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.

U Jelinku, Prague

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dawson Lounge, Dublin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

De Pilsener Club (De Engelse Reet), Amsterdam

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.