The food writer Jay Rayner announced recently that because of the disastrous effects of COVID-19 on the hospitality sector, he would no longer be publishing negative restaurant reviews. Instead, if he visited a below-par eatery, he wouldn’t publish the review at all. I agree with him. Much as I like to receive due warning of somewhere I shouldn’t take a drink or have a meal, there are jobs and livelihoods at stake. So, to that end, last night I visited a pub. I won’t say which one but quite frankly the experience was rubbish. Where do I begin?
At most pubs, if you haven’t already booked a table, you wait at the door to see if they will serve you. Last night, we did that and found ourselves standing not socially distanced from the smokers. You cannot avoid the pungent smell of tobacco because you can see as well as smell it. You cannot see or smell COVID-19 so who knows if we were inhaling a heady mix of 300 carcinogens and a virus that has killed circa 70,000 of my fellow Brits?
Unusually for September, it was warm enough to sit outside the pub so I went inside to order some drinks, there being no seat service available. I went inside and was told to stand outside because the pub was full. It was far from full but there were a group of lads queuing to buy their own individual drinks. We have all been there! Two of them went outside with their drinks so I went back in and, again, was told to go outside because the pub was still full. I took a deep breath (of tobacco, sadly) and stood outside again until I was summoned.
Almost none of the ‘real ales’ were available, so I plumped for one of the lagers that was.Nearly £7 for a pint and a half of lager. I walked out of the pub, through the massed ranks of smokers, and sat down next to a table full of smokers. This, I’m afraid, is the new normal. Smoking is back, even if you don’t want to smoke.
Granted, it was a Tuesday evening but the pub was almost deserted. Understandably, pubs are organised to allow for social distancing but in all the pubs I have been to since lockdown was lifted, it’s at a huge cost, the main one being atmosphere. There is literally none. My partner and I realised early on that if we wanted to chat to ourselves over a drink, we could do so in the comfort of our own living room at a fraction of the price.
None of this is to say I won’t be visiting pubs again, but I shall be more discerning in future. I’ll avoid the pubs that group non smokers with smokers and those where customers do not feel the need to observe social distancing. And as the nights close in and to gets colder, it is unlikely that I shall be visiting crowded, unventilated pubs. Because make no mistake: some pubs will become very crowded indeed. Some, I know, already are.
Hopefully, many people will enjoy, or at worst tolerate, the new pub normal. To a limited extent, so shall I. If a lot of people are like me and go out to a pub and later wonder why they bothered, I don’t see how pubs will survive. For me, it’s as much about the social aspect, as well as the quality of the ales. Pubs at the moment have none of the former and, with stripped back availability of beer and food menus, they have little of the latter.