If you can’t find a pub in London, you’re probably still in your hotel room. But not all the city’s estimated 7,000 boozers are worth raising a glass to: for every hearth-warmed tavern clinking with dimpled flagons, there are many more with surly service, dodgy dinners or guidebook-wielding tourists loudly planning their Tower of London visits.
But by following the thirsty locals to their favoured off-the-beaten-path haunts, you can bypass these so-so pubs. These are the kind of cozy, ale-infused joints that you’ll want to stick around in all evening – unless it’s karaoke night, in which case a bar crawl may be in order.
“A good landlord treats the pub as an extension of his welcoming personality, and a good pub feels like a home from home – the greatest thing is atmosphere,” says London-based author and beer expert Pete Brown, whose latest tome – Shakespeare’s Local: Six Centuries of History Seen Through One Extraordinary Pub – illuminates Southwark’s medieval George Inn through the stories of those who’ve supped there, including the Bard himself.
Brown, who also writes at petebrown.blogspot.ca, recommends the George to pub-loving visitors alongside other favourites such as the Southampton Arms in Kentish Town – “There’s a sign outside saying ‘Beer, Cider, Meat’ and that’s what they do” – and the Salisbury on St Martin’s Lane: “possibly the best preserved example of the beautiful gin palaces built in London in the late-Victorian era.”
But these are not his only faves. For pub crawlers who like to keep moving, he also suggests Soho’s Coach and Horses, Euston Station’s tiny Euston Tap and the smashing Lamb on Lamb Conduit Street. It still has “snob screens,” which Victorian drinkers would angle so they wouldn’t have to look at their fellow imbibers at the bar.
For the most compact crawls, Brown suggests avoiding clamorous areas such as Oxford Street, where the pub quality is hit-and-miss, and sticking to the Clerkenwell and Southwark neighbourhoods. Both have been teeming with pubs for centuries – “I don’t think I’ve ever found a bad one there,” he says.
As a tavern enthusiast myself, I’d add a couple of my own to Brown’s list of London hot spots: Clerkenwell’s charming Jerusalem Tavern; Holborn’s backstreet Ye Olde Mitre – look for the alleyway entrance on Hatton Garden; and Islington’s Old Red Lion, which combines a traditional bar downstairs with an upstairs studio theatre (I saw an explosive production of The Revenger’s Tragedy there recently).
Beer aficionados should also hit one of the pubs in the Craft Beer Company mini-chain – the Leather Lane one is recommended – for some taste-bud-popping microbrews. If you’re lucky, there will be a tipple or two from wildly popular new London beermakers such as Kernel Brewery and Camden Town Brewery.
Booze and history still sup together in many London areas, of course. For a taste, head to Fuller’s Griffin Brewery in West London. Beer has been made on this site for centuries and you can take a tour (book it at fullers.co.uk) that concludes with some generous samples – Chiswick Bitter is my favourite.
“Britain’s national drink is cask ale, also known as real ale,” says Brown, with the gravitas of a man who has tried more than a few just to make sure. “It’s not for everyone but there’s a huge variety, so don’t be put off if you don’t like the first one you try. Don’t be afraid to ask for a sample before you buy. If the pub refuses – I’ve never been refused – it’s not worth drinking in.”
John Lee takes over the Travel Concierge column this week. Please send him your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. He won’t plan your trips but as a guidebook writer and long-time traveller, he’s got a lot of tips and advice to share.
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