If you have read any of the oh-so-dour reports coming from across the pond in the last year or so, you might well imagine that the British pub has all but gone to meet its maker. With dozens of them closing every week, beer consumption down across the board and supermarkets drawing customers away with loss- leader sales of cheap canned lager, what else is one to think?
Fortunately, to coin a phrase, rumors of the pub’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Throughout London, at least, rather than expiring, the best of the capital’s pubs have been quietly reinventing themselves, and the real winner is the pub-goer.
For dramatic illustration of the changes underway, one need look only so far as the postage stamp-sized Borough Market pub, The Rake (14 Winchester Walk, SE1). Small enough to feel full with only a dozen or so patrons—the recent addition of tented outside seating has expanded the square footage considerably—The Rake is a side project of the operators of a specialty beer importer and retailer operating within the Market, and as such, provides patrons with an almost unparalleled selection of interesting ales and lagers from across the U.K. and around the world. Its older and much larger philosophical kin is the White Horse on Parson’s Green (1–3 Parson’s Green, SW6), a south London pub the late beer guru Michael Jackson once tagged as the country’s finest. There, in addition to outstanding market-fresh cuisine, the emphasis is on traditional cask-conditioned ales from small regional brewers, plus bottled exotica sourced principally from Belgium.
Of course, much has also been written of late about the trend from pub to gastropub, both in favor and, increasingly, against. On the latter front, the issue seems to be too dramatic a shift in emphasis from drinking to dining, which given the pub’s ale-steeped heritage would seem a valid complaint. Unless, that is, the transition is effected in such a way that it honors the drinker while providing for the diner, as at The Royal Oak (44 Tabard Street,SE1), a historic pub not far from London Bridge, where the ales of the Harveys Brewery are always in top form and the lines for lunch can sometimes stretch out the door. In a similar vein, at the much newer Harwood Arms (27 Walham Grove, SW6) in Fulham, preference may be given to a menu of fare such as roast Berkshire wood pigeon, Cumbrian ham and River Kennet crayfish, but an area at the front of the bar is always reserved for those who would prefer a simple pint or glass of wine.
Better still, oenophiles need no longer suffer if they wish to partake of the hospitality of the public house, as they have in the past. At an ever-growing number of pubs like the Anglesea Arms (35 Wingate Road, W6) in Hammersmith, Zerodegrees (29/31 Montpelier Vale, SE3), an impressive brewpub in Greenwich, and the gorgeous Gordon Ramsay-owned pub, The Warrington (93 Warrington Crescent, W9), wine is afforded at least the same respect and consideration as is the ale, often with eyebrow-raisingly good results.
Finally, if you’re going to explore the pubs, you might as well stay at one, too, and there are few better—or better value—than the Fox & Anchor (115 Charterhouse Street, EC1) at Smithfield Market. With only six spacious suites to let, planning is imperative if you wish to lodge above this superlative pub, but when you do, you will not only be steps from excellence in traditional pub fare, including the “full English” for breakfast, but also mere blocks from such gastro-temples as Fergus Henderson’s pork and ale oasis, the St. John Bar & Restaurant (26 St John Street, EC1), and the gastropub that started it all, The Eagle (159 Farringdon Road, EC1).