20. Fagans – Sheffield, UK – 9.2/10
Sheffield is one of the spotlight cities for our 2019 Top 100 Bars, and we’re delighted to share with you our favourite pub from an abnormally strong set of competition. As our recent feature, Sheffield: Pub City highlighted, there are no shortage of options for those seeking traditional pubs with a genuine community atmosphere and fair value for money in this city.
While many of these other pubs go searching for CAMRA Awards to sweep up the crowd of beer monster day-drinkers, Fagans is for the local, and its appeal is more about the experience than what’s for sale.
The preserved officers-mess look of the central bar area with dark varnished wood, deep green upholstered bench seats and paintings of military aircraft is characterful, and hails to the original owner Joe Fagan who ran the place for nearly 40 years. Little on the outside has changed since, save for an enormous mural, and the awning now emblazoned with the fizzog of the new landlord Tom.
A sleepy refuge in the afternoon, the pace gradually picks up from dinner time onwards. Predictably, Fagans has an excellent ‘snug’, accessible via a door to your right in the main entrance way. This can be a fun, clandestine hidey hole for more intimate social gatherings.
A family operation for decades, Tom & Barbara will always provide a warm welcome to anyone civil and respectful, while their sizeable portions of food (spy Tom hunched over the kitchen stove from across the bar) will set you up for the weekend, let alone the evening. This kind of place can’t be created from scratch and wouldn’t last even if it was, which makes it all the more special and vital the place receives your support and careful preservation.
If you are fortunate enough to visit during their folk evenings (which take place in the parlour area) you will experience the sort of down-to-earth community event that has been drained and virtually expunged from British city centres. Use it or lose it.
19. De Pilsener Club * – Amsterdam, Netherlands – 9.2/10
Brown cafés warrant the name because of their shared characteristics, but the term is best served as a general guide only, as 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. Then there are working class venues with a simple format: rickety furniture, dusty floors, yellowed walls and good booze.
The rather plainly-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 cafés dating back to 1893 and belongs to the latter category.
There is a no-bullshit attitude to the entire arrangement: it’s brown alright, Oh Yes. from the walls to the tables and chairs, and floor has the typically careworn spit-and-sawdust look to it. The joint probably has gets cleaned daily but it’s been around so long it has received stains and wear that can’t just be scrubbed off. Characterful, basically.
A notable quirk is that there is no bar at all here – 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.
Drinking pilsener isn’t half of the point of being here. The purpose of your visit is to drink some high quality, and invariably strong Belgian and Dutch ale in these lovely surroundings. Trappiste, Abbey, Lambics, micro-brewery stuff. They have it. These are proudly displayed above the head of the bar, meaning you only need to glance from the comfort of your seat to inform yourself of your next choice. 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 that give this pub a nice community feel, possibly because tourism hasn’t vanquished its appeal to locals. You’ll find 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 the melange, the intoxicating end effect being that you really wouldn’t rather be anywhere else. And that’s great because this place 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, as we highlighted in our recent feature, Amsterdam: Brown Cafés & Jenever Houses, De Pilsener Club eschews all gimmickry, sell-out concessions, and, if you excuse the waiter’s rather formal attire, modernisation of any kind. You must admire a venue which understands what it is, in this case a thoroughly likeable, characterful place for a drink and a good time.
18. Papa Joe’s Biersalon * – Cologne, Germany – 9.3/10
Editor’s Note: Please do not confuse this venue with the nearby Papa Joe’s Jazzlokal, which is reviewed separately.
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 not only a local favourite but the definition of the term institution.
The traditional of socialising and even group singing alongside strangers has been preserved far better in Germany than in the UK, and during the height of the evening, the singalongs in Papa Joe’s constitute a proto-form of karaoke, 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.
Drinks are best procured from the bar area as table service can be a little slow at peak times. The local beer Gaffel Kölsch 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 is 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 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 truly appreciate the atmosphere. 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 memories live on strongly.
Then, we 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 Kölsch 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, 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.
17. U Kudeje * – Olomouc, Czechia – 9.5/10
Evenings in Olomouc are a tough time to get seated. Wherever you turn, each hostinec, hospoda, pajzl, minipivovar or výčep seems to be full – no exception when it comes to U Kuděje. Frustrating though that is, there is all justification to persevere as you are searching for a drink in one of the best pubs in the city, if not in the whole country.
At first appearances Hospůdka U Kuděje may seem unremarkable. A Czech pub in a half-step basement of a very Czech city building? – seen plenty of those before. Wooden furniture from the Austria-Hungary era, with traditional ruralist décor? A well-trodden choice too, but the true quality of U Kuděje is the combination of a number of smaller things contributing to a greater whole, known as genius loci, the spirit of a place. Which we will now come to.
U Kuděje is not based slap bang in the centre (it would probably lose a fraction of its charm if it were) but a short walk west on the fringes between Olomouc’s old town and a residential neighbourhood west of Čechovy sady.
U Kuděje is named after the writer Zdenek Kuděj, the closest and perhaps long-suffering friend of Jaroslav Hašek, who were both part of an anarchist/bohemian literary scene in the early 20th century, so the naming is a fitting tribute to someone who spent huge amounts of time in pubs. You will find theirs and others’ works available to read (in Czech, of course) within the pub. Here is a short explanation of the pub and connection to the writer: http://www.memorialmatejekudeje.cz/?cat=14
Drop down a short set of stairs outside to the basement level and enter, where the bar area greets you immediately, with a list of beers attached above the bar. The place feels warm and bunker-like and you will almost certainly find people sat at stools around the bar, and a cast of regulars sat on tables to your right. To your left is a small lounge area with people deep in conversation and set into the ritual of the place itself.
The pub has the atmosphere you’d expect from a neighbourhood dive and you’ll quickly notice from the interactions there are folk sat around who know each other well. This in my opinion is the core of the pub’s appeal, the warmth and simplicity of a social scene that people invariably seek out when given the choice.
A busy pub full of locals can be intimidating at first, and if you can’t see anywhere to sit you may be forced to hang at the bar (also awkward if there is no leaning room). Take a full look into the pub and if there is a spare seat ask “je tu volny”, and hopefully someone will yield. If you arrive as a group in the evening without a reservation, then all I can say is: Good luck. Yep, unfortunately Czechia does not do first-come-first served in pubs and will reserve tables for loyal locals at the expense of fly-by-night tourists and turf you out of your seat when the time comes. Imagine a level of exclusivity no amount of money can break through – you’re picturing a small Czech pub at the height of its popularity.
