Best Seat In The House

Bar buzz

Charles Wells’ pubs in France have been a quiet success story as the portfolio of outlets has grown on the back of young French drinkers’ appetite for the unique British bar vibe the UK operator has shipped across the Channel.

One of the key components of this has been the hubbub around the bar. Unlike French bars, Charles Wells’ venues operate the traditional UK pub style, with customers having to order at the bar rather than through table service. This has proved appealing for the younger demographic, who have enjoyed the buzz it creates around the bar.

This is one of the things I find most appealing about the British pub. The anticipation when pulling up a bar stool and taking a spot among the regulars right at the heart of things is a great joy. It provides the opportunity to engage with the team behind the bar and the other customers congregating there – if you wish to converse, that is.

My first venture into the pub after lock-down came during a family holiday in Kent, where the new rules of table service only and no loitering at the bar didn’t greatly affect me. However, when I returned to my local – The Great Northern Railway Tavern (GNRT) in north London – it was much more noticeable how things had changed.

Gone was the line of stools, while new etiquette dictated I was escorted to a table. Thankfully the pub was quiet and I could choose my favourite table – the one closest to the bar. This afforded me the possibility of at least being able to – in a loud voice – hold a conversation with those serving behind the bar.

The move to table service only, with everyone spaced out around the room, meant regulars I’d see perched on bar stools pre-covid were absent. The GNRT, like many other bars, has lost some of its most regular customers. Those people who would pop in a few times a week, always on their own, sit at the bar and enjoy a bit of banter with the bar team are nowhere to be seen.

This is worrying because for many this may be one of their few opportunities to socialise. At the GNRT, regulars like myself who sometimes visited solo but also did so with family and friends have largely returned since reopening. But those people who only visited on their own haven’t been seen since lock-down was imposed. This has led the pub to consider trying to contact them to check how they are and perhaps make a table available for them to use collectively – with social distancing procedures in place, of course.

Much has been made about the impact covid-19 has had on mental health and well-being, with many people suffering from the isolation it has enforced. However, little sympathy has been conveyed towards people whose local pub is their lifeline. The fact alcohol is involved invariably diminishes the story. It’s the same with betting shops. I’d argue that for many people these places are also genuine social hubs but the broad narrative will always be overtaken by the issues of alcoholism and problem gambling.

As covid-19 plays out during the forthcoming months we’ll hopefully see a further easing in society and a vaccine arriving sooner rather than later. To me, the real barometer of life returning to something akin to the old normality will be the reappearance of the humble bar stool. While my affinity with them is simply based on a preference for sitting amid the action at the bar, for many others up and down the country – and probably in France too – the bar stool represents something much more important.

Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider 

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.