Yarborough Hunt, Brigg

back to England

49 Bridge St, Brigg DN20 8NS
  • 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 – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Some of you may have been wondering when I’m going to profile an English pub, so I’m pleased to keep you in suspense no longer. After all, England is going to feature heavily on this website one way or another given the quality and sheer number of good pubs (regardless of whether that number is going up or down) and given it’s where I happen to live, making these places much more accessible than, for example, the bar scene over in Belarus.

Brigg is a typical Lincolnshire market town, yet crowded with more pubs than you’d think would be viable for a place of its size. A 5 minute walk through its small centre will take you past a dozen pubs, each of which manage to remain open despite the recent appearance of a Wetherspoons and the ominous threat to local trade that represents.

My favourite in town by some distance is the Yarborough Hunt, based on a small back street over the river Ancholme, which until very recently had three pubs within a stone’s throw of each other, making for one of the easier pub crawls out there! There’s a bridge and a picturesque stretch of river lined with willow trees, often with a family of swans terrorising anyone trying to use the water for barging, rowing etc.

The pub building is one of those typical venerable townhouses you find across the East of England with weathered brickwork and an architectural style calling up stereotypes of rural life in the 18th Century.

While the buildings themselves go back a long way, the pub itself is a relatively new venture from 2003, making use of the old ‘Sargeant Brewery’ buildings and carefully designing a bar and pub rooms into the ground floor in a traditional rustic style.

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“The Yarbrough” manages to be a country pub in a slightly different way to some, with some touches which give the place a preserved character, and eschewing a lot of modern pub features – music, cooked food and fruit machines for a start. The main sound you’ll hear is the chatter of conversation and perhaps the occasional dog barking. The sense of calm is often missing from pubs these days whereas there are times, especially during the afternoon, when that’s precisely what you want.

This place isn’t ‘Inn’ by any stretch, it isn’t large or homely enough for that. It’s a workmanlike barn type pub, and before you think I intend that as a criticism, I don’t! I mean that in a very good way.

You will notice the exposed beams and tiled floor when you walk in. Take a few steps to your left to enter the bar area where the ceiling has been removed to expose the rafters which gives it a characterful feel. The central area of the pub is mainly tiled but there are comfortable carpeted areas in the sides rooms to your left and right with huge sturdy wooden bench seats.

Almost a pre-requisite, the fire is kept going for months on end which adds a warm cosy feel to the otherwise upright sturdy main pub area.

Despite being a pub, the place does more like café-style trade during the day, as young families, old fogies and retirees potter down here to drink coffee and read the paper. However, there are some reliable intransigents propping up the bar drinking cask ale, and when you look at the range of options it’s clear these chaps have the right idea over everyone else.

Rather unusually, the Yarborough has a multitap keg ale panel behind the bar in addition to several cask pumps in front. It’s a curiosity in an otherwise old fashioned place, but the joy is that there are several unusual beers to try. Unfortunately they have ceased to do the line of beer from Brauhaus Riegele which is a great shame as that is barely available anywhere in the UK, and knocks a point off, but the range still extends beyond what you’d expect for the place. Without the specialist beers on offer you’d still be right at home with a pint of thick brown cask bitter, kept as well as you would hope and expect.

On Saturdays the pub often plays host to friendly away fans travelling to football matches in Lincoln, Grimsby, Scunthorpe and the pace certainly livelies up a touch when they arrive. The Ancholme can be good for rowing and often rowers head over for a pint after their exertions.

During the evening the Yarborough escapes first gear, with a different crowd gathering and a hubbub developing. I would recommend sitting towards the end of the bar area for the most atmosphere as the fairy lights around the beams and general ambience around the bar is pleasant and jovial. The high ceiling in the main room betrays what is otherwise a ‘nook-and-cranny’ type pub.

They have made some strange design decisions in some of the smaller side rooms which are wholly regrettable and not in keeping with inn-keeping (bdum tish), but hopefully soon someone will see sense and consolidate the whole pub back to its core and stop trying to use it as a canvas for dodgy amateur interior design.

The same extends to the beer garden where they have seen fit to create heated beach huts, presumably to try and keep smokers satisfied. Odd to say the least.

