Many people have a favorite in the bar vs. pub debate, but which of these is better? There are so many drinking establishments that it can be hard to pick a favorite unless you visit them, but you can start to narrow things down by different criteria.
Here are the differences between bars and pubs, including specific details about their characteristics, some well-known locations, and some common questions people have about them.
What Is a Bar?
A bar is a retail establishment that primarily sells alcoholic drinks, including beer, wine, and cocktails. Food may be served in a bar, but drinks are the clear focus of the establishment, and many have little or no food. Most bars are age-restricted according to local law.
Bars can have specific themes. For example, biker bars often serve motorcycle groups who frequent the place, sports bars have televisions displaying current sports games, and gay bars cater specifically to the LGBT+ community.
Some places have an area called the public area, which is a more widely-accessible area with cheaper drinks. Higher-priced options may be restricted to the saloon bar. Some bars will have loud music or dance areas, though this isn’t universal.
What Is a Pub?
A pub is a combination of a bar and a restaurant. Unlike bars, most pubs allow minors into the dining areas, though they still can’t have alcohol or enter the bar area. Pubs tend to have more support for hanging out with other community members.
As places with a much heavier focus on food served, pubs often cater to groups and families, with a clear focus on lunch and dinner. Gastropubs are the most common example of pubs these days, emphasizing the mix of alcohol and restaurant.
Like bars, pubs often have themes to go with them, such as Irish pubs, Goth pubs, and music-oriented Rock pubs.
Bar vs. Pub Comparison
Here are some more details about the way bars and pubs compare.
Pubs are the older of the two establishments, originating in England. The name is a shortened version of Public House, referencing a location open to the public.
Although initially focused on alcohol, they eventually moved to serve more food to meet the needs of customers. The oldest bars served ale, and occasionally officials would go around to taste the differences.
Public houses, including British pubs, have also served as places for news, entertainment, romance, and other cultural activities.
Bars are more recent locations that emerged in the United States. Unlike pubs, which tend to serve lower-alcohol drinks, bars often focus on harder liquors. The name comes from the wide counter where drinks get served.
Bars tend to cluster in cities, and there are a few reasons for this. First, they tend to focus on younger crowds, and young people are more likely to move to a city for work and entertainment. Cities also have enough of a population to support a location that focuses on serving alcoholic drinks.
Pubs can be found more widely, including a higher number in rural and suburban areas. Adding a bar to an existing restaurant can significantly increase foot traffic by appealing to a wider group of people, so they can make a business viable in areas with a lower population. Like bars, pubs are common in cities.
Neither type appears in “dry” counties, which restrict the sale of alcohol.
Pubs are often chain locations, either run centrally or franchised out. More upscale pubs tend to have private ownership, especially if they’re unique locations. As pubs tend to focus on lower-cost drinks to go along with food, they can take advantage of the economies of scale for buying in bulk to increase their profit margins. Breweries run some pub chains.
Bars tend to be independent locations. Many brew their beer to help control costs, but stock assorted alcohols individually. Since drinks get priced by use, it’s possible to ensure enough profit from anything customers order to replace what they buy and keep the bar in good financial health.
Many bars also prefer retaining private ownership as a way of appearing more upscale than pubs. Independent operation gives greater control over the decoration, drinks, and menu.
Food and Drink
Pubs are the clear winner when it comes to food. While menus vary, pubs tend to serve heavier meals like burgers, fish, pizza, fried chicken, and barbequed meat. Restaurants are a major section of most pubs, so the food needs to be good enough to stand on its own.
Bars tend to focus on simpler food, sometimes leaving it at snacks instead of anything we’d call a meal. They focus heavily on their drinks, and most foods could mask the flavor of cocktails and other alcoholic drinks. Any food that’s present is usually more of a courtesy in case people are hungry, rather than a serious attempt to feed them.
Pubs tend to have less entertainment than bars, although many have TVs to show sports games while guests eat. The main focus of pubs is dining and getting some drinks on the side, and many of them prefer to have a comfortable atmosphere. However, they may have a few fancier alcoholic beverages, live bands, or events like poker nights.
A public bar usually has far more entertainment than any pub. They appeal mainly to the younger crowd, so bars may have a dance floor. Karaoke bars will have singing areas, while sports bars may have darts and sport-themed games. Biker bars often have quiz games and similar entertainment, while gay bars may have cultural shows.
The basic difference between the two is that pubs often focus on private entertainment, while bars usually have group-oriented, social entertainment.
Pubs tend to have a more intimate and relaxing atmosphere. They often have somewhat dimmer lights, darker decor, and private booths for dining. Most pubs follow general restaurant etiquette outside of any dedicated bar areas, which means there isn’t much loud music and people can talk to each other instead.
