notice a traffic light system, which appears to be there to stop customers bumping into each other halfway down the stairs.

Gas Lamp is set across several small floors, which reminded me of De Garre in Bruges (in layout rather than design), one of which is dominated by a bar, and another which appears to be a penthouse apartment that has been converted into a covered roof terrace. There is a coherent theme but each floor has a slightly different feel so don’t leave without being nosy and having a look around.

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On the top floor you emerge level with what appears to be a sea of slanted rooftops which may well be impressive during the day as much as at night, but night time is a great opportunity to look at the Armenian and Russian churches lit up strikingly. There is a naturally rather rarified air to being on the top floor so it may appear a little more towny and flash in comparison to the cosier downstairs rooms. Regardless of this, it is well worth rubber-necking.

Outside of the eponymous gas lamps, décor is an interesting blend of chunky chalet-type wood, with rafters, beams, bannisters and communal tables, but the lighting is more modern, with yellows, pinks and purples spotlit and backlit among shelves with other assorted valves and measuring equipment. I would rather they lit the gas lamps to be honest, but it’s not a bad effect overall and is more impressive than the images you’ll find online.

Drinks wise, Gas Lamp offers  shots in a row of test tubes as a gimmick (make of that what you will), and a well stocked bar for cocktails and the like, but I opted for Pravda and Lvivske’s beer offerings which are still reasonably priced for such a central location. That’s not difficult however, as from a Western perspective nearly everywhere apart from the airport is reasonably priced.

Gas Lamp serve food, although I found the location to be far too dark to contemplate getting anything there other than emergency snacks to soak up the beer. I don’t really see the appeal of arriving here any sooner than sunset to be honest. Night time is the right time.

Staff are well used to tourists and speak decent English, however there were issues getting their attention. Sadly unless you go direct to the bar, you’re stuck with table service, an always retrograde format that slows everything down unnecessarily. That isn’t isolated to Gas Lamp however, but pretty much everywhere that also serves food.

The city of Lviv offers a night life replete with themes and gimmicks, and yet another rears its head when you pay the bill. A ‘bomb’ with a short fuse is lit when your bill is presented, and you can enjoy a puff of flame, cracker-type pop, then a mix of smoke and incense fills the room. Unnecessary of course, but characterful. European Bar Guide is after all very keen on places which don’t settle for mediocrity. Some places would never get away with this but it felt amusingly dorky.

Exciting, ever that little bit different, popular enough to have atmosphere but also spacious enough to give corners for quieter evenings, Gas Lamp is a very successful execution of its concept, and with one or two tweaks could really push towards being a 10/10 venue.

It comes highly recommended but as much as we bang on about it, we’d love to hear your stories from Gas Lamp and Lviv – please get in touch!

King Grizzly, Florence

Piazza de Cimatori, 5, 50122 Firenze FI, Italy
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 9/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor – 8/10

There’s a certain appeal to a corner drop-in pub that’s not much except a load of wood. Wooden floor, wooden ceiling,  ledges, barrels, seats, bar front, and so on. In that respect King Grizzly is like the spit n’ sawdust saloon bars of old, just with a hell of a lot of good beer added and a stricter policy on spitting.

Being small and located slap-bang in the centre of Florence doesn’t yet appear to have rendered King Grizzly overcrowded, or over-subscribed.

The comfortable rather than crowded feel  may be something to do with the purposefully growly and unprepossessing fuzzy bear exterior which cuts against its surroundings, the stately middle-aged grandeur central Florence lined with cocktail bars and ice cream parlours. The upturned barrels and snarly logo probably put the Aperol Spritz brigade off spending any time here than strictly necessary, while the exterior building has a certain anonymity that you could walk past  a dozen times before noticing there was a bar there.

Don’t confuse any of that with a criticism – it really isn’t. What this means in reality is that anyone in the vicinity who is after a real pub experience and a good beer can enjoy both of those in comfort without struggling for seating room or access to the bar. It also allows something very central and liable to be swamped with passing trade to maintain its identity.

The personification of King Grizzly seems to be the chap behind the bar, one of those younger bearded sorts where the beard makes him look wise beyond his years. Affable, helpful, and – unlike nearly all Italian bars and restaurants – he will give you a glass of tap water rather than charging you for mineral water. Mr Grizzly can guide you to a beer that you’ll like, which was particularly useful during my visit as my partner was still struggling to get into beer. An Italian double-wit beer and a salty Germanic Gose later, and progress was being made!

Yes, this is a craft beer place, in that most of the offerings are from the ‘craft scene’ as it were, rather than traditional breweries, and are priced accordingly. However, none of the prices should scare off any English tourists who these days are used to spending £5+ upwards on terrible lager elsewhere, and when you put it into context, the prices are perfectly reasonable considering the excellent quality. If you ever needed persuading that Italian beer is getting its act together, you will leave this pub converted.

They are available in piccolo, media and grande size as well (wot, no Gigante?), which is a blessed relief given some English pubs unwillingness to pour strong beer in anything lager than a half-pint. Don’t look angrily at me if you’re asked to pay many euros for a pint of 8% beer though.

The general idea is that all the beers cost the same unless stated otherwise, so there’s a skill to determining which one is best value for that price. Or if you’re not a Scrooge like me you can just pick whatever takes your fancy.

Expect a really wide selection of styles as Grizzly thankfully has time for German and Belgian styles as well as the usual US craft offerings. Being super-critical, putting on a good Czech pale lager wouldn’t hurt. These places often define themselves as anti-lager which is a shame as there are so many wonderful ones. However, other than that, most bases are covered.

Music selection is eclectic without being irritating, and does a decent job of keeping enough people entertained, and despite central Florence being a sleepy place during the evening, (even in the height of summer), Grizzly remains open until 2am.

It’s one of those places where it’s easy to meet and talk to other people to, where you can say you met as strangers and left as friends. I think this has something to do with the half-seating, half-standing format as you are only ever a swivel or glance from becoming part of a conversation. It’s a fun place to hang out and an example of how a good pub and a good beer brings people together without the need for vacuous ‘glamour’.

It’s great that a place like this can be directly in the old town of Florence, a mere stone’s throw from Piazza della Signoria.

Anyone seriously interested in pub going and spending some time in Florence cannot look past this place on a crawl.

Have you been? Agree with the above comments, or perhaps know some things about the place I don’t? Please do let me know! Comment below or go and join the discussion on Facebook!

Bierwerk, Nuremberg

9, Unschlittpl., 90403 Nürnberg, Germany
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 10/10
  • Style and Decor – 7/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor – 8/10

Whatever you think of beer marketed as “craft” whether good or bad, you can’t deny the popularity.

However, in Germany, the reinheitsgebot or Purity Law limits the brewing ingredients for anything marketed as beer to malted grains, hops, water and yeast alone, with the knock-on effect of limiting the range of flavours and experimental culture now associated with the umbrella term ‘craft’.

Germany has some terrific traditional beer styles along with a parochial and proud attitude, so this has contributed to a slower and more gradual acceptance of auslander beer made from different hops and yeast strains, of a different tradition and with a wholly different character and nation of origin.