There were also some wranglings in the last few years with the owner Tom Woods whose brewery’s mediocre ales (in my opinion) were being outsold, unsurprisingly, by the other, superior options. It seems that this has now been resolved by moving on from that connection altogether. I’m pleased to say on each of my visits in 2018 there has been a wide range of cask and keg is on offer.

However, despite the usual provincial quirks that stop the Yarborough reaching its potential, the pub is managed by Lucy, a very enterprising woman and a core of committed employees that are clearly proud and determined to keep the pub in good shape. This shows in nearly everything the pub does, and despite the healthy competition for bums on seats in Brigg, they enjoy committed repeat custom, quite rightly, and the strongest reputation as the reviews on Google will attest to.

You’ll find the staff up front and welcoming; it’s one of those places where groups of people know each other very well. The essence of being there is the simplicity and the ritual a social tradition untouched by centuries, which is the genius loci of this place. Given that’s the case, I’d strongly advise them to concentrate on preserving that and trying not to turn it into something it isn’t.

I have no hesitation in recommending paying a visit if you’re anywhere near Brigg.

 

Leopold’s Delicatessen, Split

back to Croatia

Ujevićeva poljana 3, 21000, Split, Croatia
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gorila, Cesky Krumlov

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PERMANENTLY CLOSED

Linecká 46, Plešivec, 381 01 Český Krumlov, 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 – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 9/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

When you have a pub with so little online presence it barely registers on Google, the apparent repository of all the world’s knowledge, you already get an indication of the nature of the venue.

Likely a locals drinking hole, likely without such fripperies as wi-fi connections, fresh air, clean toilets, likely with the sort of limited amenities and word-of-mouth presence locally that make having any such online presence pointless. Situate it in a country like Czechia, not exactly fussed about airs and graces, and a clear picture starts to form of a backwater boozer.

Nestled in a side-street of the amazing medieval town Cesky Krumlov, Rock Pub Gorila (to give the full title) , provides the kind of underground pub experience Google probably thought it had eradicated through the many million 4 star reviews gathered of sterile chain pubs. If I and a few friends visited Gorila this weekend coming and reported back I could probably triple the online coverage single-handedly. It feels almost perverse to write about it now, in fact.

If you can wrench your eyes away from the spectacular scenery (especially the river and castle tower ahead) look out for the dinky Gorila sign on black awning with a funky yellow Gorila, and a Kozel emblem next to it. Kozel just about sums the place up, the everyman’s go to drink in Czechia.

I bet you can partly imagine what it’s like before I even get started, but yes, expect smoking (we’ll see whether that’s remained the case since the ban), quality rock music of various eras, basement level prices for beer, and a committed throng of regulars hanging around in cliques, some of whom belong to a slightly friendlier Czech equivalent to the biker fraternity but these guys don’t own the place.

The decoration is modest rather than being outstanding but involves a succession of framed photos of classic rock and memorabilia giving the place a clear, if not exactly original identity. I’m also pleased to report there are actually some comfortable seats, something which will be a blessed relief after the generally not upholstered hardwood bench and chairs in most Czech pubs which must produce quite some discomfort for piles-sufferers out there. It’s scruffy around the edges and dog-eared, which is good because it feels lived-in, a bit like a sixth form common room. I still think that’s a decent thing for a pub.

Gorila has a strong community feel. Even though the centre of Cesky Krumlov is fairly touristy the locals in the surrounding areas descend into the beautiful city centre for some cheap drinking and social time – which by the way extends long into the night – don’t worry about being kicked out early here. Most tourists appear to steer well clear – unsurprising because Czech pubs like this really do not scream ‘come on in’ and it takes a degree of gumption to enter on your own, as I should know, because I did it.

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You’ll certainly encounter some lively characters, be they raucous alternative types or simply drunken buffoons, but the range of patrons gives away that the bar is generally a jovial place.  If you go looking for trouble you’ll probably find it, but if you keep yourself to yourself, or tag along with the youngsters having a laugh and a joke, you’ll have a great time.

It sort of reminded me of a few places I used to visit in my home town growing up – full of all kinds of people, unpretentious and lively, a community of people who didn’t necessarily all like each other but were determined to get out on the piss nevertheless.

