Au Delft, Liège

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There is a certain delight in finding a diamond in the rough, not least when it’s a brown café. Liège’s careworn and ramshackle districts provide plenty of rough – this is not a city that has enjoyed the most tasteful town planning, nor preservation of its heritage. There are quirky features and surprising beauty spots if you are determined to find them. Impasses, a giant staircase, quiet side streets, timber framed buildings sprinkled across the city, and upon arrival a dramatically different (if annoyingly distant) ultra-modern railway station.

This city is certainly not one to write-off, but on a grey weekend, the place seems overburdened with regret about its numerous ill-maintained architectural mistakes, not to mention the inevitable results that come from relatively pauce economic circumstances.

Wallonia is not the well-to-do side of Belgium these days, and hasn’t been for a long time. While it is breathtakingly beautiful in its rural areas and some small towns, a visit to its cities (the likes of Charleroi or Liège) is more than a tad reminiscent of the atmosphere you’ll find visiting dour towns in Northern France, especially in comparison to the well-financed Flemish cities of Ghent and Antwerp.

However, a reliable general rule is: the more hard-nosed a city, the worse its climate, the more likely it will be crammed full of drinking holes. Liège proves this quite adequately, as a cursory search will reveal, you can barely turn a corner in the centre without bumping into some bar or other, while certain streets have a local notoriety.

Some bars, such as Taverne St. Paul, Café Lequet and Le Pot Au Lait are, for their own differing reasons, Liégeois institutions, the bright lights that draw everyone in (those with good taste, anyway). However, today we are going to focus on a more understated city centre venue, Au Delft.

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Au Delft is a corner bar situated in an art deco influenced grey-brown brick city building with a quarter-circle frontage and circular windows running down each storey. The structure is non-committal and the materials used are unattractive in colour, so the impression lands in an uncanny valley between noticeably funky and downright ugly.

It doesn’t seem as though this would contain anything preserved except perhaps the embryonic ego of a reckless architect, but one look at the Jupiler signage, and the ground floor bar indicates that something interesting may be inside – or at the absolute very least, somewhere to buy a beer.

Step inside under a large dark green awning to discover a well-preserved bar blending stylish décor (appearing to span from the early ’50s to ’70s to my eye), with features and fittings that regularly appear in brown cafés, one of my absolute favourite styles of bar. Their name itself references a medieval town in Western Netherlands, a heartland of the brown café or bruine kroege.

That Au Delft now feels frozen in time is no accident – they knew they were onto a winner with this place and haven’t altered the format. Unlike the thousands of idiots who have vandalised amazing pubs and bars over the years, the owners have chosen to retain what made it special and ignored the nearly irrepressible human instinct to follow trends.

The bar area itself is magnificent. Faded with age but handsomely redeemed by its character. This scene is juxtaposed with a chess board tiled floor, which wouldn’t be my preferred choice usually, but works brilliantly for this place.

Some small details set this place apart, without adding clutter. The newspaper clips, the beautiful painted lettering on the mirrors which are installed in the partitions above crimson leather-backed seats. Indications of present tradition and ritual mixed with a melancholy legacy of days that are long gone, never to return.

Some of this reminded me of Au Daringman, in Brussels, another out-of-time venue,  that exudes confidence and contentment in what it is.

If you are used to paying 4 euros 50 for a quarter litre of beer in Brussels bars then you will scarcely believe your eyes when you discover the prices. Yes, pleasingly these are pitched to attract the custom locals rather than fleece tourists, but when allowing for Au Delft’s city centre location it comfortably beats some of the local competition too.

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Au Delft are not competing with those bars that are trying to start their own seed bank of beer for when the human race faces extinction, but they carefully tick off most of the main traditional Belgian beer styles and none of these could be said to be poor value: far from it.

There is actually something relieving about being spared the task of rifling through a Bible to choose between hundreds of beers and dozens of styles each time you desire a drink.

With my limited French I struggled a little to get my point across (there’s nothing more confidence-sapping than delivering a sentence which you are fairly confident is grammatically correct and well-pronounced only to receive a reaction of complete opacity and confusion) but thankfully the service was more than kind enough to offer patience in that regard. Any beer you select will be served to your table along with a small tray of nuts, which is a little token of mutual back-scratching I always like. After all, once the salt gets to work, further liquid is required.

