In 1967, food writer Adrian Bailey named his choice of the 12 best pubs in London for offbeat guidebook Len Deighton’s London Dossier. The fortunes of this boozy dozen have fluctuated over the last half century: some retaining their lustre, others struggling against corporate competition. Last week we featured Part One of our list looking at how they have fared, here's Part Two.
The French House, originally the York Minster, remains a fine example of a pub where personality triumphs over corporatism. Legendary former landlord Gaston Berlemont, whose father Victor first gave the place its Gallic theme - despite being Belgian - counted Brendan Behan, Dylan Thomas and Francis Bacon among his regulars. Current landlady Lesley Lewis has preserved this threatened corner of old Bohemian Soho: it’s a quiet pub with a no-mobiles rule, beer in halves and walls full of souvenirs and memories.
The Red Lion behind St James’s church, Piccadilly, is one of London’s most beautiful pubs, with two whole walls clad in original late Victorian etched glass mirrors, complementing carved and polished wood and a richly decorated ceiling, an effect intensified by the compact dimensions. It’s now owned by Fuller’s who are looking after it well.
Heritage features in the Bunch of Grapes in Brompton Road include painted mirrors, a ‘bottle and jug’ window and a giant wooden baffle carved with truly Bacchanalian grapes. Halfway between Harrods and the Kensington museums, the pub is now owned by Greene King and prospers mainly from the tourist trade. “People who live round here don’t go to pubs,” the manager tells me.
A notice in the Cittie of Yorke, Holborn, would have you believe you’re standing in a centuries-old great hall. In fact, with its giant wooden vats, triangular stove and confessional-style booths, this is London’s most elaborate expression of the Tudorbethan obsessions of 1920s pub architects, and remarkable for it.
The place was known as Henekey’s Long Bar until 1982 when the Henekey’s pub group was sold off and taciturn Yorkshire brewer Samuel Smith’s snapped up several of its London properties. Sam’s has a deserved reputation for looking after pub heritage, though the cask beer I sampled here was near-undrinkable. The bottles are better.
Extreme early 20th century décor is also the distinguishing feature of the wedge-shaped Blackfriar, opposite Blackfriars station, a marvellous challenge to the English reputation for reserve. Layers of multicoloured marble, stained glass, mirrors and polished dark wood bas-reliefs depict fanciful imaginings of monastic life on every surface.
This is still an unmissable treasure, and happily, as part of Mitchells & Butlers’ Nicholson’s chain, it serves up a few great beers too, by virtue of which it’s one of the two pubs on Bailey’s list that also features in my recent book, The CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer, Pubs and Bars.
The other is the Olde Mitre, half-hidden down an alley off Hatton Garden. It would take as many words debunking the myths attached to this place as recounting them, but most of the fabric is from the second half of the 18th century. A fragment of an ancient cherry tree is now preserved Lenin-like in a corner.
Again it seems personalities have helped keep this a great pub: longtime managers Scotty and Kathy established a reputation for good conversation and fine cask beer. Current owners Fuller’s have respected this and facilitated the succession of former assistant manager Judith.
The final pub on Bailey’s list is another hidden gem, the Olde Wine Shades just north of London Bridge. This is one of the few genuinely old buildings among a London pub stock that largely dates from the turn of the last century: indeed the 16th century building is one of the few in the City to have survived the 1666 fire. And while it’s undoubtedly been refitted more recently, the woody interior with its booths and bookcase-cum-mantelpiece feels comfortably lived-in.
It’s the ‘pub’ part that’s debatable, though: since 1906 it’s been owned by wine merchant El Vino’s (now owned by Davy’s), and although it now stocks a handful of bottled beers, it’s arguably really one of London’s first wine bars.
On reflection, it’s not so difficult to work out why most of these places are still around. In 1967 these were already extraordinary, largely because of their history, heritage and tradition. As pubgoing moves from being an everyday habit to an occasional night out, the community locals that don’t get written about in guidebooks have borne the brunt of closure.
In my book I single out venues mainly on the beer they offer. But now I’m wondering how some of the places featured will stand the test of time compared to institutions like, say, the French or the Red Lion. What will some curious researcher who digs out my book in 2063 find on the site of the Craft Beer Cos and the Brewdog bars?
By Des de Moor. Thanks to beer bloggers Boak and Bailey, boakandbailey.com for their assistance.