Unlike a public house, a bar usually has a more exciting and upbeat atmosphere. This is especially true at karaoke bars, though refined areas like a wine bar may keep the noise lower. The goal at many bars is to emphasize social interaction, and keeping the room energetic is part of that.
Bars can be better-lit than pubs, though they may turn the lights lower for dancing. Bars also tend to have more open floor plans than pubs, with fewer obstructions to block anyone’s view across the room.
Pubs tend to be open from around midday to early in the morning. Exact hours always vary by location, but pubs will often open at 10:30 a.m. or 11:00 a.m. to get the early-lunch crowd, then remain open until 1:00 a.m. Most of them don’t serve as much food after 8:00 p.m. or 9:00 p.m., so pubs tend to focus on alcohol once it gets late enough.
Bars usually open much later in the day than pubs, with many waiting until 4:00 p.m. or 5:00 p.m. to open their doors. Some may open at the same time as pubs, especially in crowded areas, but that’s not as common. Closing times are usually set statewide and known as Last Call laws, and most bars will close at these times. 2:00 a.m. is a common choice.
Pubs tend to cater to families and older adults, especially those looking to get a full meal. Many also try to attract working adults who are out on their lunch break, so they tend to cater slightly toward men.
Bars cater to a younger crowd than pubs, especially young college students and working adults who want to unwind and have some fun. Many bars emphasize their theme to try and appeal to specific groups, which affects their clientele more than pubs doing the same.
Bars also tend to focus on richer patrons than a typical pub. While pubs can get expensive, bars are more likely to serve pricey drinks, including rare wines. Pubs may have a few expensive options, but prefer profiting by volume.
Famous Pubs and Bars
Here are some famous pubs and bars.
Al Brindisi, Ferrara
Al Brindisi in Ferrara, Italy, is the oldest known tavern-type location in the world. It’s primarily a wine bar, with relatively simple food that many people don’t bother too much with.
Al Brindisi is certainly worth visiting for the experience if you’re from the area, though. While it’s been renovated several times throughout its history, there are still clear indications of its origins in the 1400s and it’s a fundamentally different way to enjoy drinks if you’re used to modern bars.
(It’s also arguably a pub because of the food, but wine is the focus here.)
The Blind Beggar
The Blind Beggar is a notable pub close to Whitechapel Station in London. The location has seen a surprising amount of history, including the murder of criminal George Cornell, the sermon from William Booth that would eventually create the Salvation Army, and the first outlet of modern Brown Ale.
Legend holds that the name comes from Sir Henry de Montfort, said to have lost his sight in the Battle of Evesham in 1265. After being nursed back to health, he became a beggar at the crossroads, and the story has been a notable part of local culture ever since.
The American Bar, The Savoy, London
London has plenty of places to drink, but The American Bar at The Savoy is the longest-surviving cocktail bar and easily one of the best in the world. Cocktails and unique creations are the focus here, but they also have a robust selection of wine and other spirits, plus a few alcohol-free options for guests that don’t want liquor.
Dining options at the bar include a bit of seafood, cheese boards, and beef tartare. Expect to pay a premium for the quality of their options. Fortunately, you don’t have to travel far if you’re still hungry, as there are several fine restaurants close to this bar.
The Pub, Valletta
Found in Valletta in Malta, the place known simply as The Pub is a tiny location with solid drinks. It’s also famed as the spot of English actor Oliver Reed’s last drink, and The Pub has a collection of photos and other memorabilia showcasing the connection.
The Pub has a solid selection of drinks, but the beers are particularly notable. It’s also one of the only English-style pubs in Malta, and therefore one of the few choices around if you’re looking for a classic pub feel.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some common questions people have about the bar. vs pub debate.
Is an inn or tavern the same as a pub?
Not quite. Although many pubs call themselves an inn, the term refers specifically to locations that let you stay the night. Taverns are similar to pubs, but often have private rooms for eating and meetings, so they tend to host larger groups on average.
Why do some pubs have unusual or funny names?
Pubs often have entertaining names because that makes them more memorable. People who remember the pub exists are ultimately more likely to visit it at some point, increasing foot traffic and sales.
What is a pub lock-in?
A lock-in is a private party at a pub, usually by invitation only, where things continue past the official hours. Although technically illegal in many areas, it’s mostly tolerated as long as things don’t get out of hand.
In the bar vs. pub debate, the real question is whether you care more about the food or the drinks. Pubs are mainly a place to get a meal and some drinks to go alongside it, while bars focus more on alcohol and higher-quality liquor. There’s plenty of intermingling between the definitions, though, so sometimes you just have to visit a place yourself.
Since the decision is mainly a matter of personal taste, let us know in the comments below whether you prefer bars or pubs. We’d love to hear about your experiences!