Where Are America’s Pubs? Why, America of Course.

Some DC based hipsters want to know why America doesn't have good pubs like in London. It turns out, they're everywhere.

Megan McArdle, Matt Yglesias, and Ryan Avent all complain that America does not have corner pubs in the way England does and speculate as to why that might be, fingering regulatory issues.   Matt Steinglass insists it’s mostly about different cultures.

This sparks Andrew Sullivan‘s interest.   Reader responses pour in to tell him that, first off, London pub culture is changing for the worse.  And, it turns out, the pub culture for which our hipsters pine is alive in well in America, albeit not in DC or Manhattan.  They should go to Wisconsin.  And Portland. And Chicago.

Hell, they’re all over the DC suburbs of Northern Virginia, too.  We even allow brew pubs, whether of the chain variety (Gordon Biersch is a personal favorite) or the local (Old Dominion).  Granted, most of them aren’t places where people can easily stumble home afterwards; that’s just not how people live here.  Then again, it’s quite possible in Old Town Alexandria, just across the Potomac.

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James Joyner
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James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    Old fashioned Irish bars are still common in New York City, like McSorleys, etc. In the ethnic enclaves of the outer boroughs bars or social clubs are still a common feature. I’m not sure about Old Dominion. I was there at their Dulles brewery / restaurant years ago. Kinda hard to find amongst the warehouses out by the airport. We have the neighborhood Glory Days restaurant/sports bar that can easily do double duty as a local watering hole. And then there are those mysterious Korean bars/pool halls where almost all the signage is in Korean.

  2. john personna says:

    I think “neighborhood pub” implies that you know some good percentage of your fellow patrons. That is rare here in So Cal. Here the chain brewpubs seem more an extension of family dining, with a pub theme.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    It’s been about 15 years since I’ve been in the UK so I have no idea what things are like there now. However, the last time I was there I found several differences between American bars and the pubs I saw.

    The first is lighting. My experience is that American pubs are dark compared with their Brit equivalents (German stube were brighter, too). The second is ambient noise. I found that American bars have louder music and TV than their Brit opposite numbers.

    In the UK pubs are a combination of bar, restaurant, and social center. I think a lot, maybe most, America bars conform to what Nick, the bartender, in It’s a Wonderful Life said:

    Hey look, mister – we serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast, and we don’t need any characters around to give the joint “atmosphere”.

  4. CS says:

    My understanding is that the US had a similar pubs to what they’re talking about prior to prohibition. It was one of many things that never recovered repeal.

  5. Rick Almeida says:

    In blue-collar Rhode Island, where I grew up, the “cornuh bah” is still alive and kicking. There was one at the end of the street where I grew up (The Grid Iron) until 2005, when the proprietor (a semi-pro football player in the 30s) died. His children didn’t want to take over the business. Sad. Now I have to go elsewhere when I go home.

  6. John says:

    The civility at the corner pub has gone the way of the civility in political discourse. Apparently there is no room for either in present day America.

  7. TG Chicago says:

    “Granted, most of them aren’t places where people can easily stumble home afterwards; that’s just not how people live here.”

    I think that was the point, though. Or at least a big part of it. I live within a block of at least two bars. Tonight, I went to a literary reading at a bar about a mile away, and there were about 5 bars along the route.

    If you can’t stumble home, it’s not your neighborhood hangout.

  8. Richard Gardner says:

    As was discussed in Andrew Sullivan’s follow on threads, a couple of assumptions stated in the post he quoted were wrong – only applied to Washington DC and its crazy liquor laws. OTOH, 30 years ago in London, last call was at 11PM. The plays would end in time for the patrons to mob the adjacent bars.

    I live in a state with Taverns = no hard alcohol. 15 years ago that was as major issue as only restaurants could serve liquor (50% of sales had to be food). Today we have many places that pay the lower no-booze fee (and no bouncer required), but still no dogs are allowed (has been in the state legislature the past 5 years, never gotten anywhere). We also have lots of places with hard booze, with a higher fee.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @john personna and @TG Chicago:

    Right. But, obviously, a “neighborhood” is a prerequisite to a “neighborhood bar.” Those asking why the latter don’t exist in the suburbs are asking the wrong question.

    Yglesias in particular talks a lot (in general, not in the linked post) about the former and how government has contributed to the situation. But the problem isn’t weird liquor laws but rather sprawl, a car culture, and cloistered housing reinforced by zoning restrictions.