So you’ve eaten eggplant at Ottolenghi, gorged on the best Indian food this side of the Arabian Sea, and explored the many other mouthwatering options London has to offer. Now you’re ready to drink like a local. To the uninitiated, finding a good pub in London might seem simple: Spot the closest picturesque Victorian exterior labeled “The Queen’s Head” or “The Red Lion” in gold lettering, stroll right in, and order a pint.
Not so fast. Once you have your tepid pint (yes, some British beers really are meant to be served room temperature), you look around and realize the booths may not have been cleaned since Queen Vic herself was on the throne, some rowdy lads are playing a drinking game in the next room, and the beer in your hand tastes more like a low-ABV Coors Light than a proper English ale. What went wrong? Telling a good pub from a dud can be tough if you don’t know what you’re looking for, so we checked in with the publicans of some of London’s best establishments to find out how to make sure you never go astray again.
Get a feel for it
The old “You can’t judge a book by its cover” cliché applies particularly well to pubs. “Some really great pubs look terrible, and some terrible pubs look great,” says Nick Gibson, owner of The Drapers Arms, in Islington. Instead, you have to venture inside to determine the most important factor in a pub’s quality: atmosphere. “The clue is in the name ‘public house,’” points out Tom Harris of Hackney’s The Marksman. “A pub should be a home away from home.”
In other words, step inside and look around: Are people having a good time? Are the staff friendly? How’s the music? Is it clean? (As Bradley Lomas of Spitalfields’ iconic Ten Bells notes, “The big one for me is cleanliness… I would always avoid somewhere that looks dirty and unnecessarily run-down.” A little wear-and-tear is one thing, but noticeable grunginess indicates a lack of care or pride likely to extend to the rest of the experience.) Fortunately, pubs aren’t pushy, so if you walk in and decide not to stay, no one will bat an eye.
There are some bad pubs you can easily spot from the outside: chains. “From the 19th century, pubs started to be run by major brewers,” explains Alfie Stroud, a senior conservation officer for the borough of Camden, “and independent pubs, without a tie to brewers, almost died out. The brewers’ names—Green King, Fullers, Young’s, Shepherd Neame, etc.—are written above their pub-specific signage.” Even now, real estate prices in central London make it difficult for independent pubs to survive, and many classic boozers have been turned into soulless chains. Keep an eye out for mass-produced posters, which Elton Mouna, managing director of the Remarkable Pubs group, calls “a telltale sign of a dud.”
In recent years, good, independent pub groups have started cropping up around London as an answer to the problem of economics and character. Remarkable Pubs, which studiously avoids the word ‘chain,’ runs some of Northeast and East London’s best local pubs, maintaining each one’s distinct character and atmosphere.
What’s on tap?
If a pub doesn’t have a good selection of beers, what’s the point? “In this day and age,” says Lomas, “We have so many great suppliers and quality products, it is almost inexcusable to have a bad selection.” Even if you don’t know Britain’s independent breweries, Gibson advises avoiding taps with labels and names that look familiar (looking at you, Stella and Heineken) or have flashy, overly polished labels.
While the craft cocktail craze has moved a little slower in the UK than in the US, some pubs are starting to add them to the menu. The recently reopened Gladstone Arms, a Southwark landmark once frequented by Charles Dickens, now serves a selection of inventive cocktails in addition to its wines and craft beers; and the Marksman is nearly as known for its cocktail and wine lists as for its food and beer.
Which brings us to our next question: Does a good pub need to serve food? Not necessarily. Harris, one of the Marksman’s acclaimed chefs, says no: “A pub, first and foremost should be a place for drinking. Offering good food just makes you a better host.” Indeed, not all pubs are for eating. As Gibson points out, “I choose a different pub to have few beers with friends while watching the football, to where I want to have Sunday lunch with the family.” Some pubs just need good crisps (that’s chips, Americans) and quality drinks to create a convivial atmosphere.
If a pub does serve food, it had better be top-notch. “Good food does not have to be complicated, but good food has to be good,” says Mouna, noting that people will travel for quality fish and chips. And, while many pubs serve a traditional Sunday lunch and other classics, many London pubs actually serve non-English cuisines, especially Thai or Indian—which are also often worth traveling for.
Go with your gut
Once you know how to avoid the worst of the bunch, a good pub is a pub you like. On a sunny summer day, a good pub might be one with a leafy back garden, like the Spaniards Inn in Hampstead. On a rainy winter day, it might be Fleet Street legend Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, with its low ceilings and fireplace. When you want to drink continental beers in Soho and make friends with quirky locals, it might be the French House. When you want to sip real ales with your mates outside on a cobbled street, it might be the Royal Oak on Columbia Road. Once you know the hallmarks of a good pub, you’ll find London’s full of ’em.