Visit the Pubology site

Hello everyone and happy new year. You may have noticed I haven’t exactly been keeping this blog running very smoothly over the last few months, so many apologies. Work got in the way, and then life, and anyway, I’ve resolved to get things going again in 2010.

This time last year I did a ‘favourite pubs of 2008′ list on my own personal journal, and I know I try to avoid value judgments about pubs over here at Pubology, but as it’s the start of a new year I’m going to be self-indulgent. Normal service will return shortly, I hope. Please note that this is an entirely subjective list compiled by me (Ewan) based solely on pubs I visited last year, so this isn’t a list of my all-time favourite pubs and you may well disagree or have your own favourites, but I can only judge on the basis of the few pubs I visited during 2009.

In 2009, according to my spreadsheet (yes), I made 393 visits to pubs and bars, a total of 295 separate establishments (54 of them I visited more than once). The majority were in London.

Cosiest Pub
An important category this, and more so since I spent a very chilly evening in Soho the other night at a pub I generally like (so shan’t name), but which had little interest in keeping its patrons warm. Therefore, I present my award to The Bricklayers’ Arms (Putney SW15) which is still a pretty lovely place for a cosy pint, though The Hammersmith Ram (Hammersmith W6) gets my runner-up vote. Also, despite not having a fireplace, The Carpenters’ Arms (Bethnal Green E2) cheered me up with some mulled wine when I needed it most. I also really liked the wood-panelled rooms at The Clifton (St Johns Wood NW8), which was rather like drinking in someone’s very nicely-attired and clean home; I’d say the same for the snugs at The Fox and Anchor (Smithfield EC1), though I’d wager that had I visited at a busier time (i.e. any time but the weekday afternoon that I did visit), I’d have found it far less appealing.

Figure 65. Just some of the draught taps at The White Horse (Parsons Green SW6).

Best Beer Range
This year was my first visit to The White Horse (Parsons Green SW6) and both times I got to try some excellent beers. The first was during an American Beer Festival, but even returning on a regular day, I got to try some strange and exotic brews and my friends and I ended up taking a bit of a world tour (fig. 65), without ever having planned it. I must also mention Meantime’s pub The Greenwich Union (Greenwich SE10) because I do like their beers so very much and we need to support local(ish) brewers.

Favourite Food
I had a really great Sunday lunch at The Sandrock (Shirley CR0), halfway through doing one of the London Loop walks, and I’m hoping it was in some way indicative of a consistent quality to their kitchen, but if not, well, it was great that one time. The food at newcomer Cask (Pimlico SW1) was good, certainly, but the sandwiches set themselves apart by looking like crabs — OK, so I’m easy to please, but I wasn’t the only one. Mr G. Ramsay gets plenty of flak for his ventures, but The Narrow (Limehouse E14, fig. 53) still managed to serve me some enjoyable food early last year. Plus I need to give a special shout out to The Coach and Horses (Clerkenwell EC1) for the quality of their scotch eggs.

Favourite Beer Garden
I’m going to go with The Horseshoe (Clerkenwell EC1), partly because the garden was so surprising, given it looks like a tiny one-room hut from outside. (We were also able to watch what was going on out there on a TV screen, for some reason, but it was beguiling.) Also — though not really a beer garden at all — the al fresco Portuguese-inspired dining at The Gun (Blackwall E14) was one of my fondest summer memories of 2009.

Most Reliable Central Pub
This category seems to get won by locals’ and estate-style pubs, as I gave it to The Shakespeare’s Head (Finsbury EC1, fig. 13) last time. That pub remains a decent place, but this year I’m going to plump for The Newton Arms (Covent Garden WC2). It only has a couple of ales, but they’re both well-kept and the service is always, always and reliably, friendly and warm.

Figure 66. The Lost Angel (Battersea SW11).

