Domkeller, Aachen

back to Germany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Café Mulder, Amsterdam

back to Netherlands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Briody’s, Dublin

back to Republic of Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gas Lamp, Lviv

back to Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

King Grizzly, Florence

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!

The Blake Hotel, Sheffield

back to England

 

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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. Unsurprising given it’s at the top of the hill.

Pivnica Mali Medo, Zagreb

back to Croatia

Tkalčićeva 36 Street, 10000, Zagreb, Croatia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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