It is no secret that the pub industry has been struggling for some time, with many more establishments closing down each week. Perhaps what is needed is innovation: a new exciting slant on the standard formula, to turn pubs back into the lively and profitable social hubs that they once were. As London's first pour-your-own-pint pub, and the first in the world to feature ipads for ordering food and cocktails, The Thirsty Bear is certainly innovative. And judging from how busy this place has been each time I've visited, this high-tech approach seems to be working.
When you first enter a member of the bar staff can explain how the system works: basically, you put a credit card behind the bar and get a tab card in return, enabling you to log in at any table and have your orders charged to your account. You can pour yourself a beer from the taps, or order something else using the ipad. For beer drinkers the draught selection is reasonable, though the real ale selection is limited to only a couple of options.
The food menu is also limited primarily to burgers (there are some other options such as barbeque ribs, salads and sharing platters) but the range of burgers is very impressive – from a classic cheeseburger and chunky chips to venison burger with peppercorn sauce or the adventurous strogonoff chicken beef burger.
Best of all, there's a 'build your own burger' option, which works brilliantly with the high-tech approach to ordering: you are guided through a series of screens on your ipad, selecting first the type of meat you want, then the cheese, then the additional toppings, then the sauce, then the bun… and there's a lot of choice at each stage. I went for a smoked cheddar cheeseburger with rocket, avocado, and a fried egg, and it was very good. And despite the place being packed full the waiting time wasn't long.
There's also a burger challenge: a massive 72 oz of burger meat (a standard burger is 8 oz) with chips and two pints of beer for £60, and if you finish it in an hour it's free. So far, only Randy Santel, a 'professional food eater' from the U.S., has succeeded – could you be next?
The crowd is gripped as Randy Santel prepares for the burger challenge (yes he's American)
There are other things you can do on the ipads too – select tracks to play on the jukebox, call a waiter to your table, or surf the internet – and I was told the owners intend to increase the options over the coming months. The general atmosphere in The Thirsty Bear is in line with their high-tech approach to a centuries-old industry: the décor is an elegant mix of modern and traditional, and the clientele ranges from groups of young men and women eagerly tapping on the ipads to the (slightly older) locals sipping ale at the bar.
Overall, The Thirsty Bear is a smart, lively addition to the London pub scene, and it may be a sign of things to come in the hospitality industry: The Robot Pub Group are now installing their unique system in venues around the world. It's a fun and exciting place to go for a meal or drinking with your mates, though if you want a table with an ipad (and you probably do) booking is advisable - by email, of course.