U Kuděje’s big thing – atmosphere aside – is a focus on regional Czech beer, which is very good news for any fans of unfiltered and/or unpasteurised lagers (me). Offering 5 or so on tap at any one time, this is a sensible number that helps ensure freshness, and a little rotation for new and recurring brands. The beers are also served on porcelain plates built with recesses to collect spillage – this is very old fashioned but seems to be making a comeback of late in Franconia and Bohemia.
They may try to suggest that these beers are good for your health but quite frankly, who cares? If it makes you feel better then yes, yeast can in theory help repopulate your stomach with good bacteria. However if you need it repopulating because of an excess of beer the previous night then that rather negates the point, doesn’t it? Prices are reasonable, perhaps on the high side for Olomouc, which isn’t a problem given Olomouc is an extremely affordable city.
The pub snacks at U Kuděje are typical for Czech pubs – expect the usual ham, pickles, bread but keep a look out for Moravian cheese if that’s your thing, as that’s quite the regional speciality.
Lastly, take a look at the opening hours – few places open later on a Saturday than they do during the week, but U Kuděje is one of them This place is does a short 5 hours service on weekends, and opens at 3 during the week. This makes it doubly difficult to try and get into.
Although U Kuděje may be a tough nut to crack as an outsider, I personally couldn’t think of too many pubs on my travels I’d prefer to make the effort to ingratiate myself in. You’ll find the true atmosphere and camaraderie of a mixed crowd partaking in a time-honoured tradition, rate authenticity, not to mention enjoying some of the freshest, well-kept and well-poured lager available.
16. Alchemia – Kraków, Poland – 9.5/10
The Jewish Quarter in Kraków, Kazimierz has one of the most densely concentrated and highest quality offerings of quirky, alternative and atmospheric pubs and bars in the whole of Europe. The choice for a pub crawl is bountiful and very difficult to cover every bar of merit in one trip. We attempted to rise to the challenge here, in our recent Days Out feature.
Plac Nowy is Kazimierz’s beating heart, and on a warm summer night there are seemingly no real joins between the limits of Alchemia and the square itself, with groups congregating, milling about, enjoying a drink and making use of the zapiekankie stalls to fill up on stodge. The buzz of the social scene, sometimes even extends to street music as the usually well-marked boundaries of pub going are ripped up.
The al fresco socialising isn’t what this place is all about though though, that aspect is merely a happy consequence of its popularity and position. The pub itself is superb, while the privacy and intimacy in certain nooks and crannies is almost a contradiction from the vibrancy on the street.
You couldn’t visit a more archetypal antique themed bar. Tables and chairs are set to candle light while vintage furniture is spread across the rooms. The rabbit hole feel is continued even further by having to climb through a wardrobe into side rooms.
The colours are red, velvet and the woozy glow of candlelight. The bar is usually busy enough that most seats are taken but not so busy that you can’t swoop on a vacant table a few minutes later, and spend an hour or two luxuriating in the faded cracked grandeur and the collective feel that seems to permeate through the venue that this is the place to be.
The bar serves tank Tyskie for pennies and the range of Książęce beers which are a small step up, especially the wheat beer. At the time of writing the Polish craft beer scene hasn’t yet arrived in Alchemia, despite the new bar Nowy Kraftowy being literally only a few doors down.
Alchemia may be somewhat of an institution, and I expect some locals may feel it is passé – it certainly is popular with tourists – but there is no denying its intrinsic quality and the essential journey you must make to Alchemia upon your visit to Kraków.
15. Grogan’s – Dublin, Republic of Ireland – 9.5/10
Grogan’s mission? ‘A warm and friendly atmosphere that you would expect from your local, but with the lively buzz and intensity of an authentic Dublin city pub.’
The warmth doesn’t only come from the central heating; the cosiness of the lounge comes from its lived-in familiar feel which belies its status as one of the most popular haunts in Dublin.
This is a truly democratic pub where people of all walks of life can meet as strangers and leave as friends. Part of this is to do with the limited seating which encourages people to gather round any available table going. Once the drink starts flowing conversation naturally spills over. Most have a “remember that night at Grogan’s?” anecdote.
The pub character is achieved by a combination of preserved fixtures such as the stained glass, its old fashioned partitioned wall and exhibition of local artwork, which is a loyal nod to its history as a hangout for writers and painters since the 1970s.
Grogan’s is the kind of place that doesn’t need music, TV, or any other nonsense to try and pump in atmosphere artificially, this happens as a natural consequence of what it already offers. Much as wild yeast strains in the air make a Lambic beer, there is something in intangible about this place which renders fripperies redundant.
The pub operation in the evenings is extremely slick, as it must be, with the staff dressed in old-fashioned smart shirt and trousers attire, a format you’ll see a lot in Dublin if you stick to the right places. Considering the stresses of a busy evening shift, service is surprisingly courteous too.
If you ask around, you’ll find one or two naysayers who will try to persuade you its time has gone, but we must say – you wouldn’t know it from experiencing it. Perhaps some locals aren’t happy sharing space with a typical mixed crowd – the kind you get in most Western European cities – but plenty still are.
14. Goupil Le Fol – Brussels, Belgium – 9.5/10
There are so many extraordinarily good bars in Brussels that you could spend many visits revisiting them and exhausting them. A lot of these bars are visible, centrally located and on the tourist trail, and – with only a few exceptions – serve extraordinary selections of gorgeous Belgian ale.
It took us 4 visits to the capital before we found this bar, but the first time was enough to propel it to the up the charts and each subsequent visit has reinforced our decision.
Goupil Le Fol is situated very close to the Grand Platz, just not on one of the major tourist thoroughfares and it doesn’t have as much footfall. The bar does not look extravagant in any way from the outside, and I got the impression before visiting that this remains a bar for locals as much as tourists.
Opening the door instantly feels like the entering of a bunker or tunnel, long windowless with a low-slung ceiling, studded with adornments – and don’t take that lightly, we mean fixed on any spare surface going.
There is a double act at the bar which you will arrive at immediately as you walk in. This duo who are the kind who like both trying to do one job at the same time. With no menu and no beers visible behind them you have to ask for their selection, which provokes a sigh (maybe pin up a menu then?) and a quickly reeled off list of 7-8 well-chosen bottles.
You then begin the walk along the passage, deeper and deeper into the bowels of the bar, past an original Wurlitzer jukebox and into the surroundings of jazz and memorabilia from the 50s through to the 70s. Carry on further, until finding upholstered bench seating in a very cosy, slightly wider room. There are entire books nailed to the wall and vinyl records on the ceiling. This is where we sit. There is an upstairs which is pleasant, but this part of the bar is its core.
The crowd are a typically Belgian blend multicultural, largely post-grads, all of which sit together in an extraordinarily atmospheric environment. The beer is working its magic and the coloured lights in the bar are glimmering off the records and any other surface with shine on it. There is much to look at and talk about in true comfort, exchanging glances across the other side of the room, everyone happy and resolved they have made the correct choice of venue for the evening.