Bierwerk, in Nuremberg attempts to straddle both the old and the new, with fresh, almost brand-free Franconian kellerbier on tap, while offering more modern brands, even a few Belgian, Czech, English and US beers. This is refreshingly open-minded for a city which has suffered a few notorious periods of extreme intolerance and superstition.

Bierwerk has an envious situation, looking out over a beautiful city square gently slanting towards the south bank of the Pegnitz river. Unschlittplatz is pretty with timber-framed houses surrounding a small fountain. You may forget this is the centre of a very large city as it genuinely feels as though you could be in a small town.

It isn’t the traditional bierhalle venue you may be used to, but neither is it a wholly corporate or alternative one. Clearly some care has gone into making it appealing to a wider audience, which is partly successful, but I have to include some criticism –  the branding and the décor errs a little towards the generic for my tastes.

Bierwerk is thronged in the evenings where the volume is raised, and while you’ll find a generally post-uni crowd, some middle-aged folk enjoy visiting too which gives a nicer sense of welcome.

Once things get going it’s a fun venue, with a large tree trunk where you can play the ancient game of hammerschlagen, the objective being to drive a nail fully into the log with a wedge end of a hammer before the other players can. There’s also a hook-swing at the far end of the room where you have to try and get the hook over the horns of a bull on the other side. Both of these become fiendishly difficult after a few drinks.

Bierwerk is a smaller venue than you might think from the outside, so be prepared to employ a little patience if you want a set – meanwhile, the bar area is decent enough if its not too crowded, and there is some leaning space around and about.

People are here for the social scene primarily, which goes on until 2AM on Fridays and Saturdays, which is as it should be. Bierwerk brings undeniably some of the freshest I’ve ever tasted. I enjoy the fact that there is an effort to market the original ‘craft’, the local, independent, unbranded, un-Punk variety. While you may prefer a 11% smoked peach sour, or one of their 150 bottles behind the bar, I’ll be ordering a half litre of Franconian kellerbier, which will redefine your notion of freshness. Bierwerk also have a partnership with a local brewery so you will find some of their own branded beer available to try, which should please some tick-box checkers as well.

Prices, as with Franconia generally much fairer in comparison to the North and West, so their regular beers won’t set you back much more than 3 euros 50 as of 2018. There is a small but reasonable offering if you don’t like beer (including beer cocktails) so as to ensure no-one is feeling left out.

If you absolutely have to, they will put together some food to wash the beer down. I’m sure you know what’s coming – choices are cheese, sausage, or wait for it…cheese AND sausage!

Franconia and Nuremberg itself are slowly marketing itself to a wider audience who will give it a try over the big cities and Bavaria and are extremely cheap to get to from the UK via Ryanair. From my experience it is well worth it, with beautiful unspoilt countryside and picturesque traditional towns which survived the war without too much damage. Nuremberg itself has a large old town, not all of which is old, but is a fun and yet laid-back place to be.

I wouldn’t recommend Bierwerk on account of its décor, and there are some issues with the level of comfort and design which could be improved, but I strongly recommend visiting for terrific beer and lively atmosphere. It’s a great way to meet people and at quieter times the bar staff will dispense some of their local knowledge. This elevates the place above the day-to-day craft venue which is content to be cold and industrial in style and cliquey in feel.

Bierwerk is an interesting meeting point of old and new and therefore an enjoyable and strongly recommended venue. Prost!

Whitelock’s, Leeds

 

Turks Head Yard, Briggate, Leeds, LS1 6HB
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 5/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor – 9/10

Amid a shower of mediocrity Whitelock’s is a beacon of preservation and tradition. You might call the place an object lesson creating a characterful pub.

Whether Leeds is serving up mediocrity in the form of cut-and-paste industrial chic craft ale venues or boring chain pubs, you only have to look at Whitelock’s to tell the difference between a here-today-gone-tomorrow fad, a Greene King IPA/Sports screen piece of gentrified nothingness and character of a sort that endures. Read the Historic England listing if you don’t believe me.

Whitelock’s itself was first founded in 1715 as The Turk’s Head, and served as a city centre mainstay in the Georgian era, although you’ll find the current state more akin to late Victorian in style, with mirrored panels, stained glass, tiled bar and tarred black wood, a strange halfway-point between the opulent and the down-to-earth.

The pub functioned as a ‘Luncheon Bar’ after being taken over by the Whitelock family in the 1880s, and in the daytime the place has much the same feel as it would have had a century ago; a bustling busy atmosphere (partly due to the compact space) with food service and drinking intermingling. Whenever you visit you always feels like you are part of a grand old tradition.

Situated down of one of Leeds many arcades off Brigate, the pub used to stretch along the length of the yard, albeit part was rarely used for years. It’s a narrow snaking venue, now effectively two bars, one of which is now a stylish cocktail and craft ale bar called The Turk’s Head in homage to the original name, but which typifies everything Whitelock’s isn’t – this may be a good or bad thing depending on your preferences. The pub can be approached from either side of the arcade, although I recommend approaching via the Trinity Centre entrance where it is hiding in plain sight surrounded by modernity. You access a quiet corridor, still called Turk’s Head Yard, which builds into rabbit-hole like escape from the noise of the street and shopping streets – it really makes you feel like you’ve been transported back in time. You will find benches outside, which can be nice to sit out on a warm evening but are not the main reason for venturing down here. Head inside and chance your arm at finding a seat – not always the easiest easy task in here.

The crowd at Whitelock’s rises and falls in swells. In the space of half an hour the scene at bar can change from a breathless tangle vying for space to calm and sedate. It’s really quite interesting to spectate.

The bar area itself is unusual and –of course– old-fashioned. Despite the pub having a low ceiling, the bar itself seems raised above the level of the pub so after pulling your pint it seems like they are lowering it down to the bar top where you are stood. The toilets are accessed via a narrow little staircase at the end of the bar, which is quirky, almost like being on a ship rather than a pub.

The best beers by far in Whitelock’s are the cask ales, as the lager offerings remain a little behind the times. You’ll find some of the classic real ales kept well on cask, along with some interesting local options. They have some forays into what are deemed ‘craft’ styles, and a sister partnership with the (in my opinion) bang average Five Points, but the guest cask ales feel far more in keeping with what the place should be about.

Although I am largely interested in a pub as a place to drink, for a change, I would like to enthuse about the food. They have put a lot of thought into how to bring the idea of Luncheon menu into the 21st century, and have largely managed it, with most dishes having an English pub heritage, and they use fresh ingredients, the majority of which are sourced from Kirkgate Market, which shows in the flavour. You pay for it, yes, but it’s well-prepared. It isn’t just a generic pub grub place, as Leeds University alumni and restaurant critic Jay Rayner remarked in his review.

It doesn’t stop there, as Whitelock’s and the Turks Head now host beer related events, annual festivals and suchlike, so you can’t go around Leeds for too long before your head is turned back to Whitelock’s.