The crowd in Au Delft is a mixture of loyal older regulars who have instant recognition and are well cared for by the staff. You will also find couples wanting a quiet drink and the occasional group of young friends.

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Au Delft has a nice convivial atmosphere whether quiet or busy, partly down to the carefully preserved décor and sense of refuge. It is both an excellent place for quiet contemplation or jovial conversation.

I was on limited time and so could only stay for a couple of beers, but I could have easily remained in Au Delft all evening. The impossible prospect of turning a place into my local, to get to know the other staff and become part of the fixtures of the bar are often one of the melancholy aspects of travelling. Often I am happy just to have found the venue and spent a night there, but Au Delft is one of those places I suspect you can only truly ‘find’ when you have visited for many years.

While Au Delft may not be the first name on everyone’s lips when it comes to nightlife in Liège, their quietly confident style, preserved features, genuine local life, friendly service and great value mean that it can’t be missed out and it comfortably earns a place on our guide as being one of the best pubs in Europe.

Our Rating:  8/10

Quality and/or choice of drinks8/10

Style and Decor8/10

Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life8/10

Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10

Value for Money8/10

The Pub-Going Factor8/10

Location
https://goo.gl/maps/vYzrgmhtpQ8cixuw7
Address
Place Cockerill 22, 4000 Liège, Belgium
Website
N/A
Telephone
+32 4 221 45 70

…back to Belgium

 

 

 

The Seven Stars, London

back to England

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!

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!

U Jelinku, Prague

back to Czechia

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, 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, combined with the Czech habit of inviting you to have 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 effective. Why do so many other places make 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.

Klub Invalida, Kotor

back to Montenegro

Ulica 1 (istok-zapad), Kotor, Montenegro
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –7/10
  • Style and Decor – 7/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 9/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

“Come on guys, let’s head down Klub Udruzenja Za Sport I Rekreaciju Invalida Kotor this evening”

In one of Kotor’s tiny charming squares you’ll see a sign in Cyrillic displaying this unwieldy name, a townhouse facing onto the square with a few plain patio seats parked out in front. There’s a typical Niksicko pivo awning but the showy frivolities start and end there.

On the square you’ll also see another modern swanky bar adjacent, called Bokun. That one looks quite Western-friendly and approachable doesn’t it? Please try to ignore that, and head here instead if you are seeking a local down-to-earth experience.

You may already have deciphered from the information above, but Klub Invalida is a very informal hang out, smoke and drink spot for retired sportsmen. It is still a Caffe Bar, in the Dalmatian tradition, just with the generic attempts at modernity removed. Instead, all the great aspects of a good bar: the local character, good value and commitment to unvarnished beer drinking are amplified, perhaps solely due to the absence of effort gone into the place. This is why there are hardly any reviews online and only a few photos available. They don’t care whether you or I know about the place.

Instead of paying 3 euros for a large Niksicko, as is nearly standard elsewhere in town, grab a table out front or in the bar itself and order a bottle of Niksicko for half that price. Old geezers won’t charge you what they don’t want to pay themselves.

It’s very pleasant sitting outside on the square in the sunshine watching Kotor’s many cats skulking about, and doing some people watching. but there’s a slice of local life to be enjoyed by diving indoors during the evening, with a crappy old telly perched at the front of the room displaying the evening’s football, and a grand old trophy cabinet by the door displaying the club members’ various sporting exploits in the 60s and 70s.

 

This may not sound like everyone’s idea of fun, but the gnarled elderly couple (probably 50 years old but looking worse for it) are friendly in their own gruff Slavic way. Ordering a beer will produce a metronomically identical process. The Master of the house, in his leather jacket and tatty grey sweater ceases whatever he is doing (smoking, usually), rather slowly assembles the bottles on a tray, and opens them in front of you one by one, in each case barking ‘Zvolite’ which appears to be Montenegrin for ‘voila’ or ‘cheers’, or a bit of both. There is a pedestrian kindness that falls somewhere in between Eastern European gruffness and rustic hospitality.

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The crowd inside are how you can imagine Kotor being if you extracted all the tourists. Some elderly folk clinging on to their spot in the old town, some labourers popping in for a morning/lunch/evening/last thing at night drink, the odd official and even the local constabulary made a late arrival to shake a few hands (which certainly raised a few eyebrows from where we were sitting). Don’t expect them to speak much English or have much to do with you personally. They are happy you’re there seemingly; there is an understated appreciation about it all, but this is really their place for which you are a tolerated intruder. As with all these types of places, the busier the place is, the better the atmosphere.

