Domkeller, Aachen

back to Germany

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities & Events – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10
Hof 1, 52062 Aachen, Germany

Although it shouldn’t, it comes as a surprise to me, as much as a relief to have located a cosy, non-corporate pub slap-bang in the middle of a European city centre.

However, Belgium and Netherlands make a habit of it, and these nations just so happen to be Aachen’s closest neighbours.

This German border city and the Low Countries (either of which can be reached in an hour walk from Aachen centre) share a host of cultural cues, with the city itself having initial importance as a Roman spa town before the cult of Imperial Rome spawned Charlemagne and the crowning of 31 Holy Roman Emperors in the subsequent centuries. Aachen also enjoyed a position as a major trading point between nations, goods and wares shipped from the North Sea ports, which may help explain the cultural overlap.

Don’t be under the impression Aachen is any less German for it – believe me, Aachen is a firm fixture of Nord-Rhein Westphalia, and this mixture today results in interesting blends of buildings as you walk around town. Its town hall and surrounding Gothic buildings in the Altstadt could as easily appear as far away as Ghent or Nijmegen without raising any suspicion, but similarly, the remnants of the city wall and the post-war reconstruction are as German as it comes. The cultural centre of Aachen isn’t a large ensemble of buildings when compared to some places, but they are nonetheless impressive and occupy a bigger portion of the city than Cologne or Dusseldorf’s old towns, for example. Aachen is easy to get to from virtually anywhere nearby, and its attractions justify you spending a night here.

Domkeller is situated in the heart of town in an attractive brick townhouse on the small Hof square (you know you’re somewhere central when Hof appears). The scene is made all the more picturesque by a ruined arch halfway along and the distinctive houses that line the square, all fitted with huge grid windows of the kind you normally expect to see on Burgher houses.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The risk is that Domkeller could so easily be one of those common tourist traps and a let-down given its advantageous situation. Instead, you will find the opposite is true.

Domkeller is neither based at the cathedral, or in fact a cellar venue (that ceased to be true in the 1980s, apparently, due to safety regulations), however its proximity and age, dating back at least until the 1950s justifies a name of such significance.

This pub enjoys a handsome trade of local people both young and old who are happy to sit and socialise among the odd tourist (such as myself) or group of businessmen that are passing through.

It’s a place that invites interactions with other people; that magic chemistry where strangers who would otherwise be ignoring each other feel they can cross the divide. That alone would be a good reason to include Domkeller on our guide. Aside of that – the antifascist sign near the entrance is proof that many of these elements go hand-in-hand.

Be assured, the appeal doesn’t stop there. As you walk in through a corner door you will find a cosy room with bar area to your right and communal bench seating with fixed small tables. To your left is some chunkier furniture and further benches. Beyond the bar area is the second part of the room, which again is based around bench seating by the walls and has the effect that most of the time you are spent in an enclosed space where you are looking at and interacting with what’s inside rather than what’s outside.

Domkeller accepts orders at the bar but keeps table service operating and prefers that – it is quick, attentive and polite without being too formal. You’ll be needing a drink of course, and here is where Domkeller comes into its own.

The choices of beer are certainly quality over quantity, but even this selection is encyclopaedic when compared to most German venues. Here at Domkeller, several bases are covered. They have various styles of German beer on tap covering Kolsch, Altbier, Landbier, Pils and Hefeweissbier – most of which are from medium-sized, not corporate breweries – and a suite of Belgian bottles which are mostly the familiar Trappist and Abbey ales, but nonetheless hugely welcome in a nation that is not fond of selling beer brewed by anyone except themselves. Believe me, travel east from Domkeller, stop in each pub you find and it will be a long time before you see as many Belgium beers again.

The atmosphere is also quite fitting for drinking whisky, something which the management appear to have recognised a long time ago – take a look at the drinks menu for a few interesting options.

Prices are along the typical level for this part of the world – perhaps cheaper than Maastricht up the road, a little cheaper than Cologne too, though perhaps a little more expensive than Liege and the rest of Wallonia, which is after all a poorer region of Belgium than Flanders. For a city centre venue, it’s fair value.

Domkeller’s website claims their Weinstube (the upper floor, accessed via a central staircase by the end of the bar) is converted into a small concert hall every Monday night, which I can imagine drumming up even more atmosphere in this place. These start at 8PM, and the pub won’t accept new entrants after 7.30PM.

The upper floor is a lighter shade than the downstairs with a surprisingly high ceiling, though still decorated in a simple, traditional style. There is a gently sloping roof at one side of the room which adds a bit of character. I would rather be downstairs, but would certainly accept a seat upstairs if that was what remained.

