Last orders at the bar?

Matthew Curtis asks if the habit of table service in pubs is here to stay

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I love table service. 

I love arriving at a great pub or bar, that familiar feeling of anticipation rising as you approach the threshold, before being met by a smiling member of staff at the entrance who ushers you to a vacant table. I love perusing a detailed menu featuring a list of wonderful beers, from traditional hand-pulled ales to modern keg-dispensed delights, before finally making my choice. I love watching the bar staff go about their business of pouring pints and delivering them to thirsty punters, while lazily-eavesdropping on the idle chit chat from other patrons happening all around me. I love that first sip of beer, as I ease into a few minutes – or hours – of total enjoyment and relaxation, be it alone, or with a group of good friends.

But I also appreciate that not everybody prefers table service. In the UK, generally speaking, it’s the premise of restaurants and other food-led establishments. Here in glorious Britain, at our proper, spit and sawdust pubs, we order at the bar. This provides ample opportunity to casually chat with staff as we taste a few samples before finally making our choice. It saves us from wasted moments, glasses wistfully empty while we wait for a server to become free to take an order. For those of us that occasionally like to drink solo, propping up the bar means we don’t hold up a table that could be used for a bigger party. And for owners and operators it means a reduced cost to running their business, not paying for extra staff when profits are already being squeezed from every angle. 

However, in a recent poll I conducted concurrently via Twitter and Facebook asking which people preferred, the 2500 plus respondents voted, overwhelmingly, in preference of table service, which received almost 70% of the vote. It should be said that the majority of people who responded could probably be categorised as beer or pub enthusiasts, and largely these would have been consumers, and not people from within the beer or hospitality industry. There was also a great deal of vocal support for traditional bar service in the replies. But because it was so overwhelmingly voted against, I feel it’s worth looking into why people feel this way. 

As most of you are probably aware, in the UK, table service is not the norm in pubs and bars. The pandemic, however, spurred the British government to make this mandatory in all hospitality establishments, food led or not. After the first, seemingly endless lockdown ended on July 4th 2020, we were once again allowed to visit our beloved pubs. 

Although things were radically different to what we previously knew. Those exciting thresholds now spurred a feeling of nervousness, and trepidation. QR codes taunted us while we fumbled for an app that costs billions of pounds, which we’re not entirely sure is doing anything to actually keep us safe. Hand sanitiser must be globbed on before we’re led along a floor decked with one-way arrows, and past signs reminding us to keep our distance, before we set ourselves down at a table separated from others by recently-installed walls of plexiglass. Having to settle for table service in our favourite watering holes was also a part of this “new normal”. 

PHOTO: Elevate

On the 19th of July 2021, however, those shackles of oppression were finally thrown aside. Labelled by many as “freedom” (which, I’ll be honest, feels grossly uncomfortable to me while we still live through a pandemic) the removal of the final restrictions burdened upon hospitality was seen as a victory by some. Once again you are allowed to both order at, and remain at the bar while you sup your pint. Gone are the floor markers, and rules preventing you from socialising indoors with more than six people to a group. Plus, those masks we’ve been told to wear that have been clinically proven to reduce transmission of this pesky airborne virus that threatens our livelihoods are no longer required by law. 

Despite this, however, many hospitality venues – including pubs and bars – chose to keep measures such as social distancing, mask wearing, and table service in place. Heaton Hops, a bar and bottle shop in Stockport, was one of many establishments to post on social media that they’d be keeping measures in place both for the safety of their staff, and their customers. 

“On arrival, please wait patiently to be seated,” the post said. “Please don’t seat yourself.”

Honestly speaking: I was happy to see this.

When pubs reopened in July 2020 I found myself in an uncomfortable position. Previously I was largely a pub drinker, vastly preferring to do my beer drinking in a great pub, rather than at home. But the world had changed, and it took me a while to readjust once pubs were open again. I remember becoming increasingly flustered while sat outside a bar in Manchester’s Northern Quarter while I frustratedly tried to download the app I needed to order a beer. If I, as someone who is relatively tech savvy, was struggling, then what of people who don’t rely as heavily on technology? What about people who don’t, or can’t, use smartphones?

