What makes a British pub a pub as opposed to a bar, café or cocktail lounge? It isn't, I hasten to mention, just the décor -- although the odd horse brass and a picture of a bulldog or two helps. It's how the establishment is used.
The trick is in the name “public house,” which could easily be interpreted as home away from home. The pub is an extension of your living room or office.
British friends will ask, “What’s your local?” or “Where do you drink?” Of course, the Brits are more likely to have a glass of something after work than are most Americans, these days.
When I lived in Richmond, a London borough, I drank at “The Cricketers,” and friends would meet me there. It wasn't about the drink; it was about the social context of a pub.
But here in New England, as befits our ancestry, you find the closest things to British pubs: cozy joints where friends hang out, nourished with beer, or not.
Thousands of New England bars function as pubs, not because they call themselves that, but because of a certain ambiance, a certain feeling that I'm already home.
As the Brits have changed, so have their pubs. Once, they were mostly owned by breweries and rented out to “landlords” who operated them. Now, more of them belong to chains and have standardized food. A “free house” was a pub that belonged not to the brewer or a chain, but to the landlord or a small company. These sold the beers of various brewers, like, say, Watneys, Bass and Theakston.
The biggest change has been the end of smoking. The pubs were often awful for nonsmokers. Now they are smoke-free -- although some have outdoor sheds, where you can still smoke, pint in hand. Otherwise, the drinkers spill into the street to light up. Mind you, British drinkers have always spilled into the street. Something you won’t find in New England pubs, probably because of licensing laws.
Another change was the addition of really good food in what have come to be known as “gastropubs.” I'd venture to say most New England pubs, worthy of that appellation, have pretty decent food.
The old British pub offered limited fare: pork pies, bangers, Scotch eggs and sandwiches. Now, more elaborate fare is available including excellent French meals, great Italian, and sometimes Chinese. At the latter, you may be offered French fries in lieu of rice. Really.
Recently, I chanced upon a New England pub that exactly fits the criteria established by its old English forebears: The Village Tavern in North Scituate, R.I. It has great food plus the ambiance of the real thing. It’s real to me.
Give the MBTA Its Due
I’m a fan of public transport in general, and of trains in particular. This extends to city systems and as a stranger to its peculiarities, but nonetheless a convert, I'd like to do the improbable: Praise the MBTA.
Too much of it is old, dirty and hard to navigate, but it works; whether it is the eccentric Silver Line from Boston to Logan International Airport (with its two versions of propulsion), or the subway proper, or the commuter lines. All cry out for investment, for kindly dollars for refurbishment and substantial rebuilding of the rabbit-warren stations.
But the MBTA mostly works, which can't be said of the modern and prettier Washington, D.C. Metro. It's in need of better maintenance, better management, and more trains at rush hours.
Let’s have two cheers for the MBTA which, like the New York system, isn’t easy on the eye, but mostly works.
The Strange Dearth of Shoeshine Stands
There are certain mysteries that confound me. Why can’t you find taxis cruising in Providence, is one. Another is why, throughout the region, is it so hard to get your shoes shined. Even at Boston’s busy South Station the happy slap of the cloth on the leather isn't heard. Most stations and airports have shoeshine stands.
Chicago has one somewhere – I forget where — that even boasts that it's unionized. But the fine art of shining shoes isn't developed in these parts.
Over the decades, I've interviewed shoeshiners, almost all men, from London to New Orleans. I can report that they're a happy breed.
It's low-end work, but the potential for self-employment is great. Washington, D.C. has men who set up all over the place, but not New England. A singular exception is Thomas McNees, the shoeshiner at Rhode Island's T.F. Green Airport. He's an institution and as cheery as he's good. Unfortunately, he's on the far side of the terminal's security barrier — and even I won’t buy an airline ticket to get a shoeshine.
Llewellyn King (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive producer and host of White House Chronicle, on PBS.