Buckingham Palace is veddy, veddy nice, thank you--if pressing your forehead against cold metal in order to peer at a bunch of palace guards with fuzzy black Q-tip heads is your cup of tea. And Westminster Abbey is quite lovely--if looking at dead monarchs interred in tombs worth ten times what you live in nabs your knickers. But for a real taste of England, nothing beats a pub, where generally the food is authentically lousy and the patrons argue loudly over rugby teams and Margaret Thatcher--and where, when you venture an opinion, they'll tell you to piss off. Good-naturedly. Travel books are fond of saying that the pub is the only place where Britons are colorful and friendly. Of course they are. They're drunk.
Pubs--short for "public houses"--came about as the working class's answer to gentlemen's clubs (pubs also once barred women--although gentlemen's clubs did, too). Named something manly like "The Bloody Big Bull" and "Ye Olde Cow Dung," pubs have always purveyed cheap drinks, cheap food and friendly chatter, and the number of these watering holes throughout the British Isles--listed by Britian's Tourist Information Centre as nearly 90,000--attests to their popularity with natives and foreigners alike.
While Americans are too cynical to act nice in a bar unless they're trying to get laid, wannabe pubs abound here in the land of the free. Denver is host to a handful of them, some of which charge a pretty pence for what is essentially yuppified pub grub. One of the few that retains the traditional concept of inexpensive fare is Pint's Pub, owned by the same trio that brought us Dozens and the York Street Cafe. Formerly a building filled with flats, Pint's now boasts two red telephone boxes (one inside, one out) straight from London, wall murals of fox hunts and Big Ben, and plenty of comfy wooden tables and booths. Add London dailies hanging on newspaper racks by the door and a draught-beer roster as thoughtfully assembled as a fine wine list, and Pint's starts looking like a real pub.
Don't expect the food to complete the picture, however. Not that there's anything wrong with it--for the most part, the fare is solid, if boring--but it's not pub food. And that's intentional, according to part-owner Scott Diamond. "I don't know about you," he says, "but I don't think much of traditional British foodstuff. It's greasy, it's heavy, and I know I can't eat it all the time. We want people to come here often, so we wanted to give them something with health overtones, something they can eat every day." Well, I don't know too many people who want to eat grilled salmon on a daily basis, but that's what Pint's offers in its New World fish and chips ($6.95). "Sorry," the menu reads, "we don't believe in battering and frying fish." Instead, they lay faith in half a fillet of simple salmon served alongside their tasty version of chips--fresh-cut, skin-on fries--and a salad heavy on the lettuce. The salmon was dry around the edges but fresh, which was more than could be said for the roll surrounding the 10 Shilling Wimpy ($5.25). The menu promises a "freshly baked crusty roll"; crusty summed it up. The half-pound of tasteless, albeit lean and clean, beef didn't live up to its "Bloody Good Wimpy" billing, either. The original Wimpy chain, now overwhelmed by the influx of McDonald's and Wendy's to the U.K., slings perfectly fat-laden, skinny, grease-slicked patties inside low-budget soft buns. Now that's a bloody good Wimpy. The Pint's version wimped out.
Interestingly, the most authentic item we sampled at Pint's wasn't British at all, but stellar Buffalo-style chicken wings ($4.95). Crisp-cooked and slathered in Bruce's Hot Sauce and oil (purported to be the original New York recipe), these fiery wings were among the best I've tasted. We followed them up, though, with a slice of English toffee pie ($2.75) that tasted nothing like a Heath Bar and more like something that had been sitting in the back of the walk-in for a while. And the coffee, which the tea-totaling British snootily referred to as the "Devil's brew" in the eighteenth century, was reason to resurrect that moniker.
But coffee isn't the brew of choice in a pub, and Pint's certainly knows its way around a beer mug. Bass and Fullers ESB lead off the list, which includes several area microbrews and a few lagers from afar. The two not to miss are Pint's pouring of the Guinness--the truest in town--and the Felinfoel, a Welsh ale that finishes like sherry. Diamond believes Pint's is the only bar in town to carry it. "I live in fear that my distributor is going to drop it," he says. I don't blame him--Felinfoel is one of those things that you either love or hate. And I love it.
For Diamond and his co-owners, the love of beer--and presumably a thirst for profits--has led to the inevitable: making their own. Although their plans are still in the works, they already know Pint's will offer microbrews with a twist. "We're going to do cask-finish ales," Diamond says proudly. "We're campaigning for real ale, and we'll be the only ones doing it." "Real" ale is live beer; it contains live yeast and therefore has to be kept in a cellar at about 55 degrees. Real ale is for real beer folk--it's full-bodied and full-flavored but flat, not carbonated like keg beers. British barkeeps can credit their big muscles to real ale, since the beer is pulled up by a hand pump that offers the equivalent of a Nautilus workout. That could be why real beer has almost disappeared from everywhere but rural Britain. I'll drink to Pint's for even thinking of bringing it back.
There's no beer at all at the 24-year-old Yorkshire Fish & Chips, and that's a bloody shame. Put Pint's atmosphere and beer together with Yorkshire's food, and you'd 'ave a 'ell of a pub. Although Yorkshire is one of the most breathtaking regions in England, this namesake is a dive--an Englishman might even refer to it as "downright grotty." Yorkshire's fish and chips, however, are a true thing of beauty. This is the genuine article: cod coated in batter and deep-fried in super-hot oil until crisp waves of crust cover the soft flakes of fresh fish. The only thing missing from Yorkshire's delivery was a sheath of white paper wrapping the meal (even in England, newspaper went out of style when health came in). The chips that sat beneath our "standard" fish dinner ($4.22) were appropriately soggy with crunchy edges, just right for slogging with malt vinegar. Only the cole slaw failed the test; it was mushy, probably a day or two old, and watery.
The oysters ($5.15) were as good as the fish: big, meaty but tender, and encrusted in that peanut-oil-soaked batter. The mollusks came with more chips, so we ordered a few cups of clam chowder (65 cents a cup) to cut through the grease. But the soup was no help--the clam crumbs were trapped in a viscous sea of milk and flour. And sadly, all we had to wash down the mess were a couple of sodas.
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"There's enough alcohol around," says Terry Hanson, patriarch of the family that owns Yorkshire. "I think we'll just leave things the way they are." Things got to be this way, he explains, because the original lease stipulated that no liquor license would be granted to the site. "Then, years later, when I might have put alcohol in, the laws said that no one under 21 years of age can serve it. Well, everyone in my family certainly wasn't over 21, and I wasn't about to go out hiring other people. Now I don't think we need to change.
"Who are the British to say that beer goes with fish and chips, anyway?" Hanson says. "I prefer it with coffee, myself, and I can serve it any way I want to."
And isn't that why we declared independence in the first place?