TLOML says 'that looks like a good pub' at pretty much any pub we walk past. I then, rather condescendingly, set him straight. I've been steeped in North London drinking culture for long enough to be able to interpret the decor clues. Allow me to share my condescenion with you.
Most pubs look fairly similar from the outside. Old, with a painted sign, maybe some window boxes, and a name like 'The Marquis of Granby' and 'The Red Lion'. The neighbourhood is no indicator of a pub's quality either: London is such a patchwork of social diversity, you're always within spitting distance of a Shameless-style estate, and a gentrified enclave.
Take, for example, these two pubs, which are a three minute walk apart:
|The Southampton: a groovy little gem of a pub|
|The Old Oak: a pub where eyecontact is a form of aggression|
The obvious clue is the St George's flags outside The Old Oak. Any pub which makes a thing about celebrating St George's Day is going to be rough. The less obvious clue is the handwriting on the chalkboard. If it's that kind of handwriting that all looks the same, it's a rough pub. If it looks like it was scrawled by someone French, or someone who is good at maths, it's a hipster independent pub.
Menus are also a good tip off. A chalkboard that suggests food from the four corners of the earth (chicken korma, Thai curry, fish and chips), is a worry. One that mentions provenance ('Glanrofan Farm pork'), is obviously going to be nice and upmarket. Mind you, that brings problems of its own: my former favourite local pub, The Bull & Last, is now so well known for its food it is impossible to drop in for a spontaneous drink and snack. The dark side of gastropub success I suppose. The Southampton, by contrast, is clearly determined not be known for its food. Their menu is basically four different types of pork pie, and a cheddar cheese plate. Nice.
The other big hint is that The Old Oak advertise the fact they have Sky Sports. That's a tricky one for Americans to understand, as even upmarket restaurants have TVs in the US. But here, pubs which show the football in a big way are generally a bit rough.
The exception is the neighbourhood local, where the neighbourhood is more middle class than Shameless. Take the self-styled 'community' pub, the Dartmouth Arms, for example. The food isn't posh enough to be gastro, the beer isn't artisan enough to be hipster, and the TV screens aren't big enough to dominate. During Arsenal games it gets a bit busy, but it is never rough.