The Royal Oak is wonderful because it is such a perfect example of an ordinary pub. It does nothing extraordinary or alarming. It is a Proper Pub, with small rooms and nicely mismatched furniture, and random plates and pictures on the walls. Here are some of the reasons that I love it:
The beer: Harveys’ beer is delicious, and the Royal Oak has a full range of it on tap. It’s one of the few pubs in London where you’re pretty much guaranteed a pint of Mild. (I have seen them run out of the lovely dark brew, but I have usually contributed to its demise.) In winter, they do a good smooth sour Old, and there’s always delicious hoppy, happy Harveys’ Best. Tucked away behind the bar are tiny bottles of Imperial Stout, and the Christmas ale – appearing on tap every December – is nearly as lethal. May is Camra-approved Mild month, with bonus extra milds to quaff. February features the seasonal ale ‘Kiss’ (and I’m certain that the bar staff never tire of the utterly hilarious variations on ‘Give us a Kiss please’). This seasonal run of beers is very comforting to a creature of habit like me.
It’s not such a great pub for those fools who spurn the warm, flat goodness of real ale; provision for the keg-drinkers is very limited. As is my sympathy. Drink some ALE instead! It is much, much tastier.
There are loads of good pubs called The Bricklayers Arms. And this one, may not be the canonical best of the bunch. Yet again its a Sam Smiths, yet again its in Fitzrovia and yet again we have spent too much time in there to be in anyway objective about it. But let me remind you that this list is not for the best beer, or the comfiest pub. It is a coincidence of the right night in the right place with the right company. So perhaps I should also be reviewing the best drinking partners too.
The thing about the Brickies is that it has , like the good Sam Smiths of the turn of the millennium, two very distinct areas for drinking. Downstairs, it is bright, breezy, small and – well – bricky. A nice central bar which splits the downstairs into the poky one table back room and the only slightly bigger four table front area. Downstairs is a place for plotting, for a quick pint after a film, or a night spiralling out of control (the Brickies is of course fantastically close to the Spanish Bar).
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.
Every year since pubs were invented (nine years by my reckoning), the fine drinkers of Freaky Trigger and ILX have spent the 29th December in a pub. Well, at least seven pubs infact, for the 29th is the date of the Annual Between Christmas and New Year Pub Crawl. Why the 29th? Well it’s the quietest pub day of the year, so we do our bit for the licensed trade and try to bolster their coffers.
Past crawls have taken in the Euston Hexagon, the Mornington Crescent, strange arcane routes across the river and last year a foray into Marylebone. This year we are again pushing further afield, by about half a mile and have settled on the wonderful environs of Pimlico, and its surprisingly large number of estate pubs!
So I give you Das Pimlico Boot (when you see the map it makes sense).
You can fall in love with a pub. Sometimes there are pubs which you are suited to, fit with your personality and your needs perfectly. These may be locals, ones which make you feel at home, or they could be pubs which just do everything in the way you want them to. And in the full flood of young love they may just be the pubs that were available.
The Blue Posts, Rupert Street, was my first London love. Sure I had dallied with a few pubs in Oxford, and there were a few old boilers in my suburb that I had affection for, but the BPRS was the first pub I “discovered” and made mine. And we fit together perfectly. It was a small, unpretentious pub in the heart of the West End, set on a tiny alley which is a perfect rat run between China Town (China Street more like) and the Trocedero.
Foreword: I wrote this over several weeks, forgot what I was doing with it, created a mysterious section (later removed, subsequently regretted) about armchairs and have entirely lost the plot of what it’s meant to be about. Also I am ill. Enjoy!
Not for beginners, you understand, by one for lo, I am a new bug. I don’t remember the smoking ban coming in (here, at least; it was quite an event where I was at the time, in Mid Wales) and Samuel Smiths are still a little entertaining to me in their sheer oddity; people say ‘Clerkenwell’ to me and I go ‘cor is that a real place? I really liked the Real Tuesday Weld album of the same name!’ and I have, on two separate occasions, spent ten miserable, sodden minutes standing in a doorway outside Euston Square station, peering at Google Maps and wondering what the hell happened to the road that I’m sure I went down the last time I came out of one of the doors here; I think everywhere east of Westminster is bat country, still find Oyster cards a bit esoteric and don’t understand the Blue Posts acronym system; occasionally I still give bartenders scandalised looks when they tell me how much a pint of Kronenbourg and a Winter Warmer is going to be and despite the best attempts of my educators, I’m not actually sure I understand what an estate pub is* and six months ago I knew a lot less.
Here is what I have learnt.
Having worked around Covent Garden from the middle of 2002 I’d walked past the Newton Arms loads of times (not least on the way to Parker Place where the original Club FreakyTrigger was held) , but always thought it looked a bit, y’know, Local. It looks like an Estate Pub without being attached to an Estate (although there are a surprisingly large number of people who live round there) and the cheap beer deals and garish posters in the window put me off.
The thing that finally got me through the door was horse-racing.
Unpacking my crate on the first day in a new office I glanced out of the window. The first thing I noticed was a pie with Hitler’s face.* The second thing I noticed was this unassuming, but tempting, little boozer.
“Excellent,” I said to my colleague, “There’s a pub opposite.”
“It looks a bit rough.”
This was nonsense. It didn’t – and doesn’t – look at all rough, it just looked like a pub. Alright, there was something unvarnished about it in comparison to Tooley Street’s other drinkeries – it was clearly not after the same clientele as Skinkers Wine Bar, or the anonymous booze barn that serves Hays Galleria.
Tomme de Savoie
Raw-milk cow cheese from France, from Le Marché du Quartier
This wedge of cheese is grubby on the outside; gray and brown, pitted and wrinkled. Inside it’s a soft moist translucent creamy paste dotted with little holes. The inside tastes tastes tangy and bright and grassy and citrussy, the rind composty and dusty and mushroomy. It’s a happy contrast of taste and texture.
I will say not one bad word about Sam Smith’s in this review. Someone else wants to talk around that issue, but safe to say that as someone with a large social group of varying incomes, Sam Smith’s pubs being cheap has always been a factor. The John Snow in Soho is one of those pubs we rarely go to these days (in the area the Shaston Arms or Star And Garter get more visits) but hasn’t really changed, and holds a firm and fond place in our memories. I probably pop in there a couple of times a year and have whiled away a fair few hours with a pint of Hefeweisse reading about the good Dr Snow upstairs.
So things to note. The John Snow is named after John Snow the health campaigner, not the newsreader, which is amusing in itself as John Snow was a confirmed teetotaller*. The pub is near the pump that Snow brought fresh water into Soho thus sorting out the cholera epidemic. This marks it out in Soho already, for an area with a pretty full history an awful lot of the pubs are highly anonymous.