The London pub is a special thing. Simultaneously ubiquitous and endangered, genuine neighbourhood boozers are disappearing in scores; caught between property developers on one side, and gentrification’s slippery slope to soulless homogenisation on the other. Find the right local, though, and London’s pub culture is alive and well. Here are 15 quality London “locals” to check out.Read More
The Essential Local London Pubs
Ale houses, inns and hostelries: the best places in town to enjoy a peculiar brand of British (and Irish) hospitality
1. The Auld Shillelagh
London N16 0UD, UK
“Off the leash and on the lash” reads the motto atop every door frame in this tiny Stokey stalwart. A proper Irish boozer, there’s not a straight line in the place — it’s all old sagging timber beams, old sagging seat cushions, and old sagging locals. They lay claim to one of London’s best pints of Guinness, and deliver on the promise. A big beer garden out back is perfect when the weather is right, but if McGregor is in the ring, squeeze inside and join the hordes yelling at the TV.
2. Chesham Arms
The Chesham Arms is a Hackney treasure — 150-odd years old, it was nearly demolished to make way for more property development until the efforts of a community group secured its future. Re-opened in 2015, it was awarded CAMRA East London Pub of the Year 2016. Find refuge in this quiet little back street boozer — choose from an array of real ales and local craft beers, and order in dinner from nearby Yardsale Pizza.
3. The Wenlock Arms
Another pub saved from the jaws of London’s insatiable developers, the Wenlock Arms is an incongruous sight in the otherwise stark new-build landscape between City Road and the Regent’s Canal. The Wenlock’s focus is cask ales, craft beers and real ciders from around the UK, supplemented by a minimal (but on-point) food offering: their website promises “toasties, Pig and Hay scotch eggs & sausage rolls and pickled eggs”. Excellent.
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4. The Royal Oak
The. Royal. Oak. The de facto living room of all the inner-Hackney twenty-somethings who can’t hang out at home because there’s a bunk bed in the kitchen, The Oak is legendary. Bentwood chairs, parquet flooring and panelled walls recall a bygone era, as does the disorienting sensation of stumbling out at closing time into the eerily quiet, cobbled streets around Columbia Road.
5. The Bow Bells
The Bow Bells is everything a pub needs to be, and nothing it doesn’t... except maybe bright orange. Points for visibility, though; it’s certainly hard to miss. A self-confessed “East End boozer”, local real and craft ales are the order of the day. It’s a West Ham supporters pub, too, so expect it to get rowdy on match days (and don’t show up in an opposition strip). Oh, and apparently the ladies’ is haunted.
6. The Jerusalem Tavern
A Monday-Friday haunt, The Jerusalem Tavern is the London outpost for Suffolk brewers St Peter’s Brewery. The building dates to the 1700s, but was only converted to a pub in the 1990s. Nevertheless, its tiny footprint means it’s warm and welcoming, and it’s popular with the local after work crew, so be prepared to stand out on the footpath, even if it’s freezing.
7. The Cow
The Cow has a definite food-focussed bent — the upstairs dining room serves properly good seafood — but the downstairs bar is five-star pub-nouveau. Guinness is expertly poured, and it’s well known for being one of the best places to pair a pint with a plate of oysters. The best place to drink in west London, bar none, and recently having overcome a license review that threatened its future.
8. The French House
The French House is an oddity, and a distinctly un-English pub. Beer is no longer served in half pints only, and food is served longer than lunch only now, but there are no televisions showing the football, and mobile phone use is frowned upon. It’s a place steeped in history: Charles de Gaulle led the French Resistance in exile from here during WWII, while Francis Bacon used to frequent as a customer. It’s also where a certain chef, Fergus Henderson, first cut his teeth. So it’s a place to go to interact — entertainment comes from conversation, helped along by the nearly thirty champagnes on offer by the glass.
9. Coach & Horses
London WC2E 7BD, UK
Located close to the tourist-magnet Covent Garden Piazza, this pub is a retreat; a place not commonly found in the capital of England. This is an Irish pub, in the truest sense of the phrase: indeed many claim it serves the best pint of Guinness in the city. There’s a vast selection of Irish whiskeys behind the bar, for those who care for a chaser, too. Another note: the service here is as it is in Ireland, which is to say — as a general rule — more competent than the average English boozer. Staff will capably serve more than one customer at once.
10. The Lyric
The Lyric is a West End oasis; the kind of small, honest boozer everyone looks for but can never find. It packs out quickly with the after work crowd, but there’s some comfort in that, too; the convivial atmosphere means it’s easy to forget that Piccadilly Circus is just around the corner. A good selection of ales and craft beers are on tap, and a concise wine list does what it needs to. Proper.
11. The Harp
Stained glass windows adorn the frontage of this Covent Garden local; tucked away off the Strand, it’s a favourite with the craft beer types, with a celebrated range of beers on tap at surprisingly reasonable prices. There’s something special about being able to work through a pint of modish craft-IPA in a setting so unpretentious as to seem out of place, and The Harp has a loyal following because of it. A regular on the CAMRA “best of” lists.
12. The Old Nun’s Head
The Old Nun’s Head calls itself the “Ryan Gosling of pubs”, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but the clarification helps: “basically just a really nice local pub, but a slightly weird one”. Certainly, it’s a hit with Peckham locals. Dog friendly and child friendly, with a food line up that rotates between three street food vendors and the requisite Sunday roast, it’s a weird local pub for a weird locale: the right balance of hip, old school honest, and family friendly for a neighbourhood in flux.
13. The Ivy House
The Ivy House has the auspicious claim to being London’s first cooperatively-owned pub. Like others on this list it was saved from re-development by its locals, the only difference being that they’re a bit more committed south of the river: it wasn’t enough for The Ivy House’s regulars to just petition the council, they raised £1million and bought the freehold. In the 70s, the pub played host to gigs from the likes of Joe Strummer and Jeff Beck; today it continues to run a bill of live entertainment alongside its regular pub duties.
14. The Lamb
At nearly three centuries old, The Lamb is something of a time capsule. A Young’s pub, its tap focus is very much at the cask ale end of the spectrum, but it’s exactly this polished nostalgia that makes it such a Bloomsbury icon. Food, similarly, is modernised traditional pub fare, while the fit out retains numerous original features including the etched glass screening above the wood-panelled bar. There’s no TV, and no music either. This really is as close as it gets to stepping back in time.
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15. The Black Dog Beer House
In a contested area — near Brentford’s Griffin Park football ground, which famously has a pub at each corner — the Black Dog’s huge beer selection, balance between trad and modish food, and comfortable garden wins out. Come 2022 it’ll probably be rammed with football fans every weekend once again, so enjoy the relative peace while it lasts.