Thursday 15 June 2023

Don't Roll Up - Queue Up

The tradition of buying at the bar and, if you feel like it, standing at the bar while supping your drink, is a long and honourable one. Passport to the Pub, published in 1996 by Kate Fox, a British social anthropologist, says of this:

 " Rule number one: There is no waiter service in British pubs. You have to go up to the bar to buy your drinks, and carry them back to your table"

She goes on to say, with particular regard to those more familiar with table service:

"Once they are aware of the no-waiter-service rule in British pubs, most tourists recognise it as an advantage, rather than an inconvenience. Having to go up to the bar for your drinks ensures plenty of opportunities for social contact between customers......... It is much easier to drift casually into a spontaneous chat while waiting at the bar than deliberately to break into the conversation at another table. 

Like every other aspect of pub etiquette, the no-waiter-service system is designed to promote sociability. The bar counter in a pub is possibly the only site in the British Isles in which friendly conversation with strangers is considered entirely appropriate and normal behaviour."

I recently tweeted this photo of a sign in Wetherspoons, which appears to turn this logic on its head. In no uncertain terms, it urges customers to "Keep the Bar Area Clear."  I said at the time it was most unpublike, and this caused a cascade of comments tending to agree with me, but as always, when commenting on JDW, a plethora of snobbishness about the chain were liberally sprinkled over the main point, including untruths about the company's attitude to Covid and its staff, as well as slurs about the type of people who frequent such dens of iniquity. Most unedifying, but in the main it was agreed this isn't the right thing to do. It is not a pub if you instruct people to queue up.

What I failed to do was point out which JDW this sign appeared at - and I have to say, I haven't seen it elsewhere.  When we first encountered the very busy area in which Tandleman Towers South is located, the area was much different. Almost derelict in many parts, and certainly the busy and bustling Leman Street was nothing like it is now.  The whole area was dead at the weekend and when the nearby huge Royal Bank of Scotland Processing Centre, wasn't at full tilt, the place was quiet. No pizza places, supermarkets, modern bars or brand new multi-storey flats, never mind the now sizeable student accommodation. You had to hop on a tube elsewhere for entertainment, though on the plus side, a few proper East End pubs hadn't yet been swept away. 

In that scenario, imagine our astonishment when a new Wetherspoons opened in the area.  In fairness, things were slightly picking up, but many a time we'd have a drink in the new Goodman's Field and wonder how stupid Timbo was in throwing his money away on what was clearly a white elephant.  Then, slowly but surely, the hotels started to open. There are now plenty from budget to mid-range, and the hitherto empty JDW began to thrive with each new opening.  Looking back on it, you can see why. The river and Tower Bridge are nearby, as is the Tower of London. There are tube stations and buses with easy transport for town and elsewhere.  Most may well offer food and drink, but not as cheaply as Wetherpoons.  Most of the visitors come from abroad, and I think it's fair to say that the majority of customers are not British. 

So, in this scenario, it is perhaps understandable, that a request to queue at the tills has been introduced to keep things simple for those who are just not used to jostling for attention at the bar, never mind facing the inevitable call of "Who's next?"   Yes, it annoys us Brits, especially those who have honed to a razor sharpness, how to get served in a busy pub first, but on the charitable side, it probably makes life easier all round, and to be fair, in my experience the rule is relaxed a tad when not so busy.

In this situation, perhaps Kate Fox would give a little wriggle room and forgive, as I do, this major transgression of pub etiquette.

Are Wetherspoon's many outlets really pubs? I think the jury is still out on that one, but not for the reasons above.

In the Goodman's Field, Kate's Rule Number two is often seen more in the breach than the observance: "It is customary for one or two people, not the whole group, to go up to the bar to buy drinks." Probably another good reason for the sign.

All rights to Kate's book are the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association.



  1. Boris the Brazilian Budgie Smuggler15 June 2023 at 15:50

    I think it may go full on McDonalds. Order on the app and stand in a designated area till they shout out your number. Full on android that is. Young people are used to it.

    My teenage kids think nowt of paying £15 for a uber foods to deliver a burger to home. Crazy they are. Kids want a brand and a product. They don't want to talk to strangers. They can do that on their ifone

    Let's face it when a San Miguel costs £5.80 in a tatty pub anything spoonsies can do to keep down the costs is welcome.

  2. It was Aberystwyth Wethers where I first saw "snaking" as we called it, probably around 15 years ago.

    A sign went up, "please queue across the length of the bar".

    A good barperson can of course serve two or even three simultaneously, but not when they are two metres behind each other.

  3. Kate Fox forgot that waiter service used to be pretty common on the "best" side of British pubs - hence all the bell-pushes that are still around. It had virtually disappeared by the time I started drinking, though.

