Avoid the crowds and enjoy a quiet pint or a crafty G&T in London's best West End pubs. Whether you're looking for a place before a theatre show or a nightcap after a musical, follow Time Out's definitive guide to the finest pubs in the West End.
Best pubs in Soho
Built 1740-42 but entirely remodelled in 1897, this Grade II-listed building stands as a monument to the opulence and quality of late Victorian pub design. It was made to pull in the punters and, more than a century later, is still worth going inside to gasp at the etched mirrors, woodwork and brown-ridged ceilings. The main bar curves out, naturally leading you deeper into the pub; wandering between the Victorian etched glass and wood partitions that divide the bars (there used to be more, but in 1900 magistrates insisted they went because prostitutes were using them for business) can become pleasantly confusing.
This is still branded Norman’s Coach & Horses after the legendary landlord, Norman Balon, but the old bugger’s gone now and it’s rapidly turning into – shudder – a young person’s pub. Regular sing-songs with a piano accompaniment provide welcome lo-fi entertainment. Real ales are usually well kept.
Technically not in Soho, but just a short stroll over Shaftesbury Avenue, this West End institution, built in 1890, was quickly leased by a retired Dutch sea captain who saw a gap in the market for an oyster bar in London’s glittering West End. The place quickly became a meeting point for passing Netherlanders, and was a regular haunt of the exiled Dutch Resistance during World War II. In 1959 it was renamed De Hems in honour of the captain (having spent its first 69 years as The Macclesfield) and has stuck like glue to its Dutch identity to this day.
Best pubs in Covent Garden
In Covent Garden you have to battle your way into pubs, although in the case of this Endell Street fixture it’ll be through the shrubbery. The Cross Keys is probably London’s most fascinating pub for bric-a-brac. As well as pop curios, there are miniature portraits of PMs, unattributed Victorian oil paintings, diving helmets, stuffed fish, a brass privy.
This Low Countries bar with a high ceiling is a must for the serious drinker, offering a staggering array of Dutch and Belgian beers – there are around 120 beers (15 on tap and over 100 bottles), including the whole range of La Trappe monastery beers from Holland and Belgian Bush Peche Mel. Nothing from Luxembourg, though.
A recent Camra pub of the year, the Harp is the closest thing you’ll get to a local in Covent Garden. The dedication to cellar craft means the full-bellied ale-spotter is well represented among the crowd, but there are often a fair few tourists delighted to have found somewhere with real character among the neon steakhouses and chains.
Best pubs in Fitzrovia
42-44 Hanway Street, London, W1T 1UT
Tiny, ramshackle Bradley’s is part of the London drinker’s rite of passage. Stumble down the staircase and stare at anyone with a seat in a bid to intimidate them into giving up a bit of room. Then get drunk on expensive Spanish lager and sing along to ’60s classics on the famous jukebox. Oh, and never, ever go to the toilet. An institution.
The Fitzroy wears its history with pride. Photos on the wall depict the pub in its heyday, when it was the haunt of hard-drinking boho locals. Originally named The Hundred Marks, the Fitzroy assumed its more familiar identity in 1919 when it was taken over by Polish immigrant Judah ‘Pop’ Kleinfeld. Augustus John, Jacob Epstein and Aleister Crowley were among the regulars. The pub’s reputation as a literary boozer continued until the 1950s: Dylan Thomas, Laurence Durrell, George Orwell and Julian McLaren-Ross were all regulars. It’s now a popular haunt for Charlotte Street’s more parsimonious advertising crowd; parsimonious because this is a Sam Smith’s pub.
One of Fitzrovia’s old-timers, the Newman is famous for featuring in the first murder scene in Michael Powell’s ‘Peeping Tom’ and for selling some of London’s best pies. It is the pub described by George Orwell in both ‘Keep the Aspadistra Flying’ and ‘1984’.
Proper local pub with an upstairs function room that proudly sports a framed Time Out cover (our ‘100 Greatest Gigs’ issue, which celebrated Bob Dylan’s 1962 performance here). It’s also a rugby pub, but you don’t let that put you off; this is an earthy, friendly place that also puts on folk and improv music nights.
Best pubs in Bloomsbury and Holborn
Probably London’s best-looking pub, the Princess Louise (named after Queen Vic’s fourth daughter) was built in 1872 but its spectacular decor dates to 1891 and is now ‘a monument to the craftsmanship that was taken for granted in the 1890s’, as one pub guide puts it. There are magnificent mirrors (by Richard Morris of Kennington) and gorgeous mosaics (by Simpsons & Sons of St Martin’s Lane), an amazing ceiling and a glorious horseshoe bar.
The current Museum Tavern dates back to 1855 and was originally laid out as five separate bars. Although it was knocked through into one open space in the 1960s, it still retains its historic character. Etched mirrors behind the bar bear the legend ‘Watneys Imperial’. Ales are taken seriously: four regulars and three guests. A good whisky selection too. Not as tourist-heavy as you might expect in spite of being opposite the British Museum.
The Lamb appears in most Londoners’ top-five favourite pubs, partly for its beers (a weekly rotation of cask ales and ciders), partly for its pies (usually four at a time, steak and ale, chicken, leek and ham, etc) and partly for the theatrically inclined Victorian interior which still has the etched-glass snob screens around the mahogany bar, a panelled ceiling and brass balustrades.
A superb little find in an alleyway off High Holborn, the Bountiful Cow strikes the right balance between stylish bar and careworn boozer. The inside is modish, with wooden banquettes and kitsch film posters on a cowboy theme. A beef-heavy menu is served in the basement dining room, but this pub-diner shows there are more possibilities for an ambitious boozer than a straightforward gastropub makeover.
Best pubs in Marylebone
Best pubs in Mayfair
A well-dressed, subterranean spot on Stoke Newington High Street. The food menu has been put together by Sam Wilkinson, who has worked at Ottolenghi and Bentley's. Cocktails including Naked Lunches, Big Surs and Catcher in the Ryes hint at literary influence. The food menu comprises small plates such as stuffed mussels with spinach, coconut and turmeric, pigeon salad with dried figs, cobnuts and a sherry dressing, butterflied sardines with fennel, olive, orange and almond and rump of lamb with green tomato, apricot, chipotle and sour cream. 'Street food Sundays' feature too, with guest chefs and street food outfits strutting their culinary stuff.