There are many things to miss about Britain – moderate temperatures, news anchors who use indoor voices (seriously, cable news, stop shouting), color and pattern-mixing in men’s fashion, proper scones. Tea so strong it looks like coffee. The ready availability of goose fat.
But there is nothing in America – absolutely nothing – that can compete with the British pub.
Britain has a more permissive attitude toward drinking than most of the United States, and the pub is ground zero for alcoholic tourism. I love a craft cocktail or glass of wine as much as the next person, but there is nothing analogous to the British pub here in America, and it was incumbent upon me to conduct thorough research with regard to cultural differences between Britain and my home country. That could only mean one thing.
Look, the pub is always on my agenda. But my first summer in London, it was also a necessity. I had no wifi in my
broom cupboard flat. And since my teeny little corner of Philbeach Gardens was located on basement level, the dongle I purchased did me no good either, though it was worth it just to be able to say “dongle” in polite conversation. Coffee shops were in abundance in Earl’s Court, and anyone not spending most of their daylight hours in the archives doing dissertation research might adopt the nearest Costa or Caffe Nero as a makeshift office. But most of my days were spent digging through parchments in the London Metropolitan Archive in Islington or the National Archives in Kew, and after the commute back to Earl’s Court, the coffee shops were usually closed. (Because, as we discussed earlier, London goes to bed at a reasonable hour.) So to the pub I went.
Because here’s the thing. Sitting down in the pub with my laptop and working on archival transcriptions or writing up the day’s research, or even just reading a novel, was not weird. In the States, you go to the bar to drink, maybe eat something, have conversations that are barely audible over the obnoxious music, and the minute you drain your final drink, you go home. It’s not a place to linger and read a book.
But the pub is different. You can actually spend time there. You can have an uninterrupted conversation. You can sit there as long as you like! No one will glare at you or stand near you and make passive-aggressive comments about table-hogging. Unlike American bartenders, anyone waiting on you in the pub is paid a living wage and is not reliant on tips. Here, the goal is to turn the table over as many times as possible in a day, which is why eager servers will push the bill toward you before you’ve finished your last bite of creme brûlée. But the pace is slower in Britain, and you can, in fact, make yourself at home.
The combination of utility and novelty meant that I would be visiting pubs a lot in London. So it seems only natural to share a few of my favorites here. It isn’t a top-ten list, nor do my selections have anything to do with what’s current in the food and drink scene. Like my love of totally ordinary grocery stores, this list is entirely personal. Many of these pubs were conveniently located near my flat or an archive I frequented. All but one are in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, or within a few tube stops. A good number of them will show up on lists of London’s top pubs, oldest pubs, biggest pubs, or pubs with the best show of Victorian mirrors. (That HAS to be a thing.) A few of them are probably only remarkable to me because they happened to be the settings for particularly memorable evenings. All of them have stories. In no particular order, my favorite London watering holes:
(Disclosure: these photos are all blurry, and not because I was tipsy, but because I snapped most of them with my phone in low light. The interior shots are particularly shaky. Some people simply don’t like to be photographed by someone they don’t know, and I was terrified of being told off by other patrons. Especially really drunk ones. So I clandestinely snapped interior shots when I could. There was no laboring over finding the right light and angle. This is why I prefer photographing buildings. They can’t yell at me.)
Ye Old Mitre, (1 Ely Place, Holborn, EC1N)
This one will invariably show up on top-ten lists, and deservedly so. It’s famously hard to find, tucked away in an alley off Ely Place, which itself looks like private property due to the gate along Holborn. But you are free to walk up and down this little street, which looks like nothing special from the pavement but which means everything in the world to me. I’ve spent several years researching its history, and y’all, if those bricks could talk…
The Old Mitre, along with a handful of other watering holes about town, claims to be London’s oldest pub. This kind of grand statement is always rather dubious, since there is absolutely no way to know which pub can lay claim to that title. But the Old Mitre makes a compelling case. Before it became the diamond vendors’ headquarters it is today, this area of Holborn was the site of a massive palace known as Ely House. It was the London residence of the Bishop of Ely, and it was a doozy. Henry VIII attended a five-day
rager sausage party banquet there in 1531, and Privy Council met there during his reign. The adjacent Church of St. Etheldreda was the Bishop’s private chapel and is the only part of the house still standing. A sign outside bears the date 1546, but that can’t have anything to do with the age of the pub because Ely House was standing there in 1546. Nonetheless, if you stand outside the Old Mitre, beer in hand, in the shadow of St. Etheldreda, you are standing next to all that remains of one of the biggest and most fascinating houses of Tudor and Stuart England. (Sadly, by the Georgian era, it was kind of a hot, crumbling mess.)
