Bull & Last - The gastropub of the gods
By Giles Coren, food critic for The Times and Bull & Last regular for 28 years
The first time I went to the Bull & Last, a traffic warden came in and shouted, ‘Whose is the Mark II Escort?’ then took all her clothes off while the driver’s mates sang ‘Happy Birthday to You’, and dragged him upstairs to whoops of applause.
When he came down again, ten minutes later, one of his friends went up and the remaining six had a fight over who’d be next, which ended when all the pool cues were broken and you couldn’t see the vomit stains on the carpet for the blood.
That was 1986 and it’s what north London pubs were like. They smelled of dog and fart and dog fart and Rothmans and beer-sweat and the bogs. The lager was Harp, and stayed sharp to the bottom of the glass. And the only food was slippery peanuts, which you bought less in hunger than in the hope of exposing a nipple on the frizzy-haired Page 3 girl on whose photograph the bags of nuts were hung.
But pubs are different now. The last time I went to the Bull & Last, which was yesterday, I sat my three-year-old daughter up at the bar with a babyccino while I drank a hoppy pale ale from Five Points in Hackney and waited for my rare roast loin of venison with a kromeski of the shoulder and sweet, earthy stems of braised salsify.
Twenty-eight years. Jesus. The stripper will have her Freedom Pass by now (to be fair, she probably had it then) and the fighting blokes will all be dead. And I won’t mourn them any more than I do the passing of the old-fashioned north London boozer itself. For a thousand years, these islands were unique across the world in possessing a drinking culture without an eating one. You had your tea at home then went out for eight pints and a piss in the street on your way home to beat up the wife. But changes in drinking habits and the licensing laws, immigration and the advent of the global village are doing away with all that. Nigel Farage can weep for the days of a ciggy with your pint and a laugh about Johnny Foreigner over a game of darts, but I won’t.
I come to the Bull & Last to be close to the trees and sky of Hampstead Heath, for hearty Anglo-French cooking, for the laughter of children, the cackles of drunk old boozehounds (who are as welcome as ever) and a couple of well-made pints of English beer. The Sunday roast is a beautiful thing, the roast potatoes are peerless in the universe and there is always game in season, immaculately prepared.
I have been writing about pubs and restaurants for 20 years and in all that time I have never met a better cook than Ollie Pudney or a nicer man than Joe Swiers, who runs the place. But most importantly of all, the Bull & Last is three minutes’ walk from my front door (perhaps a little longer on the way home). Because that is where the best pub in the world always is, even if it isn’t this one.
Bull & Last, 168 Highgate Rd, NW5 1QS
French House - Le pub le plus magnifique de Soho
By Sonya Barber, Time Out Blog editor and French House habituée
Late Soho resident and debonair dandy Sebastian Horsley once told me: ‘Living in Soho is like an ongoing orgasm.’ Although these days expensive ramen and chain restaurants may have replaced the area’s flamboyant debauchery, you can still find a slice of authentic eccentricity at the French House.
Unlike many Soho watering holes, this Grade II-listed pub has retained its bohemian je ne sais quoi. Opening in 1910, in its time it’s wetted the whistles of Dylan Thomas, Francis Bacon, Peter O’Toole and Molly Parkin. And now me. But how has it retained its originality? Good old fashioned stubbornness.
The ‘French’ (as it’s known to regulars) has refused to evolve and that’s why it’s so brilliant. You won’t find any blaring music or TV screens here. Instead, it’s a comforting timewarp of wood paneling and fading photos. Unusually, it’s also a phone-free zone. In an attempt to encourage conversation, calls or even a cheeky text are frowned upon. It’s a rule that’s led me to have tipsy chats with academics, actors, alcoholics and everyone in between.
Another characteristic of the French is that it refuses to serve beer in anything as crassly English as pints. Très Continental.
Settle down at a table, perch on a stool or join the throng outside and you’ll soon be reminded why the area is still so special. When Le Tricolore stops flying on Dean Street, we’ll know Soho is in trouble.
