There is no British pub culture in Vancouver. There never has been.

I’ve read over and over from UK immigrants their quest to find that one “proper” pub like home in Vancouver. They never find it. They never will.

I’m not saying Vancouver lacks pubs that look like British pubs and serve British food and British beer. I mean Vancouver lacks pubs that replicate British pub culture in the UK; pubs that function as the default community hub where everyone local freely mixes and mingles, where the patrons aren’t locked into table service, and everyone goes there to socialize with strangers and not just the group they walked in with. This kind of British pub culture does not exist in Vancouver. It never has.

Craft breweries in Vancouver sort of fill this void. You could say the city’s craft breweries have become community hubs where all are welcome, people mix and mingle, and there’s a vibrancy to them that rivals a UK pub.

In the past (i.e. 1970s and earlier), a lot of pubs here in Metro Vancouver were fairly seedy places no respectable person would want to go to. The local watering holes that were masquerading as pubs often had darkened windows and strippers, especially in the suburbs (i.e. Richmond). They functioned like sleazy bars. They attracted mostly men. They weren’t places people went to socialize with one another. Women certainly didn’t want to go there. Mostly men went there to drink with their buddies or by themselves.

You can blame it on Vancouver’s history of being a small remote backwater at the edge of the colonial world, a humble city that attracted hordes of desperate men from abroad to work in dirty, labour-intensive resource extraction industries like logging, milling, mining, and fishing.

Then, what do all these men do with all their cash and spare time when they’re the majority of the population and living single with all this money in the middle of nowhere? They spend it on women and booze in saloons that are all clustered around the logging mills and fishing canneries and fishing docks. Hello Gastown, the Downtown Eastside, and Steveston! Saloons and brothels and all sorts of things sprung up. As did drunken gentlemen misbehaving and being sloppy in public.

How does a newly-established colonial community react to all that vice and debauchery clustered around the infant city during the Victorian era? They create temperance movements and prohibition! What does that do? It turns drinking establishments into seedy, underground establishments as something to be hidden and to be shameful of and it encourages a culture where drinking is done on the down low, out of sight.

What happens when the liquor laws loosen up a little but are still entrenched in this “liquor is a shameful pursuit and must be carefully managed” culture (that still exists to this day)? It creates a culture of seedy bars with darkened doors, or “pubs” with strict laws about where you can drink, how it must be served, whether or not you can carry it to your table, and so on.

I mean, you couldn’t even have a craft brewery with a casual tasting room in Vancouver until a decade ago. And you couldn’t have children in said establishments until about a decade ago. Happy hour wasn’t even allowed in Vancouver until a decade ago! And they’re still figuring out ways to allow drinking at the beach or in a park. These old prohibition liquor laws run deep here!

Keep in mind, pub culture thrives in the UK because of the small communities where pubs are within walking distance to people’s workplaces and homes, where there is hundreds of years of history of these pubs existing, where it is normal for folks to walk to the pub and meet with friends because often their homes are too small to host large gatherings of friends. The geography allows this to easily happen in the UK.

In Canada, where cities are often designed to be driven in, where peoples homes are massive (well, they used to be, ha!) and pubs are usually too far away from the houses to be within easy walking distance, and where Canada’s earliest days were entrenched in the whole temperance movement, you simply don’t have the same recipe for pub culture that the UK has. It’s a massive challenge with so much working against it, the geography, history, and culture in Vancouver just isn’t the same as the UK’s for British pub culture to flourish here.

Agree or disagree? Have a different take on this? Tell me in the comments below!

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  1. As a Scot who has lived in Vancouver for over a decade, I think it’s mainly the licensing rules that have caused the issue. When I went for drinks with colleagues for the first time, I was totally shocked that we were given a table and had to order drinks through a server. I was trying to explain “but we’re not here for dinner, I can go to the bar myself” 🙂

    I don’t want to go to a full-on bar/club situation where you *can* mingle around, but all the pub/bars are “sit here and don’t move”. Craft breweries are definitely the closest thing to pub culture in the UK, but still not quite right.

