Waiting at the Rake

On Friday I went to the Rake, the smallest bar in London.  I’d been to the Rake before a couple of times after work.  It’s essentially a room with a vast beer selection (basically a representation of what’s on offer at the comprehensive Utobeer, the sister stall in the Market) There are a couple of tables and chairs and a fenced-in ‘garden’.  I’m glad the place is doing a good business but I’ve never been able to actually sit down inside because it’s so rammo– I’m reminded of how often having ‘fun’ in crowded, pricey London is a lot of work.

I was invited via this blog to the kick-off of the BrewDog week at the Rake– a tasting at the bar at 4:30. I was gleefully excited to get this invitation, as BrewDog is my favourite British brewery, consistently making potent and daring brews, pushing traditional styles.  Edgy juxtapostions mark the flavors of their beers.  I also love their puckish branding, their playing David to the Portman Group’s Goliath.

I showed up at 5 for the tasting, thinking it would already be in full swing.  The bar was packed with people drinking beers, only they weren’t BrewDog beers.  Weird. I had brought my friend Petra who is a journalist for National Public Radio back in America, telling her about BrewDog and the complications of the Portman Group troubles, which interested her. Earlier in the week we tried some BrewDog Storm my friend Liza had stashed and Petra announced it was like drinking a house on fire.  Precisely!  Though my palate delighted in this, hers did not.

On the occasions I’ve gone to the Rake I have had the naive expectation that the people working the bar might enthuse with me about the beers, maybe suggest something or explain what’s on tap.  Bars like this in America would definitely have this forthcoming attitude, but there is the typical London service going on– cursory or cowed. Could it be that places earn their names, and the Rake is ultimately a cad, a heel of a beer joint?  (Hogarth’s progressed to Bedlam.) My verdict is still out.

On Friday the vibe was no different. I overheard a guy who I thought was the proprietor talking about BrewDog and I butted in, apologizing for interupting–  asking after the BrewDog beers and if there was a tasting on.  He told me the beers would be on hand  pump next week and I should come back then.  I mentioned the press release I’d been sent, but he turned back to his friend to say what a coup it was that they had the BrewDog beers on offer for a week, and clearly the conversation with me was over.  I had no idea that the tasting was actually going on upstairs at that very moment.  I didn’t even know there was an upstairs at the Rake.  I only learned of this the next day.

On Friday we sat outside looking to recognize someone.  (I was told in the invitation that the brewers would be at the bar.)  As I waited, I marveled at the crowd the Rake attracts–  well-dressed media types and boomer-aged foodies who love beer so much, or the hipster craic that comes with drinking £4 bottles of beer, that they will stand outside on a rainy midwinter night to drink it. I was no different, and probably worse, as I sat on the rain-wet bench for two hours, waiting to perhaps see another beer blogger or even the brewers I’d come to meet.  I actually spurned my usual investment-banking-office-wear that day and dressed festively in my favourite black dress which remained hidden the entire night under my bulky winter coat. If a non-beer person asked me what I did on Friday, how could I even explain this behavior?

While I waited I had some of BrewDog’s Trashy Blonde and then the Speedball, but I took no tasting notes, my heart just not being in it.  Petra was after a Kriek, and all they had on was Boon, which I’ve never tried.  She had some Morte Subite Olde Gueuze which she affectionately dubbed ‘pickle juice beer’ and then switched to the candy-coloured comfort of Sam Smith’s cherry lager.

This week a full range of BrewDog beers are on at The Rake in Borough Market, along with some in the cask on hand pumps.  Initially I drew up a list of the beers I wanted to try, in specific order.  But now can’t motivate myself to go and stand outside on a winter’s night drinking them silently amongst strangers, no matter how fascinating the beers themselves might be.

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14 Responses

  1. What is it with crappy service in pubs lately? Is it the holiday season making their service and knowledge worse (aside from Stonch, natch)? This seems to be a recurring theme as Knut just mentioned the same thing last week…

    Maybe the whole world just needs a kick in the bollocks for a wake-up call to remind them that they work in a SERVICE industry.

  2. Hi Mike– I think it is particularly bad in London where things are so crowded that the individual customer means nothing.

    I used to work for a British company in a customer service division and they had a London-wide meeting where the person in charge kept putting “customer service” in finger quotes and apologizing for what she said was a “terribly American idea.”

    I’m astounded at the number of people working in pubs who no nothing about the beer they are serving. This might be another reason why so many pubs are serving real ale in bad condition? I could go on about this. Maybe I should do a post about pubs that are actually welcoming, with knowledgeable staff?

  3. You know I already feel bad about how this played out! But the BrewDog lads would like me to send you some beers to heat you up, so if you would be so kind to send me your address, there shall be something in the post!

    (and to anyone else thinking of suddenly posting ‘I was there and never got in’, don’t bother 🙂 )

  4. Thanks, Craig. I only regret that I didn’t get to meet you guys!

  5. The topic of customer service always brings to mind the subject of tipping to me when it comes to beer. Without that factor in place, as is the UK, the patron may lose out on service in certain establishments, but at the same time, employees know exactly what they’ll be making each pay period. That’s a whole other can of worms, though. But if you’re serving quality beer and you’re intent on being be a jerk, at least know what you’re talking about.