13. Café De Doktor – Amsterdam, Netherlands – 9.5/10
A combination of size and notoriety makes this fantastic central Amsterdam bar a difficult one to grab a spot in. Good luck and ruthlessness is required in order to be seated, while most will find they are left standing. Once (or rather if) you’ve claimed your prize, do yourself a favour and bed in for the afternoon or evening (4 PM-onwards, Wednesday-Saturday), because you may not get the chance again.
Perhaps one factor stopping this place becoming unbearable or subject to queues around the block is its location next to the begijnhof front, a row of distracting bright white almshouses which appear to be almost leaning over you to check your bald patch, next to which De Doktor, snuck towards a little alley, is so narrow and unassuming it’s hiding in plain sight – you could walk straight past it without the aid of a map.
Measuring 18 square metres inside, there’s just enough room for a long bar and stools, a ledge opposite and a couple of tables at either end of the bar. Even the toilets are at the top of a bespoke spiral staircase with barely enough space for a landing at the top. At busy times reaching those stairs involves a great deal more intimacy with strangers than you’d bargained for. It really is that small.
Intimacy is really De Doktor’s big thing, so while my description above may seem claustrophobic and stifling, the thought of annoying tourists choking out an old pub, in fact De Doktor is in all ways embracing and intoxicating, from the booze, whether it’s whiskey, cocktails, jenever or beer, the deep, dark seductive and ancient décor and the music, meaning the place itself is what leaves the deeper impression.
As with so many brown cafés, De Doktor has a long standing connection with jazz and the ephemera of the accompanying era. The master of the house can often be seen swiveling around to change the vinyl records in between serving drinks. An elderly, stocky chap, he maintains an unruffled exterior and is a friendly, attentive sort who will not be rushed but neither neglects any of his work – it’s a proud operation. He is an essential cog in the machine, and he quite rightly deserves a degree of latitude as there’s no-one else to help him. So don’t scream over people, be patient: catch his eye and he will pop over to take your order.
Many brown cafés are uncluttered and let the wood take over, but this place, being jazzy and eclectic, adorns walls and ceilings in memorabilia and antiquery, most of which are covered in dust and cobwebs, probably because one false move with a feather duster could cause the whole edifice to come crashing down.
As online reviews suggest, not many people who have managed to seize a spot at De Doktor come away dissatisfied. The only slight drawback, which is probably more of a weakness of ours rather than the venue itself, was because the pub was so busy and people were desperate for a seat, we feel rather smug and selfish leaning back in our eats and bedding in for the evening. A vague sense of time pressure – self-imposed of course! – doesn’t add to the experience, but many of you reading this won’t have such qualms, I’m sure.
Social hangups aside, De Doktor can’t be recommended highly enough. A magnificent rare experience rich in history and colour and massively enjoyable, a reason to visit even a sprawling multi-faceted city like Amsterdam all on its own. Try your best to get there and get a seat.
12. Schlenkerla * – Bamberg, Germany – 9.5/10
Schlenkerla are a big international brand and export their strange smokey brew ‘rauchbier’ across the world. Bamberg’s tradition for beer brewing is well known about in Germany with nine active breweries in the centre itself, all of which existed long before this decade’s revival of small scale brewing. You might expect Schlenkerla’s brewery tap to be along the lines of many other German breweries: a vast beer hall serving high volumes to the masses. After all, the place certainly fulfils one of Bamberg’s central tourist functions.
It comes as a very pleasant surprise then to visit Schlenkerla and find a small-to-medium sized pub, connected to a cloistered medieval banqueting hall, which while impressive to look at, isn’t unpleasantly enormous either.
In comparison to many other breweries who go in for a far more business-like approach to style and service, hard to hate but at the same time difficult to love, at Schlenkerla the preservation of the tradition, and a determined low-key approach (by big brewery standards) seems to be the modus operandi. For whatever reason, outside of the peak weeks of summer, maintaining this normal scale pub seems to meet demand and work just fine.
There is a luxury to be had bathing in stereotypes from time to time, and so dive into the unabashed gothic agricultural charms of Schlenkerla, so distinct and powerful you can feel its expression of the traditional Germanic identity, (the Middle Ages in particular!)
The exterior of the pub is a beautiful traditional fachwerk house (as could be expected) with the classic Schlenkerla motif on the lantern outside, the name loosely translating to ‘limping man’ (though I believe the direct translation is slightly less politically correct). The location of the pub could hardly be more central, almost at the epicentre of operations in Bamberg’s Altstadt and just a short walk from the city’s absurd and brilliant Altes Rathaus perched halfway across a bridge over a fast-flowing river.
Turn left as you enter the pub to find the Ausschenk (effectively the area geared for drinking over dining), and notice the Schlenkerla beer served gravity pulled direct from the barrel at the bar. The interior is black beamed, previously having been washed in ox blood (presumably for some superstitious reasons). Bamberg was one of the centres of witch trials in the middle ages and, similar to a few corners of Germany, does enjoy trading on its gruesome history. The room itself feels like it has transported you hundreds of years ago save perhaps for certain added sounds and smells.
The pub room offers communal seating, and was so appealing to dive into on a winter’s day. Find any space going and place yourself there – perhaps be polite to ask first, but it’s unlikely anyone will decline – it is the done thing. The serving wench (I do use that term advisedly) is stodgy and middle aged, which suits the place perfectly, being after all, a stout and venerable operation. With her level of dour scrutiny over proceedings, your beer will arrive in short order and be replaced just as swiftly when you’ve finished drinking. Keep the bar mat handy as she will be keeping tabs via pencil marks and you’ll settle up at the end.
Schlenkerla’s rauchbier overwhelms your mouth at first with smoke and bacon flavour, but once it has laid the flavour there, that recedes to the background, or at least becomes the ‘medium’ if you like. From there, drinking the rauchbier becomes milder, with their Marzen being similar to a sweetish nut brown ale, with that background smoke and a refreshing hoppy finish to boot. Similar to trying your first pint of Guinness or other stout, once you overcome the initially unusual flavour there is a fantastic drink to be had, one you can put away volumes of in one sitting. The guy we sat next to assured me it takes three full pints before you appreciate the virtues of a rauchbier. Personally, we were sold three quarters of the way through our first. And check out the value as well! Germany has generally offered a large beer for 3 euros 50 cents for a while now, but in Schlenkerla it’s well under that for a glass, meaning you can have a whole session in here without worrying about rapidly draining your funds. Good value is hardly a common feature of any sizeable brewery tap I’ve been to, so here’s another feather to its bow.
