Dave Woodhall, Editor of The Birmingham Press, reflects on where to find the best traditional pubs in London just off the tourist trail. If you’re looking to experience British beer (or a chat over a coffee) at its best in atmospheric settings, join him on his wander through London pubs across the centre of the capital. Here you’ll find real ale, pub cats, great food, and a sense of life as it’s always been lived amidst the hustle and bustle of London.
Traditional London Pubs
One of the things I love most about London is how, for all its crowded and touristy buzz, you’re still never far away from somewhere quiet to sit, reflect and recharge. This is even true in the traditional English pubs of the city and as pubs are some of my favourite things, there are a few I can recommend if you want to have a few moments to yourself without ever straying far from the beaten track.
Leadenhall Market: The Cross Keys
One of the recent features of London is how what used to be places of work have become tourist attractions in their own right. Old markets and even the City of London itself (or the Square Mile if you prefer) have re-invented themselves and the local pubs have done likewise. The old Leadenhall Market, for example, was used to sell produce from the fourteenth century onwards and is reckoned to stand on the centre of the original Roman settlement dating back almost two thousand years.
Leadenhall Market is now a collection of shops, restaurants and bars where financiers can be seen noisily celebrating the end of another successful day. Just over the road from the market’s main entrance on Gracechuch Street, though, is the Cross Keys, owned by Wetherspoon’s. This pub chain has gained a reputation for cheap, no-nonsense food and drink and although many of their premises used to be shops or cinemas, the Cross Keys is a wonderfully ornate former banking hall that also boasts smaller rooms at the rear and even tables upstairs to look down at your fellow drinkers.
One of the great things about Wetherspoon’s pubs is that you can buy a beer (they do an extensive range of real ales), a soft drink or a coffee depending on mood or time of day without your server looking as though you’ve wandered into the wrong premises by mistake and their food menu is standard throughout the country so if you’ve been to one of their places before and liked something, there’s the chance to give it a go again.
The Cross Keys is a great and reasonably cheap place to spend an hour or more. Maybe you’re dodging the typical English rain, want somewhere to sit and chill for a while, or you’re just looking for an inexpensive meal (unlike many pubs, Wetherspoon’s serve food from opening time until late in the evening). Whatever the reason, the Cross Keys is great for whiling away some time in a friendly, relaxed atmosphere that’s a million miles from the frenetic activity that’s going on nearby.
Farringdon: The Jerusalem Tavern
Farringdon isn’t a major tourist area, although there are some nice buildings and outside the tube station the usual mid-price chain eateries such as Leon, Nando’s and Byron are handy for a reliable meal. Then a couple of streets away (or a side alley and a street if you know the area) lies the Jerusalem Tavern. There’s been an alehouse of this name in the area since the fourteenth century and it’s been based on this site since 1720, which is reflected in the authentic décor and ambience. The Jerusalem is owned by the small St Peter’s brewery so the choice is solely the excellent beer from there, a wide range of real ales dispensed via pumps built into the wall of the pub rather than from the traditional handpull. Meals are available at lunchtime and in the evening you can buy cheese or meat platters as well as the traditional pub staple of pork pies and Scotch eggs.
The Jerusalem can get crowded in the early evening but finding a table is usually easy at other times. In fact, the pub is typical of a phenomenon regularly seen in London, whereby the pavement outside is crowded with drinkers in all weathers while plenty of seats are available inside. They’re not all smokers, either – some people prefer to stand on a narrow pavement when they could be a lot more comfortable inside. Still, it takes all sorts and if it means I can get a seat more easily I’m not complaining. This is a pub best experienced at night, preferably a winter’s evening with a touch of frost in the air, when a group of friends can huddle around a table with a glass of porter or something equally warming and imagine Dickens about to walk in and start discussing the progress of his latest novel.
Brick Lane: The Pride Of Spitalfields
The East End has long been an area of constant change, with successive waves of immigrants making a home and a new life for themselves in this most cosmopolitan part of one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. The area round Aldgate East tube station stands on the cusp of where the City and the working part of London ends and the East End begins. As such it’s seen many social and cultural upheavals, as successive waves of incomers make their mark in an area that more long-established residents see as ‘theirs’. Now it’s the hipster generation, gentrifying the area in the way that’s colonised nearby neighbourhoods such as Dalston and Shoreditch and moving into what has for many years been a centre of Asian culture.
As a result, the famous Brick Lane now sees these new arrivals rubbing shoulders with tourists and older-established residents from around the world. Just off the Lane on Hennage Street the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it frontage of the Pride of Spitalfields seems to blend into the shadows, as if hoping that if it’s not noticed then it won’t be thrown into this ever-evolving cultural melting pot.
If that’s the aim, it’s working because this is a pub that doesn’t seem to have changed one bit in the past fifty years, and is better for the experience. Don’t expect a wide variety of drinks, but the beers that they serve up are of excellent quality. I’m not sure if they do food, although on its doorstep is a veritable United Nations of world cuisine, so eat elsewhere and let the Pride concentrate on what it does best – serve up a traditional and authentic East End pub experience. Have a wander down Brick Lane, browse the markets at the far end then walk back and pop in for a pint of something suitably reviving, more than likely accompanied by a conversation at the bar about the weather, the rising cost of everything and the inevitable failings of the England football team.