I also adore this pub because it couldn’t give less of a shit about food. I think the menu is scribbled on a chalkboard somewhere, but it mostly consists of sandwiches and scotch eggs. And by “sandwiches,” I mean cheese on toast. If you want a gastropub, you are out of luck, my friend. In my home state of Virginia, bars are required to make a certain percentage of their profit from food, so there is nothing analogous to the Old Mitre. And certainly nothing as charming.
The Harp (47 Chandos Place, Charing Cross, WC2N)
This one is usually my first stop after I unpack, wash off the grime of an overseas flight, and attempt to look like a human being again. There’s no Tudor history lesson here. Just drinking. The beer selection is awe-inspiring, and you’ll do perfectly well if you simply show up, sip a coriander porter outside, and call it a day. But it’s the sitting room upstairs – complete with tufted furniture, gilded coffee tables and a roaring fireplace – that makes the Harp a gem. Sit down in a pink upholstered chair, glass in hand, and you’re not going anywhere for the next several hours.
The Ship and Shovell (1-3 Craven Passage, Charing Cross, WC2N)
Just like its name, this pub is a two-parter. Located in the Arches at Charing Cross, it’s split down the middle by a pedestrian thoroughfare. On one side is the Ship, on the other, the Shovell. One of these – forgive me for not remembering which – has a little tucked-away room called the Snug. An alcove off the main bar area, it seats two, three if you squeeze. In Victorian times (so I’ve heard) the frosted glass above the dark paneling would keep the general public from seeing exactly who was doing what in the Snug. Interpret that any way you wish.
TripAdvisor users seem to hate this pub, citing bad service and bland food. But, as you may have guessed by now, I rarely bother to find out if a pub even serves food unless I am there for the express purpose of a leisurely, indulgent Sunday lunch. The Ship and Shovell is definitely not your Sunday lunch kind of place. And as for service, I couldn’t comment, since I was delighted to walk the five feet from the Snug to the bar to get my own beer.
The Churchill Arms (119 Kensington Church Street, Kensington, W8)
This has to be the most photographed pub in London. It’s the original pub with a plant problem, and everything about both the exterior and the interior is glorious. Again, I’ve never eaten here (sensing the theme?), but the back does boast a Thai restaurant. The closest I ever came to this was the walk to the bathroom, which was vaguely akin to bushwhacking through a lush, florid jungle. (The plant problem extends to the interior as well.) At first, this was pleasantly surprising. After a few beers, it was slightly hallucinatory. In a good way.
The British tradition of gathering outside the pub on summer evenings never got stale for me, since it is forbidden almost everywhere in America due to open container laws. There are a few exceptions, like Bourbon Street in New Orleans or the Savannah Riverfront. But nowhere near where I live. So I couldn’t get enough of it, especially on those gorgeous summer nights of lingering twilight. But the inside of the Churchill Arms is every bit as exuberant as the outside. Every surface is covered in some kind of memorabilia – portraits of Churchill, vintage photographs of London, Union Jacks galore. The standout, genius moment in this madcap decorative maximalism was the superlative use of chamber pots. Britain, it seems, has a surplus of antique chamber pots and no idea what to do with them. A favorite B&B used them to store extra toilet paper and other bathroom essentials. The Churchill Arms hangs them from the ceiling.