Don’t bother even going here if you are intolerant to bad smells or spooked by odd characters. I wouldn’t imagine speaking English would do you too many favours either. Do go if you’re into finding out where the locals are drinking and wanting to sample a bit of their lives – in this case raw and unpretentious, a smidgen edgy but friendly enough.

As is the growing trend, there are more than a couple of beer options on offer here, and you’ll tend to find 2 resident beers with another 2 on rotation. Although Pilsner Urquell, Kozel and Gambrinus are predictable appearances look out for lesser lights like Svijany and Bakalar too – even an unvarnished boozer like this is joining in the fun.

Drinking here remains joyously inexpensive, not pushing much above 28 crowns for a normal beer, and of course that’s why people are here. An honest price for an honest place.

Cesky Krumlov doesn’t have the most obvious pub scene in the centre of town (though there are some spots such as Traveller’s Pub and some hospoda/pivnice type places for food and a beer, which makes Gorila the number 1 choice in town for an old fashion drop in for a pint with your mates, and it does a damn good job of it.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Józef K, Gdańsk

back to Poland

Piwna 1/2, 22-100 Gdańsk, Poland
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Any trip I make to a new city invariably involves researching local breweries and popular pubs in advance (this blog wouldn’t be up to much if I didn’t), which I find to be an enjoyable way to drum up excitement for an impending holiday, and useful so as to ensure you aren’t wasting your precious time abroad chancing it in drab dumps. There is always space for the odd unforeseen opportunity, however, and the ‘rabbit hole’ experience where you find to your surprise and delight you have found somewhere by accident is one to cherish. When you plan, be careful not to micro-manage those opportunities away.

While breweries are easy enough to seek out, for various reasons it can be difficult to filter out drab mainstream bars and Irish Pubs while google searching for bars abroad (thanks Lonely Planet for the gazillionth Irish Pub recommendation, you lazy middle aged wankers). In order to drill down to find alternative pubs and bars where locals go, or where there is anything different going on it can take a bit of persevering. Depending on the country, if you can’t find anything, that may mean it just doesn’t exist (eg. Croatia), but Poland is one of those countries where even if good bars aren’t obvious at first, it doesn’t mean they aren’t around.

Jozef K was one such place I probably would have walked straight past if it wasn’t for word of mouth recommendation from a guy I know who had recently visited. Granted, it is located on Piwna (‘Beer Street’) in Gdansk, one of the main nightlife spots in an old town not short of good options, but has no courtyard and the entrance is so plain you would never get an idea what was inside unless someone told you, or unless you were morbidly fascinated by the plain exterior of that particular building.

The bar is situated in a modernist building with impressive and elegant narrow windows stretching from the ceiling downwards. Strangely enough I can’t remember too many bars with such windows, of a kind which reminded me, weirdly, of the science block at my secondary school. These soaring windows allow quite a deal of light into the bar, and you’ll find the place operates with the lights off until fairly well into the evening.

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The style of the place is salvaged defunct scientific equipment + antique furniture which is a combination which could look odd, but when placed together and mounted so they all align with each other creates an impressive feel like a museum of professor’s study that has gone rogue and become a bar. Certainly techy and geekier than your usual retro chic bar, but pointedly elegant with it. It borders on the ‘ruin bar’ aesthetic but manages to be its own thing really well. There’s lots of stuff to look at, so when you’re tucking into a lovely strong Polish beer you can let your eyes wander around the room appreciating the effort, which stands apart appreciably even among those bars it is inspired by. That good.

Jozef K also appears to be the place to see and be seen if you’re a millennial in Gdansk, and in the evenings there are groups of townie types who will appear after 10pm, who don’t quite appear to understand or appreciate the aesthetic but have an intrinsic understanding of their obligation to be there. The seating is a little sparse which reflects how quickly the transition from sleepy afternoon place to buzzing night venue takes place. It gets very lively indeed.

Jozef K’s beer choice is admirable, as nearby brewery Browar Amber is represented well  – one smaller brewery that pre-dates the Polish craft ale explosion and serves beer in styles tradition to the region. Being a Pomeranian brewery, their offerings are largely Germanic, with interesting bocks, double pilsners and pszeniczne, a useful word to learn (psheh-neetch-nay) as it means wheat beer! It’s great to see the brewery concentrate on heritage styles rather than copying the popular US styles as so many other Polish breweries have opted for. The price at the bar is typically competitive for Western wallets – not necessarily the best value for the city but for an English tourist paying between £1.50-£2 for a beer will not break the bank.