The pub room is really cosy and friendly, with many traditional pub staples, including a serving hatch with a stained glass window, a ceramic heater (the kind that resemble medieval Daleks) and a door leading to a courtyard of high medieval appearance where one can get fresh air and nosy around at the general environment at this terrific venue. At the time of my visit it was even snowing in the courtyard heightening the atmosphere further.
Diving back inside we spent a good few hours alongside a Brazilian family who were being introduced to Bamberg by their daughter’s husband. Even though this author was suffering from a bad sore throat this exchange still counted as one of the highlights of the stay. You know there will be little stories and vignettes shared every day by people who bumped into some stranger or other in Schlenkerla and for a brief moment in their lives because well-acquainted. Such socialising cuts to the heart of a pub’s function.
On another stay we arrived to find the place quiet, barely ticking over except for a cast of pub regulars – stamgasts – one of whom was stood on a chair trying to retrieve his personal steinkrug from a high cabinet. This down-to-earth neighbourly charm is so surprising to find in the brewery tap of such a big brand.
Although they serve food in the pub area, the best place to be for that sort of thing is their banqueting hall through the other side of the building. The styling inches even further towards medievalism without going over the top as with some themed-restaurants. Schlenkerla serve food built to withstand the power of a smoked beer, and the offerings are intensely flavoured, stodgy and agricultural. The Bamberger sausage is charred black, comes on a spartan metal plate and will make your breath stink for weeks. It’s delicious. The Bamberg Zwiebel is a giant onion stuffed with mince. You’re probably getting the idea. You can even push the boat out and order Schlenkerla’s doppelbock beer. The combination of a complex strong beer and smoked effect on top pushes the boundaries of what a tongue can cope with, and it’s a specialist kind of brew which some people love beyond rational measure.
As a pub we would recommend this all day long – it is one of the finest drinking spots we’ve ever been to. It sucks that we only get to visit once every year or two. In many ways Schlenkerla sums up what pub going is all about and takes several of those aspects to the very highest level of enjoyment. Stunning. The toilets could smell better, mind.
11. Roncsbár * – Debrecen, Hungary – 9.5/10
While ruin bars may be synonymous with Budapest, other cities in Hungary quickly taken inspiration from the design and ethos – it was inevitable they would create their own version. Gázfröccs in Sopron and Csillag EzPresszó in Győr both prove that the bar has been raised. Roncsbár in Hungary’s 2nd city Debrecen, is the most convincing example yet that it’s worth leaving Hungary’s megacity to explore the nightlife in the provinces.
While I love an old Hungarian kocsma, such as the now sadly closed Wichmann’s in Budapest, it must be said the standards of décor, atmosphere and amenities in Hungarian pubs have shot up dramatically since Szimpla et al arrived on the scene. Roncsbár (Roncs, meaning Wreck) is a provincial attempt, but has swiftly showed the world that it is up to the task.
Established 2013, Roncs is both a cosy pub, a concert hall, a garden terrace and a arty street food courtyard, delivering the alluring appeal we love about ruin bars: a combination of rooms to explore as well as cosy areas to congregate. Unlike unsuccessful attempts to export these to the West, it doesn’t feel the least bit corporate, even when you add bouncers and plastic cups (we’ll get to that in a minute).
There is no shortage of ways to spend your evening here, whether that be for a quiet drink, for food, for music and partying, or games. What’s better, the bar is designed in such a way that it never feels like those people are clashing with each other.
While not as enormous as the likes of the Fogas Ház ‘party complex’ or the ruined mansion of Szimpla, there is a fair expanse of space, and just like those it’s exciting to walk through it all for the first time.
Entering via the front door of the pub, you could be fooled for thinking that’s all there is. It is very pleasant – nothing negative to report – the area is focused on drinks and socialising rather than food – fine by me. You’ll find exposed brick and slightly ramshackle wooden tables. The ceiling appears to be studded with cymbals from drum kits (or was I wrong?). There’s a lively atmosphere and if that was it, just that room alone, then Roncsbár would still probably warrant inclusion on our website as an 8/10 rated venue.
But after you’ve taken in the indoors, have a wander around and look for a side door – this will take you into the entrance way for the ruin-pub aspect proper. The design suddenly explodes into an eclectic whirlwind of bric-a-brac and, if you pay attention, some finely-crafted artwork. The cherry on top of the cake is, in this case, a wrecked (get it?!) aeroplane which looks like it has been hung, interior contents an all, to the inside of the roof.
What’s better, is this is heated in the icy winter and well-ventilated, keeping the place comfortable at all times.
Carry on past the stalls to find a courtyard seating area which will appeal to anyone wanting to watch some sport (big screen, of course) and a terrace garden area – closed on my visit due to the snowy weather – but definitely a further area to spread out in spring and summer. Barbecue? Yes please.
Drinks are about on standard with most Hungarian bars, however their website boasts they have their own-label beer from Rendelkezik (Reindeer?) which I must admit I didn’t see. It’s still possible to get a standard lager for a fair price and nothing here, be it beer, wine or spirits will offend most local or foreign wallets. If you’re outside you will be made to drink it in a plastic cup – disappointing – though on the upside no-one has to worry about broken glass.
Service can be a bit rushed and impersonal in that way all popular places end up being, but that isn’t a reason to mark this place down either.
Unlike Budapest, there really is only one place like this in Debrecen (Editor’s Note: Debrecen has a very lively, albeit dispersed nightlife and we found several pubs of a very different style that are also worth visiting! See HERE) certainly making it stand out. There will always be one or two people of a contrary or conservative nature who take a dislike to these bars. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, but Roncsbár comes pretty damn close.
I love being able to dip in and out of events that are happening, be able to get some fresh air, or have a sit down, and still be in the same place, and still have something interesting to look at.
There are only a few bars that have earned a score this high, and so congratulations goes to Roncsbár. Long live the Wreck!
10. Le Pot Au Lait – Liège, Belgium – 9.5/10
We are big fans of bars that go beyond what’s expected. Le Pot Au Lait is one such place exploding with creativity and ambition.
Think of the fairytale fancy of El Bosc Des Les Fades, (which featured at number 92 in this list) blended with the atmospheric courtyard of a Hungarian ruin bar and rabbit hole curio Brussels impasse bar.
The decor is verdant, psychedelic, and at times macabre, taking major inspiration from the surrealist movement. It’s truly original, though quite alike Hundertwasserhaus in Vienna, you’ll need to watch your step as the floor in the courtyard is deliberately rendered uneven – not a helpful combination with drunkenness, to say the least!
You wouldn’t tell by looking, but the place is already 30 years old (allowing it to genuinely make a claim to be a trend-setter, not trend-follower) and was spawned from a series of previous cafés which it has built upon in its style and format.
