You can drink the whole town dry,
But you'll never find a beer so brown,
As the one we drink in our hometown!
You can drink 'em by the flagon,
But the only brew for the brave and true,
Comes from the Green Dragon!"
British pubs are not — and let us make this entirely clear — just a place to get shitfaced. They're mostly a place to get shitfaced, yes, but a good pub is also the cornerstone of a community, a place where people from all walks of life can come in from the cold, pull up a chair and pass the time of day. The British pub is an institution, and like many ancient institutions, it has a number of codes and practices that may make no sense to an outsider. Consider this, then, your guide to the Great British pub.
Pub vs Bar
Let's nip this one in the bud right now: a pub is not the same as a bar. In Britain, a bar is generally a place that exists purely to get people wankered. It's more of a booze vending machine than a place. A pub is literally a "public house", and generally has a slightly more welcoming, home-like atmosphere. One easy way to tell the difference is to look at the decorations: oak furnishings, pool tables, dart boards and odd metal trinkets (like horse bridles, brass coal pans, etc) are good signs that you're in a pub. If in doubt, remember this easy-to-remember couplet:
- Oak and brass - a touch of class.
Pine and chrome - a horrible, soulless shithole that'll no doubt be full of wankers come Friday.note
If you would feel uncomfortable spending all day there, then you're probably in a bar. Most uses of the word "bar" from here on will refer to the bar in a pub; ie. the wooden surface over which drinks and money are exchanged (and under which copied DVDs/bootleg cigarettes and money are exchanged... sometimes).
The legal age for purchasing alcohol is 18.note Depending on the establishment, its location, your appearance and random chance you may be required to provide proof of age on entry or at the bar when you go to buy a drink. Generally the only acceptable forms are photocard driving licenses, passports, "PASS" accredited ID cards and military or police ID cards. Carry one to avoid disappointment or being asked to leave!
Most pubs in Britain have a fairly uniform way of announcing themselves to the world. Generally, there will be a large sign on each of the outer walls of the pub announcing its name, with raised gold letters on a green, red or blue background. There will often be a sign sticking out of one or more of the outer walls, or on a pole in the car park, with a painting depicting whatever is in the pub's title. This is a holdover from the days when most of the population was unable to read. (It's still useful to those who are unable to read, such as those who have just come out of the pub and are now attempting to call a taxi.)
If the pub is open for business, the front door will be open, with another interior door closed to keep out the draft. Very old pubs may not have this airlock system and so may have the door closed, but these are relatively rare. If in doubt, give the door a bit of a push.
Traditionally pubs have been split into the lounge and the bar, or sometimes the "Saloon" and "Public Bar" depending on where in the country you are. (And no, the Saloon will not have bat-wing doors or gunfights, it will have old men playing cribbage.) This used to be done to keep the middle classes and working classes apart; the former would pay more for plusher seats and carpets, and the latter would make do with cheaper beer but bare floors. Over time, this altered to the point where the bar was just as comfortable, so that the only real difference is that the lounge would have a juke box or pool table, or other games. These days very few pubs bother to make the distinction, and there will certainly not be any difference in prices between the two rooms — if, indeed, the two rooms have not been knocked into one. note Certain old pubs even have a smaller third room, known as the "Snug". The Snug is usually inhabited by the well-established regulars who spend more time there than in their own homes. Snugs are sometimes so exclusive that you can go to the same pub for years before discovering that it even has a Snug.
As described above, pubs will generally have a more relaxed, comfortable, worn-in atmosphere compared to trendy bars.
Smoking inside public buildings is now banned throughout Britain. If you wish to smoke, you will have to do so outside. Non-smokers can note the weird hive-mind that begins to develop: one smoker will head out for a cigarette and immediately most of the other smokers in the room will do the same. Spooky! You can usually vape inside, but some pubs & chains (such as Wetherspoons) ban it as it creates headaches for staff trying to differentiate between smoking (illegal) and vaping (legal).
Depending on the pub there might be no garden at all, a few tables and chairs in a patio type area or a large garden with many picnic style tables and benches. These can be very pleasant during better weather during the day and evening. Most pubs with large gardens provide large parasols to shade the tables if it's sunny. Note that some pubs may require you to purchase drinks in plastic glasses if you wish to consume them in the garden.
