Swirly carpets, curly sandwiches and definitely no Irish theme. Get hip, says Eleanor Bailey, the real boozer is back
It's so frustrating. No sooner have you got 80 different vodkas off-pat and got on first-name terms with the celebrity bartenders than the whole thing changes. Pretension is out and flock carpets and warm beers are back. Welcome to the return of the real pub.

"In the past 12 months, there's been a reaction against sophistication," says Richard Benson, editor of The Face. "There has been a move away from the trendy, purpose-built place. The sophistication that rose out of the clubbing explosion has become boring. In any case, there's such a paucity of decent places to drink that as soon as there is a good new place it becomes overrun by the slick city office crowd and loses its original appeal."

Style bars are too successful. They are too full, the pressure to look good is too much, you can't get a warm beer in any currency and the wise- ass barman always wants a tip. "People have got sick of drinking to impress," says real-pub convert Paul Marks, "they want to sit down and drink with their friends. What they really want is a seedy local."

"It's a real thrill," says David Lancaster, editor of lads' food magazine, Eat Soup, "to be in an unpretentious place, which isn't fake Irish or fake Russian, and just drink normal beer, watch Sky Sports and know that you don't have to be sociable."

"I love not being served by an arse," says Chris Fouracre, director of At It Productions "I rang some people up on Friday and I said, 'Right, I don't want to come out at 10.30pm. We're going out for a drink in the Cock & Bottle rather than finding somewhere to go before a club afterwards.' So we got there at 8.30pm and I was sitting at the bar with my girlfriend having a pint and there were 15 of us just talking and having a drink. It was really nice to sit down. Of course," he adds, not wanting to tarnish that mad-for-it TV image, the other six nights of the week we're going somewhere else."

Not all real pubs are cool. It depends on the clientele. The cool real pub needs just the right balance of "genuine" locals and the self-consciously fashionable. And, unless you are the kind of person whose very presence attracts an "in crowd", your dream night in a real pub may turn into a night having the your face smashed in by real locals for being an arse. "Charlie Wright's International in Old Street," says Marks, "has a good late licence and authenticity. But as a consequence, the pool table is often surrounded by East End wide-boys. They don't find us funny, I'd never go on my own." But worse than that, you could end up in The Nothing Pub, which is really embarrassing. "I hate nothing pubs," says Fouracre. "You can always tell. There will be a young bloke in a Mr Byrite shirt and tie behind the bar."

Real pub perfection, cognescenti agree, is an old husband and wife team behind the bar, clientele a mix of old-time criminals, very old men and pop stars. The food should be curling sandwiches - with milky, mild cheddar or sweating ham - available strictly between 12.30pm and 1pm. That makes it feel real. Just don't eat any. Enjoy old style crisps without crinkles, extra thickness, exotic flavours or the price premium. Real pubs don't sell cranberry juice, you'd be very lucky to find the slim-line tonic but there is more chance of guest beers and real ales. "The juke box," says David Lancaster, who grew up in a pub, so he knows what he's talking about, "should be a very narrow selection of Rod Stewart songs which you end up playing after three hours. The decor is that horrible mock Art Deco, in hellish shades of purple or red."

The rise of the real pub is partly the realisation that it can actually be more pleasant to sit down in comfort and hear yourself think. But it is as much a statement in this self-conscious era of anti-cool and, of course, people have to say that they go there for comfort and audibility so that no one realises that they're doing it on purpose.

This month's Face mentions that traditional pub games are gaining style ground against computer games and it's all part of the move. "Pool's always been cool," says Fouracre. "Darts isn't cool in itself, but there would be an ironic, Loaded-style cool about spending the evening with an ex- darts player. If you'd come back and said 'Oh, Eric Bristow was there,' that would be good."

Of course, much of the popularity has been achieved, like a considerable proportion of New Labour support, thanks to the own-goal tactics of the opposition - the onward march of the theme-pub chains, brought on by the end of the brewery monopoly in 1992 The relentless up-popping of O'Neills, Moon Under Waters, Scruffys etc in every high street raised fake atmosphere to a new art form, which gave the remaining pubs, that were previously merely tatty, a "last bastion, never give in" feel. This is a very powerful motivator to the British and accounts for why people got rueful about the demise of waitress-service burger bars.

There is also the hugely powerful nostalgia factor, anything that reminds us of the good old bad old days - prawn cocktails, nylon T-shirts, Mr Benn - when you only needed a cigarette and a lager shandy to feel that you were on the edge. "Going to a seedy pub reminds you of your youth," says Fouracre "when you'd drink wherever they would let you - when just going into the pub was exciting."

To further confuse the issue, there are the fake real pubs. This ersatz sub-genre are sophisticated theme pubs which have caught onto the feeling that authentic is good and so created it better than ever. The Cow, for example, Tom Conran's pub in Westbourne Park, will still serve you oysters, but the decor is deliberately "old pub". True fans of the real pub don't approve, of course, but what do they know. For as Benson points out, the huge Schrodinger's Cat paradox of the whole thing, is that the very act of seeking out a "real" pub smacks of fakery. You have to have been going there all along. And the only people who do that aren't cool anyway.

So being cool is impossible, which seems highly satisfactory.

PUBS - how real is real?

1. Real pubs - Genuine locals and trendies mingle

2. New real pubs - Just trendies but looks like a local

3. Nothing pubs - No trendies, just aspirational trendy suits

4. Theme pubs - Other suits and aspirational locals

5. Real real pubs - Hard-nosed locals

'GENUINE' PUBS

Bricklayers Arms

63 Charlotte Road

London EC2

The Cock and Bottle

17 Needham Street

London W11

The Falcon

2 St John's Hill

London SW11

The Coach and Horses

29 Greek Street

London W1

Dog and Duck

18 Bateman Street

London W1

The Spread Eagle

141 Albert Street

London NW1

The Rose and Crown

199 Stoke Newington Church Street

London N16

Grove House Tavern

26 Camberwell Grove

London SE5

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