The bar is located in the building itself, surrounded by tables in a central area, which successfully adds to the communal and friendly feel. Although a place like this naturally attracts youngsters, the crowd is genuinely mixed, with some middle class couples and people of various backgrounds also enjoying the environment out on the terrace.
Drinks are pretty reasonably priced considering all this – Liège is a working city rather than a tourist city, and it shows with the quality of drinks you can buy at a fair price. A nice selection too – while this is almost guaranteed in Belgium, the choices on tap are a little different and they have some seasonal rotations too.
As you might imagine, this all adds up to one hell of a terrific bar. The good thing being so detached from signs of the outside world (thematically and architecturally) is it works well as a venue to visit during the day, while becoming truly fantastic during the evenings. If you ask your mate if they fancy one in Le Pot, they’ll find it hard to turn down.
Better still, with closing times stretching until the early hours of the morning (except for relatively sedate midnight closing on Sundays), the experience can become a thoroughly consuming one. We’re delighted to squeeze Le Pot Au Lait into our Top 10!
9. Piwna Stopa – Poznań, Poland – 9.6/10
Some pubs give a clue to their quality just by the sounds you can hear from outside the door. The hubbub of lively conversation, laughter and friendly voices are an encouraging invitation to join in.
In the courtyard outside Piwna Stopa (Beer Foot), it isn’t immediately apparent what to expect, until you approach the door when the encouraging sounds from inside start to reach you.
Walking inside confirms your curiosity was well-founded, revealing a homely down to earth venue – a bar, but including elements which are like an English pub in style and feel. There is a real fire near the bar, the walls are plastered in old beer labels and bar mats, and there are lots of comfortable dark wooden furniture, bookshelves and board games, and a small TV mounted near the ceiling, a slight concession to sports fans perhaps? Yes, but also as likely, for the staff to watch TV during quiet times. As with all great pubs it feels like your second home.
Don’t worry about any excess of tourists either, outside of the rebuilt Rynek (market square) Poznań itself is not overly touristy, even in peak season. Piwna Stopa is located just far enough outside the old town, in a secluded spot, the pub popular because of word of mouth rather than aggressive advertising – that word of mouth exists because this pub is really, really damn good.
The reasons already stated would be enough on their own to mark Piwna Stopa as a venue of real merit, but pleasingly enough, there are other aspects which all contribute to its special feel. The staff are friendly, enthusiastic and helpful. Indeed one staff member noted our faces when we returned the following day despite being among hundreds to walk through their door those evenings. They were very welcoming and pleased to have us there, which is not strictly necessary, but is an extra credit to them.
With a name like ‘Beer Foot’ you wouldn’t be mistaken to think this was another pub wedded to Poland’s growing craft beer scene. The bar area manages to tread the fine line between the increasingly predictable and identikit ‘multi tap’ style and a more traditional pub. Beers are listed clearly enough on the blackboard by the bar, and were on frequent rotation. The emphasis was on strong flavourful beers both traditional and modern. Mainly Polish and mainly well-brewed, well-kept and well-poured. Although the Polish craft beer scene is a little derivative of US and English styles, they are certainly competing when it comes to the standards, and are responsible for the reason Grodziskie, a lovely Polish style, is no longer extinct. In the personal opinion of this author it would be nice to see and taste further resurrection of their own beer heritage, and good examples of beers from neighbouring countries (Germany and Czech Republic especially) rather than the millionth attempt at American Pale Ale.
In addition to the beer they also do some basic food, usually simple one-pot type cooking, the smells of which waft through the room and looked heart enough to help line your stomach for the drinking ahead. The prices in here are fair considering the higher strength and overheads associated with craft brewing, and in a wider sense, it must be conceded Poland offers some of the cheapest high quality craft beer you can buy in Europe. Piwna Stopa actively markets itself and put on events, to foster and maintain a community spirit, which on the evidence at my disposal has been very successful.
Just think how many mediocre pubs there are that miss the tricks Piwna Stopa seems to know intrinsically. It’s constantly frustrating that so few bars are managed with this level of energy and enthusiasm.
Whoever established this place clearly had ambitions to run a pub worthy of shouting about and I’m pleased to say their ambitions have been realised. It is a classic example of how to open and run a good pub, and if we lived in Poznań we would be found drinking in here several times a week. Unfortunately we don’t so we leave the pleasure of this place for your own exploration and that of the locals!
8. Café Vlissinghe * – Brugge, Belgium – 9.6/10
Every town deserves at least one historic place in which nothing ever seems to change. Being able to link aspects of our own lives to the past (as futile as that endeavour may seem at times) helps to provide our own existence with a sense of place and purpose, in the knowledge that we have retained and respected at least some things of value along the way, and by frequenting these places we contribute to their survival.
Café Vlissinghe takes this idea and extends it beyond all usual historical parameters, and the news gets better still – it’s a pub! Even in Brugge, a place not short of preserved architecture and institutions, it can reasonably claim to be one of the most evocative links to their past, the business traceable for centuries. Thankfully the current owners seem keen to preserve this for centuries to come – if the flood defences still work by then. Once you realise you’re onto a good thing you don’t easily let it go.
The earliest record of the pub dates back to 1515, extraordinary in and of itself and it claims to have been running continuously from then until the present. This earns Vlissinghe a place on the list of oldest companies in the world. The look of the place may be redolent of a late Medieval inn, however it appears some of the appearance was lovingly and coherently retrofitted in the mid-1800s (an era steeped in fascination and nostalgia for all things Medieval), with the installation of contemporaneous artworks and paintings and furniture that are consistent with the period. It’s all very brown, black, tarred, burnt caramel and crusty textures. Precisely the sort of thing you want with an old pub.
Vlissinghe is located mercifully outside of the main tourist drag, down a typical Brugge alley: cobbled street, whitewashed walls, ancient brickwork, stepped gable frontage and a bicycle propped up outside that’s so old you wonder whether it’s become an ornament (until a man in a flat cap emerges from the door, tucks his newspaper under his coat and rides off on it). It must be no more than 50 metres long, but the amble down the lane, with the pub entrance coming closer with your every stride has become somewhat of a ritual for us – just long enough to build a sense of anticipation for what’s to come…
Editor’s Note – Skip to 2 mins 30 for the main pub stuff!
Large gothic lettering is painted above the entrance, ‘Vlissinghe’, so dive straight in and turn left and head down a long corridor entrance with a series of side rooms. This may lead you to believe it is a large venue, but the pub itself is really just a central room, up a couple of steps at the end. You will note it is appointed with large, sturdy, venerable furniture, cushioned with studded leather upholstery, warped floorboards that creak underfoot, faded oil paintings hung on the wall which you have to swivel to and fro between the sheen of the lighting to properly discern, and an impressive and unusual centrepiece: a cast iron steam heater kicking out warmth into the room, most welcome on those days when the cold is piercing and the wind is rushing down the North Sea through the canals and arteries off Zeebrugge.