So, the drinks offerings. Niksicko is far from the worst lager in the region, and stands up reasonably for 3-4 pints, unlike some Croatian lager, but pleasingly they have brought out an unfiltered version recently which boosts the flavour, and stands up as a genuinely pleasant lager, albeit one that may become sickly after 5 or 6. The pleasure of paying a little over a pound for one of these (especially if you have arrived up the coast from Dubrovnik, where value goes to die) will boost the experience further. Wine and rakija is sold (the rakija is stored en masse in a big chest freezer) for pennies as well. Generally, finding a fairly specialist offering in such a gruff traditional place was a nice surprise.

There are some amusing eccentricities and oddities. For example, over Easter each table had a saucer containing bright purple-coloured hard-boiled eggs for your enjoyment, that appeared to have been boiled in beetroot juice. There is an element of unabashed and unapologetic naffness about the way they make nearly no effort to market their existence, actively disinterested in trying to compete on that level. I try to avoid using the word as it sounds so patronising, but it’s quaint to find a bar like this in such a popular spot, one that isn’t primarily interested in making money but wants to provide an honest place to hang out.

Kotor experiences frequent and dramatic afternoon thunderstorms, as I witnessed during our stay, but being ‘stuck’ in a pub like this while the square temporarily becomes a lake for two hours is no great shame, indeed it just gives you an excuse to turn around yet again and ask for another ‘beer. There are some nice spots in the centre of Kotor, but this is the only one with a genuine local atmosphere, local prices and authenticity the Caffe Bars of Croatia and Montenegro seem largely incapable of and disinterested in creating. Anyone going out for a beer and a chat in Kotor should be basing their evening around a long stay in here. As with our visit the owner may lose count of how many beers you’ve put away and undercharge you!

 

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.

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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.

 

U Rotundy, Prague

back to Czechia

Karoliny Světlé 1035/17, 110 00 Staré Město, Czechia
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –7/10
  • Style and Decor – 7/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 10/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

If you read travel blogs or even mainstream travel journalism, then you may have read about why the time of paying ‘a pound a pint’ abroad is dead, this referring to an era from the mid-90’s to around 2009 when the enormous disparity in earnings and currencies between West and East meant that Western Tourists could turn up in Prague and Budapest and feel like they were taking the piss even when, by the standards of the local economy, they were actually being ripped off.

The travel writers are true in identifying that the general trend over this last decade has been a paring back of those obscene financial advantages due to a steady increase in wealth, prosperity, earning power and the touristification (if that is a word) of Eastern European capitals, which has had a considerably restricting effect on the bargains to be had abroad, albeit in very specific conditions. Spend a day in Dubrovnik or Riga old town and tell me if you feel like you’re surfing on a wave of great value!

Prague too, has its tourist traps, and while there is far too much competition across what is a large and well-connected city for a rot to have set in like those honeypots I’ve listed above (as is also the case in large cities like Kraków and Budapest), it is certainly true that a normal beer, Kozel 11, for example, is sold in Prague old town and across the river Mala Strana for a price 40-50% more expensive than the going rate in most of the rest of the country. At the start of 2018, with Pound Sterling (£) in a slump, that puts you well over £1 for a half litre. For a Czech person visiting Prague from a small town, this would be a mild concern, but not, I doubt, much of a concern for you. Drinking great lager for so little, even if it is above the average for the nation isn’t exactly the kind of issue a British tourist spends much time worrying about. However, I am quite determined to demonstrate there are still breathtaking bargains to be found in Europe for beer.

Of course, I could drag you to a revolting dive bar in the middle of nowhere to prove my point (and in the process, kind of disprove it at the same time and make me seem like a petty idiot). However, the real satisfaction is finding the cheap beer in a good pub. I think the best approach to the old ‘pound a pint’ question is to find out: can you visit a good pub in the old town of Prague (Prague 1, Stare Mesto, whatever you want to call it) and get a half litre of beer outside of happy-hour for less than a pound?

Yes, of course you can!

During the socialist era, businesses such as cafés, diners and pubs were graded, the cheapest generally being ‘Fourth Grade’ or čtvrtý, the grading allowing goods and services to be distributed and tailored according to their central planning. This term has survived in Czech parlance to this day, as serves partly a useful metric if you are interested in finding some of the best value places for a drink (though be aware it can be used disparagingly about some rough and ready places too).