The Round System
In Britain, it is traditional for people drinking in groups to buy in 'rounds' — that is, each person takes it in turn to buy drinks - known as 'Standing their round' - for the others at the table. This is as close to compulsory as is possible. Destitution is the only really good excuse for not getting involved in the round system. No proper friend would force his chum to buy a round if he didn't want to, of course, but no good friend would refuse to buy rounds for other people either. If one is in a massive group (10+ people), they may find that the crowd splits into smaller round-buying groups.
The practice in buying rounds is for someone to offer to buy the first round; the others in the group will then state what drinks they want — the person who made the offer then heads off to the bar to get the round. If a person wants snacks such as peanuts (available in bags at the bar; only rarely are they made available in bowls for free), then they are usually expected to pay for their own. If there are too many drinks for one person to carry — and no trays are available — then they can leave the remainder on the bar while they take the first batch over. These drinks ought to remain unmolested. In theory.
Once everyone's drinks are getting low — but have not yet run out; the purpose of the round system is to keep the drink flowing after all — the next person will offer to get the next round. People are welcome to skip out of the rounds if they are not close to finishing their drinks, or do not want to drink too much, but they will be expected to buy a round when their turn comes.
The trick to the round system is to not get too wound up about whether you are ahead or behind the pack in terms of beers bought and drunk. If you spend your time worrying about how well you are doing then you're not having the proper pub experience. The general belief is that it all evens out in the end; if you're down this time you might be up next time. Think of it as alcohol karma.
Even if your group does not wish to buy using a round system, please co-ordinate your orders and have just one person go up to the bar. Bar space is typically at a premium, so having more than two or three people in a group huddling around the bar is just selfish.
- The exception to the Round System is the Designated Driver (see later). They are not expected to buy a round but are included in everyone else's. 1, because they are likely to be your ride home and you should be nice to them, especially since they're missing out on the alcohol to do so, and 2, their drinks are probably much cheaper. If you are a teetotaller, expect to have free drinks for the rest of your life. In return, never accept petrol money from the people you ferry home.
- A standard concept in British comedy is The Guy Who Doesn't Buy A Round, a mild version of The Scrooge. "He doesn't stand his round" is a damning indictment of somebody's character.note
The first time you buy a round that includes your Dad is a male rite of passage in the UK.
The round system is, it should be noted, quite flexible. A group of drinkers who include somebody's 80 year old dad may not require the dad to 'Stand his round'. Similarly if a group is made up of male/female couples, then the round will be only the men buying. People celebrating their birthday/engagement/leaving do etc, will usually stand the first round, then will get drinks bought for them the rest of the evening, even if the group has split into smaller rounds as it expands. This is a very good way to get accidentally drunk: you buy 4 drinks at the start of the evening for the people you arrived with, and by eleven you are part of a round of 25 people, all of whom have bought you a drink.
Single women are often not expected to buy a round if in a group of predominately males/couples. This is chivalry. Likewise it is possible to opt out of the round but only at the start, with the phrase "It's alright thanks, I'll get my own" when someone first enquires what you would like to drink. This is done when you would not be in a position to return the favour, ie you are only staying for one, or are broke. If someone is already in a (different) round when you offer a drink, they may say "No thanks, I'm already in a school".
Amongst some (often younger) groups, especially if more casually acquainted the round system may well be dispensed with altogether to avoid arguments and allow for wildly varying drinking rates.
Larger groups may replace the round with the 'Whip'. Everyone puts an agreed amount, often £10 or £20 in the kitty, which is then used to buy drinks as and when, with top ups as the evening progresses.
Getting To The Bar
If there is a light crowd around the bar, then stand at the back and skip to the "Getting served" section.
If the bar is packed (usually only happens in clubs and bars as opposed to pubs) then get ready to weave. Do not push or jostle, but instead make your way towards the crowd. The outer layers — especially in clubs — may be people waiting for drinks to be passed over; weave through them and in as close as you can to the bar. Slot into open spaces, but do not force your way in or you may find people purposely obstructing you for being difficult. Once you are embedded in the crowd, wait for the flow of people to open up spaces in front of you.
Put one hand on the bar the first chance you get, unless it means seriously reaching past people or through close-knit people. Wait until you can get close enough to put both hands on the bar. You are now ready to try to get the bar staff's attention.
Occasionally the staff will ask the people in the second row if they want to be served. This is rare and relies upon the people in the front row all ordering so many drinks that they take ages to pour, but be aware and keep your ears open.
Sometimes someone who is in the queue ahead of you will offer to let you go in front of him, especially if you both reached the bar simultaneously. The only correct response to this is "no, it's okay, you go ahead". If he accepts, then wait your turn. If he insists you go ahead then go for it. Don't keep bouncing polite offers to each other, though; that's just embarrassing.