There is a pub dog, for good measure who is unobtrusive and content with its existence, pottering around, sniffing and having naps.
The main room overlooks a garden and terrace area used as a bowling green in the summer and has outhouse toilets, which gives the place a friendly and ad hoc feel. These toilets are modern, which we will concede is one part of a pub which we don’t mind keeping up with the times (though, rather incongruously, Vlissinghe also ‘has’ an APP!)
The kitchen is in an adjoining building and focuses on winter fuel – soups, toasties, meat and cheese platters, miscellaneous bar snacks, which are all done Belgian-style, reliably homespun, the purpose being to warm you up and soak up the drinking. Service is friendly (occasionally disorganised and a little slow, which comes with the territory) and the prices are par for the course, with a few cheaper options available.
Nevertheless, there are other things going on here than a pocket sized ethnographic museum, Café Vlissinghe stocks a local beer, the delicious tripel Fort Lapin brewed in a garage five minutes up the road by a new brewer. As this is part-fermented in the bottle and unfiltered, as you pour in the last part of the bottle you will note the colour change from bright amber to a cloudy, yeasty colour! Even with this beer choice, you get the sense of sentimentality and heritage at wanting to promote a city project, even with the hundreds of other Belgian beers they could have chosen to sell. The total range of beers available is modest (most Belgian cafés feel obliged to offer at least 60 bottles and 8-10 taps these days, which does showcase their extraordinary brewing very well, but is often unnecessary) but it is well chosen, with at least one of each main style, and with local options.
The main appeal of frequenting Vlissinghe is the sheer sense of relaxation. Whether it is 11.30 in the morning or last thing at night, we doubt anything about the feel of the pub changes hugely. Hunker down for an afternoon of supremely enjoyable beer drinking, hearty soups and toast, or head down in the evening and sit amongst the throng, frozen- in-time but warmed through with merriment and the satisfaction of your own quiet contribution to keeping the whole thing going. Cheers!
7. U Černého vola * – Prague, Czechia – 9.7/10
A gem of a pub, U Černého vola (the Black Ox) is a place you could walk past a hundred times without knowing it was there. Granted, you’d have to be a bit stupid and/or not like drinking beer at all, but that count runs into the billions. This wonderful boozer shares streets with typically touristy, overpriced restaurants and souvenir shops due to its proximity to Prague’s castle and cathedral. You can watch the changing of the guard by the gates and ten minutes later have a cheap tasty beer sat in front of you in the space of ten minutes, away from selfie-sticks and among locals. You’d hardly believe it, but it’s true.
Enter through plain brown doors (albeit with a rather impressive facade above the doorway, if you stop to look at it) to find immediate refuge from the hustle and bustle of the crowds outside. It’s a very unprepossessing entrance area that looks a bit more like the front of a mechanic’s garage or driveway than a pub. It’s almost as though they’re actively trying to keep the crowds at arms length.
In terms of the décor, there are some attractive stained glass windows which temper the light to an almost constant ‘early evening’ type feel. You’ll note medieval insignia painted above the dark wooden bench seats, otherwise it’s the typical curved Czech pivnice/hospudka type ceiling with walls stained yellow from smoke. There is a rather kitsch bulls head with red lights for eyes which I’m not sure quite works, but at least proves it’s a living pub and not a museum. Most startlingly of all, the gents toilets have a painted blue ceiling with gold stars, akin to a mosque. Completely out of place and yet a strangely fantastic quirk. Otherwise, U Černého vola is pubgoing stripped back to its core and none the poorer for it.
Head right on into the taproom through the door to your right. You may already spy a few fellows milling about by the tap where there are some leaning posts, having their time-honoured pint.
The pub operates a similar tapster/server set up to many busy Czech pubs, a reliable system involving in this case a mute, middle-aged bearded man silently dispensing light and dark Kozel, while an amiable enough* (*situation dependent) server trots around doing the necessary interaction. The understated pride and commitment with which they carry out their jobs may be easily overlooked but it is worth acknowledging and all adds to the overall feel of the place.
As is customary for old-fashioned Czech hospudky, once you are finished with your pint, another emerges with military efficiency – only your beer mat on your glass and a wave of your wallet will cease the endless replenishment. A small nod or ještě jednou will be enough to secure your next drink. These pubs hug you and grip you in their boozy welcome and it’s extremely tempting to let entire afternoons go by in them. And mmm, that black Kozel is absolutely delicious! When you’re experiencing a beer in peak physical condition it can make you reappraise certain brands. Thick, dark and mellow – poured like this its more like a lovely dark mild ale. And take a look at the prices – amazing! You’ll be lucky to find anywhere in the local environs serving beer this cheap.
A pub without music scares some people, but the natural atmosphere of group conversation and laughter, the clinking of glasses and plates, the background hubbub and so on has always been an enjoyable enough soundtrack for us.
Besides, when the tourists disperse from Castle Hill around evening time, the locals emerge (along with nearby backpackers) and seek out U Černého vola for a few jars, transforming the venue’s often sedate afternoon atmosphere into a vibrant, sometimes rambunctious destination.
Getting a seat is essential to fully enjoying your time in the Black Ox, but be aware space can be in high demand due to reservations and local popularity. Don’t be shy – if it means sitting shoulder to shoulder with a stranger, so be it. You never know what conversations or chance meetings might be in store. Don’t be too British about it either – the tapster will lose patience with any loitering and shout at you (in Czech of course) to sit down with the rest of the crowd and stop being such a wallflower. You will notice the seat by the taps is permanently reserved, a necessary evil in this case to ensure the pub retains its purpose and isn’t consumed by tourists. If you ever want to incur the wrath of the staff, try going anywhere near it!
After several beers, food becomes a necessity, but parting is such sweet sorrow, so why not eat here? It’s all basic as hell – dry, salty and piping hot – enough to fill a space + work up a hankering for more beer.
Additionally, Max Bahnson of Pivni Filosof confirmed that U Černého vola is run essentially non-for-profit and the money they make goes towards social projects. The place was due to become one of those Pilsner Urquell Original Restaurant type chains until the intervention of a benevolent city bureaucrat spared us that banality. While such altruism might not be foremost in your mind as to where to go for a pint, it’s good to know in the background a pub has its heart in the right place, especially if the gruff Czech service ever puts your nose out of joint! Even if they bark their dissatisfaction with you for your foreign indiscretions, it’s only because they want you to sit down, eat their food and drink their beer. Suck it up! Happily: a thousand times over.
