London Pubs
The Pub is a Londoner's second home ...


Pumped Up

The Pub is a Londoner's second home ...

First Published:  South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

June 2, 2002

THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING PINT” screams a gigantic poster, showing a much-reduced pint of ale sulking in the background. “ Short beer measures cost drinkers £1 mn a year !” accuse another. All part of a mighty crusade by the CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) to get millions of drinkers to sign the Honest Pint Pledge (!) and force pubs in London to pump out a full, 100% liquid pint of ale – no head please, we’re English  - and fill the glass to the brim every time.

The Londoner holds his glass of ale sacred and expects the pubowner to squeeze in every possible drop for his £ 2.30 . For the pub is the place where he unwinds, where he takes shelter from the fickle weather, where he celebrates a promotion or a birthday, where he takes a date for a cosy drink or the family for a Sunday roast lunch and where he catches up with Beckham’s torn metatarsal and Andrew’s latest escapade.  An Englishman’s home may be his castle, but the pub is his  balcony and he does not tolerate any nonsense there.

Said to be the only institution to rival the monarchy, the London Pub has been loosening the stiff upper lips for centuries. You’ll find them on every street corner, their quirky  names lettered in gold on dark green or black panels, elegant Georgian facades carefully preserved and lamp-lit windows hinting of wood panels and fireplaces within. 

Once inside you’ll quickly feel at home in the happy, relaxed atmosphere and get drawn to the centre of activity - the beautifully decorated bar with antiquities from over the ages. The next step is simple and timeless: you choose your ale, the barman pours it out from those magnificent wood or china handpumps, lets out a “cheers” and possibly a quip about the weather, you pay up and settle in comfortably.  Only problem being that you have to glance at your watch now and then, as the bell for the last order rings ominously at exactly 10 minutes to eleven.

Of late however, winds of change have been blowing through the timber-framed windows, bringing in some fresh unexpected flavours. While the oak beams and log fires have survived, most pubs have thrown out the wooden chairs and creaking floorboards and replaced them with smart sofas and soft carpets. The stale air has gone out through the chimney; now there are no-smoking family areas and dining lounges and sidewalk seating in summer. No longer are they the bastions of the lonely old boozer downing ales and drowning sorrows by a dimly-lit bar; today they are often packed in the evenings with trendy thirtysomethings – pierced navels et al - letting their hair down in a raucous  cacophony of beer and wine and music and – surprise surprise – great food.  

Yes food is where the action is in London pubs today. Combining the informal  atmosphere with real ales and good food at lower-than-restaurant prices, gastropubs have taken over the city. From braised venison haunch with Jerusalem artichoke at Victoria (10 West Temple, SW14, ph:020 88764238) to caramelized duck breast with celeriac rosti at St Johns (91 Junction Rd, N19 5QU, ph:020 72721587), pub grub in London today is a far cry from the days when Fish and Chips or a Ploughman’s Lunch ( bread roll with cheddar and pickled onion) was considered haute cuisine.

While it was The Eagle (159 Farringdon Road, EC1, ph:020 78371353) that started the gastropub trend by wearing smart new clothes and introducing a selection of South African and Chilean wines with mediterranean dishes like linguine with crab, it was really The Cow (89 Westbourne Park road, W11, ph:020 72215400) started by gourmet king Terence Conran’s son Tom, which brought gastropubs into the limelight. Offering “ fine dining, oysters, guinness and cigars”  The Cow hums with fashionable Notting Hill types tucking into its giant seafood platter, moules mariniere, sea bass with lentils and salsa verde, washing them down with  stouts and ales and wines.

The other gastropub chart-topper Anglesea Arms (35 Wingate Road, W6, ph:020 87491291) has kept its fireplaces and relaxed smoky atmosphere and added on fine dining in the form of John Dory with spinach and cep butter sauce and stuffed saddle of rabbit.

Those who consider British Cuisine to be the shortest book ever written will be surprised by the eclectic range of dishes at modern London gastropubs, a revolution led by a new group of talented chefs, supported by enlightened pubowners. You’ll get interesting twists on old British classics (rare bavette steak with chips and anchovy butter sauce at The Cow)  and sophisticated “modern British” innovations ( pan-roasted pigeon-breasts with black pudding, braised endives and Madeira sauce at George II ).  You’ll get Mediterranean touches here and there and of course you’ll get Indian and Thai food everywhere. If organic food is your thing you’ll get your fill at pubs like the Duke of Cambridge ( 30 St Peter’s Street, N1, ph: 020 73593066). And you might even find the latest trend of “ethical eating ” - where it is fashionable to enquire whether the chicken has had a happy life before eating it  - enjoying its fifteen minutes of fame in some pubs.

But make no mistake. Real ales (no one orders a ‘beer’ in a London pub; it is either an ale or a stout or lager) and real atmosphere are still the raison d etre of the London pub.  

However if you’re from another part of the world and on friendly terms only with lager (which by the way is also served nowadays, notably Stella and Heineken), it might take a little time to get used to ales. Ales have almost no head, their colour varies  from straw  and amber to dark brown and golden,  and are served at room temperature. Made with barley, hops, maybe a little yeast and “a touch of happiness”, they are available as Pale, Mild, Bitter and the almost extinct Porter, each of them distinct in taste and looks. From the first sip to the lingering aftertaste, ales are full of flavour and character. Cask-conditioned ales – the real thing  – have to be stored carefully and served at just the right time  – and this requires almost as much skill as storing and serving a good wine, making the ale served in each pub really distinctive.

And ale brands there are many – thousands actually - and some of the best known ones are London Pride, Fullers ESB, Chiswick, Marston’s Pedigree, Boddingtons and the range of Young’s, Courage and Directors.  The British sense of humour is in full flow in the whimsical names of some ales – Steaming Billy Bitter, Chester’s Strong and Ugly, Skull Splitter, Boot Loosener – and the pubs in which they are served – Goat and Compass, Honest Lawyer, Labour in Vain and Who Would Have Thought !

Quaint ? Perhaps. Funny ? Maybe. Possibly a little eccentric? Sometimes. But the London Pub goes on like a timeless classic, providing pit-stops of comfort in the frantic pace of London living.


Said to be the only institution to rival the monarchy, the Pub has been loosening the stiff upper lips for centuries


London’s historic old pubs – some dating back to the 15th century – have a colourful past teeming with celebrated authors and infamous pirates, painters and poets and aristocrats and monks, haunted cellars, executions, historic voyages, treaties, conspiracies, royal decrees, stumbling drunks drowning in the Thames and mistresses hiring goons to beat up straying lovers.

One of the big daddies is The Lamb and Flag ( 33 Rose Street, Covent Garden, WC2, ph: 020 74979504). Built in 1623, the pub looks like the décor has not been changed since but the regulars don’t seem to mind and pack the two bars in the evening. The poet John Dryden was almost murdered here in 1679 and till today, on every 19th December, free ale is handed out in the Dryden Room upstairs.

Then there’s Prospect of Whitby (built 1520) with its flagstone floors and rare pewter bartop by the Thames at Wapping, once frequented by Dickens, Pepys and the infamous “hanging judge” Jeffreys, who ordered 300 executions in his career and watched many of the hangings from the rear balcony of the pub while enjoying his lunch.

Other gems include the atmospheric Jerusalem Tavern (Clerkenwell) a popular film setting with its fireplace and newspapers, Ye Olde Chesire Cheese (Fleet Street), the haunted Grenadier near Hyde Park, The Lamb at Holborn and Crocker’s Folly at Maida Vale. If you do nothing else in London, you must visit at least one of these and have a pint or two of refreshing real ale

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