British people do not like people to make a fuss. Thus, to be served in a pub (or indeed in a bar or club), you must do everything you can to not make a racket. Do not tap coins on the bar — this is annoying. Do not shout out for service — this will incur their wrath. Do not wave money — the bar staff are not strippers. At least, not usually, although some pubs will have strippers on occasions.
Instead, be quiet and accept that you will be served, if not straight away. Most bar staff do pay attention to the order of people at the bar and will make an effort to follow that order, but people who annoy them may be bumped back a bit to teach them a lesson. Be aware, however, there is a hierarchy that may come into play, particularly with barmen: You < attractive girl < attractive girl with cleavage < regular. Regulars are the only people who are allowed to shout out and cajole the bar staff. Do not follow their lead. If you are an attractive regular with cleavage then congratulations, you've won! Just don't sleep with any of the bar staff, because that can only lead to complications in the queueing system.
For the rest of us, the trick to getting the bar staff's attention is to stand up straight and try to make eye contact with them without being ostentatious. Follow the person who is serving your section of the bar with your eyes. If you make eye contact, merely raise your eyebrows briefly, or slightly raise your chin as if to say "yes, I have acknowledged your presence and you have acknowledged mine. I'm not making a big thing out of it, though." They will also give a little bit of a gesture to let you know that they see you. They may say "be with you in a minute" or something similar if you are behind a couple of people in their mental queue and have made eye contact early. Do NOT under ANY circumstances be the wanker who says "Me next mate, yeah?" — as this will only make the bar staff not want to serve you [as you've just forced your way to the front of the 'queue' by being a rude git] and increases the likelihood that there will be spit in your beer.
Sometimes the bar will have a small step around the base. Resist the temptation to get on the step to get noticed by the bar staff, even if you're short it can be seen as an intimidating gesture.
If you are ordering Guinness or another similar "stout" beer order these first as they take time to pour and settle.
Most British pubs will feature a number of beers and lagers. It's a good idea to have a glance at what's available (there will be signs on the pumps, or in the case of brands like Guinness, specially-designed pumps) before you order. Try experimenting - there are often a few house beers that are brewed locally and there can be some real gems amongst these. If you want a US/European-style beer, ask for a lager — unless that lager is Foster's, because that tastes like horse piss. Alternatively, there may be US or European beers behind the bar in refrigerators at ground level; take a glance before you order. And then stop being just a big jessie and order some British booze. You didn't go abroad to pretend you were at home, did you? US visitors are further cautioned that the only beers your fair country exports to Britain in quantity are Budweiser, Coors and Miller Light; this has done very bad things to British perceptions of the quality of your beer. Expect much commentary on this. Look out for anything for the CAMRA (Campaign For Real Ale) logo (it has the letters "CAMRA" in the shape of a tankard, with the "C" forming the handle) if you are unsure. If you cannot spot this look for the beer with the Double Entendre name: chances is it will be Real Ale. Bitter and ale are much darker and less carbonated, and should be served at about the temperature of red wine. They're also generally quite a bit more powerful than a typical lager. Draught drinks may be served with a frothy head depending on the type of beverage you've ordered. If it does come with a head it will either be in a glass with a line on - the line indicates one pint and the head is on top or in a normal pint glass - in this case the head should be no more than 5% of the volume and the barman will top your drink up on request if you'd prefer a full pint without a head.
- Stella Artois, BTW, does not look sophisticated. It has become known as "wife-beater" in the UK due to its high alcohol content, and the fact that the people who drink it probably beat their wives. As long as you treat it as the young Gargle Blaster it is, Stella is nevertheless rather pleasant.
- Unless you would like to look even less sophisticated (not to mention upright), do not ask for any kind of "Special Brew". This is not any kind of high-quality, or indeed, "special" product. Instead, it is what is known in North America as "malt liquor"; crap, cheap beer with an upped alcohol content. Stereotypically drunk by tramps (bums and hobos to you lot).
- The thing to look out for is the beer engine, the tall pump handles on the bar, generally with the name of the beer on a clip-on badge. This isn't an infallible guarantee of quality — the best of British beer is a living thing and needs tender care to be at its glorious best — but it's a good start. These days British beers encompass a far wider range of styles than the bitters and milds of thirty years ago; there are pale beers, golden beers, dark beers, porters, stouts, old ales, even fruit beers. You won't see the whole range everywhere, you have to explore and be adventurous. Most large enough towns will have at least one pub with a good range of these, often a smaller one, while larger ones may have anything from one or two token ones to a range almost as wide. It is sometimes considered good form to at least try the local beers, though if you are only staying for one pint you are not obliged to. In Edinburgh, for instance, anything made by the Caledonian Brewery ("the Caley") is the most acceptable variety of beer.