    1. That makes sense, and yeah, I can only imagine the confusion for people newly-arrived in Vancouver from the UK going to a pub and learning the hard way how it works!

      But you raise an excellent point. I wonder if the licensing laws will ever get to the point where the mixing and mingling will ever happen? The thing is, I don’t think that aspect is on any locals’ radar? They don’t miss it because they’ve never had it.

  2. Thank you for your insightful and detailed analysis of the pub culture differences between the UK and Vancouver. You’ve articulated well how history, geography, and social norms have shaped the pub experience in both regions.

    Indeed, British and Canadian pub cultures have evolved quite differently due to these varying factors. British pubs serve as community hubs, integral to local social life, where people freely mingle and socialize. In Vancouver, however, such a culture has not developed in the same way. The city’s pubs have historically been more akin to bars, with a more controlled and less communal atmosphere.

    The longing of UK immigrants for an authentic “proper” British pub experience in Vancouver remains unmet, as the essence of British pub culture cannot be fully replicated here. Vancouver’s craft breweries have started to fill this void, acting as modern community hubs where people gather, but they still do not entirely embody the traditional British pub atmosphere.

    Your point about the impact of Vancouver’s history on its drinking establishments is particularly insightful. The city’s early days, marked by labor-intensive industries and a male-dominated population, led to the development of seedy, underground drinking spots. This legacy, coupled with stringent liquor laws influenced by temperance movements, has left a lasting imprint on Vancouver’s pub culture.

    Moreover, the geographical and social landscape of Canada, with its sprawling cities and reliance on cars, further hinders the development of a pub culture similar to that in the UK, where pubs are within walking distance and homes are often too small to host large gatherings.

    While Vancouver may never have a true British pub culture, there is certainly room for improvement and the creation of better British-themed pubs. By adapting to local customs while embracing some of the communal aspects of British pubs, Vancouver can cultivate its own unique pub culture that resonates with its residents.

    Thank you for sparking this interesting discussion. I look forward to hearing more thoughts and perspectives on this topic.

  3. Totally agree. The craft beer places are fun, but feel more about the beer than just a quiet spot to find a corner or sit at a regular table and read the paper. With their target demographic being younger and more in the need of either boardgames or louder music, or even the need to feel trendy/or against the trend, it’s all laid on a bit thick.
    I expect it’s the need to pay such wildly high rents that forces the owner’s hand to try new things. Although, there’s nowhere busier on a sunny afternoon than a British pub with a beer garden.

    1. Oh, how I miss a proper beer garden. Calling a piece of asphalt enclosed by temporary fencing, a “beer garden”, is a sick joke.

  4. Agree! However, have you been to Meat at O’Neills on Central Lonsdale? It’s a tiny place with only bar seating and two taps but by far the most authentic British pub experience I’ve experienced in BC. If you go at the right time, you’ll find it’s full of Irish lads behaving just as they would back home.

  5. Really appreciate this piece and the conversation in the comments. I’m a dual Canadian-Brit, as is my husband, and we spend quite a bit of time back in the UK. The dismal state of the licensing regime in Vancouver is the primary hurdle, followed closely by lack of population density in *some* neighbourhoods. In others, however, like Mount Pleasant, Strathcona, Kits, South Granville, the West End, etc., I think changes to licensing schemes would lead to a thriving pub culture because there are a lot of people in not a ton of geographic space.

    We all know how great it feels to walk up to a bar, order a pint, find a table, or mingle around indoors or out. This kind of social culture does not lead to binge drinking or raucous behaviour any more or less than does table service. It is exceedingly patronizing to perpetuate schemes where food must be served with an alcoholic beveridge. If someone needs to be cut off, cut them off; you don’t need to have them sat at a table with a dedicated server for this to work.

    We’ve been complaining about this issue since we moved to Vancouver in 2021 (the issue is similar in most Canadian cities). If anyone has an idea as to how we can petition the City to make changes to these antiquated licensing schemes, sign me up! I’m all in to try to fix this problem (instead of just complaining about it all the time, like I currently do 😉 ).

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