Brits, Beers, and Blokes: An Oral History of George & Dragon English Pub

Approaching the George & Dragon English Pub.
Approaching the George & Dragon English Pub. Benjamin Leatherman
click to enlarge Approaching the George & Dragon English Pub. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
Approaching the George & Dragon English Pub.
Benjamin Leatherman
It's an average weeknight at the George & Dragon English Pub, and the place is living up to its pedigree. There’s Premier League soccer on TV, an anthem from The Clash blaring from the internet jukebox, and servers clad in Union Jack tank tops pouring pints of Newcastle.

A few thick British accents punctuate the lively thrum of conversation, the loudest belonging to owner David Wimberley. Seated at a high-top table in one corner, the red-haired Englishman is engaged in two of his favorite activities: talking and drinking.

He’s done a lot of both at George & Dragon over the past 25 years. A native of the U.K., Wimberly came to the Valley in the mid-'90s with a dream of opening his own English pub. He did just that in 1995, when George & Dragon opened its doors in midtown Phoenix. Today, the place is an institution — the Valley’s first and longest-running English pub, it's served countless pints, pasties, and other orders of British fare — and Wimberly is as much a part of the place as the soccer pennants hanging from the ceiling. He's certainly just as colorful.

David and his brother Tony Wimberley, G&D's general manager, have survived economic downturns, disruptive Valley Metro Rail construction, and even a tumultuous appearance on Bar Rescue. G&D also has had its fair share of wild times, from after-hours parties with legendary punk rockers to rowdy World Cup watch parties. There are plenty of tales, and they recently shared some of them with us in honor of G&D's 25th anniversary this year.

click to enlarge George & Dragon owner David Wimberley. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
George & Dragon owner David Wimberley.
Benjamin Leatherman
David Wimberley: When I moved to America in 1980, my goal was to have my own pub. It took me 15 more years, but I finally did it on my own. The reason I wound up here, my ex-wife and daughter moved [to Phoenix], and I wanted to see my daughter grow up. So, I sold everything up, and got all this money together to start a pub.

Tony Wimberley: We've been involved in the bar-restaurant business all our lives. Our mother raised two boys on her own and had two jobs. One was working in a restaurant, and one was running a small nightclub in our town. That was how she raised us. My brother went to work for a brewery when he was 21. He ran clubs in London. He's always liked the idea of owning a pub. Not running it — owning it. Big difference.

DW: I started looking for a building for my pub. Our [current] building was the first place I looked at, and I hated it. It used to be a gay nightclub and, before that, the original Shakey's Pizza, the first one in Arizona. I spent another month looking around the whole Valley, even as far as 90-something Avenue, and up in Old Town Scottsdale and Tempe. I looked everywhere, but I came back to this place.

Nigel, longtime friend of David’s and G&D patron: Me, David, about five other Brits walked into this place. And it was a very big, very colorful gay bar with a dancer pole. And everything was pink and yellow. It was interesting, to say the least.

DW: It took me a week to fumigate the place, to get rid of all the bugs. We’d walk in every morning, drop the [bug] bombs, and then piss off until that night. It took us three months to build it up to what it is today.

Nigel: We basically tore everything into pieces inside the place and put up all the timber, redid the whole lot, and made it into an English pub.

DW: We based the exterior off of an old English Tudor-style [house]. So when English people drove past, they’d go, “God, that looks like an old Tudor house.” And we made this look like a traditional English pub with the flags up [and] with the booze and everything.

TW: It was the first English pub in Phoenix at the time. That was the whole idea. There were a lot of Irish pubs and a lot of Irish-themed pubs too, but no English pubs.

DW: I called it the George & Dragon because when I was 15, I was a skinny kid hanging out with older boys and they were all drinking in a pub. And no one would serve me. I went to all the pubs in my hometown [Ramsgate, England] — no luck. The only pub I hadn't tried was a place called the George & Dragon because it was literally 50 feet from the police department. So I went, “Fuck it.” I walked in there and went, “I'll take a pint of your best lager.” And he gives it to me. And I went, “Oh, this is great.” And it wasn't, it was Skol Lager. I never got it again, but I went back to school the next day and told all my uni friends about it. For six months, it was the happening pub on High Street. For about six months … we all took off our uniforms after school and got served there.