This is pub culture at its finest. They have a pub cat who will expect to be made a fuss of without giving so much as a purr of thanks, in the way that cats always do, and a piano in the grand East End tradition. It’s unspoilt, unpretentious and, sadly, becoming far too rare. See, spend time in the Pride and you won’t just be having a pint or two – you’ll be doing your bit to help preserve an old English tradition. It’s your moral duty.
Piccadilly Circus: the Queen’s Head
London is, of course, one of the most tourist-filled cities in the world. You might be forgiven for thinking that every site worth seeing will be crowded and that as a result peace and quiet is at a premium. That might be true in a lot of cases but there are still some where a respite can be found alongside a glass of something to make the world seem a better, and less frantic, place.
The Queen’s Head is no more than a few seconds walk from Piccadilly Circus and the theatrical heartland of Shaftesbury Avenue, tucked away up the narrow Denman St although it’s easy enough to find. This single roomed bar dating back to Georgian times is small by London pub standards, so finding a seat might not always be as easy as I might like, although it’s certainly less bustling than most. Lovers of tradition will enthuse over the unspoilt bar with its authentic back mounting, mirrors and coathangers for customers.
One of the few independently-operated establishments in the West End, the Queen’s Head certainly deserves praise for its consistently high quality beers – always on offer are Fuller’s London Pride, which is arguably the best-known beer in the city and Robinson’s Trooper, which heavy metal fans will appreciate as it was brewed in honour of the band Iron Maiden. There’s a restaurant upstairs which invariably receives high praise and in addition pies as well as the usual pub snacks are available in the downstairs bar. If you’re looking for somewhere to spend a lengthy session this probably isn’t the place for you, but there’s nowhere in the vicinity better to grab an unhurried drink before setting off to watch a West End production or visit the next attraction.
St Martin’s Lane: The Chandos and The Harp
Finally, and not so much a pub as an entire chain of them. Samuel Smith’s is an old-fashioned brewery, one of the few that still own a string of pubs. Based in Yorkshire they nevertheless have a strong but largely unobtrusive presence in the capital. Smith’s pubs are unashamedly old-fashioned with no TVs or piped music, design based on traditional lines and what you might call ‘sensible’ pricing. The company’s owner has even reputedly issued orders to ban swearing on their premises.
There are several Smith’s pubs around London although my favourite is the Chandos, on the corner of St Martin’s Lane and William IV Street. Again it’s in a popular area, no more than two minutes’ walk from Trafalgar Square and close to Charing Cross station, and again it can often be an oasis of calm as well as providing a quality pub experience. The Chandos’ wooden floorboards, gleaming brasses and stained glass windows haven’t changed much over time and the pub’s clientele reflects this. This is the sort of pub people return to as a matter of habit although newcomers are equally welcomed. During the day it’s a quiet haven to sip an unhurried pint in one of the many drinking booths and although it can get busy at night, the upstairs bar, known as the Opera Room in honour of the nearby English National Opera, is usually a bit less noisy.
Like all Smith’s pubs, the Chandos only stocks their own proprietary brands, so don’t try asking for Guinness or Carlsberg. But what they sell includes a range of lagers, well-kept real ale plus my own favourite, their incomparable wheat beer. And if none of those appeals, they do a wide range of bottles, ranging from fruit beers perfect for a summer’s day to their 7% Imperial Stout, made to a recipe that dates back to the days when the beer had to be robust enough to withstand the long journey across the Baltic to the Russian royal palaces. There are more immediately attractive places, but the Chandos is a real grower. I’m always a sucker for the sort of place that doesn’t do much, but does it well and I’ve never known time spent here to be time wasted.
And if you find you’ve discovered a taste for great pubs, a few doors down along Chandos Place is the Harp, an award-winning establishment rightly world-famous amongst beer aficionados for the quality and range of its produce. But beware – this is one pub that you could never call quiet, and if you can get a seat in there, you’ve done better than I’ve ever managed.
The London Pub Experience
Whether you visit any of these recommendations, or try another London pub, remember that if it’s not to your liking there’s always going to be another one nearby, and life’s too short to spend time drinking bad beer – not that there’s much chance of that happening in any of the ones here. But please bear in mind that many pubs in central London shut surprisingly early. They do most of their trade during the daytime and early evening, so if you’re looking for somewhere traditional to drink after eleven pm your choice may be limited.
Dave Woodhall is a writer and editor, with an appreciation for travel, history and proper beer. You can read more about his beer travels in Birmingham here on The Birmingham Press.
Exploring More Traditional Places in Britain
If you’ve enjoyed this part of London, why not join us in Shad Thames to see life south of the mighty river. We’re also working our way through the counties and cities of England, taking us everywhere from Herefordshire to Devon, and Staffordshire to Lancashire. Why not take a glance at the best of the English coast too?
If you enjoyed this, why not pin it for later.