These ‘Fours’ have nearly died out in Prague old town, partly because there is little need for them in an affluent touristic, commercial district, but also due to capitalism’s inevitable march of progress in claiming the land from underneath people and its hostility towards partly-socialised enterprise (just witness the lamentable decline of the Milk Bar in Poland since their government stopped subsidizing virtually any seasoning that would help their food taste of something. What private enterprise is so pathetic and helpless that they need to winnow the offerings in a Milk Bar?).

Hostinec U Rotundy is not the last place standing in the old town where you can get a pint for considerably less than the usual going rate, but it is the most venerable, best quality, and I must confess, slightly alien and fascinating. It is by all reputable accounts, a ‘Four’ in form and function, and as I’ve been multiple times and had fun time and on one occasion surprisingly good food, it deserves a spot on European Bar Guide.

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U Rotundy gets its name from the rotunda a 100 metres up the road (which is an interesting little oddity that kind of blends into the background among the jawdropping other sights) and is so close to some of the main streets and sights in Prague old town that you can tack it on to any of the usual pub crawls without it feeling like a special detour. Yes, U Rotundy is on a less quiet street but it’s a spit from the river, Charles Bridge and an idle wander from the tourist crush on Karlova to remarkably peaceful old streets like Betlemska and Konviktska.

In some of the classic Pilsner Urquell pubs, such as U Pinkasu or Jelinkova Plzenska Pivnice you can experience what Prague was, or may have been like before the war, but U Rotundy is where to go if you want to experience an unvarnished socialist-era drinking hole, something which now, I think, is becoming a curiosity.

One ardent Czech pub tradition which has bitten the dust for good, whatever your personal view on it, is smoking, so although U Rotundy looks like the kind of place where after 11pm you’d be lucky if you could make out the people from the other side of the room, that particular atmosphere (I was always dubious about as to whether smoke added as much atmosphere as people though) is gone, and won’t be returning, and that goes for the country as a whole.

One threat to banning smoking indoors, as happened in the UK, is that old men will simply retire from pub-going and fill their apartments with stale fog instead. However, unlike the UK, Czechia benefits from ludicrously cheap beer which isn’t going up by the same rate beer prices were in the mid-00s. For now at least, the cast of regulars at U Rotundy remains firmly in place, which is all for the good, as they are the ones keeping the place in business.

As with all cheap pubs, you find a coalition of old men and students enjoying the good value and occasionally having a ‘forthright exchange of cultural values’. One of the more pleasant aspects to Czechia is a healthy down-to-earth attitude and understanding of a communal pub-going mentality where people are less reserved than England. I wouldn’t say U Rotundy was full of women, exactly, as it’s not but neither is it so much of a man-pit that Czech women are afraid to venture in.

U Rotundy typifies the simplicity of those olden days. Don’t worry about deciding what beer you’re going to have. It’s Staropramen and you’re having it. Right? That’s settled then.

I posted a good article from Beer Advocate about this on our Facebook page (which I recommend you join for extra goodies and comments) where an American so used to multi-tap places got choice fatigue between his DIPA’s, barrel-aged sours and hibiscus goses and loved the culture in Prague where the stress of each decision was alleviated by the glasses being continually refreshed with the same beer, freeing your mind to concentrate on the important things about going out, like being with your mates and having a good time!

I must admit privately smirking at the thought of a few people I know or have met on my travels venturing into U Rotundy and being prescribed their drink. It’s not what I would want life to always be like but I have some serious admiration for the mentality behind it, in a world where choice must always equal better. Surely the fact stuff like this even exists is evidence of diversity in itself, right?

Anyway, the Staropramen 10 is as good as it’s ever going to get (ie. alright) and you can switch between light or dark if you really want to go crazy. At the time of writing 27czk weighs in snugly under a pound a pint, even at the lowest rate for sterling in years. Back in 2015 when it was 38czk to £1, this pint of beer would have been just over 80 pence a pint.

Even in Prague, these prices turn heads, and U Rotundy is busy most evenings as a result. The pub itself is relatively spacious, with a communal main room, and some dining tables up the corridor and anteroom to the back. One enjoyable aspect is that the tap faces you as you walk through the entrance, leaving you with a beer virtually before you’ve had a chance to wipe your feet!

