The West End is undoubtedly the busiest part of town, packed with tourists and theatre-goers as well as those who live and work there. Lots of people = lots of pubs, but the right half of that equation is heavily loaded with unremarkable places better left to the undiscerning. Even so, the area contains some of the capital's most historic and ornate pubs, and even a few with an exceptional range of ales.
What counts as the West End is open to debate (and possible an article in its own right). For present purposes, we're including Covent Garden, Soho and the stretch from Charing Cross to Leicester Square.
For ye olde pub architecture
The Angel: A sturdy old timewarp of a Sam Smith's pub. You'll half expect to step into a room covered in sawdust or see a drayhorse pull out of the side-arch. If the partitioned downstairs area is too busy, try the Georgian-style upper rooms or the rear courtyard.
Argyll Arms: Located next to Oxford Circus, the Argyll tends to get very busy. Catch it at a quiet moment, however, and you're in for a treat. This Grade II-listed Nicholson's pub is an exhibition of mahogany panels and etched glass — something of a cousin to the Princess Louise in Holborn.
Dog and Duck: A tiny beer temple of coloured marble, glazed tiles and preposterously large mirrors, the Dog and Duck is an unspoiled throwback to another era. There's a bit more room upstairs in the George Orwell room — the pub was supposedly a favourite stop-off of the novelist. But most pubs were.
Gordon's Wine Bar: Arguably not a pub, Gordon's absolutely has to go on any list like this by virtue of its impossibly atmospheric interior. A series of arched cellar spaces can be among the cosiest drinking spaces in London, if you catch the place when it's not rammed to capacity.
Lamb and Flag: A Covent Garden favourite and one of the oldest pubs in the area. Like many others on this list, it can get a tad busy, but the comfortable upstairs room usually has space (and an additional bar). Look out for the ancient graffiti carved onto the bricks outside.
The Salisbury: A prominent corner boozer on St Martin's Lane, The Salisbury is perhaps the most ostentatious of all the pubs in the West End. You'll be having nightmares about etched glass, dangling swags and playful putti. Consequently, it pops up with regularity in films and TV shows.
For good beer
Craft Beer Co.: The growing chain opened its West End branch a couple of years ago. As with other Craft Beer Co. pubs, expect a dozen or so draught ales from breweries you've often never heard of. The long, thin bar can be a squeeze in the evening, but there's plenty more space down in the basement.
The Harp: Winner of more awards than Adele, the Harp mixes the vibe of a village local with a near-unrivalled selection of ales. The place is always heaving, but the bar staff are efficient and friendly. Again, head upstairs for a bit more space.
The Porterhouse: We've heard it claimed that the Porterhouse is London's biggest pub. We're not convinced, but it certainly does sprawl. So does the drinks menu, with a selection of bottles that runs to many pages. It's perhaps not quite as charming as other places in this list, but if you find the right corner, you'll be settled for the night.
For sheer quirkiness
Coach and Horses: The most famous pub in Soho, thanks to the many famous writers who've graced its stools, and the former landlord Norman Balon's notorious rudeness. Norman is long gone (except on the hanging sign), but the place remains characterful, with a piano singalong on Wednesdays and Saturdays, a 'secret' tea room upstairs, and an entirely vegetarian food menu.
Cross Keys: You can't miss the place from the street: it looks like a hobbit's garden centre. Inside, too, the pub is liberally strewn with decoration, including stuff signed by Elvis and the Beatles. The selection of beers includes ales by Brodie's — a rare treat.
Phoenix Artist Club: One of those places that feels like 'members only', but usually lets any Tom, Dick or Sally into its characterful basement rooms. The main bar's nice enough, but head through the curtain's into the thesp-inspired back space for a cosy and quirky drinking spot.
Sherlock Holmes: The downstairs is a typical London pub. Nothing afoot here. But head upstairs to see one of the free wonders of the West End. One whole room has been converted into Sherlock Holmes's study (actually an exhibition rescued from the 1951 Festival of Britain. It comes complete with dozens of artefacts from the Conan Doyle stories, including a mannequin Holmes that looks a lot like Vladimir Putin.
Ship and Shovell: Another cosy little pub near Charing Cross. Or should that be two pubs? The Ship and Shovel trades from two separate buildings on either side of an alleyway. The odd name comes from Sir Cloudesley Shovell, who presided over one of the worst disasters in naval history — but don't let that put you off sinking a beer or two.
For more pub ideas, bookmark our Best Pubs in London website.
All images by the author, who's drank in all these places on many occasions.