    And it's now making a comeback at the other end of the scale in micropubs.

  4. David International15 June 2023 at 16:49


    Anything that mean's I don't have to engage with social niceties, whilst ordering my Gravlax
    suits me.

  5. The queuing thing is yet another of those things in publand that’s going its way without the need to check whether us pub enthusiasts agree with it. Just this last couple of weeks I’ve joined the queue in the Tobie Norris Stamford, an award-winning CAMRA pub, and observed the queue at the bar of the Sandford Park Alehouse in Chelt. The fact is the crush at the bar in pubs is a distant memory in most pubs, and younger drinkers, if they remember it at all, certainly don’t regard it as a positive thing.

  6. Me no likey wetherspoons. They no proper pub. Me no likey
    Yabba yabba

  7. Excellent post, and very fair on Spoons. The rationale for cutting Spoons some slack as visitors aren't familiar with the "custom" is sensible.

    I first saw the vertical queue (as opposed to the line at the bar) in Bath Spoons pre-Covid, though there they had a passport check/Disneyland style rope to regulate it and make it clear where to join it.

    I'm just about to blog about a Newcastle Spoons where the system falls down a bit.

    Oh, and Spoons are indeed pubs, loads of people use them as places to socialise over a drink, they're just not "Proper Pubs" (and I know what I mean by that !".

  8. I'm definitely one of these snooty anti-Spoons types and hadn't been in one since a reluctant visit pre-COVID, to the same 'branch' with the same people. I went recently to catch up with work colleagues and, in a big group, they're ideal and you feel less awkward than taking over a more intimate pub.

    When it came to ordering food and drinks it was quite fascinating (to a 45-year-old old codger like me anyway). The 20-somethings were ordering via the app, I and a few others were doing it at the bar (which was deserted, although the place was full inside and out), while another person was using a McDonalds-type wall console, but maybe it was to check for his special dietary needs.

    What really freaked me out was the app-ordered drinks rounds being delivered to the table and I'm much happier going to the bar myself to carry it. The staff didn't care but I'd feel strange having my drink delivered, although it's just the same as food being delivered I suppose.

    I'm ashamed to say the beer was excellent and I had a great time!

  9. I'm sure the Wheatsheaf in Knotty Ash (Cains/Higsons/Joseph Jones )was a real pub in the old days (up to about 25 years ago) Each table had a push bell on the wall to attract somebody to take your order.Otherwise a hatch which was like a barber's queue. Never understand "real pubmen's" dislike of queues. Very unBritish.

    1. Funnily enough, I used to drink there over 40 years ago and remember well of which you speak. It could never be described as anything other than a pub. I remember the blue coated waiters and the hatch.Fab times.

    2. Bloody Google. Anonymous is me, your hero Tandleman

  10. I'm an OAP & can't afford nor need an internet mobile phone. So that counts me out for ordering like that. A cheap pay as you go Tesco one fills my need. I was in my local 'Spoons last night & didn't see that. (The Art, Bury).

  11. I'm surprised Tim hasn't copied larger Post Offices, customers taking a ticket on entering and having their number called or, in his venues that have a proper queue, numbers above the bar and a "Barperson number 2" type announcement.
    Maybe a letter to his so called 'Wetherspoon News' is called for.

  12. Pubs adopt business models they think enhance their business. You've be just as quick to moan about bar blockers if the old boys were stopping you seeing the pumpclips to pick the highest ABV real ale.
    Spoons is a high throughput bar. You need people to pick up their drinks, take one of the tables, leave the bar for people wanting drinks.

    On a side note I see there are plenty who leap on this as a "spoons is not a pub" who seem to have no problem with pubs they are more inclined to like putting "reserved" signs on every table and not welcoming none diners. Thems still pubs, I see, and still get in the beardy book because they were good pubs 30 years ago. Ooooooo.

  13. I remember going into Idle Working Men's Club for my brother in law's birthday once. There was a sign saying no hanging around at the bar with a picture of a noose (of course). Also a sign telling you to form a queue. That was a club mind.

    Also heard tales of Leeds Tetley pubs having staff walk round with a tray of beers handing them out as customers handed over the money to pay for the beer. That must have been well before I started drinking in Leeds in the 1980's.

    Cheers. Robin

  14. I do remember Yates in Oldham you has to que up to get served the move along the bar to pay at the till and they only served halfs

  15. I am all for lines at bars, rather than a scrum. Trying to get served at a packed bar is one of my biggest hates. Sick of it. I was in a pub in Manchester once and they had a queue system. I loved it but have never seen it anywhere since (I am not counting the COVID-era queues).


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