The Britannia (1 Allen Street, South Kensington, W8)
This Kensington gem has the distinction of being the only pub on this list at which I have actually eaten a meal. (Unless stout counts as a meal. It’s at least an appetizer.) The pub lunch is brilliant, with Yorkshire pudding and gravy that get two thumbs up from my best friend, a Yorkshire native. It is best enjoyed fireside, in a leather wing chair or upholstered couch, legs crossed, newspaper fanned in front of your face, best friend across the table annihilating the crossword. Bonus points if you have known each other so long that you wordlessly pass each other’s favorite sections of the paper over the pint glasses. It is the England I imagined based entirely on ravenous consumption of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a pre-teen. It is the living room I will never have.
The Duke of Clarence (148 Old Brompton Road, Kensington, SW5)
There is, to my knowledge, nothing historical or gastro-forward about the Duke of Clarence, but it makes this list because it was the site of the best Fourth of July I ever spent. My first summer in London, I found myself alone on Independence Day, and I couldn’t bear the thought of spending it in my little basement broom closet in Philbeach Gardens. Without a crew of American ex-pats with whom I could celebrate the day, I didn’t really have a plan. So I headed up Old Brompton Road to the Duke of Clarence, which I passed routinely on my walk to and from the V&A. Earlier in the day I had giggled at the chalk signage proclaiming that they would be celebrating “Gin-dependence Day,” and in I went, rather early in the evening before after-work crowds started to gather. Three astonishing things happened.
- The assortment of respectable newspapers fanned on the end of the bar were available for free. This does not happen in American bars. Ever. Bless you, British pub, for combining reading and drinking, my two favorite hobbies. Bless you.
- The bartender heard my accent and immediately served me a G&T on the house.
- I enjoyed it.
I have had a long-term love affair with beer and wine, but gin and I never warmed to each other. It always tasted like cleaning solvent to me. (And somehow vaguely musty at the same time. Am I alone here?). Every time any of my college friends insisted that I would love a gin and tonic if I had one that was properly made, they would lovingly stir one for me, handing it to me with a raised chin and a wink that said, “Aha! Now you’ll see the light!” And it would invariably taste like every other G&T I had ever had. Which is to say, disgusting.
That first gin and tonic at the Duke of Clarence was a revelation. An alcoholic epiphany. It was refreshing, not musty or stringent. I asked the bartender about the gin he had used and was surprised and delighted to learn that it came from a local distillery. Because of strict Virginia blue laws, this is also unusual in my home state (though the tide may be changing). So I basked in the novelty of drinking a cocktail made with gin from just down the street. But the truly remarkable, ingenious part of the drink was the arugula garnish. I’m no food critic, so don’t ask me to explain how or why a sprig of arugula transformed an already stellar G&T, but it did. Did it add a taste of pepper? Change the flavor profile? I have no idea. (But Library Bar in Los Angeles might, according to Whitney Adams.) Alls I know is, I don’t want my G&T any other way.
The Salisbury (90 St. Martin’s Lane, Covent Garden, WC2N)
The star of the Salisbury is the ornate Victorian interior. Etched mirrors, red leather, mahogany wood. It’s a Grade II Listed building, which means two things: (a) it’s pretty and (b) it’s old. Kind of my specialty. The Historic England report had me at “Art Nouveau candelabra,” but the explosion of cut glass set my heart racing too. Dark, full of art, and moody as hell. Sign. Me. Up. Yes, it’s in the theatre district, and yes, it’s crowded. But cut glass, people! Art Nouveau candelabra!
The Troubadour (263-267 Old Brompton Road, Earls Court, SW5)
Not actually a pub but a coffeehouse, officially, and a musical venue as well, this old favorite was a regular haunt in my broom-closet summer in Earls Court. It’s most famous for the acts that have come through over the years, including Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Costello. I loved it for the Irish coffee, the excellent but affordable food, the hippie-ish flair, and the spectacular garden out back where many an hours-long conversation took place and many a Sunday paper was read. Friends in the neighborhood tell me that the menu has changed, and the prices have gone up a bit. But as long as a full English is still available, it’ll always be an Earls Court institution and my favorite London backyard garden.