Jozef K deservedly earns a reputation as a good all-rounder. The atmosphere and style is good, the vast majority of the other visitors are Danzig born and bred, good cheap and slightly different beer and it seems to occupy an important role in the local pub scene. The music works well for the environment and it moves seamlessly from stylish and studious cafe bar to lively night bar. There are no real lows to think of and a visit here comes highly recommended.

Have you visited recently? Please let us know what you think via the comments below or our Facebook group!

U Poutníka, Brno

back to Czechia

Vstup branou č.p. 14, Starobrněnská 16/18, 602 00 Brno-střed, Czechia
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –9/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 10/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Czechia excels in very unpretentious pubs devoted to swilling high quality beers of its own making. These pubs are the very definition of down-to-earth (particularly the ones located in cellars), welcoming all comers so long as they wish to experience and uphold this noble mission.

U Poutnika is Brno’s best example, possessing attributes common to those rare standout pubs that tie everything they do and everything they are together to produce ‘genius loci‘, a phrase which refers to that most indefinable and frustratingly hard to pin down thing – a place’s ‘spirit’ – (no, not Becherovka or Slivovitz ) – an accumulated sense of place and purpose that produces that atmosphere most people are seeking when they go out and socialise: vitality and character, usually so elusive to the majority of bars and pubs. The phrase ‘you had one job’ springs to mind whenever I think of some the hapless, and occasionally pretentious soulless holes I’ve stepped into.

Genius loci is a very well-used phrase by Czechs on reviews of their pubs, so it seems appropriate to mention it in reference to U Poutnika, which is as good a pick as any to demonstrate how an otherwise simple place with a look you could barely pick out at an identity parade can be elevated by virtue of its operation and customers, who every day contribute in their own way to the maintenance of a tradition, and who knows, perhaps even one day a legend. Some people may scoff at this, but even cursory research indicates that this place, much as several others has had its very existence threatened by bureaucrats, and therefore anyone who in their own way has patronised a pub, become an advocate, or a regular can fairly be argued to be participating in a peaceful revolt against such nonsense.

U Poutnika enjoys a central location in Brno’s ‘old town’ (largely a bustling and business-like provincial city but with some very pretty areas and buildings too), meaning no special trip-out to the suburbs is required in order to join the young, old and everything in-between who drop by on their nightly ritual. Although the pub may be central, its unassuming position nestled in a side-street arcade seems to provide at least some shelter from passing trade. However, upon your arrival you may notice a throng of people outside (all smoking). It will be quite busy, as Brno itself has very lively nightlife of a kind anyone from a northern city in the UK might be quite familiar with.

From a simple look around at the exterior, with its shopping arcade frontage and rather straggly-looking signs you may be adjusting your expectations downwards by the second, and I wouldn’t blame you if you were a touch tremulous arriving solo. Sod it – you’ve come this far, so why baulk at the last minute? Dive inside!

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The taproom is located right at the front, so if you want a quick beer ‘on the stand’ as they say, find a leaning post and have at it. U Poutnika is lucky enough to boast a “tapster” – invariably a rotund, middle-aged man whose sole job is to attend to the cleaning of glasses, pouring of beers and maintenance of the taps and kegs. Separately the server’s job is to go around tables doing the ordering and delivering of said drinks, but if you’re alone it may be easier and quicker (given how busy U Poutnika is) to approach the tapster directly when you first walk in – not always the most pleasant experience. These chaps can be quite growly and monosyllabic, even in their own language, let alone trying to converse with them in yours, so approach with caution, know your ‘dobry den‘ from your ‘ahoj‘ (the latter reserved for friends and regular acquaintances only) and be clear in your demands.

Jedno Pivo, prosim‘ will result in being presented with the house light lager, which is the excellent, criminally under-distributed Poutnik Pehlrimov, (translating to Pehlrimov Pilgrim) a Moravian beer difficult to find in Prague and Brno, let alone anywhere else (forget about tracking it down in the UK). As always in Czechia, light lager is so much more than the thin, gloopy and over-crisp offerings Brits are used to. This beer is poured with a smooth thick head, giving you a correspondingly thicker, smoother drink, and one which is so easy to knock back it becomes virtually irresistible. They do the 12 degrees and the unfiltered equivalent. That’s all – and that’s all that’s required. Try escaping from a pub having had just one half-litre of Poutnik – I haven’t seen it happen yet.

