True. I don't drink, and never have (well, there was that night in Boston in '97 when I ate chicken marsala followed by rum cake in quick succession under the mistaken impression that the alcohol in both had been cooked out...let's just say I would be a very happy, singing drunk...). But the pubs in Oxford, while they are very important as watering holes, are about much more than the alcohol. They are places of conversation, history, and just a little bit of drama. As major landmarks of Oxford (and other British towns), directions are often described in relation to pubs, prompting one George W. Oakes to write a charming but probably out-of-print walking-tour book entitled "Turn Left at the Pub." I even had an up-scale librarian with an incredibly posh accent (more on British accents in a later post) use a pub--the King's Arms--as an anchor perspective from which to describe the Bodleian library layout.
From what I can tell so far, there are four really famous pubs in Oxford. Listed in no particular order, they are The King's Arms, The Lamb and Flag, The Eagle and Child, and The Crown. As the names suggest, each has its own crest, depicted on old-looking but carefully maintained wooden signs with just a hint of gold leaf, and history. I don't know the history of each crest and pub, but, whatever they are, they are something of which to be proud (The Crown has painted its history on an exterior wall for all to read).
As one enters the pub, you can almost smell the spilled alcohol that has seeped into its wooden tables, bar tops and floors from the last 100 years. There is a warm sense that everyone is local, and looks at you just a little askant when you open your mouth and reveal that you are not British. If you have been so bold as to enter the pub as a foreigner, it is assumed that you should know what you are doing, and you are left to your own resources in figuring out how to order, pay, and civilly find a seat without drawing attention to yourself.
Instead of sitting down and waiting for some server to approach you for your order (my first mistake as a virgin pub-goer), in fact, you must approach the often very-crowded bar, compete with those who are louder, pushier, or prettier to place your order, be able to discern the thick accents of the bar tender to ensure you have ordered salmon (this is apparently so rarely ordered that I had to repeat myself three times) and salad rather than steak and "chips" (or fries), and you must have cash with which to pay (luckily I was saved yesterday by a well-placed ATM). You may then find your seat and hope to read the newspaper or blackberry unnoticed.
The food, commonly called "pub food," can be good, particularly if the special is ordered, and is quite reasonably priced (5.99 special for salad, salmon, and a drink, 4.95 for a wrap, chips, and salad). Unlike American joints, they do not carry a selection of sparkling waters and limes, however, so be prepared to order a back-up staple drink, such as their fine cordials.
I like pubs for lunch. They are quieter, and can be good people-watching experiences. If you have my luck, you may find an unsuspecting professor meeting with his colleagues or a woman dressed up in a big pig suit trying to impersonate swine flu by chasing the bartender (very funny!).