French House, 49 Dean St, W1D 5BG
Seven Stars - The pub where the cat wears a ruff
By lawyer Robert Brown, patron of the Seven Stars, an ancient ale house behind the Royal Courts of Justice
The Seven Stars is imbued with history. It can genuinely lay claim to being the oldest surviving pub in London, and as it’s only a stone’s throw from Middle Temple, where Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ was first performed in 1602, there is every reason to believe that he drank here. The pub is also very close to what became the western extent of the Great Fire of London in 1666, so it survived while all of the medieval buildings to the east were destroyed. It’s still pretty fascinating, thanks in large part to the landlady Roxy Beaujolais. She’s something of a bonne vivante, liberal and radical thinker, and she has a cat that always looks very grand, wearing an Elizabethan ruff. Roxy is one of the few remaining independent publicans in London, and though she doesn’t have masses of different beers, she does stock some very good ones.
It is famously, of course, a lawyers’ pub. I mean, people don’t wear their wigs in the street so it’s not that obvious, but you know. Unfortunately, lawyers are a very civilized group, really, so it never gets too rowdy.
The pub is small, cosy and wholly authentic. It’s an old Elizabethan house, and getting up and down the stairs is difficult even if you’re sober. It’s got proper beer, good honest food and it’s unpretentious. There is nothing fake about the place.
Seven Stars, 53-54 Carey St, WC2A 2JB
Royal Vauxhall Tavern - The queen of London pubs
By Amy Lamé, host of Duckie at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern
I remember the first moment I stepped into the Royal Vauxhall Tavern: it was like someone lifting a veil from my eyes.
The thing about the place is that it’s not the most beautiful pub, but it’s got this spit-and-sawdust energy that you feel the moment you step through the door. It was built on the grounds of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, which were the absolute centre for entertainment in London. When you first go to the tavern, you really notice that special energy filling the whole room.
For me, it’s really important that the Vauxhall stays what it is. It’s so significant, not just for London, but for the LGBT community as a whole. It has been a gay pub since the 1940s, so it’s probably one of the oldest gay pubs in the city. Homosexuality was illegal back when it started catering to that market, so you had to find places that were amenable to gay people to meet, and the Vauxhall Tavern was one of those places. But it was more than just a safe haven; it was integrated into the local community. Even in the ’40s it was local people and gay people together. It’s like London, isn’t it? It’s everyone mixed together and that’s what makes it so great.
Royal Vauxhall Tavern, 372 Kennington Lane, SE11 5HY
The Golden Heart - The pub that birthed Britart
By Sandra Esquilant, landlady of the Golden Heart, home from home in the ’90s to London’s hottest artists
Thirty-five years ago my husband and brother wanted the Golden Heart, and I didn’t. I was terrified. I said, ‘I can’t! I can’t work in a pub!’ And they said, ‘Look, just come and have a look at it.’
I walked in that door and I fell in love with it, and I’ve never stopped having that love. I work every day. I don’t have to work, I have children all over the world who beg me to retire, but I don’t want to.
I treat the pub like it’s my baby. I don’t think I’m bossy, I let people come in, drink, enjoy – I even let them look after my dog! What you see here is a very real place, you don’t see anything false.
The area has changed so much, and not for the best. I had the whole fashion and art world here when they were like babies and they were wonderful. We had great times here: hula-hooping, dancing on tables. I’ve had an incredible life out of these people: wonderful times. The artists made the area, and then they were chucked out. It’s so wrong! The Golden Heart hasn’t changed in 35 years, and I’m still up every morning, still doing my cellar, still doing my flowers. Nothing’s going to make me stop.
The Golden Heart, 110 Commercial St, E1 6LZ
Amersham Arms - The pub that makes us laugh. A lot
By Ben Williams, Time Out Comedy editor and recent convert to the Amersham Arms
I’ve walked past the Amersham Arms in New Cross dozens of times. I’ve always found it a little intimidating. Not because it looks particularly scary, but because the posters for DJ sets from the guitarist of some noughties band scream ‘students!’ But since I plucked up the courage to actually step inside, I’ve fallen in love with the place.
