The North's Best Pubs

What actually is a pub? It's the question on hardly anyone's lips, but we're going to answer it anyway, since your votes in the Best Pub category yielded some controversial results

Feature by Avina B. Aire | 04 Jan 2017

Ah, the pub. A home from home, with past-it but comfy furniture and warm, amber lighting. A place for reflection: to play snooker on tatty old tables, read the newspaper, or just gaze into your pint. A place of tension, too, with sports results argued over and all the community's dirty laundry aired. Ideally, there's a dog; an elderly, wire-haired dog. Even more ideally, it's curled up in front of a fire (a real, roaring fire).

When you think of a pub, this is probably something close to the image in your mind. But how many of our preferred drinking establishments now resemble this picture? Not many, we'd imagine. As it has become harder and harder over the last few years to run a successful pub – around 21 close per week – proprietors are having to rethink the idea of the 'traditional' public house. Getting patrons through doors is increasingly tough against competition that includes falling supermarket alcohol prices (making it cheaper for people to drink at home), the emergence of craft-beer bars which offer something trendier than your average boozer, and, of course, rising rents.

Perhaps this romantic image of the humble and homely community hub has become exactly that – a product of rose-tinted nostalgia, now to be found only on TV and film.

Belgrave Music Hall in Leeds and Cane & Grain in Manchester hardly conform to the pub blueprint. A multi-storey, mansion-sized music venue on one hand, and a heavily themed, American-style ribs shack on the other. Their inclusions in your votes for Best Pub raised some skeptical eyebrows in The Skinny office, we'll admit. But we're nothing if not open-minded, and we'll concede that, when you think about it, the essence of what you want from a pub is there. Hearty food, good beer, some entertainment and, certainly in the case of Belgrave, a sense that it's a place to gather at the end of a long day – somewhere where simple wants are satisfied.

And while Cane & Grain's downstairs bar gets raucous on a busy Northern Quarter night, the 'secret' upstairs room harks back to a similar idea, albeit from a different culture: the speakeasy. With low lighting, dark corners and soft, deep booths to sink into, if you catch it at the right time of week it can be a rare spot of solitude amid the city hubbub. Maybe these days it's less about the look, and more about the feel?

Perhaps the best example of a modern pub, though, is The Smithfield Tavern, which deservedly rides high in your votes. Honouring the building's past as a true 'old man' pub, Blackjack Brewery – when they took it over in 2015 – have done a tasteful job of introducing everything a craft beer connoisseur now expects while staying true to the Smithfield's smelly old spirit. They offer a decent but not overwhelming choice of brews with a pleasing lack of arrogance, unlike certain showy-offy menus out there; there's a solid nuts selection (what's the matter with these pubs that 'don't do' nuts?! Another way in which the world has gone to shit); they've kept a dart board on the go and – thank fuck – there's no telly. To us, it's the perfect balance of fresh thinking with a respect for what went before. We'll drink to that.

Read the full list of winners in our 2017 Food and Drink Survey here