TW: We opened David’s pub on my mother's birthday in February 1995. She was living in Houston at the time, so he brought her out here for the opening. We're English boys. Everything happens for Mum, you know? It's Mum, God, queen, country. Mum always comes first.

DW: The day we opened up, we had a line outside the door. Because I had a big sign that said “The British are coming.” And when I opened up the door, we had a wall-to-wall crowd in here. I think we did 130 lunches that day.

Keith Jackson, frontman for The Glass Heroes and former G&D general manager: It was total chaos in here. David had people, friends and stuff, working the floor, waitressing, bartending, and cooking. He was behind the bar and people would go, “I'll take a Jack and Coke.” And he'd say, “Great. You'll have a beer."

Nigel: Oh, you couldn't get a drink on opening day. It was 10 deep at the bar. It was constantly, constantly, constantly busy. And they had 10 waitresses at the time ... 10! It wasn't enough. And it was crazy. Food was flying out, and everything went wrong.

DW: My mum actually fired the head chef on the first day. It was an English woman, and she was bitching about all the stuff. "These Americans are so fucking incompetent you don't [know] what you're doing.” My mum said, “You know what, fuck off! I'll cook.” And then we had to hire someone real quick. But yeah.

The current interior of the George & Dragon. - LAUREN SARIA
The current interior of the George & Dragon.
Lauren Saria
TW: For the first six months that the place opened, I couldn't even come in. My brother wouldn't let me in because I wouldn't run his kitchen. He said, "Run my kitchen." I said, "No." He said, "Well, you can't come in then." Family.

KJ: David and Tony have always had their good moments and their bad moments, but that’s what always happens with brothers.

TW: We're brothers, we’ll always butt heads. We do it less now, and he’s the older brother, but when it comes to his pub, ultimately he’s the boss. He gets my opinion, and sometimes I'm the voice of reason because my brother has wild, crazy ideas, and I'll be like, “Let me explain what you're talking about." But, ultimately, I work for him, and he has the final word.

DW: Business during the first few years was constant. I used to do advertising on the radio and say, “Leave your passport at home. Come to the George & Dragon and enjoy an authentic English pub.” I’d get English people coming in and go, “Holy shit, this is just like a pub at home,” especially because we’d have Newcastle Brown on tap. You can't even get that in England.

TW: We used all of our [family’s] traditional English recipes, only with more herbs and spices since my mother learned to cook with salt and pepper. The shepherd's pie recipe is my grandmother's, and my mother's, and now ours. Cornish pasties, the same as my grandmother made. Some of the things, like fish tacos, my mother never heard of, but we have them.

DW: Within a couple of years, all the cab drivers knew about us. “Oh, you're English? You've got to go to the George & Dragon.”

TW: When we opened the doors, a lot of people said, "Well, do you let Irish in?" "Why not?” “Well, what about the politics?" I didn't care. David didn’t care. All those politics are over there [in the British Isles]. We didn’t care for any of that. We had a wide variety of people coming in. It wasn’t just a bar, it's a pub, and a pub is a place to socialize with drink, not a place to drink and socialize.

KJ: You'd have judges, cops, businessmen coming in. Happy hours were always a mix of everyone from musicians to lawyers. It was great, good times, always eclectic. It still is.

click to enlarge One of the windows of the George & Dragon in midtown Phoenix. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
One of the windows of the George & Dragon in midtown Phoenix.
Benjamin Leatherman
The George & Dragon also had its fair share of wild times and famous visitors during its early years. Jackson was involved with the local punk scene and would bring bands in regularly.

KJ: I was the general manager and also booking shows around town at the time. And I'd have a lot of people here. Anybody that I booked at The Nile [Theater] or at The [Mason] Jar, we were down here. I'd have the guys from UK Subs here, Hugh Cornwell from The Stranglers, Joe Strummer, Stiff Little Fingers, The Vibrators, and Chelsea. A lot of English guys. And of course everyone would hang out here after hours. The curtains were closed and it would be laid-back pool games and drinking-whiskey-type situations.

