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the dolphin pub on mare street
Image: Time Out

The electric rise and fall of London’s most notorious party pub

The legend of The Dolphin on Mare Street

Isabelle Aron
Written by
Isabelle Aron
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Ask a Londoner of a certain age about The Dolphin pub in Hackney and it will probably go one of two ways:

1. They’ll wince and say something along the lines of: ‘Is that that place on Mare Street?’

2. They’ll regale you with stories of messy nights, questionable decisions and sickly shots of
Jägermeister.

When I put out a call asking for drunken tales, these were the kind of responses that slid into my DMs:

‘We took my mate’s dad there once. He got kicked out for being topless and rowdy.’

‘It’s the only place where you can get everyone to sing along to “Mysterious Girl” at 3am without judgement.’

‘I had sex in the toilets.’

People have strong feelings about this pub on Mare Street. It’s a rare kind of place where the word ‘legendary’ actually applies. Its late licence means it’s open until 4am at the weekend. Its door stamp (of a Dolphin, obviously) is an icon in its own right, and not just because it’s impossible to scrub off – punters have been known to get it tattooed on their wrist. There are even rumours about a now-defunct loyalty card.

From the outside, with its wood-panelled front and classic gold signage, The Dolphin looks like your average traditional London pub. In fact, right now, it is shut, windows covered with notices from Hackney council about a review of the premises licence. But in its heyday, between 2005 and 2015, the pub’s owner Yaşar Yildiz says thousands of people would go through the doors on Friday and Saturday nights. It was sweaty. It was noisy. It was actually… kind of disgusting! And, during that time, if you were going out in Hackney, it was almost unquestionable that you’d end up there. How did this ordinary pub end up being such an integral part of east London nightlife? 

the dolphin pub
Photograph: Ben Rowe

New beginnings

The pub at 163-165 Mare Street has a history that goes way back, long before it was pumping out ’90s R&B and smashing through bottles of Jägermeister. According to records from Historic England, it’s been around since roughly 1850. The building is even Grade-II listed thanks to its tiled walls and stained-glass windows (complete with blue dolphins floating at a jaunty angle) which date back to around 1900. They were created by legendary pub decorators of the time W B Simpson and Sons. 

When Yildiz bought The Dolphin in 2001, it had been an Irish pub for around 60 years. He still remembers the moment he first stepped foot inside it. ‘I was in love straight away,’ says Yildiz. ‘I said: “I’m gonna buy this pub, I don’t care how much it will cost me.”’ He put in an offer immediately and soon the place was his. Yildiz made changes slowly, bringing in karaoke, switching up the decor, making it more modern, bringing in DJs and introducing cocktails. The place began to shake off its old-man pub image, but it wasn’t exactly a glow-up. In the centre was a square bar, a bit like the one in ’80s sitcom ‘Cheers’, with a pool table and a crowded, sticky dancefloor around it. There was a garden outside with a takeaway van that did cheese slices on chips. 

Two years after Yildiz bought the pub, a piece of government legislation changed everything. The Licensing Act 2003 meant that pub owners could apply for a late licence to extend their hours into the early morning rather than being made to shut by 11pm. When it came into force in 2005, Yildiz wasted no time in securing one. ‘It was the first late-night pub in Hackney,’ he says. It was the stuff of dreams – and it was a total game changer. 

the dolphin pub
Photograph: Ben Rowe

‘Oh my God, the toilets’

Of course, it wasn’t just licensing laws that were changing. In the mid-noughties, Hackney was going through a transformation too. Young, creative and frequently tattooed Londoners were beginning to move in. These were people who didn’t want to just go home and crawl into bed with a doner kebab at 1am. They wanted to carry on partying. How else would they fill three Facebook albums (‘PARDY TIMES 1’, ‘PARDY TIMES 2’ and ‘messsssssssy night’) with pictures of them and their mates dancing to Jason Derulo, sweating out m-cat? But where could they go? 

Enter: The Dolphin. 

Soon, word of mouth spread about the Mare Street pub that was open until the early hours. ‘It was crazy’, admits Yildiz. On a Friday or Saturday night, people would queue for an hour to get in. Punters would often get served the wrong drinks because it was too loud to hear anything over the music. No one minded. ‘Ordered a round of tequilas, got served a round of sambuca, salt and lime. The bartender told us it was special imported tequila,’ one Londoner told us. But the mayhem was part of its charm. It’s the kind of place where you might see someone attempt to do the ‘Dirty Dancing’ lift with a stranger, fall spectacularly and break their finger (true story). You might watch a fellow punter, bored of standing in the queue to get in, try and scale the wall of the smoking area and fall backwards into a wheelie bin (also a true story) or see someone get knocked out cold by a swinging loo door (again, true story). ‘Drinks were on the floor, it was a mess. And oh my God, the toilets... But people really liked it,’ says Yildiz.

The Dolphin became synonymous with three things. Karaoke: an essential part of any iconic London venue (see also: Rowans). So many Londoners share their tales of drunken singing at The Dolphin with me. For example: ‘I remember singing Ronan Keating’s “Life is a Rollercoaster” in my boxer shorts, full of tequila.’ 