I also realised that this was a brave new world for staff, as well as customers. It was going to take time to adjust. And in time, that’s exactly what happened. I began to ease into a new routine: waiting at the door, scanning in, sanitising, sitting down, ordering, repeat.

What I didn’t expect is that over the next few months I began to prefer it. Bar staff in the places I visited frequently got their processes in place, and in time became more relaxed and friendlier. Conversations that some have told me can only happen at the bar in front of the pump clips occurred tableside with increasing regularity. 

My friends and I were also getting used to how things were operating, and so we eased up too, especially once we started receiving our doses of vaccine. Putting on a mask became a habit, not a chore. But the real highlight was having unbroken service, not having to queue for a drink or work out who’s turn it was to get a round in. And many of the places I visited that had app-based ordering, were now just as happy to take an order from the table if you didn’t get on with it. 


For a large amount of wet-led establishments, table service is untenable

I’ve been a fan of table service for a while, particularly after several visits to the United States, where they are masters of great hospitality. Across the pond, a good bartender will come for your next order as soon as your glass is around three-quarters empty, and they’ll be as chatty and friendly as possible, because they know if their service is good, so too will be the amount you tip. 

This is a part of table service culture that doesn’t translate well to the UK. With bar service, punters consider themselves to be doing the bulk of the legwork (they aren’t) and the idea of the “minimum wage” paints a picture that hospitality staff are being paid fairly for the amount of work they’re doing (again, largely this isn’t the case). But it means that table service introduces the idea of tipping, which most Brits are uncomfortable with. My own experiences in the US are perhaps what made me more open to it, that and the fact I have worked in hospitality myself before. Customers would often offer to buy me a drink towards the end of a shift, but very rarely offer up hard cash.

Tipping is not the only obstacle towards table service. For most venues, running orders to tables means more staff are required, which means an increased cost to running the business. For a large amount of “wet-led” (meaning drinks only) establishments, this is untenable. They’re already been squeezed by eye-watering prices from suppliers, customers who want drinks to cost no more than their expectations, increasing business rates, rents, VAT… the list goes on. 

It’s somewhat unfair for me to say I prefer table service when the reality is that bar service is the norm in the UK. This is the most sustainable way for many hospitality venues to run.

There are some excellent examples of wet-led establishments running exemplary table service, however. Just look at how they do things in the Czech Republic. Once you’re sat down and have ordered a beer, that’s pretty much the most interaction you’ll have with your server until it’s time to pay. When your mug of fresh Pilsner is close to empty, it’ll be replaced with a fresh glass of beer, and a card on your table marked each time this occurs. Once your session is done, you signal you’re done by simply placing a coaster over your glass, and the bill is brought out. Tipping doesn’t feel out of place because the beer here is such good value, (at around a pound a pint) and you’ve barely had to do any legwork based on the amount of enjoyment you’ve had.

PHOTO: Albert Hu

This style of service probably wouldn’t pass muster in most UK venues. Especially at a craft beer venue serving multiple different beers, all costing £6 a glass or over. But for me the Czech method does establish that table service is not merely the premise of food-led establishments, or those that are focused on products with a premium price-tag.

There is one big argument for the benefit of table service, however: that of accessibility. History has defined traditional British pubs as spaces largely occupied by men, and typically those that are white and straight. The modernisation of beer culture has spurred many conversations about how beer can be more open and inclusive to all, and bar service can create an unseen barrier to women, and other minority drinkers. 

“I [...] do not miss getting my arse/waist grabbed at a crowded bar,” pubgoer Lexie Newlands responded to my Twitter survey. “I went to order at a bar at a gig last night and got pushed in front of. As a short woman I get this a lot.”

Another response came from journalist (and pub lover) David Jesudason. “I much prefer [table service] when visiting a new pub as it’s less intimidating and discreet,” he says. “If I’m in a new place and I’m the only non-white customer I’ll just pick an ale I know rather than asking questions.”

In reality, bar service is not going away. This is how pubs operate in the UK. However it’s my hope that those establishments who’ve successfully implemented table service into their offering as a result of a pandemic continue to do so. Pubs are, and should always be, welcome to everyone. By creating a space that is open and welcome to all, table service can, and will, help many venues thrive as we slowly move out of this incredibly traumatic time.

Cover photo: Elevate / Header photo: Belinda Fewings

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