The Amersham Arms is like a two-stage Tardis. What looks like a small, cosy pub from the street also looks that way inside: there are wood-panelled walls, Chesterfield sofas and fairy lights draped around picture frames. But it’s all a front for a huge club and music venue out the back. Don’t be fooled by the one old man nursing an ale at the bar: through the plain black door are 300 Goldsmiths students drinking out of plastic pint glasses and pissing themselves with laughter.
Comedy night Happy Mondays takes place here every fortnight. Entry’s only a fiver, and some of the best names in the business regularly navigate the Overground to New Cross. Stewart Lee, Mark Watson and Milton Jones have all stormed it recently. Heck, even David Cross – yes, Tobias from ‘Arrested Development’ – performed a rare London set here a few weeks ago. It was his first gig in five months. Why do comics like playing it? It’s fun! The crowds are lively and the promoters are nice people. The students might come for the cheap ticket price, but it’s the comedy-savvy Londoners who make it special.
Amersham Arms, 388 New Cross Rd, SE14 6TY
The Albion - The footie pub
By Mike Anderson, fan of Sheffield Wednesday and the Albion
Any old pub can cough up for the subscription, stick a chalkboard out front with the weekend fixtures and call itself a football pub. If you’re lucky, you might even get projectors, speakers and a thousand 42-inch screens rubbing your face in football until all you can see is polyester, permatan and haircuts. But the Albion boils a different kettle… a low-ceilinged bar, two living-room flatscreens (plus a miniature for the smokers), decent beers and wall-to-wall memorabilia – a mind-boggling display of footy stuff, drawn from the length of the UK and beyond.
Scarves, pennants, programmes: the Albion is a shrine to all that is good and holy in football, present and past. There’s something for everyone, especially if you’re me – there’s a bottle of beer especially brewed for the 1991 Rumbelows Cup Final, when the mighty Owls of Sheffield took down Man U: took them down to Chinatown.
Every football pub needs a team. But the Albion turns away from any divisive London allegiance, dedicating a quarter of its wall space to West Brom’s ever-loveable Baggies – football’s friendliest nickname, and a nicer bunch of fans you couldn’t hope to meet.
At its best, football allows us to transcend the day-to-day. You feel it coming up your spine, like when I watched England v Sweden here in 2012 – 90 minutes of a glorious 3-2 victory, shared between you, your mates and a pubload of total strangers, all feeling and expressing as one. That is what the Albion is about, what football can and should be: transcendent, exultant, just fucking brilliant.
The Albion, 94 Goldsmiths Row, E2 8QY
The Birdcage - The authentic East End boozer (really)
By Oliver Keens, Time Out Music editor and lover of the Birdcage
Truth be told, I only have one clear, genuine memory of the Birdcage. It’s a good one, which will be etched on my brain until the day I die. Most of the others are distressingly foggy. I think someone put four ketchup bottles in my coat pocket as a present on my birthday. I may have enthusiastically slow-danced with a rather grand octogenarian Cockney lady there once. It’s even possible that I once convinced someone at the bar that I was actually the writer and comedian David Baddiel.
Luckily, the Birdcage has been on Columbia Road in Bethnal Green since 1760, so there’s a surfeit of memories in the ether to make up for my haziness. But what I love about the pub is that remembering a night there sort of misses the point. It’s an old-fashioned community boozer that serves drinks until 2am on weekends. By virtue of its late licence, it’s become a regularly rammed destination for the cool and the young.
But what makes it so great is that The Birdcage yields to nothing, especially anything ‘cool’. From 9pm, karaoke is king. There’s no slant or gimmick. We’re talking old men busting out Frank Sinatra, giving it their all as if they were headlining Carnegie Hall. Try asking if they have any FKA Twigs, or ordering a negroni at the bar, and the look you’ll get will be the only reply you’ll need. For all my visits over the years, I don’t think I’ve ever actually done karaoke there. As I said, I only have one clear memory: I met someone there once. We fell in love. We’ve lived around the corner ever since. I defy anyone in the Birdcage’s 254-year history to have had a better night there.
The Birdcage, 80 Columbia Rd, E2 7QB
Eight London pubs we love
Eight Londoners tell us why there's nowhere on earth like their favourite boozer