Then there’s the Jäger. ‘I think we are the biggest Jägerbomb seller in the UK,’ says Yildiz. He estimates that, at its busiest, the pub would get through more than 20 cases of Jägermeister and 20 to 30 cases of Red Bull. That’s around 5,000 shots of Jägermeister every week.

The pub has also undoubtedly inspired many, many romances. Multiple people reply to my call-out explaining how they met the love of their life there. There’s the woman who went home with a guy who bought her a tequila shot and is now considering having their wedding reception at The Dolphin. Another woman convinced a stranger to sing ‘WAP’ by Cardi B with her, abandoned them mid-song and then found her ‘dream man’ on the dancefloor. One person even went there on his wedding night, after tying the knot in Hackney Wick: ‘We had the wedding venue until 1am and we were eager to keep the party going. We headed to the only place we knew would let us in at that hour. The bottom of my wife’s wedding jumpsuit still has the brown beer stains on it from that night.’

the dolphin pub
Photograph: Scott Wishart

The pub goes viral 

You know the Iceland on Mare Street? The one that’s directly opposite The Dolphin? From 2011 to 2015, David Levin lived above the ‘I’ in its sign. This very specific vantage point meant that on Friday and Saturday nights he couldn’t help but witness all the chaos at the pub play out. In fact, he was part of it. The first time he went to the pub, he remembers thinking: ‘What the fuck is this place?’ 

A few weeks after Levin moved in, the London riots spread across the city. There were rumours that rioters had broken into The Dolphin and were trying to set it on fire. From his spot above Iceland, Levin was in a prime position to confirm what was actually happening. He tweeted that everything seemed fine at the pub. ‘It got retweeted by a big Dalston account that was followed by a lot of Hackney hipsters.’ People started replying with messages of relief. That wasn’t all they were saying, though. ‘It was a barrage of filth: “It’s the only pub I've ever had sex in”, “My cousin met their husband after getting off with him under the pool table”, everyone was sharing these stories that were hilarious, and in most cases, disgusting.’ Given the amount of love for the pub on Twitter, Levin wondered why it didn’t have its own account. Emboldened by the numerous glasses of wine he’d been drinking with his flatmate, he took matters into his own hands. He set up a Twitter account, bashed out a joke about chasing the rioters off, hit the ‘tweet’ button and went to bed. ‘When I woke up in the morning, the account had loads of followers’, says Levin. The @The_Dolphin_Pub account was born.

Retweets rolled in from the likes of Caitlin Moran, Example and Rizzle Kicks (remember, this was 2011). Levin thought he’d keep it going for the next few days, tweeting jokes that mainly involved jägerbombs and ’90s and ’00s R&B. 

A few weeks later, Levin went into the pub and met Yildiz, who was overjoyed: people kept coming in and asking about the Twitter account. He thanked Levin the only way he knew how: with free Jägerbombs... every time he went in. ‘I felt like Tony Soprano going into those restaurants in “The Sopranos”, except it was this slightly sleazy pub in east London.’ Some days, Levin would come back from work on a Monday, still feeling rough from the weekend. He’d get to his front door, ready for a quiet night in, then he’d see Yildiz across the road, beckoning him in for a drink. ‘He’d be like: “David, come for a drink!”. Before you know it, you’re having a pint of wine on a Monday night.’ Companies began approaching Levin to run their social accounts. Eventually, he set up his own agency, which he still runs today. ‘The Dolphin quite literally changed my life’, he says.

the dolphin pub
Photograph: Ben Rowe

It might have started as a joke but in 2013, Levin’s account found a new, more sincere purpose. The Dolphin was in trouble: its prized late licence was under threat. A rise in thefts at the pub had prompted the Met Police to call for a licensing review. Stats from Hackney Council show that there had been 92 reported incidents at the pub in 2012 to 2013, an increase of 104 percent from 2011 to 2012. The police ‘branded it the worst theft hotspot in Hackney’, according to a 2013 Hackney Gazette story. By September 2013, The Dolphin was dealt a huge blow: a licensing committee reduced its opening hours from 4am to 1.30am, on the grounds that 80 percent of the crimes had taken place after 1am. 

The pub went into overdrive, launching an appeal against the decision and a petition to save the pub, which was eventually signed by nearly 3,000 people. Levin took the campaign to Twitter using the hashtag #SaveTheDolphin. ‘People really got behind it,’ he says. ‘It was the first time that the Twitter account was trying to do anything other than just make stupid jokes.’ As well as your average punter, the campaign got support from celebrity fans. They included Michael Fassbender, who filmed scenes for a short film called ‘Pitch Black Heist’ at the pub. (Levin says there were ‘several sightings of Fassbender’ at a quiz night there once. My emails to Fassbender’s agent about The Dolphin have, sadly, gone unanswered.) The late TV presenter Caroline Flack also got behind the campaign. Levin says she was often at the pub with fellow presenter Gemma Cairney, who still remembers it fondly. ‘As Hackney's aesthetic changed at turbo speed in the mid-noughties, there was a public establishment that stayed the same. It was dingy but warming, it glowed in nostalgia and an atmosphere that somehow reeled people back in,’ she says. ‘It was so fun.’ Bizarrely, the phone company O2 got involved with the campaign, tweeting: ‘Because one of our team had his first ever Jägerbomb in The Dolphin, he now calls them YAYgerbombs. #SaveTheDolphin.’