Domkeller have a relaxed attitude towards bringing food into eat, which is a refreshing change and shows the sort of pragmatism that people who know pubs recognise but accountants do not. Clearly any food is going to make a person thirsty for more of their fine beers – who loses?

Have I mentioned the opening hours yet? Bloody brilliant! How many cities have I been to that practically shut up shop by midnight? A lot. Too many. Expect Domkeller to serve your needs well into the early hours of the morning, in fair weather or foul, throughout the week.  This, along with the friendly company and Belgian ales explained why I found it very difficult to leave and go to bed!

Speaking of weather, the place throws itself open as the weather improves, with outside seating on the square. This is of course a pleasant place to sit back and enjoy the sun, but the true character of the place is indoors in my opinion, a wonderful refuge from the bitter winter weather – the core creation should be at the core of the appeal.

Across Europe, places like Domkeller, based so close to the centre of the city, have ceased to be cult venues long ago and sold out to middle aged tourists to become a generic café.

It’s great to see that the real character of Aachen endures and therefore we say, ‘long live Domkeller’ – and hopefully see you again very soon!

 

Café Mulder, Amsterdam

back to Netherlands

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

 

A Baiuca – Fado Vadio, Lisbon

back to Portugal

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!

Gas Lamp, Lviv

back to Ukraine

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

back to Italy

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!

Orzo Bruno, Pisa

back to Italy

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Pivnica Mali Medo, Zagreb

back to Croatia

Tkalčićeva 36 Street, 10000, Zagreb, Croatia

  • 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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

El Bosc De Les Fades, Barcelona

back to Spain

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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?

 

 

 

Leopold’s Delicatessen, Split

back to Croatia

Ujevićeva poljana 3, 21000, Split, Croatia
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • 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

Although I am about to praise this bar and urge you to visit, I should firstly state that I really hate its name. Yes, Leopold is a nice guy who knows his stuff, and that’s a cool name but ‘Delicatessen’ seems sickly sweet for a beer bar. The quicker it is reduced to Leopold‘s or even Leo’s the better! Get in touch with Leo and tell him yourself!

There have been some comments made online that alternative beer is now mainstream in Split, which may be well-intentioned to promote the place, but I can tell you from first-hand experience that isn’t the case at all. Most of the time you’ll be stuck drinking Croatia’s terrible trio of crap lagers or Staropramen if you’re lucky. Yes, Split remains by far the best city for drinking good beer in Croatia, but even then, you could count the number of good bars also selling good beer in the old town itself on one hand, and some of those are not especially good value, leading to a loss of local custom – the net result is they become touristy and lose their charm. Those that manage to retain local custom and offer something worth visiting rather than a generic Caffe Bar experience are thin on the ground in Split, and pretty much non-existent across most of Croatia.

Leopold’s is certainly one of the standout bars in the city centre, not just for beer but for atmosphere and somewhere you must bookmark to visit while in Split. This place is a beer bar, first and foremost – you’ll see some ad hoc meat and cheese slicing going on at the bar, sure, but the reason everyone is here is to try Croatian craft beer, perhaps taking a dip into the fridge for a reasonable interesting array of bottle offerings.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

On tap are some really beautiful tasting Croatian beer which will seem like you stepped into a parallel universe after spending your days in Croatia drinking their depressingly bad mainstream brands Karlovacko, Pan and Ozujsko.

There are 4 taps on rotation, all with Croatian beer from small breweries across the country, (though they also sold the way over-exposed mainstream beer Punk IPA too, which may pass for interesting in Croatia but not for a British traveller).

Thankfully the Croatian beer I tried was pretty good, one by Nova Runda and a single hop version of L.A.B’s Barba the standouts. They have brewed these beers carefully so as to not scare the locals, not over-hopped, but with enough punch and unfiltered flavour to be comfortably superior to all the mainstream Croatian beers. Good for a session, you might say, that milder drinkability that suits Mediterranean summer drinking. Thanks for not going the Polish/US craft route of slamming as many bitter hops in there as possible. The place is also interested in scotch whisky and bourbon if you are too.

The bar itself is pretty interesting to look at, with some nice mosaic-tiled patio furniture and vinyl records stuck to the ceiling. There’s also a swing seat in the middle of the bar which is a bit of a novelty, and a classic ‘dive’ bar layout that will instantly appeal. Leopold’s also seems to have a slightly annexed looking terrace which was well-appointed but the surroundings feel featureless (like a parking lot) – not the best from the options available.

However, the splicani prefer to congregate outside (this is common practise in the country and probably why there are so few Croatian bars with interest interior décor), and at some point as the evening progresses you will probably find yourself sharing space with some annoying American backpackers. Leopold seems to arrange tastings in advance with large groups – unfortunately halfway through my visit 20 Americans darkened their doors and the staff immediately began catering for them, seemingly exclusively. Perhaps that was bad timing but being moved from my seat and then having to listen to them droning on left a sour note, and not the good kind you get from a quality lambic.

