7 Rules of English Pubs: Drinking-Up Time, Tips & More

The United Kingdom has almost 50,000 pubs etched into its landscape from the tip of southern England to the top of Scotland and Northern Ireland and everywhere in between. Pubs are a huge part of British culture and social life and, for a visitor, it’s a very integral part of the travel experience—like eating at brasserie or bistro in France, downing a liter stein of beer at a beer garden in Germany, or eating huge-portioned fried food in the United States.

British pub etiquette can seem daunting, but we’ve got you covered with these easy-to-follow guidelines.

But one thing is important to keep in mind: when you walk into a British pub, check your own drinking-and-dining cultural practices and assumptions from back home at the door. If you do things like immediately go and sit down and expect a server to be at your table to take your order or if you try to randomly chat with an English person, you may be confused and distraught by the response (or, more realistically, lack thereof). It’s good to approach the pub with a few rules in mind. And so, with these below seven rules of British pubs, you’ll be making dry ironic small talk with the locals in no time.

Round ‘n’ Round

If you’re out drinking with Brits and someone is going up to get a round of drinks, don’t pull out your wallet and put some crumpled up British notes on the table to cover the cost of your drink. You might just hear, “C’mon mate, stop being so American.” 

The reciprocal round buying of drinks in an English pub is as sacred a British tradition as the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace or slagging off the royal family.

When you’re out with a group of people at a pub, or even one other person, it is customary to take turns buying each round. If it’s a large group,  you’re in the midst of a long drinking session, and you think you can get away without buying a round, trust us: the Brits know; they’re quietly paying attention to who has and who has not had their turn. Trying to avoid buying a round with a group of Brits, is pub heresy in their minds and you will be excommunicated from the group.

Buying rounds is a common practice at English pubs.

Order at the Bar

It’s a telling sight when you see a small group of people stroll into a British pub and sit down at a table and then, with increasing impatience, awaiting a server to come by to take their order. This isn’t the Continent. It’s not the United States. It’s Great Britain. Here you order at the bar. There are a few exceptions to this rule, particularly in Northern Ireland, but if you want a drink at a pub—and that’s why you’re here, right?—then march yourself up to the bar and order from the bartender.

This is a benefit to the drinker, actually. It means that if you want another drink, you need not wait for the busy server to come around. Instead, you can make a beeline for the bar and get your own drink when you want it. It also allows you to practice that other British-drinking tradition: taking turn buying rounds (See rule #1 for a refresher).

Talk, Don’t Talk

The bar counter is one of the few places in the country where local Brits might feel comfortable shedding their culturally conditioned aloofness. So if you’re standing at the bar, waiting to order, feel free to chat someone up.

There’s a particular way to talk to a British person you’re just meeting for the first time. Outstretching your hand and saying, “Howdy, I’m Bob from Dubuque!” won’t win you many new friends in England. Instead, make a less demonstrative or witty comment about the weather or the tired Oasis song playing.

Send a Delegate or Two to the Bar

Once seated at a cozy booth or table, don’t all bum-rush the bar. The bartender will be overwhelmed. The other drink-ordering patrons will be annoyed. And you’ll just cause general confusion. 

Instead, pick a leader—maybe the person whose turn it is to buy a round— to collect everyone’s drink order and then approach the bar. The Brits like to queue up, in general, but you’ll find the bar counter is one of the few places where there is seemingly disorder. And yet, it’s not really disorderly at all. Everyone standing at the bar, from patrons to bartender, all know in their heads who is next.

So, please don’t snap your fingers, clap your hands, whistle, yell out at the bartender or any such thing. Your turn will come and everyone knows when that is, even if you don’t.

Be patient – your time to order will come!

Know What You Want

If you stand at the bar and finally get the bartender’s attention and you take too long to decide what you want or you ask, “What kind of beers do you have?” (when the taps are right in front of you), the bartender is going to move on to the next patron.

As you approach the bar, make sure you have your order ready. Saying you’d like a “beer” would be like ordering a “pasta” at an Italian restaurant, a “sausage” in a German beer hall, or a “glass of wine” at a tapas bar in Rioja.  There are varieties and try to get a sense of what you want before ordering a “pint” (the proper terminology when ordering a beer in Britain). If you still don’t know what beer brand you want, you can ask for a lager, pale ale, bitter, stout, or porter, among others.

Note: if a pint of Guinness is part of your order, request it first: the two-part pour that involves Guiness is time consuming.

Short crust pork pies are just one example of pub fare. Photo credit: Shaun Taylor

Skip the Tip

If you’re American, it might feel weird and awkward, but you’re not obliged to tip at a British pub. Some publicans and bartenders, in fact, hate it because 1) the British can be a tad squeamish about money and 2) tipping part of your culture, not theirs

It’s okay to round-up, for example if your beer is £2.90, just give the bartender 3 and say “thank you” and walk away with your pint. Other times, you can buy the bartender a drink: after your order is complete, you can say, “And one for yourself?”

Closing Time

Pubs close at 11pm and a few close at midnight on weekends. When the bartender bellows out “Last orders,” about 20 minutes before closing time,  he or she means it. After 11pm, you might hear the bartender yell “drinking-up time” at around 11:20 pm and this means, down the hatch; it’s time to go.

Discover the stories, characters, and beers behind London’s most historic pubs on our fascinating Food Tour of London’s Historic Pubs! From traditional taverns to former haunts of legendary authors, you’ll discover that the history of this lively capital lies as much in its pubs as it does in its legendary landmarks.

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About the author

David Farley is a West Village-based food and travel writer whose work appears regularly in the New York Times, National Geographic, BBC, and Food & Wine, among other publications. He’s the author of three books, including “An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town,” which was made into a documentary by the National Geographic Channel. You can find Farley’s online homes at https://www.tripout.online/ and https://dfarley.com/index.html

More by David Farley

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