Once you’re inside and sat down, with only the dappled light coming through the frosted glass, you can really soak up what is an extraordinary environment. With it being a typically cosy old pub, this works particularly well in autumn and winter – once holed up it won’t feel like there’s any reason to move elsewhere. Whole afternoons and evenings can come and go here supping quality pints of ales safely swaddled by its comfortable surroundings.

Whitelock’s is by far the best of the category ‘traditional pub’ in Leeds and due to its very particular preserved features and it could stake a fair claim to being one of the very best in the United Kingdom.

In the ‘40s and ‘50s Whitelocks was a haunt for artists and has been deemed characterful enough to be a subject of artistic study, as this vivid artwork demonstrates. John Betjemen, who always had a taste for the preserved, compared Whitelock’s favourably to another venerable public house, The Cheshire Cheese in London: a ‘less self-conscious’ equivalent.

I have linked to a 1968 video documentary of Leeds, ‘A Poet Goes North’ where this features. Highly recommended as a terrific watch.

In 2006 Whitelocks was awarded an overdue Civic Trust plaque for historical importance.  Therefore, if the team running Whitelock’s can deal with all this level of praise magnanimously then I assume my more modest inscription on European Bar Guide won’t alter their unabashed heads-down on-with-the-job approach. Viva Whitelock’s!

Azimut, Šibenik

 Obala palih omladinaca 2, 22000, Šibenik, Croatia
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 7/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 9/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor – 8/10

Going out for a drink on the Dalmatian coast invariably involves choosing from a selection of Caffe Bars, which may have amusingly goofy names such as ‘TURBO’ or ‘KUM’ but in practise provide a nearly identical offering that defines the term Generic. After a few days anyone interested in good beer and good pubgoing will be tearing their hair out in frustration (I’m bald, so have to improvise) trying to find somewhere characterful.

Sibenik’s nightlife offerings are in the main, no different. There’s a beautiful Riva with patio furniture so you can relax by the calm seas and people watch – fine for a while. When it gets colder and darker, venturing inside becomes necessary, and it is then where the particularly poor beer selection, poor music choices and absence of interesting décor or atmosphere starts to grate.

Azimut is Sibenik’s alternative antidote to all that, a club and live music venue of sorts, with offbeat décor inspired by Hungarian ruin/garden bars making the most of its cellar situation nearly underneath the main square. I have recently been informed the basement used to be the town’s well/reservoir for water which explains the high ceilings very well! (Thanks to Azimut’s Facebook group for providing that information)

As with a lot of places on the Croatian coast, it doesn’t really get going until the summer, but even out of season there is a core crowd you’ll find lining the bar chatting and messing around, and a side room which is geared up for live music but also has games involved. The eventual end feel is relaxed, open, fun feeling and the sort of space you want to hang out and could make friends in.

Despite the basement situation there are tall warehouse-style ceilings which makes me wonder what the place used to be used for. However, they’ve done a good job with the décor, with impossibly high shelves, hanging umbrellas, books and bric-a-brac making it feel homely whether it’s busy or quiet, meaning the venue is quite versatile, capable of coping with live music performances and bustling custom in summer or acting as a down to earth neighbourly bar off-peak. Perhaps their slogan ‘Find Your Way’ has this in mind.

Another good thing is Azimut’s opening hours, carrying on until the early hours of the morning, which is long after the rest of the city has gone to bed, meaning there’s no need to feel obliged to shape your evening around arbitrary time constraints.

There’s what counts for an interesting selection of beers around this end of Dalmatia, with some imported bottled English ales making an appearance, however it was short on Croatian craft beer at the time of writing – only Tomislav was available, which is tasty but too strong to spend all evening on. Again, this is a fairly low bar to pass given most places in Croatia serve 3 or 4 awful beers at most. Azimut’s prices are a few kuna more than elsewhere, but given it’s a distinct venue and slap-bang in the centre of town, that’s unsurprising.

Edit (9.7.18) I have recently been advised by the management they now stock Croatian craft beer –  happy days! Until my return the score for drinks provisionally goes up to 7/10.

Given young Croatians enjoy going out in the evening, and Sibenik is starting to attract the attention of Western tourists you would think there would be more than one venue like this, but so far the nightlife remains largely bland obsessed with creating modern aspirational lifestyle bars to create that ‘summer vibe’, but ultimately blend in to one and project mediocrity and cheapness rather than glamour.

Hanging out in Azimut is like breathing fresh air given those otherwise stale options. It’s clear that quite some imagination and bravery obviously went into creating it, and any stay in Sibenik by anyone desiring a beer and a good time in the evening must involve a visit here. As TimeOut point out, every Croatian town should have an Azimut. I’d extend that to every town full stop.

Orzo Bruno, Pisa

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Via delle Case Dipinte, 6/8, 56127 Pisa PI, Italy
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor – 8/10

Opinions of Pisa tend to be mixed, which is a shame as the airport provides an excellent conduit for people to explore Tuscany, but often people venture no further than the Piazza Dei Miracoli before moving on. It’s certainly true the Tuscan idyll of cypress trees, rolling hills and gently worn villas is perhaps not best demonstrated in Pisa, but that’s not to say the town is without charm, far from it.

The city centre is certainly one of those places that feels like it gets taken over by young people at night. Yes, you can sigh at the peeling plaster and graffiti in some of the classical piazzas that have become a bit grungy but there is a certain verve and energy Pisa offers in compensation for that. It’s a good night out.

Beer isn’t Italy’s strong suit, however it has belatedly begun a concerted effort to catch up. When you have a little think about why it’s suddenly taking off, it makes sense. The young seek good beer out in Italy for a few different reasons. Wine is seen as the preserve of the middle-aged and middle class, increasingly more of a drink to enjoy with food or a particular occasion or season, whereas beer is more casual.

Of course there are those looking to be a bit hip and different for which beer offers an opportunity to pose and stand out/completely conform among peers. Boiling all that down, the main appeal as I see it, is that quite honestly beer and aperitifs are a better option in a hot country over the course of a long evening. It is still the case that in Italy good beer is a bit of a novelty, but craft beer has been riding the crest of a rising wave for a few years now.

Pisa’s very best exponent of this is Orzo Bruno (a play on words with Orso meaning Bear and Orzo meaning Barley) not just a place with good beer on tap, but a really, really good pub.  In order to find Orzo Bruno you naturally find yourself wandering into the epicentre of the city’s nightlife. It’s a nice walk in, as you can feel the volume and excitement level gradually rise. You’ll find the pub and its unassuming exterior perched down a side-street, yet in the thick of the action.

Inside, it’s an informal affair with pinewood type seating falling somewhere inbetween modern and ramshackle. In the summer heat the windows and thrown open and there are tables and chairs outside. As with all great pubs, everyone looks like they’re having a good time. The best of all, it looks and feels predominantly like somewhere Pisans go themselves, with a ring of authenticity you just can’t fake.

On tap you’ll find local Italian brews for a decent price – their predilections for strong beers and German styles ensures you can purchase some strong, tasty stuff for quite a lot less than you’d expect. Wit beer, red beer, doppio malto, it’s nice to go to the heart of interesting Italian brewing styles and have a genuine isolated and authentic ‘Italian beer experience’ in what is a nice pub.

