The best pubs in Islington
Tthe Canonbury Tavern is a Young’s pub that as preened as you’d expect. It’s huge, a series of elegant rectilinear rooms, and the rear garden is equally enormous. It serves pub grub and, in the dining room, more ambitious dishes. If you’re used to Kernel and Weird Beard, you may find Young’s beer timid by comparison. But the scotch eggs served here are nothing short of a revelation.
A charming pub with a lovely atmosphere. The set-up is appealing, the two small cream-painted rooms hung with interesting pictures and maps (notably Stephen Walter’s depiction of London as an island), and packed with wooden tables, chairs and benches. In winter, they fire up fondue pots and you can wash down all the queso with mulled wine.
This quiet, unassuming local is hidden away behind the Union Chapel and thus mercifully isolated from the chaos of Highbury Corner. It was once the pub of choice for George Orwell, and it’s hard to imagine it having changed much at all in the years since he propped up the bar.
Each of London’s five Craft Beer Co pubs can boast dozens of taps, but the Islington outpost is the only one that could be labelled cosy. A comfortable pub with an excellent beer list and helpful, knowledgeable, friendly bar staff to guide you along the way. Outdoor tables and a covered yard offer the beer buffs who flock here the option of a little daylight, too.
Well-to-do Islingtonians favour this upmarket backstreet boozer for its pricey wines, varied beers (Harveys Sussex Best, Sambrook’s Wandle, Truman’s Runner), neutral decor and thoughtfully seasonal cooking. There’s an upstairs restaurant for more focused dining, but downstairs feels homely, with visitors bringing pooches and leafing through the papers.
This backstreet pub has a vast hymn-type board advertising that day’s beers on offer. Staff are constantly hopping up on to chairs to change the names as kegs run out – it’s that sort of place. There are 11 on keg, five or six on cask, plus a couple of quality ciders. The range covers Britain from Devon to Cromarty via Ilkley, before jetting off to the Continent, Scandinavia and the USA. Staff are happy to offer tastings and know their stuff. And there’s a patio at the back that acts as a sun trap in summer months.
Given that it's hidden among some of N1's most covetable residential streets and the barbed-wire-decked back of Pentonville Prison, the Hemingford Arms has to cater for a wide range of locals. It does so beautifully in its own kooky way via the means of drag bingo nights, an out-of-tune piano, Thai food and a scrappy pub dog. The building is made extra beautiful on the outside by leafy swathes of ivy and pretty hanging baskets.
A mile away from Hammerton brewery is a taproom, in what locals will remember was formerly The Wig & Gown on Holloway Road. The inside is all exposed-brick decor stylish rather than cosy pub vibes, and the hard floors and loud music make for a bit of a din – so consider this a place for mates versus dates. There are 24 lines serving suds, so ask staff to guide you through the ever-changing drinks list.
A pub named after the gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson is kind of quirky – and the quirks continue indoors, with taxidermy climbing along the walls and some of London’s most batshit toilet facilities. This bar’s not a fiery tomb of magic, mystery, and myth, but a pleasant, comfortably furnished, dimly-lit neighbourhood drinking and dining spot in a restrained art deco style.
This Islington backstreet is a notch above most of its N1 competitors, thanks to the wide selection of beers and wine. Inside, high ceilings tower over etched mirrors and abundant greenery; there are a couple of outdoor tables too. Even when it’s busy, the height of the rooms means acoustics that allow easy conversation. But the Island Queen’s main asset is that it has personality in spades: it’s a proper pub for people who want a proper drink.
If you're after a mixture of underground sounds and a lounge space where you can actually hear what your mates are saying, you can't do much better than 'The Lex'. With an unashamedly American retro feel running through the decor and the bar, which boasts a selection of over 40 whiskies and numerous US bottled specialty beers, it's a good place to both hear live music of an alternative variety (upstairs) and hang out (street level) until late.
A few bus stops north of the spaghetti junction of bars around the Angel, you’ll find The Lord Clyde. It’s a big place to keep busy with return custom, with the huge interior supplemented by an umbrella-festooned front terrace (‘The Deck’), but the owners succeed thanks to excellent food, decent ales (Harveys Sussex Best plus a guest, such as Hook Norton’s Old Hooky or Cotleigh’s 25) and a pub-like atmosphere with nods to modern manners.
This icon of Essex Road goes large on 'proper drinks', fine food and lotsa leather sofas to kick back in. The food is on supply from Lucky Chip, one of the best burger makers in town. With this young, fun crowd, espresso martinis are as popular as craft lagers. Come for live music, entertaining quizzes and wild nights on weekend nights, where everyone spills outside.
The Old Red Lion is most famous for the matchbox-sized fringe theatre that sits above it, staging no-budget productions of plays both old and (mostly) new. But the pub itself shouldn’t be overlooked: it’s not quite a world away from the boisterous boozers on Upper Street, but it’s certainly a welcome relief.
The Pig & Butcher is a handsome Barnsbury pub with muted greys, assorted bits of paraphernalia on shelves and huge windows. In honour of the pub’s intense name, meat is used in dishes such as home-cured bacon and black pudding salad with endive and orange; lamb shoulder with borlotti beans; or venison haunch with beetroot. And very good they are too. Craft beer is a speciality too – here it’s mainly in bottle, many from small producers, and including a notably good range of pale ales.
The Railway Tavern, on a residential street in the fringes of Islington, is essentially a local – but it’s to its credit that drinkers from locales further afield will travel to visit. The owners of the Pineapple in Kentish Town returned this pub to its original name and gave it a thoughtful, mid-century-style makeover, with a few bits of artful railway ephemera here and there. Food is Thai; there’s occasional live music and a quiz. It’s the beer selection that’s most famous, though.
This cheery, capacious and altogether likeable corner pub is a go-to in De Beauvoir town. The kitchen proves popular, but it’s more than likely that the garden at the foot of this pub is what draws in most punters. On Sundays, bloody marys made with peppery Bloodshot vodka join an otherwise straightforward drinks list.
The Shakespeares Head may look a little daunting from the outside. Don’t be shy: this salt-of-the-earth local extends a warm welcome to all. It’s hard to imagine a pub with fewer pretensions than this place, done out in gloss-painted wood, standard-issue pub carpets and plump seating. The 1970s feel extends to the beer (Courage Best) and the food.
Dark furnishings, tall ceilings and lots of floor space set this pub apart from more traditional watering holes, and the huge beer list is similarly contemporary. Although it doesn’t feel chainy at all, it’s part of a small group that also includes The Earl of Essex and the Exmouth Arms, and they all guarantee a strong beer offer. Given that it’s metres from the dispiriting, traffic-clogged, chain-bar hell of Angel, it’s a great place to drink.
On an unremarkable backstreet in the Hackney/Islington borders is an old pub with a story. An all-too-familiar story in the world of the urban boozer: developers submit planning application to demolish and replace with residential units. Luckily, the neighbourhood stepped in to save this local legend. Find brilliant beers, toasties and those locals who cherish it most.
This is a picturesque cross between a pub and a bar, with a compact drinking terrace by the entrance filled with cast iron furniture. It was once the Oxford Arms, and has been brought back to life as a fairly plush bar with some striking apothecary drawers, an intricate tiled floor and smart green sofas It’s the gin you want to visit for, with more than 60 bottles in stock, and a monthly gin championed and served with tonic in balloon glass measures for £7.