Do Londoners take their pubs for granted? Liv Fleischhacker left the city six years ago, and slow, indulgent weekends over the papers, some pints and, most importantly, a fantastic roast, is what she misses most. In our new Speakers' Corner column, she writes about what makes UK pub culture so unique, and how her new home, Berlin, might be able to recreate the magic.
I moved to London in 2007. Six years ago I moved back home, to Berlin, which means that I've now spent double the amount of time back in Berlin than I ever did living in the UK. Remembering those years, that point in my life, is hard for me. Not in a “tough times make me sad” kind of way; it is literally difficult. Most of it feels hazy, and I have a hard time pinpointing actual events. Much like the best dreams, it feels unreal, but still manages to leave a deep impact. While I find that my general quality of life has greatly improved since moving back to Berlin, there are certain things that make my heart ache when I think of London.
One of them is Sundays spent at the pub. Sitting in Camberwell's Tiger, the Phoenix, or at the Sun and Doves, are some of my fondest memories of London. Friends pop in and out, a newspaper is messily piled on the table, cold pint in hand, the day lazily stretches out ahead of you. Then, just when you're on the verge of getting a tad too tippers than should be acceptable on any given Sunday, you order a roast.
Crisp potatoes covered in salty gravy, rare beef, such a delicious shade of pink and perfectly cooked so it melts on your tongue, tender young peas that retain their shocking green colour and practically burst in your mouth, and, my personal favourite: the Yorkshire pudding. A soft yet crispy and comforting carby hug that is British engineering at its very best.
The Sunday sessions were long and lazy, seemed like they'd last forever, and fostered some of the best conversations, and thus friendships, that I cultivated there. I was young and somewhat lost when I lived in London; a large city like that isn't known to be kind to its young. My studies were a bit of a joke (don't take a business-related course at art school), it was hard to keep up with friends who lived on the other side of town, and being away from my family and home for the first time ever made me feel confused instead of delighted. But those Sundays helped create a routine and a safe space, and for that, I will be eternally grateful.
Now, it's not like Berlin doesn't have bars or cafés. In fact, there's a plethora of them, but the atmosphere is sill very different than what you'd find in a London pub on a Sunday. Pubs are special. The best ones are ancient and reek of history – a combination of stale smoke, fried food, and urine. Nobody said history smelled good. My favourite ones are run by a bar lady whose life experience is etched onto her face and who calls you “love”, and are equally frequented by 75-year old men who've been drinking since 10am (but still aren't drunk) as well as young families, students, and regular schmoes enjoying their Sunday pint.
During my last months in London I was a poor (in the very literal sense), confused 21-year-old recent graduate who had no clue what to do with the rest of her life. Thankfully, I am now a (marginally) less poor, 27-year-old who has forged somewhat of a path for herself. I look back on those Sundays and see the sense of comfort and love that they were drenched in, and why I craved them so much. It wasn't only about the food (though that was certainly delicious) or the booze (though that certainly got the job done), those Sundays were larger than the sum of their parts.
And so, equipped with this new insight, I set out to recreate the roast experience at home. Under the guidance of a certain thick-tongued nekkid chef and Delia's recipe for Yorkshire pudding, I ended up enjoying several decent home-cooked Sunday roasts with friends. But the magic was missing; it just wasn't the same. It felt too contrived and set up and had nothing of the laziness I remembered. Instead of continuing to desperately try and capture it at home, I turned to a bunch of experts who felt the same way I did: Berlin's missing a Sunday pub tradition.
A year ago a gastropub opened up around the corner from me. Salt'n Bone is run by three lovely Irish people. Andy's in charge of the bar and agreed to meet me on a late winter afternoon. Our neighbourhood, Prenzlauer Berg, has had a bit of a weird decade. In the early aughts it became so popular that people soon stopped moving here, because it simply became unaffordable. Now that other areas of Berlin have taken over as the newest hotspot, things have calmed down. Which means they got really calm and boring. Clubs closed, you couldn't get a good drink if your life depended on it, and kids and dogs ruled the streets. Thankfully, things have started to change, and Prenzlauer Berg is on a bit of an upswing. There was a niche in the market, a need for a place where neighbours could come together. And what better way to unite a borough than with food and drink? And so, Salt'n Bone was born. A bar, a pub, a restaurant – it's whatever you need it to be. With chefs that have experience in fine dining and a mouthwatering menu (when Andy describes the “meat on a stick” soy glazed pork belly I've got half a mind to cancel my evening plans and just stay here for the rest of the day) – the place is a pub, Berlin style. Their constant rotation of craft beers is magnificent: I had a Latitude 42's coconut stout the other day which took me by surprise and turned out to be fantastic. A summery stout, heavy on the malt but with a certain sweetness and dominant coconut taste. It's what I want to be drinking after playing a round of table tennis at dusk in July.
On Sundays their roast brings out people from all over town who happily travel to eat at Salt'n Bone, a not too rare occurrence for Berlin these days where “eating at the newest hotspot” has replaced “taking the newest horse tranquilizers”. During the week you're more likely to meet locals at the bar. When a lone customer wanders in asking for a table, Andy firmly yet politely directs them to the bar – that's the table for one. Meet your neighbours!
The pub is the framework that gets filled by the community; both feed off of each other in order to exist. In theory, and before experiencing it in person, I didn't think I would agree with strangers calling me “pet” or “love”, and yet there's something so sweet about it that now I can't help but smile every time it happens. You're not likely to find that in Berlin, where waiters ignore you or are just downright rude because they're hungover and resent the fact that they're working and, best case scenario, you get blamed for an order being screwed up. Nor will the background ambience sound anything like the insanity that is the white noise of Camberwell High Street: no constant stream of ambulance sirens, meat being aggressively butchered, busses merging lanes, or kids yelling at each other about which sour candy is the best. I guess what I can do is take the dearly beloved tradition and make it my own in my current home, while fondly thinking of London and the Sunday sessions. Thankfully I'm not alone in this endeavour and have people like Andy and his partner Becky, which means I'll even be able to stuff my face with Yorkshire puddings when I'm too lazy to make them myself, all while getting buzzed and meeting my neighbours.
Though I do miss London at times, not even the thought of the city's juiciest ribs, coldest pints, and crispiest potatoes could persuade me to move back. The insanity of the city and the effort it takes to make a living (not a good or decent living, just: a living) is simply too much for me. Maybe I'm too weak or too lazy for it, and maybe I'm okay with that. Especially knowing that I've made my home in the gentle, lazy nook that is Berlin.