DW: Punk has always been a good fit here. If you think of punk, you think of it England, right? So, we’ve had shows in here or we’ve just had [punk musicians] by to drink. And I like the music. Not everyone does, but I do.

KJ: Then there’s the time Chumbawamba was in here and David fucked with them because they were assholes.

DW: I used to do radio advertising on [the now-defunct KZON] and they offered to bring Chumbawamba by for lunch [in 1997]. And there's like 12 of 'em, so I made this fuckin' massive shepherd's pie. And they went, "We're all vegetarian." And I said, "Well, I didn't I fuckin' know that. You've had one and it's in the charts now, and I've never heard of you. All I know is that I think you're from Birmingham." So they're giving me shit and I went, "Okay, I'll make you veggie burgers and veggie pasties, alright?"

click to enlarge Keith Jackson of The Glass Heroes. - KEITH JACKSON
Keith Jackson of The Glass Heroes.
Keith Jackson
When they're eating, the lead singer [Dunstan Bruce] goes, "What's the soup of the day?" It was split-pea soup. And he said, "I'll try that." And if he was going to be a dick, I was going to be a dick. So I went into the kitchen and got split-pea soup and put all the ham at the bottom so he didn't know it was in there. And he ate the whole thing and said, "That actually wasn't bad." And without missing a beat, I went, "So you're a vegetarian, but you're good with ham?" He lost his shit. He was so pissed at me. But you're going to be a wanker to me, I'm going to be a dickhead to you.

Nigel: The guys from Cheap Trick, they’d always come down for dinner when they were [in Phoenix]. So you get a lot of people in that you wouldn't normally expect. John McCain used to come in here. That’s a funny story.

DW: This is when his office was just down the street from us. He’d come by for lunch with his staff or family.

Nigel: He came here one afternoon for lunch with Cindy McCain and all his children. This is when the kids were fairly young, and he left his credit card here. So he sent an aide down to get the credit card, and Tony was being a brat like he always is. He said to the aide, “Not your name on the credit card, mate, so you can't have it." So John McCain had to come down and pick the credit card up himself.

DW: McCain walks in and goes, "Can I get my credit card back? You made me walk all the way back here." My brother said, "Can I see some ID?" And McCain went, "Just give me my fucking credit card!" He never did come back after that.

Nigel: Eric Idle from Monty Python came into the George & Dragon, too.

DW: He was traveling the country doing his own one-man show. And I told the people at the [venue], if you could get him to come in, that'd be awesome. I actually sat with him in the restaurant for like an hour. He didn't drink; he had tea and an appetizer or something. He was super-nice, but he left his prescription glasses here and called the next day and I couldn't find them. But hanging out with Eric Idle? It was brilliant.

DW: I've had so much stuff stolen out of here you won't believe. I used to have a signed photograph of Queen Elizabeth II. It was given to us by one of her second cousins. Had it on the wall for a month and someone stole it off the wall. In the ladies room, girls would grab paintings off the wall all the time. I had nice little knickknacks and stuff in there. They’d steal them for souvenirs. Things got a little too crazy in here.

TW: Whenever the World Cup happens, we’re always packed. We’ve had 300 or 400 people in here for all the England, American, and Mexico games. This is where you’d come to watch soccer.

DW: We’ve been open for six World Cups so far, starting in 1998. And it’s been busy in here every single time. Put this way. England's first game in the World Cup [in 2018] there was a 5 a.m. kickoff. We closed at two the night before, kicked everybody out, and opened up again at 4 a.m. There was a line down the street of people waiting to come in here and watch a football match. They come in here because we appreciate it. We understand it.

In 2016, David Wimberley agreed to have George & Dragon featured on the popular reality show Bar Rescue. It was a tumultuous experience, even by Bar Rescue standards.

