Set the scene. Born and bred Londoner, 27, trying to live my best life in the city post-Covid. The only teensey-tiny-baby hiccup is that I’m 18 months stone-cold sober.
As someone used to navigating the city via its watering holes (as well as previously finding a way to squeeze a drink into almost every situation possible), now that I’m trying to do the complete opposite, I’ve noticed the huge lack of spaces to hang out at in the evening in my home city that don’t feature alcohol as the main attraction.
In London, after 6 p.m., your options in terms of spaces to relax with friends or spend time alone outside of your house are very much limited to pubs, bars and clubs. These establishments not only ensure booze is likely to be a key feature of your night but also require you to part with a significant amount of cash, even if you’re not drinking. As cafés are usually closed, unless you want to do a specific activity, like attend a fitness class, go to the movies or visit the theater, you’re left with little other choice.
Don’t get me wrong—I love a good pub. When the colder months close in, snuggling up in a corner by the fire to tuck into a roast dinner signals Christmas is coming like nothing else. Equally, I love how going to the right swanky cocktail bar can make me feel like a femme fatale. And obviously, I adore food. Particularly now that I’m sober, I spend a lot more of my time with friends working my way through an ever-growing list of spots around the capital to fill our stomachs.
However, sometimes, I want to meet up with a friend and not commit to a full sit-down dinner. I might not have the budget or energy, or I may have simply already eaten. You might also be like me and can’t always deal with being surrounded by drunk people, especially if you’re trying to stop thinking about the fact that you’re not drunk, haven’t been for a year and a half and may not be ever again, which crosses a visit to the pub or a bar off the list. Also, I’ve found that whilst having the option to work from home has been one of the few benefits that has come out of Covid, it also means that relaxing with your work laptop staring at you can sometimes be hard. Sometimes, we all just want to get out of our goddamn houses.
So what other options are available? Despite the pervasive British drinking culture heavily influencing how we spend our evenings, there are a few promising moves happening across the UK toward creating options for non-drinkers. There is a wave of alcohol-free options being made available in bars, from alcohol-free beers like Lucky Saint available on tap to mocktails that can also now be found in most venues. In terms of spaces, if you want to avoid alcohol completely, it’s tricky, but I’ve also discovered some wonderful bookshop cafés and reading areas that are open later into the evening, great spaces to sit in relative peace with a book and a hot chocolate. Whilst these options are very much appreciated, these few non-alcoholic drinks and niche bookshops aren’t enough to cater to the many people who may want to socialize without the presence of booze.
Many other countries and cultures have mastered the art of the booze-free hangout, where the UK hasn’t. Some years ago, I was invited to visit a friend in Beirut. I was 22 and ready to party in the Paris of the East! As my friend was staying with her family for the summer, most of the trip was not spent visiting the bars and clubs the city had to offer as I had imagined. Instead, we visited sites like Saida port town and castle and the iconic cedar trees that represent Lebanon and attended a baptism with a feast that put any wedding breakfast I’d seen to shame. Whilst the trip still turned about to be one of the most fun and culturally enriching I’d ever been on, as a somewhat heavy drinker, I was surprised how little the itinerary revolved around boozing.
I also remember being taken aback at some of the cultural behaviors toward drinking I witnessed. One balmy evening, as we walked along a seafront boulevard well after the sun had set, I saw whole hosts of people sitting outside cafes, sipping iced coffees, chatting and enjoying the company of their friends. You’re in Beirut! I wanted to scream. By the sea! Why you would you choose anything other than a cold beer or a glass of wine to drink? I felt sorry for these people—I just couldn’t fathom it, as back in the UK in the same spot, there wouldn’t be a caffeinated beverage in sight, apart from a Jager bomb, or if you were lucky, an espresso martini.
In countries like Morocco where the majority of the population is Muslim, it’s hard to find readily available booze even in the touristic capital of Marrakech. Instead, people sit at terraces that overlook the square at the heart of the medina and drink mint tea with huge spoonfuls of sugar. You can still watch the sunset—just not from a pub.
Closer to home, European cafe culture, which London has never quite been able to emulate despite its best efforts, seems to offer a better venue for savoring a cup of coffee with a pastry, and if you are drinking, making the most of a glass of wine. It’s perfectly acceptable to settle in for a few glasses of vino rather than a whole bottle each, which definitely happens a lot in the UK.
The future is looking positive for teetotallers, as 2022 statistics show that Gen Z spend 40% less on alcohol than their millennial counterparts did at the same age. As attitudes change, not only will this mean more demand for alcohol-free spaces but people will have to cater to a new market that wants the option to enjoy their time without booze. Personally, I think businesses are going to be missing out if they don’t start to make changes, as consumers will start to demand the spaces they desire.