And ‘Czech‘ out the prices (sorry, I had to do that once and I promise never to do so again) – unbelievable! 29 crowns for a half-litre, ie. a pound a pint in a city centre pub, without having to enter into a slum with a tap, or one of Czechia’s notoriously rough and occasionally dodgy ‘Nonstop’ Herna pubs that stay open 24 hours for gambling, chain smoking and putting back of gallons worth of budget lager in a haze of depression. This great value has not escaped the attention of everyone – the pub is name-checked in a 2010 article in The Guardian.

Fuck, we haven’t even sat down yet! Have a glance around the taproom first – there are usually some pub emblems, mascots and ornaments that give a place individuality, and U Poutnika is no different in that respect, but head into the backroom for the sit-down and a chat amongst Brno’s finest.

You’ll find a curved ceiling in the archetypal Czech pivnice style, bench seating around the perimeter and plenty of communal tables, with a yellow ceiling telling tales of the millions of cigarettes smoked in the room and a palpable sense of history reverberating through the echoes and murmurations of friendly conversation going on around you.

Once seated, the server will be round to hand out a slip, and mark your slip for every beer you consume. He works pretty hard considering the almost constant demand for fresh beers – it is no cushy job, and you can tell that by the thickness of forearm and glistening forehead. The drinking goes on between 2pm and midnight – a relatively late closing time in a country with a more conservative attitude in that regard.

As with a lot of the best pubs, the come-one-come-all inclusivity here is what makes it – you can rub shoulders with students, architects, petty philosophers, borderline-vagrants, politicians, quiet pensioners, who may sit there silent for an hour before a conversation topic sparks them into life. Idle chit chat, card games, passionate political discussions, bitter feuds over sporting rivalries, it’s all to be had in places like this where everyone no matter how low or lofty is allowed to express themselves and be at one with each other.

It’s the kind of pub you would make your local minutes after moving into town.

Strefa Piwa, Kraków

Józefa 6, 31-056 Kraków, Poland
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –10/10
  • Style and Decor – 7/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Any new bar venture in Kraków’s old Jewish quarter Kazimierz (unarguably the coolest district for nightlife in Poland) needs to work hard to wrench people away from the dozen other exceptional bar options in the vicinity. My first visit to Strefa Piwa in 2015 was enjoyable, but the venue was young looking with that fresh wood-shavings smell still lingering in the air, yet to develop character either as a place or with its own crowd. In just a short space of time, that has now changed.

Strefa Piwa translates to ‘Beer Zone’, a rather generic name if there ever was one, so I stick with the lingua franca when referring to it. The pub itself is quite small – a narrow room with a curved ceiling in the style of a Czech pivnice decorated with a rather striking chart painted across the expanse of the walls, linking a hundred beer styles with their parent families. This decoration gives a clear indication about their raison d’etre -it’s heavily beer orientated, which is of course a good start with any bar. I quite like the fact the interior is a nice cross between a simple cosy drinking den with some of the architectural features of a beer hall. It’s not a specific reason to visit, but adds to the genius loci. The mirror to the left hand side of the bar always suggests there’s a second room, but trust me, there isn’t.

Two years ago a visit to Strefa Piwa would have been largely one to seek out a quality beer, what with the venue being in its infancy and  atmosphere still being a little quiet. I’m pleased to say since that visit Strefa Piwa has developed a core audience of locals who share the space with clutches of young travellers and backpackers. It’s a friendly, hustle and bustle type place in the evening that isn’t overly bothered about competing with the faded antiquey style bars down the road in terms of décor, isn’t going to drown out conversation with pumping music either and does well in providing a slightly different offering for the area.

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Because the décor is simple, it is the kind of pub that needs a throng of people to lend it vitality, but now it has that, Strefa Piwa serves up a great combination of incredibly high quality beer and a chatty, vibrant venue, that is also down-to-earth enough to avoid the pitfalls of some pretentious multi-tap beard-stroking craft venues out there (we’ve all been to them).