Favourite Non-Central Area for Pubs
This year, I’m picking Battersea. It doesn’t hurt that my ex-girlfriend moved there during the year, so I got to try a few different establishments, but I’ve been impressed in the past by the occasional pubs I visited in the neighbourhood. The Duchess (SW8) remains a good bet for a drink, with a pleasant roof terrace overlooking the majestic and crumbling Power Station, while The Victoria (SW8) doesn’t go in for pretentions, but offers a decent local with a good solid food menu (and plenty of TV screens for sports fans). Other pubs along Battersea Bridge and Park Roads are pretty strong, but my favourite was easily The Lost Angel (SW11, fig. 66), which is sort-of-a-pub, sort-of-a-bar, but manages to strike a great balance, with a fine cocktail list, some good wines (including tasty mulled wine in winter) and a great selection of mostly local ales on handpull.

Favourite Chain Pub
Fuller’s: They’ve done well in creating a fine range of pubs, and they remain my favourite of the brewery-operated chains for dependability alone (not to mention that London Pride remains my stand-by ale when the choice is limited, over Young’s ordinary, and certainly edging out the other London-named beers this year, Young’s London Gold and Greene King’s Royal London — though Meantime’s London Pale Ale still has my vote on that matter). This year, I made more inroads into West London, which meant encountering Fuller’s more often, and The Drayton Court (West Ealing W13) was a great pub in most respects: really very friendly service, and loads of space, though still managing to feel cosy. I also had a pleasant experience in The Mad Hatter (Borough SE1), stopping by in poor weather on the way to a movie and finding friendly service and a tasty pie.

Mitchells & Butlers: Their ‘Castle’ sub-brand provides decent quality in food and a good range of beers (if very standardised across their estate). This year I recall a nice meal, some warming mulled wine and a lovely view across the frosty heath at The Princess of Wales (Blackheath SE3), a cosy and attractive pub in a well-to-do corner of South-East London.

Antic: Antic Pubs continue to expand their reach, and there’s good reason. They haven’t always got it quite right — and some of those rickety second-hand antique chairs and tables they go in for can be trying — but when they do, they provide a cracking local like The Royal Albert (New Cross SE14).

Young’s: They have a patchy estate, including a number of dull bar refits that can count my least favourite venue of 2009 among them (The Stinging Nettle, Shepherd’s Bush W12, to name and shame), but The Morpeth Arms (Pimlico SW1) gets my vote this year for having a lovely and cosy upstairs room with a great view of MI6 the Thames.

Punch Taverns/Spirit Group: Again, a standardised menu gives consistency across their outlets, and setting aside the hideousness of my experience with the vegetarian ‘fish’ and chips (it was slightly better the second time when I tried a bit of a friend’s), The Imperial (Leicester Square WC2) remains very dependable, more so now that they’ve dispensed with the TV screens. However, The Museum Tavern (Bloomsbury WC1) provided the best surprise, with a really very decent range of ales available even if it was (predictably) busy with tourists.

Sam Smith’s: I still visit them from time to time, and they certainly still have their place. In fact, I’ve been learning to appreciate them more than in previous years. There’s not much among their various pubs, though — the same food, the same drinks, and a remarkable consistency in (often echt-historical) decor — so it’s very much a matter of personal preference. I think the visit to The Glasshouse Stores (Soho W1) was my favourite of the year, and when they open their downstairs bar, it offers more space to spread out than many pubs in the area.

Geronimo Inns: These guys are really very hit-and-miss. For every pleasant refurb they’ve done — and my favourite this year was probably The Elgin (Ladbroke Grove W11) — there’s an equal number of bland modern outlets in shopping centres, airports and just off Oxford St (not that there’s much competition in those places, so they’re at least dependable).

Favourite Non-Pub
Not every visit I make is to a pub, and I have a great fondness for (the right kind of) bars. Terroirs (Strand WC2) was pretty great for a central place to meet up. However, I think my favourite overall would have to be Albertine (Shepherd’s Bush W12), not least because it’s the most civilised place for a drink in that unfriendly and chain-dominated part of town, but also because it has a great range of wine and it’s not too expensive for the quality (plus decent food and cheese). For cocktails, my favourite was the bar at Bob Bob Ricard (Soho W1).

