Before she packs up her wellies and travels back across the pond for the summer, Brit life correspondent Meredith Brown recounts her favorite drinking holes in her adopted city. Raise a glass with her, won’t you?
Before I moved to London five years ago, my brother presented me with Watching the English, a thick but witty and enlightening paperback by British social anthropologist Kate Fox. I should have suspected that alcohol would become an important part of my life here when I read the first lines of Fox’s book: “I am sitting in a pub near Paddington station, clutching a small brandy. It’s only about half past eleven in the morning—a bit early for drinking, but alcohol is part reward, part Dutch courage.”
And there you have it, a decent summary of life in London—sitting in the pub drinking a little too much booze, a little too early in the day to celebrate just about anything and everything while overcoming the legendary English reserve.
The Pub Experience
There are around 7,000 pubs in greater London, so you’re never far from a drink, and beer tends to be the beverage of choice (about two billion pints are sold in Britain annually). Though you may be accustomed to the cold, fizzy golden lagers served in American watering holes, in an English pub you should order a local ale.
Sure, it’s not carbonated, it’s served at “cellar” (i.e., room) temperature, you have to be patient as the bartender slowly pumps the cask, and then when you get your pint it can be alarmingly aromatic, but you’re likely to be pleasantly surprised. Plus, who wants an icy cold lager when it’s damp and rainy outside? There’s nothing better than spending a rainy afternoon holed away in a dark, wood and wallpapered pub with a good book and a tepid, frothy pint of Bishop’s Finger.
Not all pubs are created equal, of course. I tend to favour the little, local spots but have been known to recommend a pub based solely on its name (The Queen’s Head & Artichoke, anyone?!) If you’ve spent the afternoon walking through Hampstead Heath pretending to be a character from a Henry James novel, stop by The Flask in Highgate. Inside, it’s a rabbit warren of low-ceilinged rooms crowded with sturdy wooden booths, and outside, its splendidly sunny garden is the perfect spot to watch pale Brits turn pink in the sun.
But my favourite pub in London is The Pineapple in Kentish Town. My old local, The Pineapple is a friendly little establishment in the middle of a quiet family neighbourhood. It has suitably questionable colonial décor, decent Thai food, delicious beer, kindly staff, and chatty old men perched at the bar. Plus it hosts a wickedly difficult pub quiz each Monday, which I have been regularly losing for the past five years.
A Proper Cocktail in Britain
Pubs are neither the only nor necessarily the best way to participate in English drinking culture, though. If you have a penchant for wine and/or caves, try Gordon’s Wine Bar behind Charing Cross station. Housed in a building where Rudyard Kipling once lived, Gordon’s claims to be the oldest wine bar in London. Given the rickety old steps leading to the dark cellar space and the yellowing newspaper clippings, etchings and crumbling photographs pasted all over the walls, I’m inclined to believe it.
The wine list is extensive with incredibly fair prices and has something for everyone from the casual drinker to the connoisseur. Grab a bottle, a plate of cheese, olives and gherkins and head into the candlelit cave to gossip with your friends or canoodle with that special someone. Although it’s almost always packed with the after-work crowd and couples on dates, the lighting is so low that no one will recognize you. If you’re up to no good, you’re welcome at Gordon’s.
Or perhaps you, like that well-traveled American David Sedaris, prefer a stiff cocktail. “We were not a hugging people,” Sedaris explained of his family in Naked, “In terms of emotional comfort it was our belief that no amount of physical contact could match the healing powers of a well made cocktail.” In lieu of a hug while you’re in London, head to the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel and let their perfect cocktails soothe your soul.
Recently refurbished, the American Bar is the quintessential hotel bar: full of nattily dressed fancy people drinking exorbitantly priced yet perfectly made cocktails, chatting softly as a man in a tuxedo croons Rat Pack-style while tinkling the ivories of a white baby grand. The ambiance is delightful. The cocktails are divine. The ingredients are fresh, the proportions perfect, and each drink comes in its own specific, lovely glass.
The signature drink is the White Lady (above), made famous by Harry Craddock, the American Bar’s legendary bartender in the 1930s and author of the amazing Savoy Cocktail Book. You’ll feel like a sophisticated transatlantic celebrity as you raise the delicate blue, etched cocktail glass filled with the sweet and tangy liquid topped with a touch of fluffy egg whites to your lips. Marvellous.
No matter your drink of choice, the boozy bars of London will not lead you astray. Embrace English drinking culture, let down your inhibitions, queue up to the bar and raise a glass. Cheers, dahling!