Local’s View: our pick of London’s best pubs
We’ve combed every corner of the city to compile a list of its most brilliant boozers, from a 16th-century treasure to a riotous Soho institution. Oh, the things we do for you, dear readers!
- George Upton
In 1946, George Orwell set out his criteria for the perfect London pub. (“The qualities one expects of a country pub,” he elaborated, “are slightly different.”) The Moon Under Water, as he called his fictional establishment, is quiet, Victorian and located only a few minutes’ walk from a bus stop. It is patronised largely by regulars, and the barmaids – who know everyone by name – are “obliging about letting you use the telephone”. There is food (sandwiches and mussels at the bar, heartier fare upstairs) and pub games like darts, though only in the separate public bar. It is roomy and warm and, of course, has good beer – preferably “a soft, creamy sort of draught stout” served, naturally, in a pewter pot.
If you were able to visit the Moon Under Water today, you might find it lack the generous selection of beer the modern pub-goer is used to – and it’s probably for the best that Orwell’s suggestion of children fetching drinks for their parents hasn’t been followed. But much of what we value in a boozer seems to have stayed the same. Orwell writes of the need for a good garden – something that has taken on a newfound significance in the age of the smoking ban – and as he says, above everything else, it is the pub’s easy, convivial, open atmosphere of that is important. It is a place that you can have a drink after work, go on a date, or sit in a cosy corner with a pint and a good book.
While, as Orwell says, the perfect London pub doesn’t exist, here are a few that we think come pretty close.
The Blackfriar, 174 Queen Victoria St, EC4
There are no prizes for guessing where this vaunted pub is located, nor does it pose much of a challenge to find once you’re there. The distinctive wedge-shaped building, which forms one corner of the junction on the north side of Blackfriars Bridge, has long been a local landmark, though the pub was almost demolished in the 1960s. It was only thanks to a campaign led by poet laureate John Betjeman – a passionate flagbearer for Victorian architecture – that the elaborate Art Nouveau interior, with its depictions of cavorting Dominican friars, was saved.
The Southampton Arms, 139 Highgate Rd, London NW5
The Southampton Arms in Kentish Town is what might be termed ‘a proper pub’: a long-established community hub with well-worn wooden interiors and a square focus on the beer. Bought in 2009 by Pete Holt, founder of Hackney Wick’s Howling Hops Brewery, the pub has been transformed into a champion of small and independent breweries and has managed to maintain its authentic character and clientele. Come for the carefully curated selection of cask ales, stay for the excellent pork pies and scotch eggs.
Cutty Sark, 4-6 Ballast Quay, SE10
The Grade II-listed Cutty Sark is named after the world’s only surviving tea clipper, a popular tourist attraction housed in a Grimshaw architects-designed dry dock in the centre of Greenwich. The pub is only a short walk from the ship through Christopher Wren’s magnificent Greenwich Hospital, but on a significantly quieter stretch of the Thames. On warmer days, the tables outside allow you to take in the view of the river curving around the Isle of Dogs – a panorama that includes Canary Wharf and the Millennium Dome. On wintery days, holed up against the cold, you can see them through the 18th-century bow windows.
The King’s Arms is a Grade-II listed pub nestled among the neat terraced houses of the Roupell Street conservation area. Only a few strides from the bustle of Waterloo roundabout, this pub is the beating heart of these quiet 19th-century streets. As well as offering a rotating selection of cask ale (there are no less than nine on tap at any one time), the pub’s kitchen serves what they believe to be the best Thai food in Waterloo. We might just agree.
The Holly Bush, 22 Holly Mount, NW3
Tucked away on a narrow street in hilly, well-heeled Hampstead, the Holly Bush is as popular with intellectual and artistic locals (plaques on the bar record past regulars) as it is with those seeking refreshment after a brisk walk on the nearby heath. Though it only became a boozer in 1928, the wood-panelled interior retains the charm of the 18th-century building, lending itself well to the atmosphere of a villagey pub on the outskirts of London, as indeed Hampstead was when the building was built.
The Mayflower, 117 Rotherhithe St, SE1
Many London pubs claim to have borne witness to momentous historical events, though few come close to the legends of the Mayflower. Named after the ship that left this quiet stretch of the Thames in 1620 to found one of the first American colonies, the pub has become a point of pilgrimage for US history buffs. As one of the city’s oldest riverside pubs (it’s claimed to have been founded around 1550), the Mayflower has long been a destination for sailors from around the world. It’s a legacy reflected in the fact that, since the 19th century, it has been the only pub licensed to sell both UK and US postage stamps. Yet for many, the Mayflower’s greatest appeal is its waterside terrace – just watch that your feet don’t get wet at high tide.
The French House, 49 Dean St, W1D
The French House – or just “the French” to its loyal locals – is a famously eccentric establishment. Apart from only serving beer in half pints (except on April Fools’ Day), the Soho staple is one of only a few places that can claim to be both the haunt of painters (Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud) and presidents (it’s thought Charles de Gaulle wrote his celebrated speech rallying the French people here while in exile in London). It was also here that chefs Fergus and Margot Henderson developed the simple, pared-back cuisine that forms the backbones of Fergus’ St John, and Rochelle Canteen, which Margot opened with another French House collaborator, Melanie Arnold.
The Orange, 37 Pimlico Rd, SW1
The Orange might not be the oldest pub on this list but it more than makes up for its youth, being housed in a handsome early Victorian building that’s very much in keeping with the white stucco facades of surrounding Pimlico. Previously – and appropriately – a brewery, it has period interiors carefully restored by the Cubitt House hotel group. From the light-filled bar, stairs lead to a restaurant serving typically English fare (roasts on a Sunday). And if, understandably, you find you’ve overindulged a little, there are four well-proportioned rooms at the top of the stairs.
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