6. Šnekutis (Uzupis) * – Vilnius, Lithuania – 9.7/10
At times the whole process of pub going feels unnecessarily sterile and soulless, often when drinking in chain bars who specialise in monotonous reliability, but never excel at anything. That often drives me to explore places that are different. Most often this means alternative, pricey scene bars. There are only a few pubs left with a genuine DIY feel, where you can see food being prepared in a normal kitchen, where you can crowd around a fire and where the primary purpose is to make you feel as comfortable as your own home.
The Šnekutis project is Lithuania’s own answer to the problem of sterile modernity, tracing the nation’s folk heritage to bring together a pub that truly feels like a home, with all the folksy quirks, rustic food, warmth and good cheer that ought to involve. But neither is it a hackneyed and unimaginative ‘folk’ venue, this is a genuinely ramshackle place that looks like it could have previously been a giant shed.
Upon entering you’ll note the tree trunk in the centre of the room, a common emblem found in ruralist Lithuania – the last nation in Europe to abandon paganism. Throw in a fish tank by the window, objects collected from the far corners of wherever and you have a quirky little venue, which is itself in a slightly out of the way road out of the bohemian quarter of Vilnius, the “Republic” of Užupis.
Lithuania has made a name for itself this decade brewing raw unfiltered farmhouse style ale, and Šnekutis is the place to go to sample one of the best examples. Their beer, Jovaru is cloudy, a touch red, slightly sweet and very refreshing. There is an increasingly good range of other Lithuanian beers to sample, including some very reputable strong dark beers.
Šnekutis have two other venues in Vilnius which are enjoyable too, each going for a slightly different thing. Sv. Mikalojaus branch is a more all-purpose venue, larger with communal seating and amenities for a younger crowd, while Sv. Stepono is the base camp for Valentas, the living breathing mascot and owner of the project who delights young and old with his giant hat and enormous forked beard. Unlike the Uzupis branch, this venue is more like a simple rustic inn, one you’d go for lunch and a pint rather than a night out in.
Nice though they are, they don’t have the truly rustic charm, pub appeal and pure outright buzz of the Užupis branch. It’s the kind of place that inspires and fosters loyalty by being distinct – this is a word you’re going to be reading a lot over the coming years. Distinct is a big thing for us now: being brave enough to do something heterodox in order to achieve something beyond the norm. We even wrote a whole article about it just recently. This pub exemplifies that.
5. U Hrocha – Prague, Czechia – 9.7/10
Few pubs inspire such affection from European Bar Guide as U Hrocha, a drinking hole set in Malá Strana, Prague’s ‘little quarter’, first visited back in 2007. After a gap of nearly a decade, we returned to find nothing has visibly changed, save for the prices and tiny growing Formula 1 shrine to Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel in the far corner of the bar.
You’ll arrive to find a pub set in a steep slope. At the outside of the building you’ll note a beautifully painted ‘U Hrocha’ (The Hippo) and old-school Pilsner Urquell awning. At night this is lit wonderfully by a traditional lamp. It’s attractive, but on those cold nights (of which there are many in Prague), it could hardly be any more enticing.
The interior remains as it ever was: a very cosy bar room to your left, which from the outside appearances is starkly offset by the angle of the hill running up towards the castle. Inside, you’ll find the walls slightly yellowed by virtue of the years of smoking – something now no longer a feature in most Czech venues. There is a second room across the hall which I have never ventured into but appears to be an extension of the pub as a whole. Most people, quite rightly, don’t seem interested in that part, an overflow area/function room, really.
The tap rooms curved walls with some exposed brick, may seem from the description so-far-so-pivnice, but due to the slope outside and small dimensions are highly characterful and give the place its cosy sense of refuge.
The staff (a venerable duo) remain in attendance over a decade on, growing steadily more grey and wide. The tapster that we christened ‘Wolfman’ is still churning out glasses of pristine Pilsner Urquell with his enigmatic expression that in turns suggests fury and contentment. The other half of the duo (who looks vaguely like Carlo Ancelotti) does the majority of the serving, keeping the place going with a dyed in the wool commitment and pride that gives the impression this will remain the case for decades to come.
U Hrocha is the kind of pub where a knowing look and nod will be enough to secure your next drink. The beauty here is all in the simplicity, cutting back on the bullshit and letting the true purpose of your visit -socialising over a drink – take its course.
There is a true vibrancy to the place and its small size means securing a seat itself is satisfying enough. Part of the reason for this is that the locals will not relinquish it to tourists, and make a point of turning up early and indeed reserving seats at the bar for stamgasty – their mates. This may seem impudent and petty but it serves a core purpose. The pub wants to keep a crowd of locals in there and given it’s a touristy area, they have all right to.
Don’t be afraid however, this is not a hostile venue – a polite few words in Czech will keep the duo on your good side, and they seem just as happy to serve all-comers who want a drink and a chat.
The Pilsner Urquell is served by tank and kept exceptionally well (vitally important for a temperamental beer you’ll find varies in quality across the city), served in the Czech style with about two inches of head, obliging you to dive in nose first to a mound of foam. The ‘mother’s milk’, as it’s known originates from Plzen but is really Prague’s stock beer, despite Staropramen being Prague’s largest brewery. As far as beers go in U Hrocha, that’s it. No need to paw through menus deliberating over which brand of DDH Pale you are interested in. This pub sort out the good stuff and leave you to socialise.
U Hrocha is propelled to the point of distinction because it genuinely feels like a Prague institution. We have had so many enjoyable visits – spoken to locals, sat among communal tables with different people from all walks of life, turned up one evening on the most bitter March day to find it quiet and sedate! A collector’s item. Place U Hrocha as high as possible on your list of Prague pubs to visit, and if you are determined to be seated, turn up at opening time, or on the most bitter February or March evening!
4. Zlatna Ribica – Sarajevo, Bosnia – 9.7/10
When you’re far away from home in a land such as Bosnia, you don’t hanker after sterile bars pumping out Eurodance, stuffed with plastic and metallic furniture and similarly plastic patrons. This was, and to an extent still is the bar scene in Sarajevo, as a young crowd grasp unsuccessfully at a simulacra of what they believe Westerners are doing.
We shouldn’t be too judgemental – the working classes are often the most sensitive to social status, and to put it mildly, there is not a lot of money around in a country where over half of those aged under 30 are unemployed.
Sarajevo is still recovering culturally from the war and trying to reforge themselves, which at some point will inevitably involve retracing and exploring their heritage. Things are changing though, and partly thanks to this pioneering.
