Samuel Pepys ( Peeps) once described a “pub” or public house as “the heart of England.” You can’t walk a block in London without stumbling upon one. These beacons of refuge for Londoners have all kinds of personality and styles from vintage and funky to corporate and cookie-cutter.
Pubs have been around since ancient Roman times, so they are far from a new or “English” concept. Most popular in the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, pubs are a very distinct beacon in a borough and can represent the culinary tastes of the neighborhood as well as the local culture. The term “gastropub” was not coined until 1991, but because most pubs serve food in general, the term has mostly become irrelevant.
We did hope to become regulars at a neighborhood haunt, but with so much choice in this ever-changing city, we always found ourselves ducking in somewhere new and unique. That doesn’t mean we haven’t figured out our top favorite spots for a pint or meal.
We recently moved from Acton Town in West London. Since we lived in that borough the longest, we frequented two different pubs that were excellent, if not a little eccentric. The first was The Station House. Given to us as a recommendation, this pub sits right next to the Acton Central Station, and it has some of the more unique food I’ve come across in London pubs.
They feature a southern-Italian menu with pizza as their specialty. No, their pizza is not gluten-free, so I cannot attest to the pizza. But what I can attest to is the stuffed chicken breast with leeks and lentils and the various tapas appetizers. This place is moderately priced, but the atmosphere is fun and funky with scantily clad ladies in 1920s regalia posted all on the walls and vintage fixtures on display. The building actually originated as the Acton Central station booking hall, but over time, the booking hall downsized, and London recycled the architecture to form this fun and relaxed bar.
Another pub in Acton that we have frequented with friends is The George and Dragon. What’s really cool about this place is that not only does it have an extraordinary history, but it also has its own microbrewery in the back: The Dragonfly Brewery. I’ll admit that I have not had the beer at this place since I don’t care for beer generally, but they have tons of liquors and wine ready to pour. (Strangely, no Port wine or Drambuie; both of which I asked for one evening and was disappointed). Jeff, however, has had several of the beers and quite prefers the dark stouts they serve like the Dark Matter on draft.
The brewery has six different beers on tap from Pale Ale to Stouts to Bitters to Ciders. Again, I know nothing about beer, so I can’t attest to if that’s a good thing or not. But the massive stills in the back were really cool to see in such a historic space. In the front room is a painted list of the landlords that dates to 1759, but the seating area actually dates back to 1539. The dark wood benches and paneling makes the whole place feel like you need to order a mug of mead and sing loud drinking tunes, but it’s all part of the charm.
If you know me, you know I work in the film industry. So, I have to mention The Red Lion in Ealing. But before I tell you about what makes this pub special, I have to mention it folds into the “chains” of pubs. You can always tell when a pub is a corporately owned pub or chain by two things: the menu (it’s the exact same as everywhere else) and the Fullers sign poised at the top of the sign. Both The Station House and The George and Dragon are independently owned, but The Red Lion is owned by the well-known beer company serving their line of beers on tap.
First built in 1825, this place is located right down the street from the famous Ealing Studios. Frequented by famous faces while the studios was in its heyday, the place is fully decorated with old “Hollywood” glamour photos. After spending so much time at Ealing Studios myself, it was so fun to see and walk in the footsteps of the people I so love and admire. There are few things better than sitting in a back, covered garden with a glass of wine chatting with friends on a warm summer night. But for the history alone, I recommend this place.
Moving further east toward Chelsea, I went to The Cross Keys by recommendation of my aunt. Tucked away on a side road off the Thames, this adorable place has a vintage charm with rustic fixtures and a “found furniture” vibe. I went in the middle of the day, so it was quiet and relaxing. The staff were lovely and I ordered a lovely and light chicken and avocado salad with pomegranate dressing. Their menus are seasonal, but my spring veggies were perfect. Being in Chelsea, you definitely pay more for a meal, so make a night of it and definitely make a reservation ahead of time for the dinner hour.
A quick historical note about The Cross Keys: mounted to the building was a list of famous people who had been patrons to the pub over the decades. From 1702, the following people have had a drink or two:
- Dylan Thomas
- J.M.W. Turner (whose studios were just down the road)
- Agatha Christie
- John Singer Sargent
- James McNeill Whistler
- Bob Marley
Can you imagine a more eclectic yet extraordinary list of clientele?
The Cross Keys has two sister pubs in the area: The Brown Cow and The Sands End. I didn’t get a chance to go to The Sands End, but one day, wandering around Fulham, I did duck into The Brown Cow to see if these two establishments were the same. While The Brown Cow had a similar feel and set up, the menu was completely different and the vibe was also unique. Again, in the middle of the day, this place was packed! Sitting directly on the high road, I can see how the foot traffic would impact the separate establishments.
Only interested in something sweet, I asked what my gluten-free options were and was served the most delightful eton mess. In my 2.5 years in Britain, I had never tried it, and now I don’t know why. The strawberries were sweet and fresh and the tiny meringues were a nice touch. Light and small, it was the perfect pick me up from a long walk in the sun. I did see they served my Spanish favorite: padron peppers, but that will have to be for another time. Again, expect to pay a higher price for this place, but you get what you pay for in style and luxury.
The last place I’ll talk about is a pub that has stood the test of time: Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street. Not only is Fleet Street incredibly recognized in history, but this place with its low ceilings and dank caverns is one of the oldest pubs in central London having been among the first to rebuild after the 1666 fire after having originally been built in 1538. Sitting so close to London Bridge and St. Paul’s Cathedral, I can imagine the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, and Alfred Tennyson (just to name a few famous clientele) sitting in this place over its 500+ year history.
The dank, underground feeling of the pub is only accentuated by the lack of natural lighting. Charles Dickens is rumored to have used the darkness as inspiration for some of his more evil literary characters. But the side caves and caverns offer privacy and also great cubicles for camaraderie.
The other thing we loved about this place was the drink offerings. They carry the Sam Smiths Brewery line which offer organic ciders, beers, and unique wines. We both enjoyed a glass of “Fine Ruby Port” wine while imagining a transport back in time.
I have a couple of honorary mentions but not because of the food or drink, but because of the history. What I loved about Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (besides the Port wine) was the secrets hidden within the walls. The Hoop and Grapes near Aldgate East is no different. Built in the 17th century, this pub was spared from the 1666 fire by just 50 yards. A few of the timber frames holding this place up are still intact, which is purely amazing.
A little further east in Limehouse is a pub called The Grapes. A little fancier-looking sitting right on the Thames, this pub has been around for more than 500 years. It had/has such a strategic port location that offers not only beautiful views, but it was a historical launching point for Sir Walter Raleigh as he made his third trek around the world. Even Charles Dickens found himself here the times he visited his grandfather. And thankfully for us, The Grapes survived The Blitz despite the east side of London being pummeled during WWII.
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I hope I’ve sparked you curiosity about some of the pubs around London. What are your favorites in and around the city? Are you familiar with any on my list?