Ordering and Paying
Most English pubs do not offer table service – you have to go to the bar and order your drink(s). If it’s busy it might be an idea to secure a table or spot to stand and leave your partner or the rest of your party there while you go to the bar. That also means that unless you have sat down to eat, and ask a waiter to ‘open a tab’, you have to pay for each drink, or round of drinks, as you order them. Cash or card (almost always contactless these days) is fine. Most pubs (but beware not all!) will open a tab for you if you leave your payment card behind the bar, but usually you are expected to pay as you order.
For food be prepared to order and pay at the bar, for both food and drink, in advance and then tell the bar staff where you are sitting.
It is unusual to be able to reserve a table in an English pub (unlike, say, Prague where it is normal to do so) unless it is more of a restaurant or there is a special event, like a quiz night. So feel free to find a place and sit there, although you will still probably have to order and pay at the bar. And unlike, for example, France, if there is table service it will be at the same price as if you ordered yourself standing at the bar.
Buying a Beer
Stop! Do not just order a ‘beer’! In a London pub they will understand that you are visiting and guide you through it, but English beer comes in 3 main different varieties and 2 sizes, and it helps to say what you want when you order.
Firstly we serve draught beer (ie from the pump or tap) in either a pint glass (c. ½ litre) or a half (of a pint), not as on the continent as ‘large’ or ‘small’, and you ought to specify the size when you order one. If you know the make of the beer you want, ask, for example, for a ‘pint of London Pride’ or a ‘half of Stella’; if you don’t recognize the brand then a ‘pint of bitter’ or a ‘half of lager’ will do and the bar person will pick one out – see below.
Secondly there is the type of beer you want. The typical English beer is ‘bitter’ (or ale), but fear not it doesn’t (usually!) taste bitter, but has more flavour as it is pulled from the barrel with a hand pump and not pushed by gas, so is fresh and ‘alive’ – and no it’s not warm, but cool rather than cold. Note that if you order just bitter you will get the normal one, but if you order ‘best’ it will be a bit stronger and more flavourful. Otherwise you can order what the rest of the world calls beer, but we call ‘lager’, which will come from the tap and is best ordered by brand. Then of course there is Guinness, which is a type of ‘stout’ but reasonably universal – and you either like it or not! If you are in a pub which serves ‘milk stout’ from a pump (sadly not many), give it a go; it’s sort of mix between ale and stout, a sweet dark beer.
To be fair there are more types of beer, and with bottles and craft beer really lots more, along with cider, both straight and flavoured – but I’ll leave that up to you.
Buying Other Drinks in Pubs
Wine selection in most pubs these days is reasonably good; ask for the wine list or the grape varieties they serve by the glass. If you just ask for ‘red’ or ‘white’ you might be given a choice, or you might be given the house wine which could be anything! Glass sizes are usually 150ml for small and 250ml (1/3 of a bottle) for large.
Spirit measures are quite small, so if you want something bigger ask for a ‘double’ or ‘large’ one. Most pubs now have a wide selection of spirits, especially the drink of the moment which is gin, but if you just ask for a ‘scotch’ or ‘gin and tonic’ you will get the basic brand available.
Non-alchohol, or ‘soft’, drinks are readily available, but as usual in any bar anywhere in the world are not great value!
Buying a round of drinks. What’s that you may ask? In England if you are in a group in a pub, because you have to pay for your drinks when you order them it is traditional that each person buys each round of drinks for the group in succession. You don’t calculate the cost of each drink and how many you have had, so sometimes you will buy more than you drink yourself, and other times the opposite – it’s ‘swings and roundabouts’, as we say in England. If it is a large group and you won’t obviously be there long enough to all buy a round, you can ‘split’ the cost between two of you. But it is bad manners to think too hard about what you are spending – always ‘stand your round’! If you are not drinking much, because you don’t or perhaps you are the car driver that day, then it would be good manners for the others to recognise that and not expect you to take your turn every time.
Getting served at the Bar. In a busy pub with a lot of people waiting their turn at the bar that can be frustrating; have a look at this link for the 4 top tips on how to get served at the bar more quickly.
I hope this small guide helps you to have the best time whilst you experience our fair city. Maybe join us on our London Lights or London From the Southbank tours to find out and visit our favourite pub in London.
For any more help navigating London as a tourist, you can see our other guide on how to use public transport.