My Irish husband Tony and I have recently moved to Birmingham, UK and I am writing a weekly blog explaining Europe to my fellow Americans. This is an entry about our top ten pubs. You can find my blogs about Britain at gypsyteacher.blogspot.com.
Explaining British Pubs to Americans
10. The Hare of the Dog is the only pub on my campus, so we stopped in on our first day here. Pleasant old building, but microwaved food. Like most of the larger pubs, it's operated by a big brewery chain. They have a loyalty card (let's encourage the university kids to drink more!), large-screen TVs and, although hard to believe in this constantly soggy climate, picnic tables outside. On our last night in our on-campus apartment, I nicked one of the small wine glasses with the royal seal indicating it was officially 175 mL. I guess the Queen checks.
9. The Duke: When moving into our new apartment in Sutton Coldfield, we asked our wonderful landlord about the big Tudor-style pub on the corner, and he said it was a bit pricey. Instead, he recommended the Duke, on a side street near the town centre. All the requisite character of an English pub, but really narrow and with so many regulars that we felt like intruders. Famous for being one of the few family-run pubs that held out against the chains, it has those ubiquitous outdoor tables, so maybe we'll stop in again when the weather is better.
7. The Cup and The Oak Cask are the impressive Tudor-style pubs just outside Sutton town centre, but were trashy inside, with lots of pinball machines. We were told they were 'too rough' by the well-dressed weekend bouncer at...
8. The Litten Tree, directly across the street from those two, is blatantly owned by a chain. Kind of like a wide-open TGI Friday's, with big windows facing the street, comfortable low tables and chairs and a fairly diverse menu — but the food reeks of microwave. We'll watch their big-screen TVs for a soccer game, but if it's a really important match for the locals the place is just too crowded. Like many of the modern pubs in Sutton, it is packed with young people every weekend. The girls wear miniskirts, minitops, stiletto heels and no coats. The guys wear tight t-shirts and tighter pants.
6. O'Neill's: in Sutton town centre, I encouraged Tony to fill out an application here. Grotty, it attracts a young crowd and we weren't disappointed that they never called him for an interview.
5. JP's: one afternoon, we walked into this big, old, dark pub in Sutton that advertised a lunch special, and as we set foot in the main room six men standing at the bar broke into loud laughter. Was it directly related to our entrance? Probably not, but we left and still refer to it as 'that pub where they laughed at us'.
4. Wetherspoon's Square Peg is perfectly located in downtown Birmingham at the corner just before our bus stop. This huge pub has great washrooms. The delights end there. The noisy youth and the old drunks both stop in for a pint before heading home (it must be near everyone's bus stop), and the Wetherspoon's chain food is over-microwaved. Still, if I have to meet Tony at the bus stop and I'm cold, tired and in need of a bathroom — see you at Wetherspoon's.
3. The Green Room: my wonderful new boss promised that he would take us out for a pint to meet one of the other American teachers. We all met at this pub/restaurant right in 'Brum City Centre, across from the Hippodrome Theatre. It has an innovative menu of well-done food and wooden picnic tables inside and out. Because it's one of the few that Tony and I are familiar with, we've stopped in often.
2. The Sutton Park: The only thing we have against this pub is that Tony interviewed for a job there and didn't get it. But he got a better job at the Ramada, so we decided to try out this competitor one night. It's on my bus route home, and not too crowded. We were there for Trivia Quiz Night, but decided that, rather than pay to join in, we'd just listen and feel superior about all the questions we would have gotten right. Ha! Good thing we didn't pay. I did all right on movies and Tony on sports, but everything else did us in.
1. The Horse and Jockey is considered pricey by our landlord, but a bottle of wine is cheaper than at the Litten Tree and it's as warm and cosy inside as it looks outside. The small rooms with nooks and crannies lead in to one another and have real fireplaces. Low tables with couches and stools are mixed with chairs and benches perfect for eating a dinner, and there are tall tables for standing when it's too crowded. On weekends, young people who will later be falling down drunk at the Litten Tree stop by, but there's a good mix of old poops our age.
The Horse and Jockey is owned and operated by a chain called Ember Inns. You do as you do in most pubs: you order at the bar, pay, take your drinks and they bring your food to you. Lisa, the manager, has gotten to know us; our mix of American and Irish accents is memorable. The first time I ordered two large glasses of red, at almost three pounds each, she said, 'You can have the whole bottle for just eight pounds'. 'That seems like so much wine', I said. 'You can take it with you if you don't finish it', she replied. Sold.
The H&J has become our local. It's a good place to meet when coming back from work, and we use it to introduce our American visitors to true pub culture.
Last Thursday, Tony was working late and my classes finish at around six, so I treated myself to dinner at the H&J on my way home. I found a corner table with a good view of the cast of characters. It was in the smoking section, but after I moved the stinky ashtray one of the waiters took the hint and removed it. I have their menu memorised, but read through it each time in case something appears more appealing than my usual. Nope, can't beat it: salmon in lemon basil cream and a large glass of house white.
Using my coat to save the table, I went to the bar to order. Ahead of me were six or seven women, about my age, ordering the chicken caesar, the universal refuge of the dieting female. Turning to the woman behind me I said, 'Guess it's girls' night out. We're all ordering our fish and salads.' 'Not us!', she said. 'We're out to have a good time!' Then she ordered four meals of fish — fried, with chips. Aah! The guilty pleasure of the dieting female.
Setting my wine and the big decorative numbered beer bottle on my table, I read the Irish Post and Financial Times while waiting for my food. Across from me on a comfy couch, there was a youngish businessman reading a book. Your local is where you feel comfortable reading by yourself.
After dinner, I left a small tip for Keen-and-Eager Tom, our favourite bar guy, then walked home, downhill to Maney Hill Road, along the flat block past the church, and then up the final stretch to our door.