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Do they take care of their hanging baskets? 10 ways to spot a decent bar… and avoid a dodgy one

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An attractive exterior bodes well for a pub's interior

An attractive exterior bodes well for a pub's interior

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Bone marrow luge

Bone marrow luge

Marquis de la Ligne Bordeaux Blanc

Marquis de la Ligne Bordeaux Blanc

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An attractive exterior bodes well for a pub's interior

Picture the scene: you’re on your holidays and you’ve just landed in a town you’ve never visited before. You fancy a drink and there’s a number of places to choose from. But which one to pick? The one with the bright-coloured paintwork? The one that promises cocktails for three euro? The one with a happy hour that lasts for most of the night?

All of them might be OK, but there’s a heavy responsibility on the shoulders of the person who suggests going in. Many’s the time I’ve chosen a pub and dragged friends inside only to discover a dungeon of rare foulness within. The torrent of accusations and prolonged questioning of my judgment that ensued has taught me to exercise caution when selecting somewhere for the relatively simple act of enjoying a quiet drink. So here – with the benefit of some very bitter experience – are the 10 guidelines I now follow when choosing a pub in an unfamiliar town. They’re not infallible, but they just might help you avoid some of the worst hellholes masquerading as decent places to drink.

1 Hanging baskets: My top tip for spotting a decent bar. The reasoning goes like this – if a publican bothers to festoon the outside of his premises with flowers, and manages to keep them alive, then he’s trying to create a welcoming, attractive exterior that’s probably repeated inside. And it shows he takes care of the little things.

2 People outside: If there’s tables out front and the occupants seem to be chatting and having a good time, that’s encouragement enough to join them. If the tables have nothing except piles of empty glasses and a peppering of fag butts, pause and re-evaluate.

3 Smell: It’s the first thing you should take note of when you walk in. Smells of beer? Fine. Smells of chips? Fine. Smells of the toilets? Avoid, avoid, avoid.

4 Sound: Silence within is not necessarily a bad sign, although it will probably reduce you and your friends to whispering over your drinks. On the other hand, grimecore, Turkish hip-hop or Europe’s The Final Countdown played at head-melting volume in an empty bar is a signal to swiftly move on. A buzz of conversation and a sprinkling of laughter is always good, though if it stops abruptly when you step inside, don’t misinterpret this as politeness. Get out while you still can.

5 Décor: Ask yourself these questions – is there too much tongue-and-groove panelling? Is there a bicycle hanging from the ceiling? Are there fruit machines along one entire wall? Have those imitation leather seats been repaired with duct tape? If the answer to any of these is yes, don’t get your hopes up for a great night.

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6 Bar staff: Smiles say come in and scowls say come in if you dare. If your feeble attempt at light banter is ignored by the barperson, don’t persist – drink up and make for the door. Young staff wearing T-shirts bearing the bar’s name are usually a sign of efficient, friendly service, but be prepared to pay using your phone or your watch. If you’re fumbling in your pockets for cash, your best hope is for an avuncular gent or someone who looks like your mum behind the bar.

7 Drink stock: Have a good look at what’s on the shelves behind the bar. A multi-coloured array of exotic spirits is usually a good sign. A thick layer of dust over them is not. If you ask for a shot of crème de mure and the barperson can lay their hands on the bottle without blinking, you’ve hit paydirt. If the drinks on optic consist of eight vodkas all the same, a blended Scotch and a dark rum, you’ve hit trouble.

8 Stools at the bar: Always a good sign – it means the staff aren’t bothered that customers can see and hear exactly what goes on behind the bar. The best pubs have a small area with no stools so that customers aren’t shouting their orders over people having a pint.

9 Toilets: A crucial area in any bar (see point 3) though you usually don’t get to assess these until you’ve already had a drink or two. Alarm bells should start ringing if the cleaning rota on the back of the door hasn’t been filled in during the current calendar month or if the broken hand-drier and empty paper towel dispenser mean you have to dry your hands on your handkerchief.

10 TV: The best bars with TVs don’t have seating directly beneath the screen. No one ever wants to sit there, because when you do, you think everyone in the entire bar is staring at you. And if you insist on staying in a bar that’s inexplicably showing the shopping channel on its big screen, you fully deserve the dreary night that’s coming your way.

Bottle of the Week

By Patricia Maginn

Marquis de la Ligne Bordeaux Blanc

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Marquis de la Ligne Bordeaux Blanc

Marquis de la Ligne Bordeaux Blanc

Marquis de la Ligne Bordeaux Blanc

Northern Ireland owner Terry Cross completely replanted the Chateau De La Ligne vineyards in Bordeaux in 2002 and now has 66,000 vines of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes on 11 hectares of prime land. The soil mixture of gravel, clay, limestone and sand helps give structure and elegance to the wines and the north-south orientation maximises sun exposure, allowing the grapes to achieve optimum ripeness, resulting in great fruit intensity and weight. RRP £11.99, available from The Sipster, Whiteabbey; Donard Wines, Newcastle; Newell’s, Dungannon; The Grange, Holywood, Gee’s Wine Shop, Derry; DC Wines, Belfast.

Close the the bone: A sherry like no other

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Bone marrow luge

Bone marrow luge

Bone marrow luge

Vegetarians and vegans look away now. One of the latest restaurant crazes to hit the US is drinking sherry through a bone that’s left hollow after you’ve eaten the marrow from the centre.

First of all, you enjoy a meaty dinner and scrape the marrow from inside the bone, then you put the bone to your mouth and amontillado sherry is poured through it, sluicing morsels of meat and marrow towards your taste buds.

The extraordinary experience is said to have originated in Portland, Oregon, when it was tried with tequila, although sherry seems to be the drink of choice these days. There’s whole websites devoted to the subject – google ‘bone marrow luge’ if you don’t believe me.


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