DW: Within a single year or so, it seemed like all these restaurants opened up within a mile of the pub, and my business went to shit. Windsor, Postino, and all that. So I was actually going to renovate the entire pub and do it up. I had an appointment on a Monday to meet the bank manager, but the Friday before, I got a call from Bar Rescue, asking, "Do you want us to come and do your pub up?" I went, “Okay.”

KJ: Bar Rescue was in town filming and they were originally supposed to do a video game bar [Endgame] somewhere in Tempe, but they lost out on it. So they went with George & Dragon instead.

DW: [Bar Rescue host] Jon Taffer really knew how to push my buttons. They interview you and find out what your buttons are, and then Taffer watches all the interviews so he knows what pisses you off. And mine was my mom and dad. Because I had just lost my dad, and I lost my mom a few years back. So when they mentioned something derogatory, I was like, “Fuck you.” I was in their faces. There's a couple of times when security were going to fucking grab me because they’d thought I was going to punch [Taffer] in the mouth. So yeah, a few times I told him to get his fucking fat ass out of my pub.

KJ: We were sitting out on the patio, and that Taffer guy was parked across the street. He comes walking up and basically he says, "Turn off all the music." We're like, "Fuck that." So we all started singing an ABBA song very loud. He was pissed and went, “We're going to need it quiet for the cameras." And I told him, “Nice hair plugs, asshole.” So when he finally walked in, he was already mad.

TW: I hated every moment of being on Bar Rescue. I'm not a guy that likes being on camera. I'm more private. Jon Taffer and I, we had an instant disagreement. He was talking to my brother one way, and when he spoke to me the same way, I said, "No. If you keep talking that way, I won't do the show." He changed the direction of the show within seconds. Whether I agree or disagree with the show, the man knows what he's doing.

DW: [Taffer] tried to get me to fire Kat, one of my bartenders: “If you don't fire her, I'm walking.” I said, “Can you read? What does that sign say?” He said, “Exit.” I was like, “Get your fucking ass out of here. I think you're an asshole.” When [the filming] was all over, he said, “I've got three things to say. First, Kat’s a good bartender.” I was like, “Well, now that the show is over, whatever.” He said. “Number two, you're the most passionate bar owner I have ever met. And number three, I've never been more verbally abused by a bar owner than I was by you.”

TW: They changed the names of every place they go to, but they didn't change our name because we have a brand. Everybody in Phoenix knows the George & Dragon.

DW: [Taffer] said to me, “What would you do if I changed the name?” I said, “I have a sledgehammer in the trunk. I would knock the fuck out of that sign, and put the George and Dragon sign right back.”

KJ: The whole thing was a farce. A big, fucking farce.

TW: Was it stressful? Yeah, it was. Was it worth it? Yeah, it was. If you don't adapt, you die. So yes, we adapted. Bar Rescue showed another group of people that we were here, people who went by this place for over 20 years. It put us on a different map with a different group of people. We got a bump from Bar Rescue.

DW: They wound up spending probably 80 grand, 90 grand in here. And my business went through the roof and doubled the next day. [Word got out] we were going to be on the show, and my business doubled the very next day. They were already here on a Saturday night, and then that Sunday was absolutely insane. And then again when the show aired the following April.

TW: We got rid of most of what they changed [to the menu]. Even the cocktails they gave us — the people who come in, they don’t want signature cocktails. We're not a cocktail bar.

DW: The only things I kept from Bar Rescue is one of the desserts they gave us, the sticky toffee pudding, and the way we cook our fish and chips now. They came up with a way better way of doing it. And I love it. And we've been doing it ever since. We kept all the changes [to the decor]. It looks more like a London pub now. Not a country pub like we were. Even with all the changes, we’re still the same place. We sit around here on the patio and drink. We just laugh and joke, talk about birds and fighting. That’s what we’ll always be about.

TW: It's been an experience over the last 25 years. It's a whole lifetime. We've had so many people meet here, get married. We've had weddings in here from people who've met in here. We've watched people's lives go by, and they've watched ours, and we've changed. I remember having a picture taken here of me holding a 2-week-old baby. I also remember serving them their first legal drink as a 21-year-old woman. Now that's a lifetime.

(Editor’s note: Some quotes have been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.)
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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.