There isn’t much going on musically other than the sound of geriatric grumbling and twenty-something conviviality, but they have a new TV (beginning of the end for this place, mate) and tend to throw on ice hockey and football. I wouldn’t call it a sport pub, but it’s got a casual interest, and that’s an amenity you won’t find in many of the more traditional pubs in the city.

Food-wise, U Rotundy does something of a surprising turn. If I was visiting a pub that looked like this in England I’d go hungry rather than attempt to eat anything emerging from the kitchen, and yet, after reading the largely positive reviews I gave it a go, and what do you know? Big portions of no-nonsense, fresh Czech cuisine at fair prices – not quite as fair as the beer price but at a corresponding standard to match what you’re paying for, and food you would pay over double for down the road without that home-cooked feel. That aspect of the place really counts in its favour, and although I wouldn’t usually bang on about food too much, it’s a nice feather in its cap.

Lastly, for flavour, I refer you to Max Bahnson of Pivni Filosof-fame, who said of U Rotundy in his funny and ever-useful book Prague: A Pisshead’s Pub Guide,

It’s dingy, dirt cheap and I doubt much has changed in the last 25 years, if not more. It’s like a bulldog, so ugly it’s beautiful. Proof that what really makes a pub special is not the stuff that comes out of the taps”.

Amen to that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Café Vlissinghe, Brugge

back to Belgium

Blekersstraat 2, 8000 Brugge, Belgium
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 8/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  10/10

Every town deserves at least one historic place in which nothing ever seems to change. Being able to link aspects of our own lives to the past (as futile as that endeavour may seem at times) helps to provide our own existence with a sense of place and purpose, in the knowledge that we have retained and respected at least some things of value along the way, and by frequenting these places we contribute to their survival.

Café Vlissinghe takes this idea and extends it beyond all usual historical parameters, and the news gets better still – it’s a pub! Even in Brugge, a place not short of preserved architecture and institutions, it can reasonably claim to be one of the most evocative links to their past, the business traceable for centuries and thankfully keen to preserve the format for centuries to come. Once you have a good thing you don’t easily let that go.

The earliest record of the pub dates back to 1515, extraordinary in and of itself and it claims to have been running continuously from then until the present. This earns Vlissinghe a place on the list of oldest companies in the world. The look of the place may be redolent of a late Medieval inn, however it appears some of the appearance was lovingly and coherently retrofitted in the mid-1800s (an era steeped in fascination and nostalgia for all things Medieval), with the installation of contemporaneous artworks and paintings and furniture that are consistent with the period. It’s all very brown, black, tarred, burnt caramel and crusty textures. Precisely the sort of thing you want with an old pub.

Vlissinghe is located mercifully outside of the main tourist drag, down a typical Brugge alley: cobbled street, whitewashed walls, ancient brickwork, and a bicycle propped up outside that’s so old you wonder whether it’s become an ornament (until a man in a flat cap emerges from the door, tucks his newspaper under his coat and rides off on it). It must be no more than 50 metres long, but the amble down the lane, with the pub entrance coming closer with your every stride has become somewhat of a ritual for me, just long enough to build a sense of anticipation for what’s to come…

Vlissinghe’s gothic lettering is painted above the entrance, so dive straight in and turn left and head down a long corridor entrance with a series of side rooms. This may lead you to believe it is a large venue, but the pub itself is really just a central room, up a couple of steps at the end. You will note it is appointed with large, sturdy, venerable furniture, cushioned with studded leather upholstery, warped floorboards that creak underfoot, faded oil paintings hung on the wall which you have to swivel to and fro between the sheen of the lighting to properly discern, and an impressive and unusual centrepiece: a cast iron steam heater kicking out warmth into the room, most welcome on those days when the cold is piercing and the wind is rushing down the North Sea through the canals and arteries off Zeebrugge.

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There is a pub dog, for good measure who is unobtrusive and content with its existence, pottering around, sniffing and having naps.

The main room overlooks a garden and terrace area used as a bowling green in the summer and has outhouse toilets, which gives the place a friendly and ad hoc feel. These toilets are modern, which I will concede is the one part of a pub which should keep up with the times (though, rather incongruously, they also ‘have’ an APP!)