- Real ale, local brews or anything with an ominous name doesn't necessarily mean a pint of something that tastes like industrial runoff, many local beers can be quite mild and easy to drink. If in doubt take a look at the logos on the bar there's usually the alcohol content of the drink on there somewhere.
The standard units of measurement in the UK are pints (equivalent just over half a litre, or around 1/6th more than an American pint) and half-pints. Half-pints are for ladies and children. If you are neither, drink pints. It can be acceptable to take a half should you be drinking appreciably slower than others, or if you have to leave shortly, for the purpose of "topping up" a current drink. The lower levels of carbonation in most traditional Real Ale allows this to be done quickly and easily from the new glass to the half-full old one with a deft flick of the wrists. Those unpracticed are warned that the classic error beginners make is to fail to satisfactorily empty their previous drink. This can lead to embarrassment. The standard way of ordering is to say "I'll have an X, please", where X is the beverage of your choice. To order a half-pint, say "I'll have half an X, please", but remember you may be misheard as having said "I'll have an X" as half-pints are not that common in most pubs, so be prepared to correct them quickly if you see them getting out a pint glass. "An X, please," is also fine: especially if the pub is noisy and "Have an X," could be misheard as "Half an X".
If you are ordering a stout and a lager, order the stout first so that the bar staff can let it run while they pour the lager; stouts take some time to "settle". Woe betide the foolish pub-goer who orders half a dozen drinks, lets the barmaid pour/open them, and then finishes with "oh, and a pint of Guinness". That pub-goer will have trouble getting served for the rest of the evening.
Cider is treated much the same way beer is, though ordering / drinking it can also result in light-hearted mockery and questioning of masculinity by beer-drinkers. Do not take this personally, as the beer-drinkers are just trying to compensate for their lower alcohol-content. Perry (a.k.a. Pear Cider), on the other hand, really is a girly drink. In The West Country Cider is, or at least was, the traditional drink of choice, and as a result you are far more likely to see a good selection of Cider in the West Country and Cornwall than elsewhere. West Country Pubs are also more likely to stock Scrumpy and interesting and pleasant cider aficionados who will be more than willing to chat to you and who are most certainly not all mad toothless old men who may or may not be part of some strange mutant race of cider-fuelled west-country owl-people bent on our destruction and/or the collecting of vintage traction engine memorabilia. Scrumpy is a cloudy, low-carbonation Cider of around 6-8.5% alcohol by volume, and the combination of high alcohol content and citric acid does strange things to your mind, teeth and bowels if taken in over-large amounts: the Scumble in Terry Pratchetts Discworld books is loosely based on his memories of real Scrumpy when he was growing up in the west country. Try it though, it's fun.
There is also the matter of Snake-Bite: a combination of beer and cider (and sometimes blackcurrant cordial, called a Snake-Bite & Black) that but will do more liver-damage than the sum of its parts. Needless to say it is quite a bit more popular these days than by any rights it should be. This is most likely due to its popularity with students; it's cheap & powerful (and in the case of the "& Black" version, sweet). The taste gets repetitive rather quickly though and some pubs refuse to serve it due to its associations with people getting very drunk on it very quickly and starting trouble.
Wine, Spirits and Miscellaneous
Nearly all pubs will have at least some wines available, though range and quality vary hugely. Britain not having much in the way of a native wine industry, nearly all of it will be imported, often from across the globe. Do not let anything you may have heard from the French put you off trying the stuff from further afield; some of the Australian or South American vintages are pretty good.
Spirits of one sort or another can be had in all pubs. A single measure of whiskey or vodka will set you back about the price of a pint, mixers are a small amount extra but ice is invariably free. However, it's extremely bad form to order the truly classy stuff any way but neat (or in the case of truly classy Scotch, "with a drop," i.e. a drop of water that supposedly "opens" the native flavor of the whisky).
