Bar service versus table service

Long-standing CAMRA member Rob Walters on why he much prefers to order at the bar

Paul’s article “Why I’m sticking with table service” explains why the Gardeners Arms in Plantation Road provides a useful alternative to the licensed premises of Jericho and Oxford as a whole, and of course he knows how to attract his customers and keep them happy. However, I would like to take up the issue of table service in the wider context of pub goers.

I must confess immediately that I am a barfly. Yes, of course, I enjoy visiting pubs with friends and am quite content to sit at a table with them and I suppose table service is then pretty handy – though I must admit that even in those circumstances I do enjoy the occasional visit to the bar to get in a round. But I also enjoy visiting pubs alone, whereas I’m not at all keen on sitting at a table alone. Entering a pub that I’ve never been to before and finding a pub littered with people at the bar, some standing, some sitting, some chatting, some quietly drinking, is my delight. I am a real ale drinker, of course, and like nothing more than the sight of a range of gleaming hand pumps, some displaying beers that I have never tasted. And of course, I look forward to sampling them before I buy  — how does that work with table service, I wonder?

I am a stand-up drinker myself, but that’s by the by. What I really appreciate is a barkeep who engages in a little bit of chat: about the beer, the weather or whatever. And if that leads to the beginning of a conversation along the bar with other barflies, then even better. If not I’m quite content to stand on my own, quaffing my ale, absorbing the atmosphere, watching the coming and goings in the bar. I’ve met some really interesting people in this arbitrary manner and got to know more about my fellow human beings and, hopefully, them about me.  But, of course, it does not always work: some bars are just not friendly; some people do not like speaking to strangers. Also I sometimes find myself in conversation with someone whose views are quite at odds with my own (or vice versa) – but that’s no problem. I simply finish my drink and leave – there are always other bars, hopefully welcoming and hopefully without table service.

Rob Walters

And then there’s that whole business of having a local, somewhere that you can go to without any prior arrangement, and yet the chances are that there will be someone sitting at the bar who you know. Somehow sitting next to a casual fellow drinker is quite different from joining someone at a table, especially if they are already drinking with friends. The bar area is different, it’s common land. You are not invading someone’s privacy by being there. The barflies are in effect registering their willingness to chat by being at the bar rather than at a table.

Of course the layout of a pub is important here as some pubs lend themselves to these arbitrary meet-ups, while others do not. Paul’s bar is quite small and I do appreciate the problem of queuing for drinks from both the drinker’s and the landlord’s point of view. However, I can also say that I have had some great conversations at his bar over the years and hope to have more.

I guess this is just the way I see things, and I know quite a few people who would not dream of going into a pub alone, let along chatting to strangers at the bar. But the point of all this is to address what to me, as a drinker rather than a diner, is a fundamental problem facing pub operators in the future: how do you differentiate yourself from a restaurant (and vice versa of course)?  I spend a lot of time on the continent, in France and Spain mostly, where table service is the norm. And there aren’t many pubs where I go, or not what I would define as a pub. 

In many ways having a bar, having customers come to the bar for drinks, tasting ales, chatting to the barkeep and other interchanges, all of which I have described above, is collectively the defining feature of a pub. To my mind table service could be the final death knell of pubs as we know them and as I love them. It might also lead to the imposition of the insidious table charge which has already crept into some Oxford pubs. This charge adds insult to injury for someone who would much rather collect their beer from the bar.

I think I know what you may be thinking: have both. But somehow that’s not the ticket – many restaurants have bars, but they are still not pubs. I leave the last word to Hilaire Belloc, poet and graduate of Balliol College, Oxford: “Change your hearts or you will lose your inns and you will deserve to have lost them. But when you have lost your Inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England.”

Welcoming faces at the bar….. landlord Kevin Bloomfield (right) with Sam Bridges at the Seven Stars, Marsh Baldon