The kitchen is in an adjoining building and focuses on winter fuel – soups, toasties, meat and cheese platters, miscellaneous bar snacks, which are all done Belgian-style, reliably homespun, the purpose being to warm you up and soak up the drinking. Service is friendly (occasionally disorganised and a little slow, which comes with the territory) and the prices are par for the course, with a few cheaper options.

Nevertheless, there are other things going on here than a pocket sized ethnographic museum, Café Vlissinghe stocks a local beer, the delicious tripel Fort Lapin brewed in a garage five minutes up the road by a new brewer. As this is part-fermented in the bottle and unfiltered, as you pour in the last part of the bottle you will note the colour change from bright amber to a cloudy, yeasty colour! Even with this beer choice, you get the sense of sentimentality and heritage at wanting to promote a city project, even with the hundreds of other Belgian beers they could have chosen to sell. The total range of beers available is modest (most Belgian cafés feel obliged to offer at least 60 bottles and 8-10 taps these days, which does showcase their extraordinary brewing very well, but is often unnecessary) but it is well chosen, with at least one of each main style, and with local options.

The main appeal of frequenting Vlissinghe is the sheer sense of relaxation. Whether it is 11.30 in the morning or last thing at night, I doubt anything about the feel of the pub changes hugely. Hunker down for an afternoon of supremely enjoyable beer drinking, hearty soups and toast, or head down in the evening and sit amongst the throng, frozen- in-time but warmed through with merriment and the satisfaction of your own quiet contribution to keeping the whole thing going. Cheers!

Libertina, Dubrovnik

back to Croatia

Zlatarska ul. 3, 20000, Dubrovnik, Croatia
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 6/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Dubrovnik has done a pretty good job of evicting all traces of local life from its historic old town to make way for a touristic theme park. Apartments once owned and lived in by locals are now rented out to Western travellers gorging themselves on the feast of Instagram-worthy shots of the city walls and fulfilling such enthralling bucket-list items as the Game Of Thrones tour, as though the place itself only ever existed so it would eventually serve as the set of a TV show, then after, a museum dedicated to it.

The locals long since packed up and headed for the suburbs, set in sprawling hills outside of town where an entirely different economy operates. During my research, I didn’t find any diamonds in the rough bar-wise out there either, leaving the treacherous prospect of being stuck trying to find a decent down to earth pub in an old town where fairness and modesty are an endangered species. This was a challenge undertaken in 2015 by Guardian writer David Farley, and now, armed with his findings, I was to take on the challenge in 2017.

As you may expect, going for a night out slap bang within the city walls can be an expensive business and not a particularly enthralling one, with characterless generic bars (many of which are focused on wine) and an early call for bed time, leaving a sleepy, slovenly and fairly unexciting atmosphere to it in general – with the usual blight of being shrouded in cigarette smoke for good measure. You won’t find many local haunts anywhere within the old town proper and finding even a simple crap lager for less than £3 is close to impossible.

You may read blogs telling you how Dubrovnik being expensive is a myth, but rest assured – it isn’t – their rather clueless middle class claims are redundant.  The old town is far smaller than the likes of Venice and every square inch of it has been ruthlessly priced in the knowledge of a baying, wealthy and pliant audience. Following any recommendations on these blogs, particularly in terms of restaurants will lead you to places that sink in quality dramatically in the search for what are ultimately meagre savings. If you’re in an expensive place, you may as well enjoy yourself.

Libertina is hardly a shining example of good value or good beer either (you may be wondering at this point where the good stuff is going to start) but fortunately it executes the main thing our page exists to champion – it’s a really good, honest and atmospheric pub.

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You’ll find Libertina stuck at the end of the uphill stretch of alleys at the north end of the old town, a slightly less visited corner, and one you might miss out on altogether unless you were determined to eat your way through every single street in Dubrovnik’s grid-pattern old town like a demented Pacman.

There’s an arched doorway and upon entry you’ll encounter a pleasant and homely semi-circular bar area patrolled by a kindly simple chap by the name ‘Luci’, who is also the owner. Luci has quite the story to tell – he was a member of the apparently renowned Troubadours of Dubrovnik, the Yugoslavian entry to the 1968 Eurovision song contest where they took 7th place. The group toured Europe and Great Britain and Luci claims their medieval style outfits where the inspiration for the movie “Robin Hood – Men in Tights”. So there you go.

The shape of the pub invites communal drinking and you’ll quietly sing Hallelujah to yourself in relief as you can escape the corporate drudgery and enjoy the environment of a true pub, something not just Dubrovnik, but Croatia in general sorely lacks.