Most pubs now stock a selection of premixed bottled chilled drinks such as Bacardi Breezers and Smirnoff Ice. These are fruity, sweet, often fizzy and real men wouldn't be caught dead drinking any of them.note
Cocktails generally come in two forms. Upmarket pubs and wine bars will serve classic cocktails and those of their own devising as an expensive upmarket drink in a proper glass with all the trimmings. Student pubs and the like will also serve cocktails but these are generally cheap (for the alcohol content) concoctions of almost any combination of spirits, liquers and the like, luridly coloured and served in pint glasses as a good way to get drunk.
Non alcoholic drinks are nearly always available, though the price and selection may put you off. Depending on the pub, draft soft drinks such as coke or lemonade may be much cheaper than a normal pint, be around the same price or infuriatingly actually be more expensivenote . Bottled and canned non-alcoholic drinks may also be on the menu at a similarly inflated price.
A small number of pubs, usually those offering food, sell hot beverages as well as the usual selection of fizzy drinks. Bar staff won't usually mind pouring in a shot of spirits, but if you're ordering the fortified beverage to go this is a technical violation of any local laws against drinking alcohol in a public place, albeit one the police are unlikely to kick up a fuss over.
If a pub is offering food then the standard practice is to claim a table, see what food you want (menus may be available at the bar if they're not on the tables; there may also be a chalk board with the day's specials on it), take note of your table number and then go to the bar to order the food. If the tables have no numbers on them then you will be given a numbered object (often a comically painted spoon in a bottle) to place on your table.
Most pubs will ask you to pay for the food upfront, but some go for the usual restaurant style of bringing the bill later. You can then return to your table and wait for your food to be brought over. This is a one-time thing; do not treat the person who brought you the food as a waiter or waitress. If you want to order more food or drinks, you will have to go to the bar again.
Condiments will either be brought to your table in a basket or holder, or else will be made available on some kind of table or dresser somewhere in the pub; the bar staff should tell you where it is if the latter rule is in effect.
Pubs do not usually offer food all day round — check with the bar staff to see if they are doing food at that time. Most pubs even if they don't do food or are not serving it at that time offer a selection of bar snacks if you're feeling peckish - crisps (potato chips for our USA readers), nuts, pork scratchings and occasionally chocolate bars are typical fare. If complimentary bar snacks are provided, avoid communal bowls sitting on the bar - ask for a fresh one.note
Food quality, of course, varies. Most pubs with food will offer standard menu items such as most food you could conceivably find eaten with chips, while more food-oriented places will have a wider selection. Note that in places with less of an emphasis on food, it may be difficult to find vegetarian items other than a plate of chips — on the other hand, meat is generally good, and portions are usually large (indeed, one of the few places where you can get American-size portions of anything in Britain would be at a pub).
For some mysterious reason, every single pub in Britain invariably serves one particular dish, consisting of a grilled chicken breast covered in bacon and melted cheese and smothered in barbecue sauce. It has many names (usually a "delete as applicable" variation on "BBQ Bacon and Chicken Melt"), but it tastes exactly the same everywhere. It's practically a trope in itself. Served with chips (of course) and sometimes in a hot sandwich.
In Britain, "pissed" means "drunk", not "angry". If someone tells you that they are pissed then they are likely very drunk — drunk enough to tell complete strangers how inebriated they are. (Shamefully, this happens more often than perhaps some Brits would prefer.) The correct way to say that you are angry in British is "pissed off", as in "I am pissed off." Other common euphemisms for drunkenness include "smashed", "wasted", "wankered", "fucked", "caned" and too many more to list here.
While drink spiking is much rarer than the media would have you believe, young ladies in particular should not leave drinks unattended, especially in crowded and noisy city centre pubs, for obvious reasons.
Regulars are people who go into the pub frequently — sometimes several times a week. This does not necessarily denote alcoholism; the pub is a central part of many local British communities, and often friends will go down to their local pub midweek for just a pint or two and a chat. Regulars are known to the bar staff and will often be seen having a nice chat with them. If you are new to a pub, do not follow the regulars for cues on how to act. You know when you meet people who act like they're your best friend even though you've only just met them? Don't be one of them. The bar staff, being British (unless you are in London, in which case they will be Australian), do not necessarily want to talk to just anyone. However, if they do engage you in conversation then feel free to chat. Conversation about your country of origin becomes more and more likely the further you get from any major city centre.
Usually there will be seating on high stools at the bar, with wooden tables dotted around the pub and booths on the walls. If you are new to a pub and there are seats elsewhere available, it is probably not a good idea to drink at the bar, unless the barman has engaged you in conversation. This is because the bar itself is generally reserved for regulars. If someone says you are sitting on their stool, you probably are.