They organise events such as live music on the terrace, barbecues (don’t miss out on these if you get the chance!) and seasonal beer like Oktoberfest, another excuse to skip past the bad macro lager in Croatia.

I have every confidence if you can dodge the worst excesses of the passing tourist trade Leopold’s is one of the best, certainly in the top 3 bars in the old town of Split. Agree? Disagree? Join the chat on facebook

De Pilsener Club (De Engelse Reet), Amsterdam

back to Netherlands

Begijnensteeg 4, 1012 PN Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –9/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 5/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Brown cafés warrant the name because of their shared characteristics, but the term is best served as a general guide to indicate a few of their recurring themes rather prescribing a precise template. Exploration of these pubs across Belgium and Netherlands will reveal a surprising diversity in décor and atmosphere.

Some emerged from a jazz/blues tradition and are decorated accordingly, even hosting live acts as a revival or preservation of that. There are some upscale brown cafes which take their cues from the roaring twenties: high society, art nouveau and all that. There are English/French style taverns which blend vaulted beams and thick wood with the bric-a-brac décor and beer ephemera you’d expect in a brown café. There there are working class venues with a simple format: rickety furniture, dusty floors, yellowed walls and good booze.

It seems though, whichever angle the owner deigns to take, the fundamental basics of what constitute a great pub are inherent in the DNA of a brown café which put them at a distinct advantage. Whether it’s the fantastic Belgian beer, their aforementioned styling choices, their character and atmosphere that evolves over the course of a day and remains as appealing whether you’re sat there on your own or among a tangle of people, you have to go pretty far to mess this concept up.

The rather crappily-named De Pilsener Club goes by another far better name ‘De Engelse Reet’, or ‘English Arse’. This place is one of Amsterdam’s core historic brown cafes dating back to 1893, and this place is content to be down-to-earth and working class.

There is a no-bullshit attitude to the entire arrangement: it’s brown alright, from the walls to the tables and chairs, and the floor has that aged spit-and-sawdust type look to it that probably has been cleaned daily but has been around so long it has received stains and wear that won’t rub out. Characterful, basically. A notable quirk is that there is no bar at all, all drinks are prepared in a backroom and then brought out.

Drinking is done across a set of communal tables along a small rectangular room with a fairly high ceiling, so you get a cosy surrounding but a woozy sense of space if you look up. The lighting and ambience gives that sense that it could be virtually any time of day and feel the same.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Drinking pilsener isn’t even half of the point of being here. The purpose of your visit is to drink some high quality, and invariably strong Belgian and specialist Dutch ale in these surroundings. Trappiste, abbey, lambics, micro-brewery stuff. These are proudly displayed above the head of the bar. Alternatively (or potentially in addition to) you can try their decent enough range of jenevers or order a cocktail (I’m not sure why you would feel the need to do the latter in a place such as this, but alcohol is a strange master at times).

There is a nice range of clientele in the place that give it a nice community feel. Old men sipping their beer over a newspaper, groups of youngster sharing conversation, couples diving in from the bad weather (in our case), business folk holding-forth over the worn-through tables. It is the kind of place which manages to be inclusive without turning itself into a safety first bland chain pub, and maintains what it wants to be without discriminating in the ageist and stylist fashion many craft beer pubs do. Of course, being in central Amsterdam will help, but natural advantages still count.

Beer isn’t cheap in Western Europe these days, and it’s no exception in here. Expect to pay 5 euros and upwards for a 0.25l pouring or a 0.33l bottle, although keep content in the knowledge the quality is among the best you’re likely to get. Given the savings to be made elsewhere in the city centre are 20 cents here and there at most, and that a pint of Heineken regularly clocks in at 5.50+ these days, it seems churlish to complain about paying 5 euros for a Rochefort 8. You certainly pay more in England.

As the evening progresses and the alcohol takes effect, the browns and off-whites of the room form a rather comforting hue, and the hubbub of conversation adds to that great calming melange where you really wouldn’t rather be anywhere else. And that’s great because it stays open until 2am.

In most towns and cities this place would be the best pub by a country mile. Up against seriously stiff competition in Amsterdam, De Pilsener Club eschews all gimmickery, sell-out concessions, and, if you excuse the waiter’s rather formal attire, modernisation of any kind, and does a good trade being what it is, a thoroughly likable, characterful place for a drink and a good time. Google reviews are almost uniformly positive about the place and after a visit it’s easy to see why. Mark my words, their words and place it firmly on your hitlist.