Most of the pubs on this top 25 list have offered years’ worth of fond memories, but even so there’s always the chance for new discoveries. You have to sneak them in though sometimes, when your contingent of drinkers has visited the Doric just once too often in recent weeks and the area in question isn’t too difficult to escape from if necessary. Mentioning that you’ve just read about the place on a beer geek’s blog is probably not going to be much help in the matter. And quite apart from straying outside the comfort and convenience of London’s West End, you’re not usually going to be able to entice people to visit an estate pub.
Estate pubs, of course, occupy a special place in pub fandom. Being integrated into the fabric of a residential (often Council-built) estate makes them peculiarly close to the lives of the residents, and often makes for a more cosy and welcoming environment, if always with the danger of a hostile reception for outsiders. You never can quite be sure.
Pubs can offer many excellent things, as are being amply revealed in our Pubs of the 00s series. However, culinary invention is rarely one of them. Even self-proclaimed gastropubs rarely get further than putting ‘twists’ on the standard pub options — sausages, pies, burgers, sandwiches, fish & chips. Some of them just chuck the word ‘posh’ on the front of each and have done with it. This is because pubs should offer comfort and stability, and that’s what people want from them.
The world of pubs, as we know and have heard, grows ever more homogeneous over the years, as the big chains move in, so surely it’s hardly the time to be mourning the passing of one of them. Farewell then to Ben Crouch’s Tavern, just off Oxford Street, a stalwart of the Eerie Pubs stable.*
It was for the most part a horrible place, filled with ersatz gothick decoration (think thick cobwebs, chains, rusty steel cages, big fake spiders, book cases, and lab testing equipment), a meagre range of drinks and truly awful music played far too loudly which didn’t even conform to the rest of the pub’s decor theme (generally, it was bad AOR rock music).
And yet, and yet, a bit of nostalgia creeps in for the old place.
Those who have paid passing attention to the news over the last year may be familiar with the Global Economic Collapse™, Economic Downturn™, the Credit Crunch™ and all its associated lunch/brunch/munch tie-in offers. After all, there’s very little that can’t be turned to some profit, so you’d think that the liquor on-trade would cash in on this topical obsession with all things parsimonious.
Where is the bar boldly stepping into the breach which advertises itself to the passing crowds using huge photos of Bernie Madoff, Alistair Darling, Sir Fred Goodwin and other bêtes noires of the global financial meltdown? Surely we can order at a bar made out of cassette tapes, bottles of beer stacked haphazardly behind it in their bulk-purchase packaging? The walls, where they are left clear of teetering towers of alcoholic detritus, might feature a series of paintings of a smug Gordon Brown? There might even be an Ikea-bought wendy-house seating area upstairs complete with bean bags? And it will need a manifesto taped to the door.
Well, now, thanks to Vince Power, we get the bar we all deserve. Should we choose, that is, to venture into the anti-capitalist enclave of Notting Hill.
Local real estate agents’ posters at Ladbroke Grove tube station, nestled like the bar under the vastness of the Westway, tell us that “Yes! You can afford to live here!” There might as well be a poster saying we can afford to drink here, too, since prices for all drinks are set at £2.50. The place is hardly packed, but it’s a Tuesday evening and the volume of the music means everyone who is there is drinking outdoors. But we’re being made “aware of the political and economic situation of the day”; you can’t put a price on that. Though it was probably a fair amount. Bean bags are quite expensive, if you’ve ever thought they might make cheaper seating options.
It may lack irony in its striving after Dalston cool, but in its way it comes across as much a temporary art installation as the bar on the roof of a car-park in Peckham. No surprise, then, that students from the University of the Arts had some involvement. It’s called LiquidNation, but lose a single camel-case letter and you might get a sense where the future of the recession-themed drinking den lies.
The battle over the future of pubs is being fought, as we’re constantly reminded in the media. You can judge the healthiness of a pub in many ways, but one surely has to be its range of potato products.
Packets of crisps are getting ever more rarefied, as Walkers are forced out from some higher end establishments by competition from Salty Dog, Tyrrell’s and some brand that only sells their stuff in little cardboard boxes as I spotted in an East Dulwich pub the other week. You can pay over £1 for some of these brands.
There’s also the bowl of chips, which just could be the new battleground in the fight between community boozer and gastropub. One might berate £3 or £3.50 as being simply too much, except that given the escalating price of a pint in many such places, this is generally less than a beer costs. Plus, you can still justifiably consider yourself short-changed if you get scarcely more than a handful.
And now, from a recent visit to the reliably posh White Horse in Parsons Green, the bar has been raised yet again. No triple-fried hand-cut muck for these people. Only the finest “crispy new potatoes” served intermingled with capers and olives.
Though would it be heresy to suggest I liked them? Under £3 and more character than some of the pub’s habitués.
Late last week, as the servers holding this very site bowed under the sheer volume of user interest, a hardy band of correspondents ventured forth to a pub for some drinks, not an unusual occurrence of a Friday evening it must be said, but perhaps better needed on this occasion.
The venue for those drinks, the Lord John Russell, is always a dependable place. It’s popular, certainly, though not usually completely rammed. It has friendly staff. It has a great selection of well-kept ales — so many, in fact, that the pump handles form a formidable physical barrier across the bar. Plus, it has pies and crisps and pork scratchings and Smith’s Bacon Fries: everything you need to enjoy your pint with, in short.
More intriguingly, it now turns out to be at the cutting edge of beer innovation, for, courtesy of Budvar, it has a third mixer tap for its Budvar Original and Budvar Dark beers, entitled the “Half and Half”.
This is where I compare and contrast, because next out of the packet are two flavours which sit in natural opposition, occupying different ends of the taste spectrum. Does either of them succeed, then?
To some observers, Chilli & Chocolate was the most interesting flavour idea of the original six — one of the few that hadn’t been done before in some guise. Of course, the reason for that should surely be obvious: crisps are an inherently salty food, and chocolate isn’t. So how this might work out is the issue under consideration. As the blurb on the back says, it “sounds crazy, but is so TASTY! And as Catherine [‘from High Wycombe’, the ‘creator’ of this flavour] rightly points out, what more do you want from a bag of our crisps?!” If it provided what is modestly promised, then that question might remain unanswered. But it doesn’t, and it won’t. I would like some more flavour, please.
As keen devotees of ephemeral pop cultural trends, you will undoubtedly be aware of Walkers’ new series of flavour combinations, being marketed as “Do Us a Flavour”. The concept being that the flavour suggestions of six ordinary Britons have (out of over a million entries, apparently) been accepted by a judging panel which included celebrity molecular gastronomist Heston Blumenthal. And “only one can stay and become the next great Walkers flavour!” That’s another paradigm you’ll be familiar with. Reality TV meet reality manufacturing.
In the interests, then, of food science, it falls to Freaky Trigger to ask the question: when next we go down to the pub, will ANY of these flavours pass that ultimate test and be selected ahead of ready salted, salt & vinegar or Cheese Moments? I do so love Cheese Moments.