These are brewed at a co-operative brewery Il Birrificio Artigiano, an excellent idea still common in Germany where provincial beer enthusiasts have occasional use of shared premises of a scale capable of delivering decent volume. These beers are usually unpasteurised and unfiltered, which is fine because they aren’t designed to last, but to be drunk straight away! You may even find oddities such as attempts at cask conditioned bitter served by Angram hand-pumps.

There’s a little something extra on offer too, that a lot of English people won’t be used to. It’s difficult to find complimentary anything with a drink in England these days, yet in Orzo Bruno dig into a veritable platter of snacks laid out on plates in front of the bar to enjoy with you beer from 7pm onwards.

Spain and Italy are insistent that food must in nearly all cases accompany drink, which is not my view, but offers a change of speed. You may want to consider leaving some room after your evening meal to enjoy the range of snacky bites on offer. It’s a quick way of adding on further poundage on top of the calories in your beer, so don’t go over the top!

Orzo Bruno works well whether at day or night, which is typical of places of its kind that stay low key and informal. You could pop in mid-afternoon and read a book with a pint of head here at 11 in the evening with a group. It’s just an all-round good place, reinforced by the enthusiastic patronage of locals. They also do discounts between 7-8.30pm, which is much later (and therefore better) than most happy hours in England.

Wichmann’s Kocsma, Budapest

 Budapest, Kazinczy u. 55, 1075 Hungary
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 6/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10 
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 9/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

The colour, energy and sheer distinctiveness of ruin bars should be enough to sustain any young visitor to Budapest for several visits. However, this doesn’t mean that the fundamentals of good pubs should be ignored. I broadly agree with the maxim ‘a change is as good as a rest’.

Wichmann’s Pub – an antithesis of a ruin bar – stands on the very same district as the original conception. As with a lot of these kind of places, it’s so inconspicuous that you could be halfway inside before you realised where you were. There’s no point building up something too much where the main qualities are simplicity and value.

It’s worth taking a look online before you go, because many of the pictures of the pub make it look faintly modern, partly due to the shade of the lighting and texture of the wood. When you arrive you’ll realise that it’s rather more traditional and worn with age.

From the street it is fairly inconspicuous, you’ll see only a golden glow of light from the exterior, through patterned tinted glass windows. Quite old-fashioned. Wichmann is one of the last original, authentic Budapest bars from before the fall of the Iron Curtain, before tourism, before capitalism, before AirBnb.

What you’ll discover inside is one of the most no-bullshit pubs in the city. Cast your eyes around its ever-ageing wooden edifice, nice vaulted beams towards the back of the room and a small bar where a venerable and portly man (presumably Wichmann himself) serves you the beer.

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Everything about the beer ordering, serving and presentation (or lack of it) is so many fathoms short of façade and showyness it’s endearing and actually, downright hilarious. However, dig beneath the service and you’ll find many a punter going into raptures about the service and the place in general. According to WeLoveBudapest, if you’re offered a shot of palinka, it is deemed the height of rudeness to decline. There you go – you have been warned!

Wichmann’s pub is owned by a famous Hungarian Olympian Tamás Wichmann, with 3 medals in canoeing, famous enough to supplant the place’s previous name ‘St. Jupat’. Wichmann himself was bequeathed the pub for his achievements instead of a pension, by virtue of how the old system was arranged for retired sportspeople.

As you’d want, demand and expect, a place like this is good value, and one of the few non-generic pubs in the district where the prospect of a good beer for a quid remains  feasible. Here you can choose between a bottle of Pilsner Urquell or a German-style, Budapest-brewed Brandecker on tap for that price – not bad at all.

After service it’s really all about the drink and the chat. The more friends the merrier. It’s one of those places that needs a few groups to drum up a merry atmosphere, that without music and conversation can be absent, but when its are kicking off, it feels like you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. That cosy glow of wood and old lights makes you feel right at home. It’s also nice to be among a mixed crowd of different generations, rather than the exclusively under-30 crowds of most ruin bars.

You will find a small snack menu, serving only the most basic food so rudimentary as to be impossible to cook badly, all focused towards your desiring of further drinks. Meat sandwiches, schnitzel, along with chilli beans on a Thursday.

The opening hours are pleasingly traditional: 6.15pm onwards, closed all day Sunday, and yet open until 2 in the morning all other nights. A nice illustration of the mass of contradictions going on. It’s a late bar that opens when it wants to.

You’ll find it difficult to wrench yourself away from the ruin pubs but honestly, give this place a go if you fancy a calmer, more authentic Budapest pub experience. Beneath all the glitz and frantic excitement it’s nice to drill down and spend some time among locals grumbling away and propping up the bar. This is a last bastion sticking two fingers up to gentrification, and all the better for it.

Unfortunately – and this is the sad part – it appears time is running out, and the old man is due to retire at the age of 70. Wichmann‘s will remain open this summer 2018 before closing its doors for good. It seems central Pest has no remaining call for a down to earth cheap hangout pub. It’s your last chance to be part of a wonderful tradition, as the district will never be the same again. 1987-2018 

 

 

 

The Blake Hotel, Sheffield

 

 

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53 Blake St, Sheffield S6 3JQ
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10 
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 9/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Be prepared for a climb up to this pub unless you’re approaching the pub from Crookesmoor (in which case you may have had a different climb of your own). Blake Street is steep enough there are handrails for assistance, which given Sheffield’s propensity to snow up on the hilltops, is probably a legal obligation of some sort. Your reward is on the corner at the top of the street, and during your ascent you’ll see the Blake Hotel sign sticking out on the corner, looming ever nearer, the proverbial dangling carrot.

Although the journey is more arduous than most pub visits, you will struggle to find a better reviewed drinking hole, even in Sheffield, a city packed full of brilliant pubs. The glowing reviews from the public are well-founded, as The Blake Hotel is a classic example of a neighbourhood pub designed and run by people who know what they’re doing. Resurrected from its boarded-up state in 2009, the cellar dug out, foundation  and floor replaced, this end terrace boozer is alive again and rewarded with a stream of loyal custom.

The recipe for success is so simple and pleasingly disinterested in all things gentrified. This is the case with the family of pubs in Sheffield run by James Birkett, including ,among others, the Wellington at Shalesmoor and Sheaf View in Heeley, the former I haven’t yet visited, the latter of which I highly recommend.

While The Blake Hotel may be in all respects a traditional pub, don’t expect it to be crowded with horse brasses or tarred black. Nor – while it has a history – is it obsessed with and trading off its own mythology. The décor is kept tastefully low-key and lounge-like, retaining a homely neighbourly pub feel and having an instantly appealing atmosphere upon entering the place.

The lounge room in the Blake – to your left – follows that reliable template of of dark green wallpaper, mid-brown furniture, cream walls and ceiling. There are a few large picture frames and the odd pot here and there to remind you you’re in a pub, lending it a hint of the pastoral/domestic. There is further seating opposite the bar and tucked up a couple of steps to the right, in comfortable down-to-earth surroundings. You may find a few board games to help you pass the time if you see fit. It’s what such a place should be, a living room with a bar attached.

