Trip tips from Cambridge UK: English pubs

My recent vacation to Cambridge, UK was my first trip to England and with it, my first taste of dining and drinking at a ‘real’ English pub. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the food, drink and atmosphere of the pubs, I also learned some lessons the hard way about pub etiquette and I wanted to pass them along to readers.

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The front entry dining table of the The Anchor pub in Cambridge UK. If you sit here to wait for a hostess to come and seat you, you’ll be waiting a long time!

Seat yourself

Find an empty table, booth or place at the bar and seat yourself. When I first walked in to the Anchor Pub in Cambridge, UK I immediately assumed the comfortable looking couch and coffee table just inside the entrance was the place to wait for a host or hostess to show us to our table. Wrong! There are no pub hosts or hostesses – patrons just find a place and seat themselves. And ‘seat’ could mean any one of several options — couch, chair, bar stool, bench, patio chair. The pub’s interior furnishings look like it could be part of someone’s private home, and not a “public house” — hence the shortened identification form: pub. 

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“Queue up” at the bar to place your food and drink order

Order from the bar

Not only are there no hostesses to show you to your seat, there are no waiters to take your food order at your table in an English pub. Patrons pick up a menu at the bar or at the table, and after having made their choices, one, some or all will go to the bar and place the order with the bar staff. (Best not to have all of you go to the bar, or you might lose your table.) You will also order your drink — and if you’re drinking a beer, it will likely be one of three or four Greene King beers or a “guest beer.” Greene King is a popular English brewery which distributes its beers to several of Cambridge’s pubs for draft service. Most pubs also seem to carry a variety of global favorites such as Guiness, Amstel, Stella, Peroni or Foster’s. You may even see the odd tap for Blue Moon or Corona. Another popular English drink is Pimm’s Cup — a kind of refreshing, fruity alcoholic drink often mixed with lemonade or ginger ale and splashed with fruit. It’s good for a warm English day when temps rise above 15 Celsius (which is about 60 degrees Fahrenheit — insert smiley face here).  I prefer the ales and I found a couple from the Greene King brewery which I could ‘rather fancy’ — the Abbot Ale and the Morland Old Speckled Hen.

Pay up front, tax included and no tipping

After you’ve placed your food and drink order, and before you’re ready to return to your table, you will first need to pay. Everything is paid in advance. Cash is preferred and sales taxes at retail establishments such as shops, pubs and restaurants are already built into prices. This makes it handy, so you will know exactly what you will be paying. This also means you’re less likely — unlike in the U.S. — to threaten refusal to pay because of poor service or food quality.  Also, tipping at pubs is not expected, in fact you may get some funny looks. Or they may just brush you off as another ignorant American tourist. Also, courtesy and etiquette are very much appreciated, even at the pubs so make sure you mind your manners. It’s only ‘proper,’ of course.

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The Anchor Pub allows diners watch the punters on the River Cam

Kitchen or bar staff will serve your food

So by now you’re enjoying your pint of ale and the pub ambiance. A few locals who are done with their day’s work shift are sitting in the next room may have a couple of rounds’ head start on you. A few of their ‘mates’ could start singing old pub songs. Okay, you’d probably not see this much happening in the U.S. — at least not in this decade, or outside of an East Coast or Midwestern big city. But this is a great scenario, because you realize it’s another reminder you’re really in England. After your bar or kitchen staff serves your meal and returns to ask if you’d like anything else, what he or she doesn’t mean: if you’d like additional food. I guess they’re asking if you might need need a steak knife, some salt or more napkins… something like that. I made the mistake of saying, “Oh yes — we’d like some dessert.” Oops! Remember: If you want to order more food, another beer or dessert, you’ll need to head back to the bar.

Pub hours are a bit different

Some pubs may be open from lunchtime through the dinner hour until about 11 p.m., but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will be serving food during all that time. In fact, many pubs (if they are open for lunch) tend to close up the kitchen from around 2 p.m. to 5:30 or 6 p.m. then close the kitchen again around 8 or 9 p.m. (Speaking of time, it’s helpful to get used to thinking in 24-hour — or military — time.) If you arrive during a time when the kitchen is closed, or you reach the bar to place your order and the bartender suddenly announces, “the kitchen has closed,” you may be able to order bags of ‘crisps’ to soak up those beers or Pimms.

And If you enter a pub and it’s crowded, it’s not considered courteous to stand around, lingering for a table or place at the bar to open up. Many patrons who come to the pub are there to drink, watch their team and may occupy their spot for a long while — much the same way we do here in the US at our sports bars.

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The Eagle is one of the most popular pubs in Cambridge

Pub food and prices 

Most of the menu items include the traditional English pub favorites: fish and chips, bangers and mash, steak and ale pie and burgers. Chips are fries, of course and they typically are the larger cuts of fries — what we would normally call steak fries or ‘wedges.’ Try some jacket potatoes (like our stuffed or twice baked varieties) or a side of mushy peas which is… exactly that. Some pubs have upgraded menus with more eclectic, innovative selections. For example, at the The Eagle, my friend and I split the pan fried salmon with chive polenta cakes and buttered cavolo nero along with a roasted beetroot, goat’s cheese and walnut salad with mixed greens and balsamic dressing. Most meals will run about seven or eight pounds ($11) and pints are about three or four pounds ($5). By the way, a pint in the UK is 20 ounces. It’s possible to order a half pint. Sunday ‘roast’ in the UK means a traditional noontime pub meal, but I missed my chance to enjoy that. Next time…

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Outside dining is possible (weather permitting) at The Red Lion in Grantchester UK

No doggie bags allowed

So you can’t finish your plate, eh? Well, don’t embarrass yourself by asking for a ‘doggie bag.’ It’s just not done in England. It’s one thing to go and order food for ‘take away’ (take-out) but it’s entirely different if you can’t finish what you’ve ordered, in fact it’s largely frowned upon. I couldn’t finish a plate of chips and a large burger but I wanted to take the rest of my burger back to the flat. (Yes, as a matter of fact — It was THAT good!) I was informed it would be more acceptable to wrap it in a napkin and sneak it out in my purse rather than to ask for a box.

Most pubs are family friendly – especially in tourism areas

I had heard a few years ago that children accompanying parents in pubs was not acceptable or appropriate, and in many locations, that may be still true, especially later in the evening. However, at many of the Cambridge pubs we visited, I frequently saw signs at the entrances, “Children Welcome” or “Family Friendly.” And I witnessed many a family at the pubs for an early dinner — ‘er, i mean ‘supper’ — after a day of shopping in the markets of central Cambridge.

Find more info on the Web

Naturally, these above items are based on my own perceptions after visiting five pubs over nine days during my stay in Cambridge. Like LeVar Burton said on Reading Rainbow, “But you don’t have to take my word for it.” Find out more about English pub dining and etiquette on the Internet. Here’s a great site I found after I returned and I wished I had sought it out before my trip to the UK: Cambridge Pubs. It’s a comprehensive listing, but I’m not sure how up-to-date it’s kept, so combine the information there with review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor or travel sites like Lonely Planet and Frommer’s before you make your pub tour of Cambridge.

Don’t forget to say “Cheers!”

“Cheers” can mean “thanks,” “goodbye,” “agree” or “cheers.” The Brits seem to say it often. However it’s meant, it’s almost always said with a smile.

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