To compliment the nod towards Czech pubs in the design, there are a few high quality Czech ales (such as Kout na Sumavy) along with rotating craft Polish beer. The range is wide enough that you can find something great along a range of styles, with 7/8 tap options and a large bottle selection. As per usual the pricing, while a tad expensive by Polish standards is among the cheapest for craft ale you are likely to find around Europe. They have also opened a beer shop next door, which qualifies as one of the least surprising business moves going. Fine, of course, avail yourself of that if you feel the need, but we are more interested in the pub, right?

Strefa Piwa succeeds by offering something different to the majority of Kazimierz bars (although Omerta is quite similar). The pointedly different style to the ruined antique chic typifying the style in other Kazimierz bars seems to appeal to a local crowd who are more interested in drinking good stuff and socialising than ‘being seen’. You can pop in, sit down, calm down, and find a corner your mates and you can have a chat – that’s a key appeal of a pub, after all. The reviews online don’t lie – 4.6 stars on Google after 250 reviews is a phenomenal mean average considering it’s a simple pub, and that speaks of a widely friendly and likeable place, not just a hipster venue, and it’s not the first time the pub has caught the affectionate praise of a bar blogger , nor I suspect will it be the last.

Strefa works well as a stop off in between the bars around Plac Nowy in the centre of Kazimierz and the old town in Krakow, or just to drop by in and of itself for a casual pint. It’s a strong option that’s improving every year.

Like many pubs courting a young crowd they must be careful to make plans for when the place is no longer flavour of the month. For now they’re safe, but it wouldn’t hurt them to introduce a few community events, or consider a small extension to create more space.

If you lived anywhere near Kazimierz, Strefa would be right up the list for a stop-off, very much your home away from home public house, as it were. It’s just a pity only Cracovians get to enjoy the pleasure more regularly, the jammy bastards. Even though Strefa is up against stiff competition, jot this one down in your notebook! You won’t regret it.

 

Papa Joe’s Biersalon, Cologne.

back to Germany

Alter Markt 50-52, 50667 Köln, Germany

**Important: PLEASE NOTE THAT PAPA JOE’S BIERSALON & PAPA JOE’S JAZZLOKAL ARE 2 DIFFERENT PLACES IN COLOGNE**

  • 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 –  9/10

Some forms of pub going occur entirely outside of the confines of English culture, and one of these is to be found in Cologne, where Papa Joe’s Biersalon has become a local favourite.

The traditional of socialising and even group singing alongside strangers is much more common in Germany, and during the height of the evening, the singalongs in Papa Joe’s constitute a proto-form of kareoke, except instead of one person singing, most of the pub joins in.

To make matters weirder, the songs are ‘performed’ hourly by a mechanical marionette by the bar, the range of tunes being a remorseless cast list of traditional German favourites with the typical organ, harpsichord and accordion ensemble. You’ll be gawping at first, through the sheer  eccentricity of a setup that by now locals know like the back of their hand.

Sitting among the crowd, even if you aren’t joining in the singing (there is no obligation to) is to take in a heady experience of local life, a sample of German national expression even, if you want to take it further. The venue itself adds to all of this; is traditional in style but theatrical in shape with raised seating around the perimeter of the ‘pit’ area in front of the bar, and a corner stage to boot. With the bar’s history, it isn’t surprising the place is adorned with jazz instruments hanging from the beams and snippets of musical ephemera plastered to the walls. There’s plenty to look at.

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Drinks are best procured from the bar area as table service can be a little slow at peak times. The local beer Gaffel Kolsch is on tap and delicious, at a standard price for the city centre, and while that ought to do you just fine, there are some decent other options these days too (if you fancy a hefeweizen for example).

The traditional seating and cosy interior is about the only aspect of the experience I can think of that was akin to English pub going. Everything else was rather quaint, quirky and shameless in its kitsch ‘old-time’ quality. Expect to see a huddle of young folk bombastically belting out the standards by the bar, while the middle aged folk sit further back, rocking their heads and crooning along.