Unlike the US, serving staff in Britain earn the same minimum wage as everyone else, regardless of opportunities to get tipped. Thus, you are not expected to tip every time you buy a drink — or indeed at all. However, if the landlord or barperson has given exceptional service — perhaps he took a bullet for you or donated a kidney to your dying child — then you can give a gratuity. However, note that directly tipping with money is generally frowned upon; the traditional thing is to offer the barman "one for yourself". The barman will then either pour himself a small amount of beer or a shot for later, or take the equivalent money and put it in a tip jar.
However, if you are eating in a pub and it is following the restaurant rules (bill brought to the table rather than having you pay upfront) then leaving a ten percent tip is the done thing.
The standard practice in British pubs is to pay each time you get a drink or drinks. Tabs can sometimes be set up by handing your credit card in behind the bar at the start of a drinking session as collateral, assuming that the pub in question has the relevant machine (not an option in some country pubs). Not all pubs do this.
If you are a regular in a pub and trusted by the pub staff you may be allowed a "slate", which will see them writing down your name and the amount of money you owe, which you can pay at a later date. However, to get to this point requires a great degree of dedication to your given pub, in which case why are you even reading this thing?
If someone is sitting at a table, even one person on a large table, do not sit down there unless you know them, although in some situations it may be considered acceptable if you ask first. Do not take chairs from a partly-occupied table without asking. If you are sitting at a table, leave your empty glasses there and one of the bar staff will collect them sooner or later. If you are not at a table, place them back on the bar or on an out of the way empty table. On behalf of your bar staff it is only fair to mention that if you return your glasses to the bar or other collecting area when you leave and they notice (a pleasant "Thank you" as you are leaving usually suffices to draw attention but do not make a dramatic gesture of your action) they will be both pleasantly suprised and more likely to serve you ahead of your perceived position in the queue in the future should you return.
Many pubs will have a pool table, usually coin-operated. If you want to play a game of pool, then put a pound coin (or however much the machine is charging) on the side of the table. When your pound is up, it's your turn. If you want to keep the table for a while, put two or three more pounds on the side. Note that often these tables will have red/yellow balls rather than the dots and stripes version familiar to US pool players; you can play the game just the same, although there may be alternative rules posted up on a nearby wall. Cues will usually be in a cue holder next to the table. If there are none, ask at the bar. The bar also usually has spare chalk; alternatively, the chalk may be chained to the table.
If the table is not coin-operated, ask at the bar for balls. You may have to give a five pound deposit, or possibly pay an hourly rate — it varies from pub to pub. This is also the case with many other games, such as darts, bowls etc (This is not the bowling many Americans may be used to. Try it, its fun. Try it pissed, it's even better). If it's a fairly middle-class-looking pub, the bar may also have some board games for you to use. Alternatively, it may have dominoes. Please do not spend all evening trying to set up a huge line of Dominoes to knock over, someone might actual want the set of dominoes to play a game of dominoes with, and it will make you look like a twerp. Gambling is forbidden by law unless on games of pure skill, or shiny electronic devices the landlord has installed as a method to tax optimism, as listed below.
Many pubs will also have what Americans refer to as slot machines, but in the UK are known as fruit machines. Intricate blinking things with buttons and lights and baffling scoring systems, no explanation will be given at any point on how to play these things, nor will their exact method of operation become clear until you're already addicted. These are, of course, a waste of money unless you're the Rainman or something, due in no small part to the fact that The Computer Is a Cheating Bastard. Note that the payout percentages on British machines are far below the US equivalents - 70% is typical.
There is likely to be at least one regular with an apparently mystical touch on the fruit machine, who will play it for no more than five minutes before somehow inducing it to disgorge a staggering amount of money in a kind of shuddering clunking mechanical orgasm. Do not be misled into thinking that you can achieve the same result. You can't.
Fruit machines are falling off in popularity and being replaced by touch-screen quiz machines, usually featuring around thirty games of varying complexity on each machine. The best game for actually winning anything back is Pub Quiz, followed by Deal or No Deal; if you're looking for a longer game and don't mind losing money then Monopoly is the way to go. If you fancy looking at scantily-clad ladies while you quiz, there is usually a game based on Nuts or Zoo, which are cheap alternatives to FHM or Maxim (with less famous subjects), and combine quizzing with pictures of the aforementioned scantily-clad girls. Don't bother with any of the others, especially the arcade-based ones. Depending on how high the barman has set the difficulty level, the quizzes will be either fairly tricky or downright impossible, and will generally eat your money either way.
