The guide to British pub etiquette

Written by helen fitzgerald
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The guide to British pub etiquette
The British pub has traditionally been a meeting place of the local neighbrhood or community. (Oli Scarff/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

Foreigners, even English-speaking ones, risk offending the locals for failing to follow the simple etiquette expected in a British pub. Remember that, in general, British people are more reluctant than Americans to make eye contact or initiate conversations, so it's always best to maintain a sense of decorum and discretion when visiting a British pub.

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Ordering of drinks and food in a British pub always takes place up at the bar even if there are tables available. When you place an order, recommends "BBC's English Pubs -- A User's Guide," you should find a gap at the bar, stand there and wait with money in hand, being sure to make eye contact with the bar attendant. Drinks should be ordered by brand name. If you order a tap beer, specify whether you want a full pint or a half pint. Although tipping is not customary in pubs, tips are always welcomed by the staff.

Buying Rounds

In :Passport to the Pub," social anthropologist Kate Fox succinctly defines round-buying as the "reciprocal exchange of drinks." This is one of the most fundamental aspects of British pub etiquette. When drinking in small groups, one person will buy everyone's drinks, with each person later doing the same in turn. People drinking in a round usually drink at around the same pace, but even those who may drink more slowly and sit out a round should still offer to buy when their turn comes up.

Where to Drink

Most pubs have different sections: the main bar area, a lounge, beer garden and dining room. For solitary drinkers, standing at the bar is an ideal place to people-watch and enjoy the company of the bar staff and regulars. The lounge area is a quieter and more relaxed section of the pub away from the main bar area, with comfortable seats, tables and chairs for groups and often a billiards table as well. For those who prefer drinking outside, some pubs have a beer garden, which is an enclosed outdoor space with chairs and tables. Some of the more trendy, upper-market establishments also have private areas exclusive to members only; pubs that provide meals generally have a separate dining area as well.

Opening Hours

Most British pubs close early in comparison to bars in the United States. For this reason the locals tend to start a night out as early as 6 p.m. The traditional closing time of 11 p.m. is observed by most pub owners, although some are taking advantage of 24-hour trading licenses. Around 20 minutes before closing time, the bar will ring a bell or call for "last drinks," which is the final opportunity for service before closing time. Some venues may stop service at 11 p.m. but remain open until 2 or 3 a.m., which is called a "lock-in".

Common Mishaps

Spilling or accidentally taking someone else's drink should be immediately rectified by replacing the drink along with an apology. British people can be more reluctant than Americans to make eye contact or speak to strangers, so it's best to refrain from staring at other customers or initiating conversations.

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