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