If there is a dartboard, the pub may well have its own own darts team made up of regulars (see below) for an annual tournament with other nearby pubs, which is often surprisingly Serious Business for a game whose participants are all drinking beer while they play.
In country pubs, and some in inner cities, there will be two old men sitting in a corner playing cribbage. No one seems to know why. Do not disturb them. Some pubs may also have newspapers and/or books you can borrow during your visit to peruse.
The British love sports, especially football (soccer, to any US readers). If you want to see a sports event in Britain then make sure you see it in a pub. Just make sure you sit out of the way of the people who are actually passionate about the sport — better to sit at the back, so you can watch the game and the people without having to pretend to know what's going on. And don't interrupt to ask what the rules are, unless you're watching it with a native friend who doesn't mind.
If you are in a pub in Scotland and England are playing, cheer whichever side isn't England. If you are in a pub in Wales and England are playing rugby union, cheer whichever side isn't England. If you are in Northern Ireland, do not bring up England or the concept of "Britain" at all. Ever. (This applies to anywhere in Northern Ireland, not specifically pubs.)
Pub Quizzes and Karaoke Nights
A lot of pubs will attempt to bring in extra punters with karaoke and pub quizzes. Karaoke is pretty much what you'd expect, although due to a rather irritating British law, the screen must be turned away from the rest of the pubgoers and only viewable by the singers — unless the pub has a licence to broadcast films, which is unlikely. Thus, all-pub singalongs are hard to organise other than with a song that most people will know the words to anyway (or at least attempt to drunkenly sing half the words to.)
Pubs will also often organise pub quizzes, sometimes around particular themes (sports, rock music, movies etc) and sometimes just based on general knowledge questions. Almost every pub in a town or city will have a weekly quiz night on what might otherwise be a quiet night (Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays are usual). If you want to participate, turn up before the quiz is scheduled to start, which can be anything from 8pm to 9.30pm, buy a drink and grab a table. Sometimes the quiz papers and pens will be ready on the tables and sometimes you will have to request one from one of the bar staff who will be wandering around. Alternatively, they may come from table to table asking if you are there for the quiz and hand you a sheet and pen if you are. If the quiz is paid for, they will collect the money at the same time — usually 50p to a couple of pounds, depending on the quality of the prizes. If there is no price displayed anywhere in the pub (there will generally be a board somewhere advertising the quiz night), it's probably free. The usual prize for a free quiz is a couple of drinks on the house per person.
Each team is encouraged to give themselves a humorous or at least vaguely interesting name (prizes may be awarded for this in some pubs) and there will then follow a series of rounds announced by a DJ, usually including: naming a celebrity whose face has been crudely photocopied onto the quiz sheet, identifying a song by its intro, general knowledge questions, and identifying the year a song was released. At the end of a round the quizmaster may run through the questions quickly for those who missed them the first time around. In the event of a tiebreaker, team captains may be called up to do a quickfire round on the microphone. Prizes vary, but free drinks at the next pub quiz is usually in there, cynical though that may seem.
There's nothing to stop you from going to the toilets and using your mobile phone to find out, except that doing so would make you a horrible bastard. Most quiz hosts will probably announce at some point that anyone caught looking up answers via technology will be thrown and barred forever. Not that it matters — the three middle-aged blokes with glasses and thinning hair will win anyway, just like they always do. The Other Wiki provides more info on pub quizzes.
The music you'll hear varies wildly. Some pubs have a no music policy (aside from impromptu singing from drunken patrons) either due to the landlords preference or lack of an appropriate music license. Otherwise the pub might have pre-selected recorded music playing, a DJ playing a themed set perhaps including requests, karaoke being performed, a jukebox where you can pay a small fee to hear a few songs from the selection on offer, screens showing music videos with the audio being played or live music ranging from a single person with a guitar through to a full live band.note
Flat-roofed pubs are erected as quickly as possible to get people hammered as quickly as possible. They are almost exclusively found in rough areas. If you see a flat-roofed pub, run in the other direction as fast as you can while your legs are still working. If you are foolish enough to enter and the place is full of tough looking people and two old men sitting in the corner playing cribbage, nice knowing you. Do NOT speak. Do not make eye contact. Do not order anything. Leave quickly and carefully, then run when you are clear of the car park.