It appears Libertina has further nostalgic reason for its continued existence, being a popular meeting place during the war when the city was under siege. When you look at its location it really does have the kind of snug close-knit feel you can imagine banding people together – that’s something special.

The place is decorated with an appropriately nautical theme, not overstated but enough to give it a traditional and faintly rustic style. Libertina certainly isn’t interested in attracting the seen and be-seen crowd, and outside of the height of summer you’ll find the place largely filled with locals, which is a delight as a trip to Dubrovnik usually involves only interacting in a service capacity – predominantly them standing at the front of restaurants trying to get your attention and you telling them to get lost.

Please note that inside Libertina there is a prime spot to sit, on a raised seating area at the back of the room. It’s cushioned, cosy and snug, and has a great view of the pub proceedings without ever feeling detached from the action. If you grab that seat, you’re all set for the evening.

Paying western prices for 0.5l of the decidedly ropey beer Ozujsko will burn your wallet, and in a more subtle way, your soul, but it’s difficult, nay impossible to do any better elsewhere in the city centre –  so you may as well pay it somewhere that’s good.

It’s one of the few places in the hollowed out city that has a real hubbub and character. Glam Café is also recommended, but for independent Croatian beer rather than for any particular atmosphere. However, you’ll want to spend the wealth of your time in the evening in Dubrovnik’s best pub, among the locals, as the last bastion of character clings like a limpet by the city walls to the corporatised husk left behind. Get down there and get the beers in while you still can!

 

 

Café Jubilee, Valletta

back to Malta

Konvoj Ta’ Sta Marija, Malta
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –6/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Sometimes quiet towns and cities can churn up such desperation for a drink that you’re prepared to lower your standards with alarming ease, as you wander past boarded up shops and sleeping houses in search of nightlife, or in lieu of that human adults that aren’t already in bed at 10pm.

Malta’s capital Valletta certainly knows how to make a beer drinking pub-goer concerned, as although it may be pretty and characterful, on an average evening out of season you may find its large old town to be packed away and fast-asleep in the manner of an English market town on a Sunday circa 1950. As with many countries with a warm climate, a bulk of the usual pub characters you’d see propping up the bar in an English pub or holding forth at the stamgast table in Germany or Czechia (craggy old men, let’s be honest) instead start the day with a pint and a cig at a drop-in bar, and are safely home for tea, bed and chronic farting by the time most of Northern Europe are venturing out.

It’s vital to do some digging if you want to hang around all evening in Valletta, as turning up on spec could lead to a good hour of traipsing around fruitlessly for drinking options, something which can become more confusing on account of the inconsistent labeling of streets on printed maps flitting from Maltese to English whenever it feels like it.

Café Jubilee is a shining star in this void, a bar I’d be eager to frequent were it in my town. Tasteful, sometimes striking art nouveau frames fill each inch of wall space making it a very stylish and atmospheric place for a drink, regardless of how many people are there, yet it is a popular place, predominantly with young people, and tables fill up during the evening. Grab any table you get the chance to. I’d say it goes past simply being tasteful and really crams in the art pieces to build a memorably busy-looking atmosphere.

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There is an unavoidable café element to the place, with that being the daytime purpose, and the furniture style being more in that direction, but I felt it transformed sufficiently on an evening to be a typical evening bar, a meeting place with a communal vibe developing that makes it feel more homely as the evening progresses, bubbling up to that pleasant background hubbub that combined with the elegant surroundings could be transporting you to Paris or Brussels.

It’s also a place to find Farson’s Blue Label on tap, reasonably rare as most other places tapping from Malta’s big brewery, one of many true oddities on the island serve only Cisk, a decent if not outstanding lager. The combination of cask bitter and the cosy, ornate surroundings are just the tonic to a city pub scene lacking on a number of levels. Service and price are not notable for the area, but neither are they offensive, and the service is likewise understated rather than fantastic, but those are minor issues. The bar is open until 1-am (wahey!).

The good news is Café Jubilee are stationed in Gzira and Gozo too, providing further pleasant places of refuge as you navigate options that fall between tacky ex-pat pubs and generic Mediterranean café bars. Along with the strip of stylish night bars that open on weekend evenings down the centre artery of town Café Jubilee is an essential port of call during your stay in Valletta, as the exemplary reviews elsewhere attest to.