The author of London’s Best Pubs shares his eight favourite drinking spots in the capital, including the Lamb & Flag in Covent Garden and the Princess Louise in Holborn.
Beyond the grand sweeping streets and gracious leafy parks, London is a city of more than 3,500 pubs – and going to one isn’t just a frequent pastime but an after-work ritual. They’re as important to the capital as its most visited tourist attractions, and many have endured, evolved and survived through the centuries. But one of the things that hasn’t changed is the importance of the pub as a social hub.
Engage a Brit in conversation and the chances are they’ll soon tell you about their favourite pub. Most Londoners can remember the name of the first one they had a beer in, while everyone has an opinion on what makes a pub great, beyond the variety of beers on tap.
I believe the best pubs have history and heritage that adds to their character and tells you something about the story of London. Here are eight of my favourites, each with their own rich tale to tell that will make your time in one of the world’s greatest cities even more memorable.
Churchill Arms (pictured)
It sounds like an elaborate music hall joke: an English pub, run by an Irishman, serving Thai food – with a Chelsea Flower Show qualifying hanging garden display on the outside, and WW2, royal and hurling memorabilia occupying every inch of the inside walls. But former long-time landlord Gerry O’Brien made it work, making the Churchill Arms one of the prettiest and most convivial pubs in West London.
The pub wins awards for the eccentricity of its displays. Outside in spring, a stunning spectacle of floral hanging baskets would make Babylon look plain. Come December, the pub is wrapped in tinsel and the floral display replaced with 100 Christmas trees and more then 20,000 festive LED lights.
Inside is a festival of strangeness: more than 1,600 butterflies are mounted and displayed, while 100 chamber pots hang from the ceiling, jostling for attention alongside lanterns, hat boxes and tributes to American presidents. The bar area is welcoming, with real ale from Fullers, and locals mixing with regulars from the nearby Daily Mail and Evening Standard offices. The conservatory-like restaurant at the back has served well-priced curries and Pad Thai since the 1980s; order prawn crackers at the bar if regular crisps feel too ordinary for the surroundings.
Address: 119 Kensington Church St, London W8 7LN
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
Fleet Street was once London’s media centre, buzzing with journalists and surrounded by mammoth print factories humming with the production of millions of daily newspapers. The newspapers have moved on to new locations, but this astonishing old inn remains, almost lost up a tiny alley that once housed the Royal Excise until the Great Fire of London of 1666.
Rebuilt after the fire in 1667, this labyrinth of a pub has sawdust covered floors, narrow winding staircases and a flurry of small wood-lined rooms that are still ideal haunts for whispered conversations. Some of country’s literary greats have drunk at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, including lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson and novelists G K Chesterton, Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A roll call of famous names adorns the walls.
Beer is served through hatches, while the three small eating areas serve up unashamedly British dishes including steak and kidney pie, fish and chips and apple pie with custard. Head down to the cellar with its small oak-beamed bar, ancient flagstone floor and equally old wooden settles to try Yorkshire brewer Samuel Smith’s traditionally made cask beer.
Neighbourhood: City of London
Address: 145 Fleet Street, Fleet Street, London EC4A 2BU
This ever-popular Victorian alehouse is an excellent spot to grab a pint and a bite to eat, not least for its location in Covent Garden close to many fine theatres and boutiques.
The current pub was built in the 1840s as part of a slum clearance programme in the area. In the summer months, the Cross Keys’ elaborate gilded exterior is vibrant with floral baskets. Inside you’ll find an eye-catching display of copper kettles and musical instruments and even a diving helmet. The walls are adorned with large mirrors, striking clocks and numerous portraits, while adding to the ephemera is collection of Beatles memorabilia, including a bust of John Lennon. Look out for a napkin signed by Elvis Presley on one wall – a former landlord of the pub was a huge fan of rock music.
The menu offers classic pub fare, including fish and chips, burgers and ale-battered onion rings; while the impressive beer selection has a range of local and international brews on tap. The staff are friendly and attentive, though it can get very busy in the early evenings when the office crowd descend for an afterwork drink.
Neighbourhood: Covent Garden
Address: 31 Endell Street, London WC2H 9BA
Lamb & Flag
The outside of the Lamb & Flag might not be much to look at, with its 1950s brick exterior, but this popular drinking spot in Covent Garden is one of London’s best and quirkiest pubs.
Its history stretches back to the early 18th Century when the pub was known as the Coopers Arms (it was renamed the Lamb & Flag in 1833). In the early 19th Century, it was nicknamed “The Bucket of Blood” in reference to the bare-knuckled boxing matches that took place here.