We’ll never know whether it was the support from Fassbender, the locals or, erm, O2, but in September 2014, The Dolphin won its appeal in court. Yildiz says he’ll always be grateful for the support the pub received. ‘The campaign on Twitter was so good,’ he says. ‘Thank you to the people who saved The Dolphin. They didn’t give up, they always supported us.’

Londoners are dedicated to the pub in a kind of cult-like way. In fact, over the years, some have gone way further in their commitment than just signing an online petition. Take the people who get the door stamp tattooed on their wrist. One person who knows all about this is Petra. She’d been to The Dolphin for a night out and had to fly to New York to see a client for work the next day. The stamp, famously hard to get off, even after a shower, was still on her wrist. ‘I completely forgot about it,’ she says. ‘The client saw it and remarked it was a cool tattoo.’ Petra thought about it and decided that actually, yes, it would make a great tattoo. She had it done that day. 

dolphin tattoo
Image: Time Out/Petra

Cult-like appeal

But why did Londoners feel so attached to the pub back then? And why now, even in the middle of the pandemic, can you often spot people standing outside its closed doors at 1am, looking longingly at the locked doors and shaking their heads in disbelief that it’s been shut down by the council? 

I spend months trying to answer that question, speaking to staff, current and former, as well as many, many punters. I try to unpick why it is that people love it so much. Why, in spite of the griminess, the overcrowding and seemingly wild number of accidents that happen there, they keep coming back. And, not just that, they insist on buying Yildiz drinks. (‘If I drank every time someone offered, I’d be dead.’) But no one can really tell me why. Cairney offers this analysis: ‘No one really seems to be able to put their finger on why, except for its familiarity and bonkers atmosphere.’ I talk to one of the pub’s bouncers, who asked to be referred to as Mike Michael (no, really), and he just keeps repeating the phrase: ‘Each day brings its own glory’ until finally he says: ‘A lot of people have different definitions about The Dolphin. You have to define The Dolphin yourself, that’s what I tell people.’

For those who have experienced The Dolphin, why have they developed such a strong connection to this place? Dr Lynsey Mahmood, lecturer in organisational psychology at City University London, thinks there are two contributing factors. Firstly, it’s the feeling of belonging that people experience there. ‘Fundamentally, what humans want is to belong to something. Psychologically, we associate our sense of self to people, places and objects,’ she says. She compares it to football fans who go to the match every Saturday. The people who go to The Dolphin, week in, week out, are experiencing the same sense of belonging. ‘It’s almost ritualistic,’ says Dr Mahmood.’ There are also the people who maybe aren’t regulars, but they’re drawn to this place because of the intrigue around it. ‘It becomes a bit of a cult-type thing,’ she explains. ‘There’s that kind of notoriety – you know: “Have you heard of this place?”’ 

Michael has been part of the pub’s security team for nearly ten years. As well as working on the door and keeping tabs on the number of people coming in and out, his job often involves having deep and meaningful conversations with punters, offering them advice on a tricky work situation or a messy break-up. ‘People are drunk, so you have to comfort them like babies. They just want someone to talk to. Sometimes they want a shoulder to cry on,’ he says.

the dolphin pub
Photograph: Ben Rowe

A different world

The kinds of nights The Dolphin is known for feel a world away right now. As Levin says, the pub’s dancefloor is basically the antithesis to social distancing, with ‘people literally on top of each other.’ This December, Londoners aren’t cramming themselves into a party pub for an unofficial work Christmas after-party, they’re mostly hibernating at home. In addition, it’s unclear whether the pub will get its licence back. The council confirmed to Time Out that, following a meeting on November 11 with the licensing sub-committee, the pub has had its licence revoked and, after a number of serious breaches of its licence agreement, it is currently not authorised to sell alcohol. The pub has submitted an application for a new licence, but whether it gets approved remains to be seen.

How did an unsuspecting Irish pub that dates back to the 1800s become the place for messy, ludicrous nights out? I finally put the question to Yildiz. ‘There’s something special inside The Dolphin. It’s like you’re in a different world. When people come here, they lose themselves.’ Levin agrees, something about the pub makes everything else fade away: ‘There are very few places in London, or anywhere, that are a complete leveller as much as The Dolphin,’ he says. ‘What I mean is, it really could not be less about who you are or where you’re from. It’s just about drinking and dancing to incredible, cheesy music for hours and hours. It’s about nothing else. You just forget everything. It’s far too loud to have a proper chat, it’s just being an idiot for a few hours. The Dolphin is just... beautiful mayhem.’

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