Friday 31 May 2024

Rock Up or Line Up?

There has recently been a lot of chat on social media about an emerging practice, in some pubs, of forming an orderly line at the bar.  An actual queue, as if you are in the baker's, or at the till in a supermarket. Now, most of us know that queuing at the bar is the antithesis of British pub drinking. Rocking up to the bar and jockeying to get served is rooted in the cultural and social norms that define the traditional British pub experience. Here’s why:

British pubs are known for their informal and relaxed atmosphere. Customers typically stand or sit around the bar, and barstaff serve patrons in a seemingly spontaneous and natural order, hopefully based on who arrives first or - and this shouldn't really happen, but it does - on who catches the eye.  This lack of a formal queue however encourages social interaction. Pubgoers chat with one another while waiting, creating a convivial and communal atmosphere. 

Drinking in a British pub is, by and large, a communal experience in a shared space. The bar itself is part of that shared space and is, one might readily argue, a key part of it, where the act of getting a drink is a cooperative experience rather than a solitary task. People naturally form clusters rather than lines, fostering a sense of community. This in turn encourages socialising and mingling, as opposed to the more isolated experience of standing in a queue. Actually, for many, a chit-chat with others at the bar is all part of what makes a pub what it is and what makes it different from, for example, a continental bar.  
Of course, all this kind of goes against the grain of the British penchant for queues, does it not? Well, not really. As the anthropologist, Kate Fox wrote in her book Watching the English: "In our drinking-places, however, we do not form an orderly queue at all:we gather haphazardly along the bar counter. At first, this struck me as contrary to all English instincts, rules and customs, until I realised that there is in fact a queue, an invisible queue, and that both the bar staff and the customers are aware of each person’s position in it. Everyone knows who is next: the person who reached the bar counter before you will be served before you, and any obvious attempt to get served out of turn will be ignored by the bar staff and severely frowned upon by other customers. In other words, it will be treated as queue-jumping. The system is not infallible, but English bar staff are exceptionally skilled at identifying who is next in the invisible queue." In fact, there is an unwritten code of conduct that regular pub-goers understand and follow. This includes recognising when it's your turn and respecting others' place without the need for a formal line. It encourages patience and politeness, with everyone, trusting that they will be served in turn. This mutual respect reinforces the communal and friendly atmosphere.
Additionally, regulars frequently build a rapport with the bar staff, and the informal approach allows them to acknowledge and even, in some cases - and why not if done sparingly - prioritise familiar faces who provide much of the regular custom. This skill contributes to the unique dynamic of British pubs.
The queue, in contrast, is more of a formal, structured activity that can feel impersonal and rigid, which contrasts sharply with the relaxed and informal nature of a British pub.  It can even be seen as disrupting the traditional and cherished practices of British pubs. It introduces a level of order and control that feels out of place in an environment valued for its organic and spontaneous interactions. Even worse, it can be seen as diminishing the character and charm that make these establishments special. Warmth and social engagement are hallmarks of the pub experience.  As Pub Curmudgeon wrote on his blog "The interaction between staff and customers, and between customers at the bar, is a crucial part of the atmosphere of pubs. Much of that is lost if people are just sitting at tables and tapping at a phone to get their drinks brought to them."
In essence, queuing at the bar contradicts the intrinsic qualities of British pub culture, which thrives on informal, social, and communal drinking experiences. The organic and fluid method of being served at the bar is a fundamental aspect of what makes the British pub a beloved institution. We shouldn't muck about with it.

I have written about this previously, as has Pub Curmudgeon, Both are worth a read, but in the end, despite being quite even handed, Mudgie is right when he says  "This trend has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the impact of Covid and lockdowns. Customers have become more used to standing in line, and somewhat nervous about a crush at the bar.

It undoubtedly does detract from a traditional pub atmosphere, taking away the opportunity to chat with staff or other customers at the bar......... It’s just turning a pub into a retail outlet where the prime objective is the efficient processing of customers" 




Cooking Lager said...

Well-articulated but entirely wrong.

