I've had the pleasure of enjoying some extended time in Scotland and England over the past couple of weeks. While most of the trip has been fantiastic, I'm interested right this minute in public houses (pubs). Sure, I enjoy having a beer - but my interest is deeper than that.
Dictionaries don't seem to distinguish, but common parlance here in the UK seems to note a difference between the following: pub, ale house, tavern, bar. (Because this is posted on the internet, I have no doubt that if I get this wrong, someone will correct me ... in fact, I expect someone may correct me even if I get it right.) To wit, I heard the following: "He went into a pub ... no, it was more of an ale house."
The bars I've been in, most of which have been in the US, seem to exist so that people can drink. Sure, there are often other things to do in bars (pool, darts, conversation, etc.), but drinking is primary.
On the other hand, my experience of Scottish and English pubs is that they exist as gathering places. Sure, ales and lagers and whiskies are consumed, but the conversation that happens as community gathers together seems to be central.
As I write this, I'm sitting in a pub. Around me there are three groups of 2-5 people sitting and sharing conversation. I'm the only person sitting alone, and that's only because I'm writing.
At another pub, there were at least 35 people in a 12'x12' space. In addition to the musician singing from behind his guitar in one corner, there were no fewer than five conversations, at least one of which was between strangers. I know this, because the person next to me started a conversation with me even while I was writing. Then, when the musician took a smoke break, another patron stopped his own conversation in order to sing his own song.
Another time I was interrupted in the midst of writing was when I was surrounded by at least 60 people gathered almost shoulder to shoulder filling a pub that was also filled with friendly conversation and impromptu live music.
It may well be simply because I'm in a foreign place that I see with idealistic vision - or maybe the pubs I've been in have just been really great. Still, the culture seems to be that whoever shows up at a public house has a place to belong, and everyone who shows up belongs there simply because they've walked in the door.
I appreciate the idea and practice of a local establishment being a regular gathering place where everyone is welcome, where ideas can be exchanged, and where life can be lamented and celebrated.