The bar area is compact but with the aid of some partitions they have crowbarred some leaning space and put in a few bar stools which are pleasant enough to gather round.

The drinks offerings remain very good value at the time of writing. You’ll find several cask ales for sale well under £3.00 a pint – partly down to a connection with local Neepsend Brewery. There is plenty else to go at if that isn’t your thing – including some harder to find European lagers – though take a look behind the bar at the decent whisky selection which should turn a few heads.

Once you’re sorted for a drink have a sit down and a chat in the comfortable environment of the Blake. There won’t be any music playing or games machines whirring away, just the background hubbub of a friendly crowd, the classic sound of a harmonious pub, people having a laugh and a good time. Even their pub quiz has a rather old-school stentorian format: no microphone, just a man shouting 20 questions in fairly quick order.

The Blake will always remain a neighbourly, low-key place, so it’s for locals and those in-the-know. Staff and the customers seem to be all part of the same machine, with some local characters milling about, and a nice blend of different people who all seem to appreciate the surroundings.

It’s truly amusing to think of the lengths the likes of Greene King go to to attract as many demographics by making their pubs as bland and cookie-cutter generic as possible. Focus groups, marketing managers, surveyors, master craftsmen… when this alternative is so simple and effective. It never really died.

Blake is the kind of pub that has been boarded up/converted across the country – indeed for a short while it remained closed, possibly for good. You never know when the wind will change direction and threaten the Blake’s existence once again, so all the more reason for you to visit and pass the flame on.

The Blake Hotel does nearly all the important things really well. When it’s your turn to visit perhaps take a few photos or a video, send them on to the head offices of the various huge pubcos attaching a small note simply stating ‘Now this is a Pub.’

Edit: (14/06/18) I’ve been reliably informed the Blake’s beer garden is a nice spot with  views over the Don Valley.

Pivnica Mali Medo, Zagreb

 

Tkalčićeva 36 Street, 10000, Zagreb, Croatia

*BRONZE AWARD* *Good all-rounder*

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –7/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10 
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

The ‘Little Bear’ is located in the centre of Zagreb’s old town and offers by far the best example of a pub around these environs. Otherwise, your options are identikit café terraces or the odd raucous rakija bar. To be honest, a night out spent solely Zagreb’s old town would be pretty bland unless you dedicated yourself to drinking shots, or visited this place.

Mali Medo acts as brewery tap for Pivovara Medvedgrad (translates as Beartown), named after an old fortress in the hills North of the city which has undergone a rather appalling renovation, but is worth seeking out for the view over the city.

The brewery, operating since 1994 precedes the craft beer craze and concocts a range of different beers – including their own attempt at Kriek – highly peculiar by Croatian standards where anything outside Euro Lager seems to be regarded as otherworldly. Their beers aren’t unpleasant but they’re some way short of the wider standard these days and a bit ‘last generation’. Nevertheless, a couple of the more traditional styles are competent enough to put away a few of, and the extra flavour and freshness will come as a relief after drinking the likes of Karlovacko everywhere else.

They operate a number of pubs, but the best of the lot is, in my opinion Mali Medo in the centre of town.

The pub itself has a typical pivnica look, dropping down off the main cobbled street to a large half-basement area with a curved ceiling, and some partitioned niches with bench seating (one of my favourite pub features) along with the typical long tables you’d expect of a central European cellar pub.  Mostly, the décor is in-keeping with inn-keeping, wooden framed artwork on the wall, and traditional furniture, a step above bland. It’s suitably cavernous in order to cram in the many hundreds of people who flock to it daily – worth a reminder at this stage that it is the number one venue slap bang in the centre of town.

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As there is a beer terrace out front with much coming and going the atmosphere is very noisy and lively, sometimes pierced by live music performances. The upstairs area serves as a stage, with performers opening the windows to serenade people on the street. Very unusual and atmospheric. You  get the picture that this is one of the cultural hubs of the city. Be warned, if you’re after peace and quiet, this isn’t the place for you.

As with most pivnicas there is food available. Sometimes this can turn a place too much like a restaurant, but here it blends in with people turning up for a drink of beer better than some others, and as the evening progresses you can tell this is chiefly a drinking spot – good.

Considering the hustle and bustle, service is actually not too bad until it comes to the point of paying, where you almost have to grab the staff by the lapels and shove the money into their pockets. As per usual, table service slows up the whole arrangement. This is a very inefficient method when you compare it to those mega-brauhauses in Germany and Austria where a tapster and a token system means hundreds can be catered for by just a few people, or simply an English pub with a big bar where you can walk up to the bar staff and order – sort yourself out rather than relying on others to carry a glass for you. Unfortunately in Eastern Europe there appears to be an unwritten rule that one must never ever approach the person pouring the beer, or expect them to be able to operate a till.

Any place, city, town or village automatically feels enhanced by a centrally located brewery and/or its taproom, and this is certainly the effect Mali Medo has had on Zagreb old town. There is some work to do on the beers themselves, and it would be nice to see a few more pub touches, just slightly, to add character. It wouldn’t be an 8/10 unless there was some constructive criticism to encourage improvements. Aside of this, it still remains an essential, indeed desperately vital place to go for a beer in Zagreb.

U Jelinku, Prague

Address: Charvátova 33/1, 110 00 Nové Město, Czechia
Nearest Square: Jungmannovo náměstí
Nearest Metro Stop: Národní třída on the B-line
Hours: 11:00 – 23:00, Saturday until 18:00, Sunday Closed
Reservations: +420 224 948 486
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –9/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10 
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10 
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Even those of us committed to pub-going find it daunting (though enjoyable) to explore Prague’s enormous pub scene. Tearing oneself away from the high quality known favourites such as U Hrocha or U Cerneho Vola is difficult enough in itself; given a holiday may last only a few days, you could be forgiven for sticking to the known favourites.

However, several visits in, I am starting to chip away at the available drinking holes the city and can strongly recommend doing so for the many gems that exist outside of the most touristic areas.

However, Jelinkova Plzenska Pivnice or ‘U Jelinku’ as it is more colloquially known, was a bit of a blot on my copybook, a core old town pub I had known about since 2007 recommended in Prague Pubs as being an authentic Pilsner Urquell pub in the heart of the old town serving the stuff unpasteurised from a tank, but never visited.

By rights I ought to have paid a visit in the early days, but for one reason or another, things got in the way. This is partly down to the unconventional opening hours, quirkily being open only until 6pm on a Saturday and being closed altogether on a Sunday! Though inconvenient, it gives you a flavour already that this is a pub doing whatever it wants, to hell with the consequences.

Finally, after multiple occasions I ensured I paid a visit in December last year. Firstly, as with all the best Pilsner Urquell pubs, it is virtually impossible to leave after a single pint, the devil on your shoulder always telling you to go for one more, and the Czech tradition of inviting you for another the moment they spy you getting to the end of your glass.

