My day job (yes, blogging about pubs is not a full-time job) involves me occasionally flying to America. And if that has taught me one thing, it’s that flying and drinking more than a pint is one of the worst things you can do for jetlag. However, that opinion isn’t a popular one, especially with people jetting off on holiday, so here’s your indispensable guide to the bars at our local airports.
I’ll start off with a confession though – this isn’t a 100% definitive guide. I haven’t been to Luton , Stansted or Heathrow Terminals 2 and 4 yet, and it’s quite an expensive task to book a flight simply to review the airport bar. So forgive me this one time for half a review. If anyone out there is passing through the airport and wants to guest review one of them, take some photos, write some words, and send them to firstname.lastname@example.org
Heathrow Terminal 5
The Crown Rivers
If you are flying with BA, there’s a good chance you are flying from Terminal 5. It’s also the busiest Heathrow terminal. It’s a nice modern terminal, with lots of shops, so it surely must have good bars too? Wrong. It has one. Just one for 40 million passengers a year. And it’s a Wetherspoons – The Crown Rivers. It’s in the middle of the concourse, sandwiched between Boots and WH Smiths. It’s open on 4 sides, so it’s incredibly noisy with all the hubbub of the airport washing over it. In fact, it’s so in the middle of the airport that to get from your seat to the bar, you have to walk across the corridor of traffic. It’s like they forgot to put in a space for a bar, and just crammed it in at the end.
And once you’ve walked to the bar to order, you’ll discover a fresh horror. Instead of queuing like a normal bar, there are lanes like in a supermarket. So you join the back of one lane and wait to get served. Sounds OK to you? Well, when I got to the front of the queue, the lady on my till decided without a word to me that she had something better to do. I stood there at a newly vacated till for 2 or 3 minutes before just giving up and joining the back of another queue. She never reappeared in the time I was there.
A pint of London Pride cost me £4.80. It costs £3.20 in the Back of Beyond, so it’s 50% more expensive in the airport. They do at least take CAMRA vouchers if you are a member. It’s still expensive though.
The seating area is very busy. There are about 100 tables, and you need to be quick to get one – they are like gold dust. There is a greeter at the entrance who will try and get one for you, especially if you are in a large group. They say they will guarantee to do food in under 10 minutes from ordering (i.e. they have a lot of microwaves), so it shouldn’t be long until someone gets up and you can grab their table.
Overall score: 5/10
The prices are outrageous for a ‘Spoons, but not for a regular pub. It’s an atmosphere-less squash, but fast service and reasonably priced.
Pilots Bar and Kitchen
Thanks to Lord Gravy for this recommendation. At the other end of Terminal 5 is the Pilots Bar. They sell Heineken, Guinness, Lagunitas and Symonds Cider for about £6 a pint, and bottles for about £5.
Apparently there’s a better chance of getting a seat than in the Spoons too, so head down to the other end of the terminal and check it out.
Terminal 3, the second busiest Heathrow terminal. Home to Virgin Atlantic, Delta, and other long haul airlines. Surely some good bars for travellers here? Actually, it does have some good options. First of all is The Curator.
The Curator is run by a group who specialises in putting chains into airports (e.g. Giraffe, Frankie and Benny’s, Costa). The selection of beer is OK – their own cask ale, a few kegs and a lot of bottles. I paid £5.60 for a bottle of Punk IPA. They claim to be a Craft Beer bar. They are not. A few bottles of IPA behind the bar isn’t the qualifying criteria. Still, it’s better than 8 taps of Fosters.
The space inside is nicer than the ‘Spoons in terminal 5, but only just. Lots of high tables, and music that could do with being turned down. They’ll get your food out in 15 mins if you are in a rush too, so not an awful place to stop.
I’d really like to like the Curator. They try to do the right things in principle, but they come across as more of a “sell food and drink to people who will have forgotten what it was like when they come back next year” kind of place.
Overall Score: 4/10
Terminal 3 is graced with more than one bar, the other being Oriel. Oriel is actually really a French restaurant with a bar area. It’s quite up-market, but only in the same way as Cafe Rouge is up-market. It does mean you are less likely to be drinking with ten stag parties, and no-one is in sports casual. In fact it mainly seems to be frequented by people on expenses as well as people who wear blazers to fly (no, that’s not me).
The bar area is buzzy, and quite nice to hang out in. There was a TV showing sport but it wasn’t intrusive. They have Goose Island IPA and Guiness on tap, and probably some French lager (I don’t recall). I got the impression most people drank wine and cocktails though.
Overall score: 6/10
A relatively new arrival at T3 is Spuntino. It advertises Craft Beer outside, and indeed they have Magic Rock Fantasma IPA (£6) and Harbour IPA (£5.50) as well as their own lager (£5.25). There is a small amount of seating at the bar, but really they want you to eat with your drink – it’s a restaurant with good beer, not a bar.
Overall score: 6/10
Heathrow Terminal 4
Terminal 4 has a branch of Oriel, and two bars – The Prince of Wales and The Commision. If you’ve visited, let me know.
Heathrow Terminal 2
I don’t think I’ve ever been to Terminal 2, which is a shame as it has a dedicated London Pride bar. On the downside it also has a two floor ‘Spoons called The Flying Chariot. Again, let me know if you’ve visited.
The Red Lion
Gatwick is of course the holidaymakers airport. It’s where the families head off on their annual break, and is where you’d expect to find family-friendly bars and restaurants. So it comes as no surprise that smack bang in the middle of the airport – yes, you’ve guessed it, it’s a Wetherspoons.
In many ways, it is similar to Terminal 5 – hundreds of seats in the middle of an airport terminal concourse. Somehow it has even less atmosphere though. Well, actually it has an atmosphere of stressed-out families trying to keep their kids from killing each other and lads on holiday trying to fill up on beer before they get on the flight. At least the beer is cheaper than Heathrow though. A pint of Shipyard American Pale Ale for £4.90. Mind you, that is still twice the price of the same pint back home in the Back of Beyond.
Overall score: 4/10
If you’re lucky enough to be flying out of the south terminal, you have not one, but two Wetherspoons to choose from! There’s the Beehive before security, and The Flying Horse after. Woo.
So what if you want a more exclusive experience than a ‘Spoons in the middle of the airport corridor? Every airport has a selection of lounges that you can pay to get in to. Entry costs from £35, although perhaps you get it free already with your bank account or credit card. I’ve been to the No. 1 lounge in Terminal 3 and in Gatwick North. Both are very nice (nicer than the BA lounges), but are often busy. Book ahead if you want to use them. They only have Amstel on draft, but have bottles of Punk IPA and London Pride. It’s hard to see how it adds up financially though. Buy it for the breathing room, the service, the plentiful plug sockets, but not for the “free” beer.
So in general, airports are giving you pretty poor bars for a dreadful price. They know you are a captive market, and charge as much as they think they can get away with, and give you the sort of service that a pub who knows they are never going to see you again will get away with. So stick to my advice – drinking and flying don’t mix. Go to Boots and get a £3 meal deal instead.