UK’s Best Sports Bars: When good pubs get it right for sport
The British pub is a cherished thing. But what does that mean in the modern world? Pubs must adapt to survive. The King’s Arms in Fulham is one such place.
Everyone talks about the great British boozer, but what does such a pub actually look like? Probably a lot like London’s The King’s Arms. Situated on the Fulham road in affluent Chelsea, the pub has a long and distinguished history but it has always remained focused on its desire to be the best at what it does.
In this day and age, that means serving great food, meeting the needs of the local community and, of course, showing the best sporting action on its three big screens. Unsurprisingly, given its locale, The King’s Arms is most associated with Chelsea FC, but it maintains a friendly, welcome-to-all atmosphere. The pub strikes a balance between a passion for sport, tribal affiliation and community relevance, this combination puts them in good stead as a Great British Boozer.
We paid a visit to the Fulham Road and spoke to operations manager Ryan Torrie to see why it’s still packing them in…
Operations manager: Ryan Torrie
Pub history: It was part of the Young’s group before Geronimo acquired it in 2011. It was previously known as Finch’s – a Henry Finch owned it for the first half of the twentieth century. A King’s Arms stood here in the past.
Improvements made: “When we (Geronimo) took over it closed for a few months. It had a refurb: we did a fair bit of work in the pub and gave it a more modern feel. There’s a Grade II listed wall in the building which is a key point of the pub and gets a lot of attention thanks to the tiles on there. It’s always been a Great British pub doing the things that Great British pubs do. We saw no reason to change that.”
Sport forms a significant part of the business: “We’re the only proper pub left on this stretch of the Fulham Road — they call it ‘the Beach’ because there used to be an array of suntan bed shops along here. There’s only one left. A lot of people like to keep an eye on their beloved Chelsea from here.
It’s not just football on the big screen: “Thanks to the recent World Cup rugby union has delivered really well for us. The demographic of the area mean that a lot of locals probably played the game at school. So when the World Cup was on we got a lot of uplift from it. We’ll show the Aviva Premiership on a Friday night. We also do well when the Six Nations is on. The people around here really like to follow England. The cricket is always on in the summer. The Ashes gets a lot of interest. We quite often show the American Football on a Sunday night, there are pockets of expat Americans in and around our neighbourhood.”
And then there’s Messi and Ronaldo: “Some of those Spanish matches certainly get on. We’ve got two of the greatest players that have ever lived in Messi and Ronaldo — we have to put them on. They generally fall on a Sunday too when there are no clashes.”
It’s Chelsea come matchday: “Absolutely. We have a bunch of regulars who have reserved a table on matchdays for the entire season. They’re creatures of habit, football fans. Once they’ve found a pub they like they will generally always go there before the game, have their steak sandwich or a burger to go with their drinks – or maybe a roast if it’s a Sunday – before they head off to the game. And then they all come back afterwards.”
But everyone is welcome: “We get a broad mixture of supporters in this area. People like to come down and watch the football, no matter who is on. Particularly when the English clubs are playing in Europe.”
It’s a lively and friendly atmosphere: “Even if you’re not a Chelsea fan you can comfortably cheer for your team. There’s a lot of friendly banter. It’s a jovial atmosphere.”
Midweek European football has got busier: There’s been an impact (BT Sport acquiring exclusive UCL coverage) for sure. And that’s before we really get into business end of the season. There’s going to be some good nights in here when the Champions League resumes in February — Chelsea’s game with PSG (16 Feb), obviously, but also Arsenal v Barcelona (23 Feb). But there have definitely been extra people around this year because not everyone has BT Sport at home.”
We’ve got three screens: “We added another ahead of the World Cup last summer — and we’ve ensured they are in areas that don’t affect the flow of the pub. We’ve got one screen in the back section where we have a lot of seating, and another in the corner of the bar that most of the pub can see and then another slightly smaller screen near the front. There isn’t a part of the pub that you can’t see a screen from.
Food plays an important part: “The casual dining sector is a vastly growing area. There’s something about having proper seasonal British pub food — you know, the classics, fish and chips, burgers, bangers and mash, pies. We keep it fresh every day. Use seasonal produce. We like to exceed people’s expectations.”
Social media is about maintaining a community outside the physical existence of the pub: “We use Facebook and Twitter and keep an eye on the other forums, TripAdvisor, Google and what have you. It’s not about using it as an advertising board, as such. It’s more about having a bit of banter with the customers and talking in a language they understand and can relate to. It’s about maintaining that community aspect. In terms of sport we shout out reminders for what is on — particularly midweek sport. I don’t want to ram anything down people’s throats, just suggestive enough to keep people interested.”
May 19, 2012 will always be a memorable date in the pub’s history: “It was the day Chelsea won the Champions League. That was some night.”
Parade Days are a lot of fun: “We get fans coming in dancing and cheering for a long, long time. They have this unique song called Celery. And a lot of celery gets waved around, like a baton. It dates back to the years before Chelsea were successful. When other teams were singing about going to Wembley, Chelsea fans changed the words to Celery. They adopted that and it hasn’t gone away. We often find a lot of celery left on the floor after those days. One time Didier Drogba drove past, when it was all going off. He slowed down and people began tossing celery into his sunroof. It was hilarious.”
What makes The King’s Arms so unique?: “Because it’s what it is. It’s one of the last remaining proper pubs around. We’ve still got real ale and the craft beers that are becoming more and more popular. Our wines are chosen by a wine expert. We are what we say we are on the box. We just want to be the best pub around. It’s a modern take on the classic British pub. We don’t follow trends. We’ll keep an eye on them, but we are what we are — we’re a bloody Great British pub. And a local pub too. We know all the locals. We know what they drink, we don’t have to ask.”
How has the area changed in the last few years?: “It’s changed a lot. But it’s really unpredictable. It keeps you on your toes, Chelsea. We’re often busier in the winter because we offer that cosy, homely vibe. But we’re also busy in the summer.”
Is there a focus on security: “No. We have extra staff on busy European nights, but nothing more than that. It’s always a joyous atmosphere. We don’t attract the football fans that were associated with the game back in the 80s and 90s. We’ve got proper fans that care. We also have a lot of doctors and lawyers in here.
The Regulars: “There’s two sets to a degree. On a matchday we have the same group of people in from month-to-month, year-to-year, season-to-season, then we have the regulars who keep us going all-year-round. For the middle of a big city there’s a nice little community in this little patch.”
Frank Lampard watched a game: “He popped in to watch a game one night. He snuck in, watched the game and then left.”
We’re not a sports bar: “We’re a pub that does well out of sport. People know that we show football and rugby and what have you. We’re not a pub where you only go to watch football though – you can come here for a quiet drink or you can come and watch sport.”