Jelinku is a tiny pub and so when you visit don’t be surprised to find standing room only, if that. As you walk in you’ll find a square wood-panelled bar area and walls sparsely decorated with some classic Pilsner Urquell ephemera from decades past. There is an old fashioned open bar area with a sink where the tapster Bohumil Kundrt does his work.

It’s all about having a beer na stojaka, ‘on the stand’, so you greet the tapster, order the inevitable number of beers required, pay straight up (unusual for a Czech pub) and take your beer for a lean with your mates. Simplicity defined.

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It seems to be a family operation, and the main tapster’s appearance is appropriately a caricature of a pre-war central European maestro, a rotund, smartly-dressed fellow of borderline retirement age with white hair and a majestic and comically-curled moustache, helping transport you back in time to the good old days of Bohemia, which is very much where this pub would rather exist.

The site has been a pub since 1918, with the Pilsner Urquell contract drawn up 8 years later, remaining ever since.

One of the recurring features of these throwback places is treating tourists with a tolerance rather than an open arms embrace. If you can stand some-good natured jesting and accept you are in the domain of the tapster and his stamgasty, who are perched by the bar having a chat and a joke, you’re assured of a good time nevertheless.

Many of the regulars use their visit for conversation, so you may find one or two chirping up in English to get a conversation going. This is one of the hallmarks of a great pub and it is this unique environment, almost forcing people together at the bar area to drink and talk which acts as the ice-breaker, so vital for a sole travellers in a foreign country.

The Pilsner Urquell is as good as you’ll find it anywhere, and you may find the format of standing results in you drinking more of the stuff than usual – that and the nerves, I guess. At 46 crowns for a pint, it’s on the high side of pubs still catering for locals rather than tourists, but if I told you that equates to £1.50 a pint I’m sure you won’t quibble! Don’t even bother asking what else is on to drink, as there isn’t anything. You’re on Pilsner or spirits – that’s it.

There is a room around the back which receives table service (it will either be the rakishly thin lady or the more comely lady of the house who is in attendance). Access to these tables can depend on reservations and at a loss of that, good luck. Though I haven’t yet had the pleasure, it looks a truly pleasant place to be with seating facing in around the room creating that feel of conviviality you’re searching for when you try pubs like this. The format is simple and yet for other places make creating such genius loci seem like alchemy.

Though Prague is currently experiencing a wave in characterless craft beer bars, and has an almost bottomless trunk full of cheap but featureless macro-brewery branded drinking holes, you can’t walk far before a true pub hoves into view. The real job, as I’ve been finding, is being able to sort the wheat from the chaff, and knowing when is the best time to be there.

Jelinkova deserves a high score because it is so different from the usual, it rewards perseverance and the best time to be there is simple: when it’s open. If you’re up for a good time, not a long time, the pub is right up there as the best in the city.

The Dawson Lounge, Dublin

25 Dawson St, Dublin 2, Ireland
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –7/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10 
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10 
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 5/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

One common feature of pubs claiming to be the ‘longest’, ‘smallest’, ‘oldest’ etc, is the tendency for them to be over-visited tired old shite, but something about dimensions and longevity appeal nonetheless. Perhaps it’s the old saying that variety is the spice of life?

The Dawson Lounge trades on being on the small side – which is to understate it – in fact, I’ve seen snugs with more wriggle room than this place. From the promotional literature and signage you’d be thinking to steer well clear, what with the Carlsberg insignia and cartoon suggesting a descending of louts to the place. This impression is further emphasised when contrasting the alternative establishments on Dawson Street which are very much upscale and upmarket, leaving this looking like a pimple on an otherwise pristine visage. At least from the outside.

Relievingly, appearances are deceiving – so don’t be deterred. With only a doorway as an entrance, you could be forgiven for walking straight past. Perhaps that, along with the tacky branding has some effect on maintaining the capacity inside so it doesn’t get too overblown the whole time.

As you open the door you’ll immediately step down into what feels like a bunker directly below street level. To give you an example of the proximity – if you approached the place from St. Stephen’s green and walked over the glass window insets on the street you’ll have been standing only centimetres away from someone’s head as they were positioned at the urinal. Interesting thought, eh? If you don’t believe me take a look directly above when you go to take a leak.

The creators of the pub have shown attention to detail in regards to the cramped space, as they’ve installed a leather cushion on the ceiling of the toilet cubicle so patrons don’t bang their heads on the wall!

Ron, pictured in the video above is the typical image of a Dublin publican, white-haired, broad-bodied and smartly dressed, the type of chap you’ll see asking for your order and offering good craic to the barflies all across the city.

The pub itself is merely a standing area directly ahead, and a seated area on your right, in front of the bar. Other than the ladies and gents, that’s your lot. With a low ceiling, wood-panels and framed artwork it’s like any other pub in that sense, but once that door closes behind you there’s no sense of claustrophobia, only the snug intimate feeling you’re hoping to get out of a visit. The carpets and décor help provide comfort rather than a feeling of being choked.

The guests are a mixture of local folk and tourists, but certainly no more touristy than this area of Dublin generally, and you may find a few locals bursting out into song later on at night if the mood takes them.

The main issue, as you’d expect from a pub with a capacity of 40 which has one row of seats and about 8 stools, is of obtaining seating room. The usual solution is to get there at opening time, although if you have bigger fish to fry and are inhabited of a little patience, wait a while and a stool or a position on the leather seats will become available.

It’s quite good all the same to choose a leaning post and a shelf – of which there are plenty – including a bespoke 30cm job above the bins by the bar – every inch of space is utilised.

Drinks-wise, expect the standard fare for Dublin, Guinness and much of the usual Guinness-owned alternatives, at a price neither exceptionally good nor terrible. It must be said the beer was very well kept when we visited and the temptation for a second pint proved irresistible, as I’m sure it will be for you.

What makes the pub stand out is it quirky, unique layout and intimacy – though there are more facets to it than that which all help make a truly outstanding experience.

Been there? Want to go there? Drop us a line!

El Bosc De Les Fades, Barcelona

Passatge de la Banca, 7, 08002 Barcelona, Spain
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –7/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10 
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10 
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Translating to The Forest of the Fairies, this high concept bar is set down an alley entrance to a Wax Museum, and although it is listed as secret (how secret can a bar with over 1000 Google reviews really be?) you’ll find it signposted clearly enough on an arch set off La Rambla.

El Bosc definitely ranks highly for oddness – it is one of those special bars decorated with such care and attention that you can turn your head in any direction and see something new. The main area is quite a sight to behold when you enter in, with tree trunks shooting up and branches crawling along the ceiling to create an enclosed forested feel. Fairy lights make a prominent, predictable appearance, but it’s tastefully done. The central room is largely cleared of furniture to allow more people to congregate. As you’d expect with this décor and this location – it’s a popular spot, both with tourists and locals. No surprise – there’s nowhere else like it after all.