Spilling Your Drink
If you spill someone else's drink, offer to buy them another one. If you spill that drink, buy them another one and invest in a sippy cup. You will be expected to compensate them for the original value of the drink as purchased, not what was left after the spill. So if you spill the last third of a guy's pint, you buy them another pint. Not a half. If they are feeling forgiving, they may tell you to get a half in such circumstances, but they don't have to. If, however, you spill the top third of a guy's pint, leaving him with the last two, then buy him a half to compensate.
Interestingly (and sensibly) the rules on driving while drunk in the UK are virtually identical to those in most English-speaking jurisdictions, including the United States. The legal drink-drive limit is 80mg per 100 ml of blood (0.08%) in England and Wales, and 50mg per 100ml in Scotland. That equates to about a pint, but it's safest not to take the risk, since any alcohol will slow your reaction times down. Someone should be "Des", the designated driver. As Rose Tyler's friend Shaheen once said, "Never argue with the designated driver".
Some groups will have a person be the designated driver every night, usually a friend of everybody else who has a large enough vehicle for the group, and a medical condition or other reason that makes drinking unwise or forbidden. This person usually won't pay for others drinks' in rounds, and will get soft drinks from everybody else as a way to say thank you, and potentially money at the end to pay for the petrol used to drive them to the pub.
If you're pulled over by the police and found to be over the limit, you will be arrested. If convicted, you will lose your licence unless there are exceptional circumstances. If you actually killed someone then expect a heavy fine, jail and a long ban on driving.
If you've had a particularly heavy session, be advised that you may still be over the limit the following morning.
It should be known that there are differing regional attitudes towards drink driving, certain rural areas consider drink driving to be more acceptable simply because there is no better way to get to the pub. This does not mean it is any safer or that the law will be more forgiving should you get caught. Due to this being regional, while it may be common practice in certain rural areas of, say Yorkshire or Kent, everywhere else in the UK this is considered serious business and is more than frowned upon, for obvious reasons. If you are unable to drive, ask the bar staff for a taxi and they will call one for you. Some larger pubs may also have a dedicated phone that connects to a taxi service.
Also, it's technically illegal to be "in charge" of a car while over the limit, not just driving it. If you're found slumped unconscious across the steering wheel with the engine idling you're still in for it.note
It's an unfortunate fact of life that placing people and alcohol in proximity can occasionally lead to violence. Remember that that Real Life isn't like the movies or TV - if you do get involved in a fight there may well be serious legal or other consequences. If a brawl should start, don't get involved unless you or one of your group are personally threatened or attacked - let the security teams handle it - that's what they are paid for. If someone gets belligerent, it's best to try and keep them talking until security arrive to remove them rather than trying to handle the issue yourself. If you're the sort of person who gets drunk and starts fights we'd very much prefer it if you didn't actually go in our pubs, thanks all the same.
Recent changes to the law in the movement to unify those of the constituents have meant that there is no longer an arbitrary closing time of 11pm in England, while many pubs still close at eleven anyway. (This is why seven o'clock is "late" according to Elton John.) However, since the change in the laws, a closing time of 12am is becoming more common, or 1am and 2am in some city areas. Most pubs will have a bell behind the bar which is rung around half an hour before closing time, to signify that the bar is about to close. In smaller pubs, one of the staff may simply shout 'last orders'. The bell will be rung again shortly before closing, to announce that you should finish your drink.
Some British pubs found a very ingenious way of getting around the closing time. Simply lock the front door and have people leave through the back or side door, this is called a lock-in and can be very confusing for a person who tries to leave not knowing the time. Lock-ins are illegal, as they imply the pub is still serving after hours. Common practice was to pay for drinks at closing time and redeem them later, or pay a fixed amount to buy in to the lock-in. Once the non-participants have left and the door is locked, the pub is technically closed to the public. Since the remaining patrons are not paying for drinks after hours, the pub is not strictly breaking the law. It is rare for non-regulars to find themselves in a lock-in situation, however. Indeed, the whole idea is beginning to fade away, as more and more pubs get 12 o'clock or 1 o'clock licences.
In Scotland the opening times are more flexible, and the hours depending on what the local council will permit, how many customers are likely to be there on that day of the week, and how late the staff are willing to work.
Don't argue when you are told to leave, and whatever you do don't throw punches. Either the staff will call the police, or they will evict you themselves. Both alternatives will be unpleasant. The police will likely take you to spend a night in the cells, which is emphatically not fun. The staff will simply chuck you onto the street or get creative. One pub in Edinburgh kept a puma on the premises for this purpose in the 1960s.
See My Local for a list of pubs in fiction.