By John Lee
Since the wine quaffing of the Roman occupation, the mead consumption of the Middle Ages and the illicit gin houses of the Victorian era, booze has flown through London like a second River Thames. The history of the city is so bound up with pints, flagons and tankards that several thousand bars still populate its labyrinthine streets, offering visitors a perfect excuse to rub shoulders with the locals in highly convivial, sometimes archaic surroundings. Here then, for those planning an afternoon of gentle bar-hopping in what is arguably the pub capital of the world, is a six-pack of great central London pubs.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
The broad-bellied granddaddy of London pubs, this historic 17th-century multi-roomed maze is stacked over several levels. The dark, wood-paneled ground floor is popular on chilly days when its roaring fireplace attracts patrons trying to thaw out. Downstairs is the real treasure, though: several brick-lined subterranean vaults fringed with stone arches and dimly-lit corners. It’s the kind of place villains from Dickens might have come to plan their nefarious shenanigans.
Dickens probably thought so, too. He was a regular drinker at the Cheshire Cheese in the 19th century, although it was Dr. Johnson who made the place his own several decades earlier. Johnson’s home, now a fascinating house museum, stands only a few feet away, so we can assume he spent a lot of time here avoiding work on his epic dictionary.
Today’s drinkers have a wide array of beers to sample, all produced by the renowned Samuel Smith brewery. Order a couple of different half pints from the bar – there’s no table service in U.K. pubs, so don’t sit down and wait to be served – and run your own tasting test. If you’re feeling peckish, there are two full-service restaurants on site but for a light lunch; the cheese plate in the downstairs bar is recommended. It’s a rustic selection of brie, sharp cheddar and blue cheese, served with a little salad and a giant hunk of bread for 3.50 pounds – a rare dine-out bargain in pricey London.
The Market Porter
London’s streetmarket history is as long and colorful as its proud pub heritage but this splendid bar nestled in the backstreets around London Bridge Station expertly marries the two. Serving the hawkers of nearby Borough Market, the pub opens for a couple of hours at 6 a.m. every weekday, although most visitors await a more respectable hour for their first pint.
One of London’s real ale pioneers, the pretty Porter – it’s exterior is overrun with flowers in summer while its interior is a melange of scrubbed brick, polished hardwood floors and barrels doubling as tables – regularly offers 12 regional brews from around the U.K. to tempt adventurous quaffers. On my visit, there was a sharp Harvey’s Best Bitter, a lip-smacking Otter Bitter and the superbly-named Slater’s Top Totty. The food – only served at lunchtime – is also hearty, with stomach-stuffing entrees like Cumberland bangers and mash swimming in onion gravy.
Movie buffs might prefer to fill-up on a few photos. The pub’s frontage was transformed into a book shop for “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” while a building along the street became the film’s Leaky Cauldron pub – a role the Porter could have played with very little make-up.
Located on the intriguingly-named Lambs Conduit Street, this classic old-school bar is like stepping into a pub museum. A heritage award-winner for its carefully-preserved appearance, the Lamb celebrates several Victorian pub features that were once standard across London. High-backed banquettes are finished in green leather, small tables are topped with brass rails to keep pints from toppling and the walls are decorated with faded etchings of forgotten thespians.
The most striking antique feature, though, is the pub’s ornate wooden bar. A U-shaped counter topped with an elaborate shelf system for storing tankards, it contains dozens of etched glass “snob screens” located at eye-level. These small revolving panels were designed to close so that drinkers could conceal their identity while drinking at the bar.
The snob screens are rarely used today: The Lamb is a warm and welcoming spot, attracting a varied clientele of elderly locals and chin-stroking intellectuals from nearby London University. It’s also a good bar to sample some distinctive tipples from Young’s brewery, including the honey-sweet Waggle Dance, the fruity St. George’s Ale and the surprisingly light Triple A – a good beer for first-time bitter drinkers.
The Lamb and Flag
Continuing the lamb motif, this small hostelry in the narrow backstreets of Covent Garden fills to bursting on most evenings when the nearby office workers drop by to drown their sorrows. It’s especially busy in summer, when drinkers spill out onto the surrounding sidewalks of Rose Street.
With a chequered past that, according to legend, saw this centuries-old establishment once named the Bucket of Blood, the Lamb and Flag is now one of London’s most convivial bars. Tourists are warmly welcomed and should ask for recommendations – on my visit, a couple of traveling Americans were being treated to some free samples before deciding what they liked.
The pub’s main charm is that it hasn’t changed much in decades. Its wood floors are still painted black, its darkwood tables are chipped and wobbly and its shadowy backroom still contains an open fire that’s ever-popular on cold days. For those who like to eat with their beer, the pub is also celebrated for its gourmet cheese selection – look out for the well-stocked chiller behind the bar. There’s a restaurant serving more substantial fare in the John Dryden room upstairs.
The Anchor Bankside
While many London pubs have outside tables occupying their sidewalk spaces, al fresco drinkers are often limited to views of the traffic. In contrast, the Anchor Bankside has a large, purpose-built patio area right on the edge of the Thames. On warm days, it’s the perfect spot to watch the pleasure boats slide by and spy iconic London landmarks like Tower Bridge and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
If the weather is less accommodating, the main pub building – a handsome brick and timber construction garnished with red window frames and bright blue shutters – is a cosy gem with an array of Shakespearean flourishes indicating the area’s link to the Bard.
You’ll feel like you’re drinking in a small, warren-like museum when you spot old prints of Shakespeare and his plays on the exposed brick walls alongside a scale model of the old Globe Theatre in a glass case. The recently rebuilt Globe, a center of Shakespearean study and performance, is just a few minutes walk away, so you can compare the two. But don’t leave the pub until you’ve had a pint — which is just what Tom Cruise did here in the movie “Mission Impossible.”
There’s not much room for outdoor seating at the tiny Seven Stars, which explains why costumed barristers from the nearby Royal Courts of Justice often balance their plates of food on a wall across the street. There’s also not much room inside at this eccentric sliver of a pub that combines the history of several centuries with movie-buff wall displays and some serious gastropub dining.
Built in the early 1600s, the pub’s mismatched exterior and sloping wooden floors indicate a bar resting on its Olde-World laurels. But inside is a cozy, Continental-style pub full of chequered tablecloths and a surprisingly full roster of wines. The French ambiance is echoed on the menu, where chargrilled sea bream and rabbit stew were offered on my visit. Catering to its regular clientele of well-heeled legal eagles, there’s also a sturdy selection of high-end scotches alongside an array of large cigars. There’s even a tongue-in-cheek reference to these customers with several legal profession movie posters lining the walls.
• Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is at 145 Fleet St., near Blackfriars train station. 44-20-7353-6170.
• The Market Porter is at 9 Stoney St., near London Bridge train station. 44-20-7407-2495.
• The Lamb is at 94 Lamb’s Conduit St., near Russell Square underground station. 44-20-7405-0713.
• The Lamb and Flag is at 33 Rose St., near Covent Garden underground station. 44-20-7497-9504.
• The Anchor Bankside is at 34 Park St., near London Bridge train station. 44-020-7407-1577.
• Seven Stars is at 53-54 Carey St., near Holborn underground station.