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The Mystery Of The British Pub In California

May 15, 2007

There are lots of British people in California, so it's no surprise that there are lots of British pubs here too. I use "British" in the loosest sense of the word, as I don't think many native Britishers would be fooled by what passes for a pub experience here.

Even when a drinking establishment calls itself a pub rather than a bar, is decorated with dusty antique stags heads and distressed wood, serves flat, warm beer and shows soccer games on the TV, there's always something missing. The trouble is, it's difficult to put my finger on what that something is.

The most British of all British pubs around the Bay Area is probably The Pelican Inn at Muir Beach. It's pretty much a dead ringer for country drinking spots back home, down to the talkative bar staff and the Ploughman's Lunch. Its lonely location, at the intersection of two tiny roads several miles away from the nearest small town, reminds me of one of my favorite pubs in Kent, where I grew up -- The Duck at Pett Bottom. (Ian Fleming wrote some of his James Bond novels there.) But even at The Pelican, things don't feel quite right.

I feel the same way about The Edinburgh Castle, another favorite place for a drink. Tonight I'll be meeting a few friends there for fish n' chips, beer and trivia night. The Edinburgh Castle goes as far as to serve its fish n' chips British style, in old newspaper pages. The place smells of stale beer and is a favorite haunt of British literati like Irvine Welsh, who always frequents the place when he's in town. And still, you know you're in California even in this little anglo-centric oasis.

Obviously one of the main differences between a pub in, say, London, and one in San Francisco is the absence of smoke in the latter. But once anti-smoking laws kick in in British pubs this Summer, even this contrast will disappear. I wonder whether the true identifier of a real UK pub is much more subtle than anything you can easily describe. It's probably something to do withe the atmosphere, the kinds of conversations at the bar, and the ratio of talking to drinking.

The irony is that every time I go to my homeland, the number of pubs seems to be dwindling faster than a keg of Bud at a frat house party. For the past 15 years or so, the big chains have gradually been taking over and "modernizing" all the lovely old establishments, replacing smoke-stained tin ceilings with plaster, steak and kidney pie with salade nicoise, and beers made by the local beermaker with ones produced by mega-breweries. British pubs are becoming more and more homogeneous -- and less welcoming. Soon, Californian attempts at recreating the British pub experience will start to look more authentic than the original thing. What a bizarre paradox.

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