Home to an array of cosy British pubs, Hampstead is the perfect place to wet your whistle. Holly Bush, once the home of painter George Romney, is a comfortable - and popular - Hampstead hostelry. Horseshoe, meanwhile, is great for ale connoisseurs: it brews its own ales and has loads of lesser-known international beers. For those who'd prefer an expertly made cocktail, Wells is a must.
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This escape hatch for staff from the Royal Free was given a facelift by Young’s when they took over a couple of years ago: purple floral wallpaper, mirrors and ’70s swivel chairs are paired with a grandly tiled fireplace and an old piano, though don’t expect anyone to hammer out ‘Knees Up, Mother Brown’ around closing time.
‘Home of the Camden Town Brewery’ reads the menu. But yes, this is the heart of Hampstead – presumably Jasper Cuppaidge, the thirtysomething Australian who runs both this cheery pub and the brewery (which has moved from the pub’s basement to close-but-no-cigar Kentish Town), thought naming a beer label after one of London’s poshest neighbourhoods might alienate more drinkers than it would attract.
The dining rooms above this very soigné Georgian pub are a useful addition to Hampstead’s relatively limited restaurant scene. Three handsome spaces, each with good acoustics and their own colour scheme and fireplace, make the Wells perfect for family occasions – accordingly, Sunday lunch is a hot ticket. The menu is appealing without being faddish or daring; there’s a section devoted to steaks.
Blending perfectly with the second-hand bookstores and other arcana along this lovely, narrow pedestrianised passage, this imposing but welcoming Young’s pub has benefited from a 2007 refit that spruced it up without draining its character. Decorative accents are provided by scenes from fairytales, black-and-white photos of days out and century-old posters for London Underground, but the best seats are around the tall table facing the picture window.
Negotiate the steep steps from Heath Street up to isolated, cobbled Holly Mount to this house built in the 1790s by portrait painter George Romney. It was later taken over by Benskins, a Watford brewery, in 1928, and much more recently by Fuller’s. Three low-ceilinged bar areas carry a lived-in feel, the one bar counter purveying pints of Fuller’s ESB, Seafarers and London Pride, as well as Harveys Sussex Best, Leffe, Beck’s and Blue Moon.
With its white walls, black wood and the Heath all but on the doorstep, there’s a touch of Tudor court about The Garden Gate. The jester roles are taken by the casual staff (all faded band T-shirts and good-natured banter) and in place of the suckling pig we have the marginally less noble Big Phil’s Grill. Firing up seemingly on Phil’s whim (although if the sun’s shining the tongs are likely to be out), the barbecue fills the Gate’s green-bordered patio with smoky aromas and the occasional bellowed curse.
The renovation several years ago of this former Hampstead favourite left locals grumbling that a charismatic old boozer had been sacrificed on the altar of the gastropub gods. Certainly, first impressions for return visitors aren’t good. Everything that hasn’t been sanded has been Farrow & Balled, lending most surfaces a washed-out patina that found weary echoes in the soundtrack (Jamie Cullum singing Jimi Hendrix).
Most Londoners know the Spaniards Inn – it’s been a feature of Hampstead Heath since 1585, with Keats and Dickens both former quaffers. Now run by booze behemoth Mitchells & Butlers, it relaunched in 2013 but remains as atmospheric as you’d hope, with dark panels and low beams stretching through the bar and restaurant rooms.
This ‘Coyote Ugly’- inspired bar is bringing back counter-top dancing, big time. It’s on the site of Peter Stringfellow’s old club in Soho. Go figure. Dirty Harry’s is decked out like an American saloon bar. On the Friday night I went, it was rammed and rowdy with a live band blasting classic rock. I’d pre-booked a table ‘close to “Harry’s Honeys”’ (their term, not mine – and yup, requesting that on the phone was excruciating), but the girls don’t start dancing till 9pm, which meant I could concentrate on the excellent cocktails, as well as the menu of juicy burgers and loaded fries. The vibe was a bit weird, with the 350-capacity space so big it seemed to lack atmosphere. But when the girls got up on the bar everything started making sense. They’re brilliant dancers, and the whole thing felt sexy without being exploitative; about five minutes in, I realised I was actually whooping. On the way out, though, I noticed a big table of Hard Rock Café-style Dirty Harry’s merch for sale. Counter-top dancing, it seems, can be an art form. But merch? Now that’s just tacky.
Venue says: “'Dirty brunch', starts this Saturday and Sunday, fantastic offer from noon until 3.30pm. Bottomless prosecco and dirty marys at £20pp.”