Zlatna Ribica (Gold Fish) is a central bar that is easy to find and walkable from most places in the old city – it is place of exotic eccentricity, stuffed with antiques and features that will keep your eyes occupied for hours. The sheer volume of stuff exceeds even the bar’s internal surroundings and spills out onto the street, with one of their eccentric gadgets and bits of furniture occupying space on the pavement. Yes, you will find a beast of a goldfish, bowls stacked over piles of books, ornate antique lampshades and waxed sideboards and rails studded with crenellations and detailing.
The bar may be ornamental but it is also extremely quirky, with objects positioned where they shouldn’t be, and the oddest objects rearing their heads. Don’t be alarmed by the portable black and white TV in the toilets resting on a toilet roll showing lions mating in the Savannah, or continental slapstick comedy. Behind the sink is an array of cosmetics which pleased my partner enormously to discover.
Drinks are served in cut glass, metal goblets and anything else that looks like it cost a bargain at the market. Their drinks menu, as in, the physical menu itself is a pack of playing cards with the options scrawled in permanent marker which they hide in a lamp. Zlatna Ribica defines itself by doing things differently.
Drinks options are a little limited but are sold at standard prices for the city centre, showing that they are interested in maintaining a local clientele. Staff deliver the drinks with the requisite level of enigma and ceremony – after that, you can recline in a truly unusual and richly atmospheric pub, which feels like being in the study of a professor or colonial explorer.
Their seating is comfortable – I may have understated that – it’s hard wood antique furniture, in reasonable condition too. Once seated you there is a tacit recognition that you’ll be there for quite some time to come. One drawback is that smoking is permitted, however this is the case almost everywhere in Bosnia however, so would be unfair to single out Zlatna Ribica for.
Also, be aware, during the summer and on busy weekends you may need to reserve a table or turn up earlier in the day to be seated.
There is something majestic about the fact no-one needed to go to this effort, no-one needed to create a bar with such love and care, and no-one needed to put in decades of commitment to keep the bar alive. But they did, and we all benefit from that. Quite simply, this is one of the greatest bars to ever exist.
3. Papa Joe’s Jazzlokal – Cologne, Germany – 9.7/10
You may remember Papa Joe’s popping up at number 18. That was for their gorgeous and atmospheric Biersalon. However, a short walk down the hill towards the Rhine to the Buttermarkt, you will find their late night Jazz Bar ‘Em Streckstrumpf“, a venue which distils their format of cosy pub with roustabout singalongs into a small venue which would resemble a small cosy kneipe were it not for the stall seating which has been installed opposite the bar and on the mezzanine area up the stairs. These both hint at the music-oriented nature of the place.
Their Biersalon’s existence prevents us from using the phrase ‘there is nowhere else quite like this’, but if you visit on a late evening you will appreciate why we are sorely tempted to use it. The walls of the pub are crammed full of classic Jazz memorabilia and ephemera, along with mementos of famous bands and artists who have performed in the venue. Some of this ephemera is downright silly, and typically German, for example the mechanical wobbling heads attached to the walls (including a trumpet playing Satchmo!), other elements are partly apocryphal Belle Époque cutouts from those eternal ‘good times’ we are chasing to come back.
If you choose to sit up in the gallery seating (of which there are only two rows) or up in the mezzanine you have a great view of the action and any live performances which may be underway. In full swing its nigh-on impossible to avoid getting caught up in the sheer enjoyment and escapism of it all. There are no reservations used nor required, and entrance remains free. Grab a Kölsch and get bopping.
This is a special, cult, nay: legendary (not a word to be overused) venue.
2. t’Brugs Beertje – Brugge, Belgium – 9.7/10
If you’re still reading at this point, I’m sure you’ll agree with us that the alchemy of what constitutes a good pub is worthy of considerable study.
While there are so very many hundreds of bars and pubs across Europe missing essential ingredients, scrambling in the dark in their search to attract patrons, despite having a reliable formula almost laid out for them, this pub serves to illustrate how simple the task is.
t’Brugs Beertje is a cosy communal venue with the dimensions and confines of a snug brown café/pub decorated with wood panelled walls adorned with well-selected and stylish beer ephemera from the last century of Belgian brewing.
Inside, there is a choice of simple wooden seating or slightly more comfortable bench seating if you’re lucky enough to swoop in and claim it (enter in the afternoon for a better chance). Ask to peruse their eclectic and sizeable menu of Belgian beer, presented in the form of an almanac that takes a good 20 minutes to look through properly and consider a selection of typical Belgian snack options (gouda, biscuits, meat platters, croque monsieur etc) to go with.
Hanging above the bar is a gleaming selection of the various beer glasses tailored to their specific beer, every single flavour journey mapped out by their brewers right down to the way the beer sits in a glass, tempered to the point of maximising every single potential for an improvement of the experience, telling of a country utterly obsessed with the art of brewing and the pleasure of drinking. There will be a beer for you in this pub, or I’m afraid there is no beer for you.
Service is efficient and attentive, though the art of ordering is really based on catching the server when they are on their rounds collecting glasses. There is no rush in a place like this though.
Beer prices are a little higher than some local venues, but not punishingly so. This can be offset by choosing a rare beer you’re unlikely to get anywhere else (my suggestion would be to try an Oud Bruin/Flemish Red style, which apart from Rodenbach are less commonly exported to the UK, while curiously, the style hasn’t yet caught on as a craft brewing style despite the proliferation of red ales and sours). You often get one-off such as hand-pulled Gueuze which was on offer during my last visit.
The enormous popularity of the pub and Brugge in general has resulted in a tourist surge in the last decade, however there are signs Brugge is settling down a little bit now, and during a summer visit we were able to be seated among locals quite easily.
It’s important for a pub to have an original community element, but even if it didn’t, I would be tempted to give it a free pass. The shining qualities of the pub, that seem to epitomise everything good about traditional beer drinking in Belgium, and its wonderful café bar culture compensate adequately.
The pub opens at 4pm and often by 6pm nearly every seat is taken. After that it’s a case of waiting politely at the door and taking your chance to swoop to a seat. Once seated, it’s unlikely you’ll see a reason to leave any time soon. It’s a rare example of a place where I would actually wait up to 15 minutes, rather than bugger off to one of the dozens of other places, the best of which we highlighted in our recent Days Out feature in Brugge.
The main room has a terrific atmosphere, the core of the venue, one of the homeliest pubs imaginable. Buzzing in the evening but enjoyably relaxing during the day, watching folk come and go. Even if that’s not available, the backroom has a lovely down-to-earth feel, like a rambler’s pub full of strangers thrown together in the tangle of a boozy evening. Only the matter of being on holiday, in beautiful Brugge of all places could distract a visitor from staying there all night, returning at opening time the next day and doing the same. t’Brugs Beertje is the best pub in Brugge, Belgium and Eu….Wait.