If it’s not the mechanical instruments it’s live jazz music, bawdy poetry recitals and all other sorts of 1920s-era throwbacks to keep everyone entertained. Concerts are free and it’s always busy. Unsurprisingly, given its location in the heart of Cologne (you could run there from the front door of the Dom in a minute flat) Papa Joe’s has become an institution, creating an atmosphere you can’t just bottle or duplicate at will.

If you’re a little anxious about forced jollity I can certainly understand a degree of reticence, but you have to be there to understand. Even if you’re still wary, you’ll be pleased to note there is some respite in-between the shows, and you can hang out perfectly as you would elsewhere, just in a lovely and lively pub.

After visiting in 2007 I kept a grainy video on my phone of our time there, and over the next few years, generally spent penniless and occasionally depressed, I would occasionally pop that video on and remind myself of the good times spent in here to cheer me up. That phone and video has now gone, but the memory lives on strongly.

Since then I returned in 2018 and 2019 to find that, thankfully, hardly anything had changed.

It’s an essential place to drop by in Cologne, particularly as some of the brauhauses can tend to melt into one after a while. Papa Joe’s it offers something utterly different, strange, and yet pitted in the local tradition. Throw down a far jars of Gaffel Kolsch, gawp at the spectacle in front of you, and hey, even join in if you dare. After the festivities head around the corner to a kebab shop for a Turkisch pizza (making care to consume it before the alcohol wears off). Welcome to Cologne! In fact – welcome to Germany! This is the kind of pub you can justify a plane ticket for all on its own.

Gostilna Pri Planincu, Bled

back to Slovenia

gostilnapriplanincu

Grajska cesta 8, 4260 Bled, Slovenia

The offerings and special experience of the Slovenian ‘Gostilna’ have in recent years become the subject of sentimental revival in the country, partly due to a period of national reflection, but also in acknowledgement of their slow and gradual disappearance as international restaurants took their place and globalisation promoted chains over independent character. As a response the Slovenian government, with the aid of the EU have now trademarked the ‘Gostilna Slovenija’ in their ongoing attempt to promote and rationalise what is an important and distinct offering in an otherwise dinky and Slavic-influenced country.

The Gostilna is the nearest place you can think of to an English country inn, a large but very homely venue, predominantly serving food but also offering rustic pub-like elements that invite a longer stay or an evening visit purely for a pint or two. Originally these began through landlords inviting guests around to taste their local food and wine. In the countryside these venues offer a home away from home, roaring fires, hearty food and shelter from harsh weather. In addition to that Slovenia takes a break from the usual sullen Slavic service and in a Gostilna you can expect to be treated like a host treats a guest at their house.

As a small town in the foothills of the Julian Alps, Bled is well placed to offer a good Gostilna, and there are a few worthy venues in town. The greatest of all is Gostilna Pri Planincu, both a cracking country restaurant of true history (continually serving since 1903)  authenticity, and a to all intents a characterful local pub.

The service was efficient, ruthlessly polite and cheerful, and the food arrived in suitably mountainous portions, after a reassuringly lengthy wait. Our whole table were in approval at the flavour of the food and the way it seemed to tower over us at our seats. The dining occurs in evocative country surroundings that feel real, aged with time and use rather than kitsch and plastic. Little oddities such as the stuffed witch character hanging from the ceiling are precisely the sort of oddity you wouldn’t find in a chain or modern bar (perhaps a very affectatious one).

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Slovenia’s own beer options are still limited at the time of writing but Lasko Zlatorog is a bearable lager for the first pint, so long as you get it on tap, and you may find some Austrian and German offerings if that doesn’t float your boat. There are Primator parasols in the beer garden of late, so if they’ve brought along Primator for the ride, that will increase the rating above it’s current level.

The pub area is saloon bar style, typically countrified and has an obsession with car registration plates and bike ephemera that cover more of the walls and ceilings than you’d first expect. There is also a showpiece ceramic heater giving central heating of the kind you usually see in high medieval mansions which takes up a quarter of the room itself.

On a trip out into the countryside it would be difficult to create a venue more desirable to visit than this excellent Gostilna. A hike in the beautiful surroundings of Bled followed by a portion of hearty home cooking in a wonderful welcoming pub. The only improvements I can think of would be longer opening hours for the bar area and a physical extension to it, which would elevate the place to a 10/10. As it is, the place is well worth your while.

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