Wichmann’s Kocsma, Budapest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Blake Hotel, Sheffield

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Klub Invalida, Kotor

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!