It’s springtime in Brighton, which means my day at the coworking space finishes when I hear colleagues remind me it’s sunny outside and ask if I’m joining them down the pub. I’m not, because I’m tired from researching this article about pubs. But I’m sure my walk home will include dodging pavement spillover as Brightonians crowd pubs’ outdoor terraces.
This overflow of the somewhat inebriated and sunburned on to busy streets is not something I was familiar with before moving to England. As an American import, I was surprised by how regularly I heard the words “let’s go down the pub” when I first moved here, and instinctively thought the invitations were some sort of weird cultural hazing ceremony from my new band of alcoholic friends. That is until I realised that British pubs are not the same thing as American bars.
(Disclaimer: whenever discussing the difference between two countries, there is a risk of relying on stereotypes to prove a point. I am sure that someone reading this has had an excellent experience in an authentic American bar outside of a major metropolitan area, just as I’m sure another reader actually had a great meal at Hooters. I’m told Hooters has great wings. All the same, for the sake of this article I will be making grand, sweeping generalisations that by no means deliberately attempt to take aim at your local friendly American bartender. Your bartender and bar are great.)
There are some semantic distinctions that need to be made between the words “bar” and “pub”. Bars focus on alcohol, and in non-inner-city gentrified America, bars are not normally places you can walk to from your home or build up a relationship with the bartender. They are corporate concrete slabs in the middle of giant suburban car parks. This is because whenever there is something great in America – whether that be a bar, superhero, breakfast burrito or Portland’s weirdness – we turn it into a franchise. A Ruby Tuesday’s in Richmond, Virginia, is very similar to an O’Charley’s in Cleveland, Ohio. Maybe the barbecue sauce will be different, but the chances of coming across an establishment with personality that offers the same conviviality and authenticity of a British village pub is low, if not nil. Other than chain “Irish” drinking holes, America doesn’t have many pubs. We have Applebee’s. There are the occasional dive bars with pool tables and dartboards but finding one that isn’t a chain requires time and/or the knowledge of a local. It also requires a car.
Pubs are the remnants of public drinking houses. So ubiquitous are pubs in the UK that they have become a standard of measurement for both size and distance. Helpful strangers give street directions in standard units of pub. Example: “Turn right at the pub, then two blocks up.” (Cue inner monologue: “What?! There’s literally a pub on every corner.”) The size of any locale is measured by the number of pubs, and there seems to be some sort of culturally indigenous knowledge that I have not yet acquired whereby every Brit seems to have a hidden, yet similar set of criteria for measuring a pub’s quality.
Although the consumption of alcoholic beverages is the purpose of most pubs, the strong social component should make British pubs the envy of the country’s former colony. At a press conference in the early days of Covid, Prime Minister Boris Johnson dodged a reporter’s awkward question asking if he’d take responsibility for his father who said he’d ignore government advice to stay out of the pubs. Any American listening to the press conference might have mistaken Johnson senior’s refusal to leave the pub for alcoholism, but most Brits understood he just didn’t want to give up socialising.
The US is in desperate need of more British pubs. This is not because Americans need more help destroying their livers; in fact many Americans are drinking a lot more than they should. And not only are they drinking more, but they are also drinking more alone.
Pubs, such as the fictitious one in the 1980s sitcom Cheers in downtown Boston, are quickly becoming relics of the past. This is a phenomenon that predates the pandemic. Between 1998 and 2014, the US lost 12,000 bars but gained 5,000 liquor stores. The pandemic accelerated the closure of the great American drinking hole by closing 110,000 restaurants and bars, many of which have not reopened. The closure of bars and restaurants correlates to an increase in Americans drinking at home.
In his 1989 book, The Great Good Place, the sociologist Ray Oldenburg refers to the local bar as the “third place” in American life and “the heart of a community’s social vitality”, where people go to make connections with friends and neighbours. He argues that the suburbanisation of American life has made it increasingly difficult for Americans to congregate. “The course of urban development in America is pushing the individual toward that line separating proud independence from pitiable isolation,” writes Oldenburg. For those living in big cities like Washington DC or New York, it’s easy to catch happy hour with friends and colleagues. But if you work in a suburban office park reminiscent of the film Office Space (1999), there is nowhere you can go with your one cool office buddy that is well-connected to public transportation.
[See also: Curse of the drinking classes]
In case anyone didn’t know, drinking is not good for your health, and this article is not advocating that anyone should drink alcohol. Alternatives to booze in pubs now extend beyond soft drinks. In fact, Nielsen analysts reported that sales of non-alcoholic beers and spirits grew by 33 per cent in the US in 2020.
But it should be noted that while alcohol is not good for health, neither is loneliness. A February 2021 report revealed that 36 per cent of all Americans reported feeling serious loneliness. Loneliness increases the risk of mortality by 26 per cent according to one study, and is associated with an increased risk of developing heart disease and stroke. There is also a heavy social burden. Research by Aarp Public Policy Institute in 2017 showed that socially isolated, older adults cost an estimated $6.7bn (£5.4bn) in extra Medicare spending every year. Loneliness in young men, meanwhile, is considered by the US Department of Justice to be a high-risk factor in their falling prey to right-wing ideology and committing acts of violent terrorism.
This is not to say that Americans would suddenly step away from their dark Twitter caves and put down their guns if they could walk a few blocks down to a pub. But it sure would help if neighbours could meet up from time to time and form the bonds of trust required for a healthy democracy.
There is some indication that Americans are rebelling against chain restaurants and bars and are turning more to independent breweries, of which it has been reported there is a five-fold increase on 2010. The problem is that due to residual laws from the prohibition era in the 1920s, many brewhouses cannot distribute their beers to other suppliers. This may mean that some breweries resist turning into franchises and remain local gems, which is great – at least until you need to figure out who’s going to drive you home.
[See also: What does it mean to be British?]