    And I’m sure any beer blogger that read this post is no stranger to showing up to a beer tasting/special event solo. We’ve all been there… Am I right, people?… {crickets}

  6. Hey E.S.– I don’t really know why tipping isn’t done at pubs here (and even restaurant tipping is rather mean in comparison to what is done in the US).

    It’s ironic that my friend (the journalist from NPR) was tipping the bar staff and I told her she didn’t have to to that in London. She said, “Anyone who can spit in my beer gets a pound from me.” Haha.

    I’ve been a waitress. I’m sure tending bar is just as stressful and exhausting but good customer service– being attentive and customer-centered– can often make a difficult job more rewarding and ultimately easier.

  7. “but good customer service– being attentive and customer-centered”

    Hell, I’ve tipped extra when that happens, just ’cause I know how it can be.

    Sorry things went down badly.

  8. Tipping really is a funny one – my (Brit) friend drank in his neighbourhood bar in West Philly for months, sometimes with his girlfriend, but often on his tod. As he was pretty skint & didn’t know the ‘rules’ he never tipped, but did notice how people looked toward him! (then his g/f explained & everyone laughed about the silly Brit & he started tipping & everything was right in the world)

    Here, I used not to tip & now I partake in the (Northern?) practice of the euphemistic ” . . . and one for yourself” which, as a several-time barman, I know to mean “take a few pence & no, not a whole drink” – which normally translates as 20p in the high-class joints I frequent.

    Elsewhere in the country I’ve had to explain what I meant, or it’s been simply refused, or they’ve taken for a whole drink.

    In this country we often don’t do service well in lots of realms, but the best pubs do. It sounds like The Rake missed the mark on this occasion, but kudos to Craig for trying to make amends (does he work at The Rake? or for BrewDog?)

    • Hi Mike– That’s funny about your friend– I bet there were a few confused/hostile glances his way! So in the North it is acceptable to tip? When I first moved here I would try to tip and it was almost always rejected. After being a waitress for years it is an old habit to tip well– but it’s a habit I have unlearned in London.

      Also, Craig works for BrewDog.

  9. The Rake’s a funny old place. It really does seem to depend who’s on, as you do get some of the staff (maybe the owners?) enthusing about the beers, but you get the impression that some of the rest are just too busy being hip to be bothered about what they’re serving.

    Still a great beer selection though, and can be cosy on a winter afternoon.

  10. We’ve had mixed experiences with customer service at the Rake, but it’s never been really bad. At best, we’ve been served by very cheerful people who have wanted to talk about the beer; at worst, they’ve looked harried and (perhaps) hungover. I’m perhaps being charitable because, compared to some pubs in London, the service in the Rake is great. For example, the Moby Dick in Docklands has the grumpiest bar-staff in London, hands down.

  11. The Rake is a ‘god awful’ place with lots of fantastic beer at very high prices. With its location comes a steady stream of customers be they city workers, foodies or young people wanting to be somewhere cool. The one and only experience of good customer service I’ve had here was about a month or two after opening. It wasn’t an English bloke but I can’t remember if he came from across the pond or down under. Anyway, he was very helpful. Since then every time I’ve been in there I’ve come away thinking what a bunch tossers the staff were. On more than a few occasions they were rude to either me or someone in my party (and none of us could be described as remotely offensive people)!

    I’ve pretty much decided that I don’t want their beer badly enough to go any more! There is too much beer to drink in the world to go short anyway.

    TIPPING is not the answer. The bad service comes more from the Edwardian sentiment of knowing your place and not complaining and ‘making do’. Bad service goes unchecked. There are plenty of places where they are helpful and friendly. The best customer service in the world (i’ve experienced) was in Japan and there was no tipping there at all. Personally, i resent the notion of it being obligatory to hand over a voluntary donation to staff wages because someone else can’t be arsed to pay them decent wages.

    It’s down to landlords, pub managers or whatever to pick the right staff, train them properly and monitor them. Unfortunately, this is difficult in many city centres as staff turnaround is high and people seem reluctant to do this. There is definitely something to be said for those old school landlords who still wear a white shirt and a tie behind the bar and keep a tight ship.

    It’s definitely not just a northern thing saying ‘..and one for yourself…’ but I would say that it was a bit more of a working class thing. People not knowing about what you meant when you said this were probably those who were untrained by their bosses, or working in a less intimate establishment. This is more a friendly gesture than a tip, just as you would buy someone you just met in a pub a drink. It shouldn’t mean ‘ ‘ere top up your wages with this’.

    Having said that 20p is being a bit tight!!!!

    • Hi Bernie, I have to agree that I can’t see myself going back there for the same reasons you express. That’s an interesting notion about “knowing your place”- I’ve definitely sensed that something like this is at work, that people simply do not complain when the service or quality is lacking.

  12. That and a hangover from the shortages of two world wars and rationing, where if people didn’t just put up and get on with stuff they’d probably have gone a bit mental.

    I have to admit I’m not the best at complaining myself. I do it when I need to but I also avoid it sometimes when perhaps I should. There’s definitely a sense of feeling bad for making a fuss rather than thinking that it’s your right and actually you’re getting ripped off if you don’t get what you paid for. Funny how these habits filter down the generations. There are also those who have never known any better and see no reason to complain for rubbish service.

    I would say though that complaining is definitely on the up in the U.K.. However, responses to those complaints can be mystifying, all too often people just get defensive rather than just doing something about a problem. No training – no pride in your job- no good service.

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