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London’s historic pubs are increasingly at risk of redevelopment, but Keith Barker-Main heads to Mayfair and St James’s to find 10 of the capital’s most characterful places for a pint
It’s a sobering thought: your local shops disappear when yet another Tesco Express muscles in on the high street,
so it can’t be long before your ancient local gets elbowed out by developers. The Campaign for Real Ale recently flagged up the alarming rate at which pubs are being closed, demolished or converted into residential property. More than 200 London pubs were lost in 2006 alone.
‘Ah, but that won’t happen in the West End,’ you might say. Well, try wetting your whistle
at the Duke Of Albemarle (founded 1685), Black Lion & French Horn (1720) or Grosvenor Arms (1834), all of which were recently consigned to the history books.
Support our selection of Mayfair and St James’s pubs while you still can.
Tudor styling suggests the Coach & Horses harks back to Elizabeth I’s reign, yet the Bruton Street pub is only a few years older than our current queen, who was born only a few doors away at 17 Bruton Street. The ye olde England theme runs to wainscot panelling, dark beams, leaded glass and a quaint triangular bar. There’s a good range of whisky, while the draught beer includes London Pride and Old Speckled Hen. The Luftwaffe razed its neighbours but the Coach, miraculously, stood defiant. The street’s conversion to a parade of designer boutiques is the latest threat. Wouldn’t this make a stunning Vivienne Westwood shop?
You feel certain that stylish cad Terry Thomas is schmoozing some society dame in the rear grill at this gloriously raffish boozer, tucked down a quintessentially Mayfair mews. Office workers and cor blimey builders – and, increasingly, their eastern European equivalents – inhabit the more casual front bar, supping pints of Wells and Young’s cask-conditioned bitter (and the occasional glass of fine wine) to wash down the pub’s famous steak and kidney pie. The Guinea Grill is a golden nostalgic treat: think Leslie Phillips, Hattie Jacques and a nightingale singing in nearby Berkeley Square.
Shepherd Market was once the focal point of the bucolic May Fairs that gave the most expensive square on the Monopoly board its name. This bow-windowed tavern’s dark red ground-floor bar is popular with locals and tourists alike. London Pride, Adnams and Bombardier head the ales, while the wine list includes the usual suspects plus weighty Rhônes and Burgundies by the glass. Former patron Alfred Hitchcock would find little changed in the cedar wood-panelled dining room, serving classics such as honey-glazed ham and roast beef with all the trimmings.
Greene King IPA, Broadside and Bombardier star at this traditional Georgian public house,
re-accoutred in a Victorian village inn style. We understand its quiet Mayfair location will be quieter still since locals managed to curtail al fresco evenings. The down-home ambience once attracted royalty, and Tom Jones named it his favourite London boozer. There’s a burger-and-pie-leaning bar menu and grown-up options such as Dover sole and Gressingham duck in the more formal dining room.
Brilliant-cut mirrors and etched glass are only two of the attractions at this high-Victorian dazzler, a contender for London’s best-looking boozer. Squeeze in its polished mahogany bar and drink up the atmosphere, along with a pint of Hook Norton Old Hooky, Timothy Taylor Landlord or London Pride. Built in 1821, the look dates back to 1870 – or ‘only yesterday’, as we heard a regular say to an awe-struck American couple. Designed to give the downstairs staff of local mansions a taste of upstairs life, even the house Champagne, Laurent-Perrier at £25, is priced for proletarian pockets.
Why so many Red Lions? In an era when most drinkers were illiterate, it was James I, an early branding guru, who decreed that the Stuart coat of arms be adopted by publicans throughout the recently united kingdoms of Scotland and England. Current tankard fillers at this lion include Adnams and Bass on tap or Stella Artois for lager lovers, while whisky buffs will appreciate a notable selection. We like it for its old-school charms and a feeling that it cocks a snook at the spreadsheet obsessions of corporate roundheads. That message is not lost on latter-day cavaliers, who gather here on the last Saturday in January to mourn the 1649 execution of Charles I at Whitehall Palace.
Scott’s seafood restaurant is not the only player on Mount Street. The former Bricklayers Arms changed its name to The Audley and re-emphasised its grand Victorian charms. A pinkish terracotta tiled exterior, crimson lincrusta and ornate plasterwork ceilings, rococo crystal chandeliers, carved mahogany bar and original display clock are among the fine surviving features. Its windowpanes are more recent: an IRA attack on Scott’s blew out the old ones. There’s a more than adequate wine list, plus Bombardier, Greene King IPA, London Pride and regularly rotated guest ales. English carvery and pub classics such as beer-battered cod or sausage and mash are the popular choice to eat for a mixed crowd of local workers and tourists.
Given that so many pubs claim to have served her, actress/model Nell Gwynne must have been what ye olde News Of Ye Worlde might have called a binge-drinking hen. Nowadays, she’d no doubt tank up on
Timothy Taylor’s Landlord or London Pride with Gordon’s gin chasers at this long-standing bow-fronted tavern. Its current incarnation dates from 1900, but punters have been drinking here since
1762: Napoleon III did, as did luvvie lushes Lillie Langtry and Oscar Wilde in the Theatre Bar, named after the next-door St James’s Theatre demolished in 1957. The drama continues, however, as a
ghost of a barmaid murdered by a former landlady reputedly
stalks The Golden Lion’s staircase.
Frequented by Savile Row tailors, gallery staff and media types, this is as close as you’ll get
to finding a local in the heart of the West End. A candlelit bar, downstairs lounge and upstairs dining room are done out in tasteful Victoriana. The Windmill is a Young’s house, so the quality of the beer is assured, and wines range from £14 New Worlds to a classy Gevrey-Chambertin at £47. Superior sarnies, gourmet deli nosh and trad Brit staples include a three-time-UK-champion steak and kidney pie that moved Times restaurant critic Giles Coren to name The Windmill his favourite pub.
So seductive is Shepherd Market’s jumble of paved alleyways that you’ll want to linger. Enjoy a pint of Timothy Taylor Landlord or London Pride at Ye Grapes. Despite the area’s former notoriety as a hotbed of prostitution, this Victorian boozer is a respectable affair with a pleasantly lived-in feel to it, where bunches of carved grapes fight for prominence with period curios and assorted taxidermy. Warm yourself by the fire in winter, or spill out onto the courtyard with summer’s early evening throng. The noise is nowhere near as intolerable these days, but in 1764, local Nimby the Earl of Coventry was so disturbed by the May Fair’s drunken rabble and bawdy behaviour that he had the whole shebang closed.
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Spring 2007