Who is to say a pub tradition formed when pubs were a male preserve of drinking should remain now most are egalitarian casual diners? Most pubs are not the old-fashioned picture people paint in their mind. They are dining outlets frequented by groups of people with long drawn out orders.

A quiet wet led old man pub where you rock up to the bar may work on the principle you prefer. When it’s busy and becomes a scrum that system favours the tall, male, sharp elbowed. In establishments known to be a understaffed a bar scrum can lead to arguments as people notice pushing in.

Each of these long queues that get posted are in clearly understaffed pubs where a bar scrum would be worse than the queue. For the business model many pubs operate in now, many would benefit from going to table service rather than the long queues pictured.

As for your idealised bar chats, them sort of pubs are by and large dead. In decline for years, the smoking ban killed most of the remaining ones off. A few pockets sill exist but they are the exception rather than the rule.

The new pubs have queues, and women, and children, and people in wheelchairs. They want all sorts of long winded drink and food orders. All would like serving in a fair orderly manner and not have to partake in a scrum at the bar.

Tandleman said...

It is a counter argument indeed, but as a sharp elbowed veteran, I am not convinced. Now, there may be a case for food orders in such establishments as you describe, but are these really pubs?

For wet-led pubs - and there are still plenty - it doesn't convince.

Cooking Lager said...

The business model for pubs has changed considerably and you are still hanging on to a tradition large numbers of customers have recognised is not fit for purpose. A system suitable for a specific wet led trad pub works badly in many modern pubs.

A bar scrum isn't suitable for most modern pubs. If a queue isn't to your liking , table service may be preferable.

Curmudgeon said...

As I said in my original post, if pubs are to regard queuing as the norm, they will need to be substantially redesigned. What's the point in long bar counters if they're not being used?

BillS said...

A long bar is the perfect place to queue along and then get served at the pumps. The invisible queue works much better in a barber's shop than it ever does in a pub.

Cooking Lager said...

Certainly a whiff here, Bill, of sharp elbowed men wanting to maintain privilege, queue jump and deny a new social acceptance of fairness that treats all equally. All wrapped up in a plea for tradition. Very Farageist world view when you think about it.

Professor Pie-Tin said...

Take a tip here from an old boy.
If there's any queuing to be done send the missus to take care of business while you choose a decent spot for supping.
Fellers generally defer to a lady queuing at the bar especially if she's a pert little stunner as the current Mrs PP-T is.
If you're flying solo then a chap should use all his years of experience at the coal face of drinking to acquire a fresh pint rather than the dreadful queuing system.
I find returning a handful of glasses to the bar is handy reminder for bar staff that you're an all-round decent chap rather than some slabberdegullion druggel.
Cookie talks a good talk but I suspect he's spent too many years doing his Mr Cellophane routine while trying to order another lout.

Pub veteran said...

Cookie has convinced me. Pubs need to be better places, inclusive to all. Let's queue like civilised people !

Doctor Pudding Pot said...

I've seen Pie Tins missus. She scares children. She once looked out of a car window and was arrested for mooning. She makes onions cry. Poor girls no looker, for sure. Still, it has the effect of clearing the bar ensuring a free run for Pie Tin.

Candy Floss IPA Man said...

In five year’s time that Tandle Inn will have Post Office style announcements saying “Cashier Number 3 please, Cashier Number 1 please” Also ordering terminals for customers to key the order in . Then you will have to take your folded over Perspex number and wait at your table.

Improvements for the punters and cost savings for John Willy. Everyone happy.

Tandleman said...

Again, wise words from the Prof. His Mrs sounds just my sort. As for Cashier No1, that would be the inevitable end and, in fact, the actual end for pubs being pubs.

Anonymous said...

Remember the average member of the ‘’British public.’ Is an actual living breathing fuckwit. On command will wear a useless paper mask, stand 2M away from anyone or follow arrows around a supermarket.

Cask Feminist said...

I think people need to show respect for Pie Tin's Mrs.

Shout up for a Sister of Beer!