Luckily, there are plenty of other places in the bar to wander to, should you find the going a little bit congested. You will find a small area similar to a snug in a traditional pub (rather unexpected in such a place), a completely different back room with origami beetles in the window, a medieval style rocking bed to sit on, a table held forward by a toy soldier. Then another room, where suddenly the bar turns into a lush upholstered Victorian bedroom with pretty white furniture and billowing curtains – presumably the fairy’s bedroom? Who even knows anymore?! Then, follow through a corridor with huge machine like cogs on the wall and lampshades that look like bats, and a wall covered in backlit butterflies. I wasn’t high or anything, I can assure you. Wherever you turn, something new.

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The beers are the usual limited Spanish arrangement, and aren’t especially cheap (it’s La Rambla, so no surprise). Probably your best option is Voll-Damm, a double pilsner with just enough flavour and just clean-tasting enough to be inoffensive. But hey, at least it’s not Fosters. Voll-Damm services the visit well enough. Grab a bottle and get wandering down.

I visited El Bosc with my partner and we both felt the bar strikes a good tone, not too masculine or too twee, but occasionally fanciful and macabre, likely to appeal to both sexes and anything in between. It’s also pretty cosy if you get the right seat.

If you ever fancied combining a night out with the aesthetics of A Midsummer Night’s Dream this is your chance. No, this place doesn’t quite have have the raw power of an alternative bar, indeed it’s been lavished with money and attention to the extent it moves past a ruin-bar feel and there are some areas that verge on anodyne, but it’s so unusual, outstanding in its distinctiveness, so well-done in its execution, you can hardly walk past it without popping in for a drink and a nosey around. With any luck you’ll get a spot on the swing!

Although we always love obtuse and obscure selections on European Bar Guide, when the mainstream knuckles down and devotes some effort into making something fabulous, it can be well worth your time and attention. El Bosc goes way past the call of duty, pushing beyond the normal boundaries and expectations. When you leave, or perhaps even during your stay you may find yourself reassessing the question – what actually is a bar?

 

 

 

Yarborough Hunt, Brigg

49 Bridge St, Brigg DN20 8NS
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Some of you may have been wondering when I’m going to profile an English pub, so I’m pleased to keep you in suspense no longer. After all, England is going to feature heavily on this website one way or another given the quality and sheer number of good pubs (regardless of whether that number is going up or down) and given it’s where I happen to live, making these places much more accessible than, for example, the bar scene over in Belarus.

Brigg is a typical Lincolnshire market town, yet crowded with more pubs than you’d think would be viable for a place of its size. A 5 minute walk through its small centre will take you past a dozen pubs, each of which manage to remain open despite the recent appearance of a Wetherspoons and the ominous threat to local trade that represents.

My favourite in town by some distance is the Yarborough Hunt, based on a small back street over the river Ancholme, which until very recently had three pubs within a stone’s throw of each other, making for one of the easier pub crawls out there! There’s a bridge and a picturesque stretch of river lined with willow trees, often with a family of swans terrorising anyone trying to use the water for barging, rowing etc.

The pub building is one of those typical venerable townhouses you find across the East of England with weathered brickwork and an architectural style calling up stereotypes of rural life in the 18th Century.

While the buildings themselves go back a long way, the pub itself is a relatively new venture from 2003, making use of the old ‘Sargeant Brewery’ buildings and carefully designing a bar and pub rooms into the ground floor in a traditional rustic style.

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“The Yarbrough” manages to be a country pub in a slightly different way to some, with some touches which give the place a preserved character, and eschewing a lot of modern pub features – music, cooked food and fruit machines for a start. The main sound you’ll hear is the chatter of conversation and perhaps the occasional dog barking. The sense of calm is often missing from pubs these days whereas there are times, especially during the afternoon, when that’s precisely what you want.

This place isn’t ‘Inn’ by any stretch, it isn’t large or homely enough for that. It’s a workmanlike barn type pub, and before you think I intend that as a criticism, I don’t! I mean that in a very good way.

You will notice the exposed beams and tiled floor when you walk in. Take a few steps to your left to enter the bar area where the ceiling has been removed to expose the rafters which gives it a characterful feel. The central area of the pub is mainly tiled but there are comfortable carpeted areas in the sides rooms to your left and right with huge sturdy wooden bench seats.

Almost a pre-requisite, the fire is kept going for months on end which adds a warm cosy feel to the otherwise upright sturdy main pub area.

Despite being a pub, the place does more like café-style trade during the day, as young families, old fogies and retirees potter down here to drink coffee and read the paper. However, there are some reliable intransigents propping up the bar drinking cask ale, and when you look at the range of options it’s clear these chaps have the right idea over everyone else.

Rather unusually, the Yarborough has a multitap keg ale panel behind the bar in addition to several cask pumps in front. It’s a curiosity in an otherwise old fashioned place, but the joy is that there are several unusual beers to try. Unfortunately they have ceased to do the line of beer from Brauhaus Riegele which is a great shame as that is barely available anywhere in the UK, and knocks a point off, but the range still extends beyond what you’d expect for the place. Without the specialist beers on offer you’d still be right at home with a pint of thick brown cask bitter, kept as well as you would hope and expect.

On Saturdays the pub often plays host to friendly away fans travelling to football matches in Lincoln, Grimsby, Scunthorpe and the pace certainly livelies up a touch when they arrive. The Ancholme can be good for rowing and often rowers head over for a pint after their exertions.

During the evening the Yarborough escapes first gear, with a different crowd gathering and a hubbub developing. I would recommend sitting towards the end of the bar area for the most atmosphere as the fairy lights around the beams and general ambience around the bar is pleasant and jovial. The high ceiling in the main room betrays what is otherwise a ‘nook-and-cranny’ type pub.

They have made some strange design decisions in some of the smaller side rooms which are wholly regrettable and not in keeping with inn-keeping (bdum tish), but hopefully soon someone will see sense and consolidate the whole pub back to its core and stop trying to use it as a canvas for dodgy amateur interior design.

The same extends to the beer garden where they have seen fit to create heated beach huts, presumably to try and keep smokers satisfied. Odd to say the least.

There were also some wranglings in the last few years with the owner Tom Woods whose brewery’s mediocre ales (in my opinion) were being outsold, unsurprisingly, by the other, superior options. It seems that this has now been resolved by moving on from that connection altogether. I’m pleased to say on each of my visits in 2018 there has been a wide range of cask and keg is on offer.

However, despite the usual provincial quirks that stop the Yarborough reaching its potential, the pub is managed by Lucy, a very enterprising woman and a core of committed employees that are clearly proud and determined to keep the pub in good shape. This shows in nearly everything the pub does, and despite the healthy competition for bums on seats in Brigg, they enjoy committed repeat custom, quite rightly, and the strongest reputation as the reviews on Google will attest to.

You’ll find the staff up front and welcoming; it’s one of those places where groups of people know each other very well. The essence of being there is the simplicity and the ritual a social tradition untouched by centuries, which is the genius loci of this place. Given that’s the case, I’d strongly advise them to concentrate on preserving that and trying not to turn it into something it isn’t.

I have no hesitation in recommending paying a visit if you’re anywhere near Brigg.