Most and Least Improved
The Duke of Wellington (De Beauvoir Town N1) started the year out as The Wellington, not a bad place by any means, but its subsequent refurbishment under new management upped its game considerably. It now has a great range of beers (not to mention putting on the occasional beer festival), wines and top-notch food and snacks (including scotch eggs, pork pies and even veggie pasties).

The Hope (Fitzrovia W1), however, which was my most visited pub in 2009 (mainly due to its convenience to my workplace), really slid downhill. I continue to hope it’s just a blip, but it’s going to be a long time before I forget the time we arranged to meet up there, only to find there was no beer available at all on either draught or pump.

‘Favourite’ Gimmick Bar
A special category to honour LiquidNation (Ladbroke Grove W10), a ridiculous recession-themed venture offering all drinks and food at 2.50, some odd decor choices, and vast portraits of financial misadventurers across the spectrum of public and private enterprise. It sustained a few visits on sheer WTF/LOL value, but it wasn’t really very good on the whole.

Favourite Overall

Figure 67. The Seven Stars (Holborn WC2).

1. The Seven Stars (Strand WC2, fig. 67). This is a tiny place, and on most evenings it gets ridiculously crowded with local lawyers, as it is sited directly behind the Royal Courts of Justice. However, on my only visit we managed to get a small table in the corner, and it was a substantial success on the quality of the beer (mostly from Dark Star, an excellent Sussex brewery and one of my favourites this year), the service and the quirky atmosphere. I bet the food is good too, but we didn’t get to try it.

2. The Gunmakers (Clerkenwell EC1, fig. 46). I held my birthday drinks here, and I did so because it’s one of my favourite pubs. In some ways it may not have been the best choice for my birthday as I had too many people trying to fit into what remains a pretty tiny pub, but it was a great success. Everyone who went thought it was a great pub, as indeed it is. There’s a strong focus on the quality of the ales, and no less on good lager and a decent wine list, plus my burger was really very tasty. (We also put away a fair amount of whisky on that occasion.)

3. The Duke of Wellington (De Beauvoir Town N1), see above (“Most and Least Improved”).

4. The Lost Angel (Battersea SW11, fig. 66), see above (“Favourite Non-Central Area for Pubs”).

5. The Bricklayers’ Arms (Putney SW15). You can go far with good beers (Timothy Taylor’s), a cosy pub (see above, “Cosiest Pubs”) and a warm welcome. It doesn’t hurt that there’s not a great amount of local competition.

6-10. For the other half of of my top ten, I present newcomer Cask (Pimlico SW1), which made us happy with its strength in ales and its good food (see above), despite the slightly offputting estate pub exterior and pretentious full name (“Cask Pub & Kitchen”). A proper local is North Nineteen (Upper Holloway N19), which again has a misleading name (it suggests a bland bar to me), but turns out to be a really very fine pub with good beers and a good sized back room for larger gatherings. The White Horse (Parsons Green SW6) I’ve already mentioned above for its beer range, but it’s really worth avoiding at busy times if you’re not a fan of the aspirational middle-classes (it’s not nicknamed the Sloaney Pony for nothing). Back in central London, The Red Lion [Crown Passage] (St James’s SW1) was a fine pub with no great frills, but a cheerful chap tending the bar and some cosy rooms. Finally, I mustn’t overlook my favourite pub of last year, The Royal Oak (Borough SE1), which was no less good in 2009, still with some great beers, still offering satisfying food, still a dependable pub in a good area for them.

I also wanted to mention two quite different places, but not so far apart geographically, The Exmouth Arms (Somers Town NW1, fig. 36) and The Lexington (Pentonville N1). On a horrible rainy night, The Exmouth was just what was needed, with good music, comfy banquettes and the stench of chip fat proper pub food. The Lexington itself knows how to do really good food, but is more of a bar with an American theme. What this means is a huge range of bourbons, some good American beers, and some really good bands stopping by to play the upstairs room, but also plenty of hipsters. Still, relaxing there on a Sunday afternoon was one of my rituals of last year, and will probably continue to be throughout 2010.

Finally let me just mention my friends over at Freaky Trigger, who have been compiling their own series summing up their London pubs of the ’00s, and which is proving every bit as subjective.