Today, the area is much less bloody. The pub, which is a short walking distance from Leicester Square and Covent Garden underground stations, is warm and welcoming, with wooden beams adorned with Latin inscriptions, horse brasses and time worn prints. Conversations and laughter echo off the wood-panelled walls. On cooler days, head to the back bar to be close to the roaring log fire.
Upstairs is the Dryden Room, a bar-restaurant named after the controversial poet John Dryden. Order the fish and chips and snag a spot by the windows for some people watching.
Neighbourhood: Covent Garden
Address: 33 Rose Street, Covent Garden London WC2E 9EB
Located in a Grade-II listed Georgian building off Belgrave Square, the Star Tavern is one of the most renowned real ale pubs in the country. It’s also one of the few pubs to have featured in every edition of the Campaign for Real Ale’s Good Beer Guide for 50 years.
It is said that the best pubs are like a watering hole on an African plain where the lion and antelope can drink side by side. This makes the Star the perfect watering hole. In the 1950s and early ’60s, London’s gangland villains could be found drinking next to landed gentry and A-list celebrities. A sign in the pub explains that it was the venue for the planning of the 1964 Great Train Robbery, a multi- million-pound heist.
The emphasis at the Star Tavern is on great service, good beers and home-cooked food in an unpretentious environment. The menu includes pub favourites like steak pies, fish and chips and a hearty Sunday roast. But the star of the show has to be the quality of the beer, much of it is brewed at the Fuller’s brewery in Chiswick on the banks of the river Thames.
Address: 6 Belgrave Mews West, Belgravia, London SW1X 8HT
Despite being located on High Holborn, one of the drabber routes through the city, the Princess Louise is the finest, most original, most complete example of a high-Victorian pub in London. It is a national treasure.
The pub was built in 1872 and named after a daughter of Queen Victoria. It was remodelled 20 years later using the resources and craftsmanship garnered from a rich and prosperous Empire. But the next 100 years did not treat the pub well and it became run down, neglected and faced an uncertain future.
Step in the Yorkshire brewer Samuel Smith, who bought the pub and knew better than to even consider destroying the fabulous interior.
Today, the pub is a feast for the eyes. It includes swathes of ornate marble, high ceilings and large etched windows, and a fabulous art nouveau dado. The pub still retains its snob panels, movable wooden frames that were intended to allow middle-class drinkers to see working-class drinkers in an adjacent bar, but not to be seen by them. The pub is split into two levels; arrive early to grab one of the prized private booths on the lower level.
Address: 208 High Holborn, Holborn, London WC1V 7EP
Ye Olde Mitre
Tucked down a narrow alley, Ye Olde Mitre may not be easy to find, but that’s just part of this cosy pub’s charm. It’s found between Hatton Garden, London’s jewellery quarter, and the Inns of Court, the professional offices for barristers in Holborn, and it’s not unusual to find lawyers and jewellers dropping in for a quick pie and pint for lunch.
The character-filled pub dates to 1546 when it was a residence for the servants of the Bishop of Ely who had a palace nearby. The mitre is a reference to the deeply cleft, tall hat worn by bishops.
The interior has been remodelled many times and exudes a charming, wood-panelled eccentricity. Big in heart, it’s small in structure and without a full-sized kitchen, meaning the food offering is limited to toasties and pork pies – but that’s all you need alongside a pint of real ale or craft beer. Since seating space is limited, on busy days you may have to stand in the alley and rest your drinks on the large wooden barrels that serve as tables.
Look out for the gnarled and shrivelled cherry tree growing outside against a wall. It is said to mark the boundary between the estates of the Bishop of Ely and Sir Christopher Hatton, after whom Hatton Garden is named. The friendly staff are usually happy to explain the history of the pub.
Neighbourhood: Hatton Garden
Address: 1 Ely Court, Ely Place, Hatton Garden, London EC1N 6SJ
The Harp is a near-perfect pub, and a must-visit for any ale lover. It was once named the best pub in the county by the consumer group the Campaign for Real Ale, while a board in the upstairs bar lists many of the pubs well-deserved accolades.
Much loved by actors and staff from the many nearby theatres, the narrow downstairs bar is decorated with elaborate mirrors, portraits and references to famous theatre productions. The pub has a long-held tradition of not playing intrusive background music or having television screens, and customers are discouraged from using mobile phones inside. The noise from real conversations is preferred to the chatter of people on calls.
The beer selection is extensive and impressive. The Harp offers a rotating selection of cask ales with a focus on smaller, independent breweries. If you’re not sure what to order, the knowledgeable staff will be happy to offer recommendations and samples to help you find your perfect pint.
Neighbourhood: Covent Garden
Address: 47 Chandos Pl, London WC2N 4HS
(Article source: BBC Travel)