 

À la Mort Subite, Bruxelles

alamortsubite
Rue Montagne aux Herbes Potagères 7, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium

There is sometimes a premium to be paid on a special occasion, so on my annual visit to A La Mort Subite I breathe in deeply and dive more deeply still into my wallet, on account of the luxurious overall experience of visiting this splendid Bruxelles bar.

Distinctly Parisien in format, this opulent faded-grandeur art nouveau venue (translation: At The Sudden Death) is one of Brussels and Belgiums most famous bars, so no surprises or left-field picks from me this time. A la Mort Subite might count as a brown café for the bench seating up the sides of the long room, if it wasn’t for the lack of brown elsewhere. Cream walls and pillars, the elegant ornamental décor stacked with studded crenullations, mirror panels and a stately, out of time design. You have a venue somewhere in between a café and a salon, originally built as a place for socialites to be seen in, yet, being Belgian, still focused predominantly on beer. The décor has such an authentic and preserved quality (no change since 1928, save for the occasional running repair) so it’s difficult to think of too many other places that are alike.

Mort Subite supplies the draft beer, and this brewery serves fruit beers and lambic effect rather than the real wild yeast sour lambics McCoy. They are still rich in flavour and sweetness, and a tad sour, but lacking any sort of dryness and depth that might indicate the traditional lambic brewing process. A small serving of their kriek for example, which would be a good choice, will set you back five euros on its own. Some of the other options are fairly astronomical considering the price one can drink for elsewhere in excellent surroundings. Mort Subite beer may as well be drunk here as much as anywhere on the globe. With this being Brussels you can expect a small food menu with cheese, charcuterie options and the usual pub food like croque monsieur to help your beer go down (as if anyone should need help finishing a Belgian beer!)

 

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The bar clearly feel they are unique to set such a high price, and annoyingly, they are right. An afternoon drink in A la Mort Subite can feel rather like a drink in a grand café, nice enough in itself, but the bar character starts to come alive in the early evening time as the crowd changes, and you can suddenly start to absorb some of the atmosphere and understand the underlying reasons for the endurance of this place. A special bleary eyed feel starts to develop, the sharp lines and corners blurring into the cream colours, like dropping into a dreamworld. That’ll also be the strong beer…

The grandeur and glamour of socialising in the inter-war era is yet to be recreated around Europe on any identifiable level, save for the odd outstanding example, partly because of the lack of venues who have committed to investing the kind of money to pull it off well, and also because the eventual crowd it attracts tend to have little to no appreciation of their surroundings anyway.

Service is almost classically continental, with wide stomached balding René type characters smoothly dissecting the venue with assurance and steady hands under the drinks trays. They are immaculately professional and patient considering conveyor belt of foreign tourists and the format of table service requiring more work than is strictly necessary. These characters add further to the sense of intransigent and reliability that lend a place a certain charm, that A la Mort Subite certainly possesses.

Although the evening and night crowd appeals to a few nostalgic locals who insist bars like these used to be abundant, a large volume tourists of venture in during the daytime, and because of the heritage of the place, often an aged crowd at that. The only sudden death that occurs in this bar is from pneumonia and cardiac arrest, I suspect.

Changing the venue in anyway seems to be verboten, and I wouldn’t approve major adjustments either ,however it seems to me there is nothing to stop the place rejigging the drinks choices and doing some marketing from the outside, as this venue is not designed for middle aged obese American sat in Burghaus jackets, it is designed for the young, the stylish and the vibrant. The way to really bring back the good old days isn’t just to leave the décor and service meticulously unchanged and hope for the best. The good old days were good because they were vital, vibrant and inhabited a nascent social scene. The place could do more in that regard by hosting more events, perhaps some understated live music, and so on.

In order for A La Mort Subite to take the next step, they need to be brave enough to recapture the zeitgeist in a way that doesn’t upset the period features, rather than settling for being a museum.

A La Mort Subite is a preserved remnant of a particular era and a great opportunity for anyone with a real passion in the rich and diverse history of socialising, beer drinking and recreational culture to step out of the every day experience and soak in the special character of the place. There are scarcely grander or more historical venues to recline and get merry with some astoundingly good beer. It may be so well known as to be passé, and it isn’t the pinnacle itself of pub going, but that doesn’t stop it being one of the best bars in Europe.

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 7/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 5/10
  • Value for Money – 4/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Špunka, Vilnius

spunka

Užupio g. 9-1, Vilnius 01203, Lithuania

This boldly-named drop in bar is well located at the epicentre of the republic of Uzupis in Vilnius (or attached to depending on your opinion), meaning it’s a short walk for anyone heading there from the old town, as well as pulling in people from the suburbs.

It’s initially surprising that they chose such a modest sized venue; it really is a small place, with the bar occupying almost half the surface area of its one main room. All the evidence suggests there’s enough footfall and interest for them to have made a pub three times as big and made a success out of it. However, this appears to have been a deliberate decision to make a ‘drop in’ type bar.

At times, crowding around the bar is the only real option, but for much of the evening you should be able to grab a stool either at or opposite the bar and drink on the ledge or you may get lucky and find a table by the window.

 

 

 

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The bar is only interested in serving Lithuanian ales from small/medium-sized breweries – quite rightly so – meaning there are some exciting options on tap, including a couple of dark lagers, farmhouse ales and the region’s showstopper, Baltic porter, essential on any trip to Lithuania. You will find their own attempts at US craft beer styles, such as Dundulis Humulupu IPA which tend to be well made but nothing outstanding. Any obscurist will be in hog’s heaven peering at the taps and decent bottle selection.

The beer is a little more expensive than your average Vilnius pub, however not pushing towards any really offensive levels for Westerners. Beer aside, the best thing is the local, cosy feel to the place. It’s designed to feel pub-like rather than stark and modern, and treads a fine line between that typical ‘craft beer pub look’ and a venue seeking its own traditional character. We’ve all been passed those drop in dives in Europe where old men have tried to turn what looks like a corridor into a pub. Spunka is a successful experiment in making that idea more widely appealing while still capturing that ‘drop in’ feel.

You’ll find a nice range of people in here, the odd tourist, grumpy old men sharing space with excitable youngsters, sharing space with a business crowd, sharing space with couples having an intimate drink together. This makes it a must-visit when you go to Vilnius.

The main downside is there is nowhere to sit down and relax, so although you may want to hang around, the stool seating just isn’t comfortable enough to want to spend your whole evening there. Essentially drop by, socialise or hang at the bar for one or two and move on. For some places that feels just right. In Uzupis, never mind Vilnius in general, there are several quality options to choose from.

My favourite part of the visit to this bar in late November was watching the snow start to fall outside as I sipped my glass of porter. It’s something you rarely get to experience in England but there is suddenly an elevation in atmosphere a pub takes on when the snow falls outside, like a collective spontaneous agreement to stick two fingers up to the weather and get merry,  wrapped up in a warm cosy and friendly place, drawing you further and further into its thrall.

There are apparently sister pubs, one in elsewhere in Vilnius and a few further afield which if they stick to this fine balance, the genius loci I suppose, will be worth your while. With a name like this, you’re going to find it quite difficult to forget about. A fine establishment and a memorable pub.

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 5/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • F: The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10