Pubs in residential areas tend to fall into two categories. The first resemble static caravans and service overspill-estates. Generally, unless you’re 6’3”/250lb, you wouldn’t walk through the door of one without being prepared to leave via a window. In the other are those extraordinarily charming, terraced backstreet nirvanas that blend in so seamlessly that the only clue they’re there at all is their softly illuminated, gently swaying, come-hither signage. The kind of place, as I once heard a wise man say – Richard Stilgoe was it ? – about which telling someone is like boasting you know how to find it.
A few streets back from Angel tube, the Charles Lamb is a boozer that knows its business. Marketed as a Pub and Kitchen (read ‘booze’ and ‘nosebag’), it’s unpretentious – there’s no accounting for everybody that uses it – has been appointed classically and with excellent taste, and then split aesthetically and spatially down the middle. Always busy and atmospheric, the range of product on offer in this pub is pound for pound about as good as I’ve seen and the wide-ranging demographic in attendance is testament to its appeal.
Immediately of note, particularly during the colder months, are the warm spiced cider and the mulled wine. Both well-considered crowd -pleasers and pertinently, for those with a healthy, well-meant enjoyment of a mixed clientele, both pleasers of crowds of women. Smart move. Another real asset is the expertly assembled wine list which features at its head the Charles Lamb’s own cuvee, sourced directly from French producers as a conscientious move to curtail rising wholesale prices. This represents terrific value as the cornerstone of an all-European portfolio, among which a guest is normally available by the glass.
Along the bar is a balance of everything you might reasonably expect in the way of lager, as well as a couple of continental options you might not. In the way of beer, not every hand pump is in operation at all times, but the stock real ale tends to be Dark Star’s Hophead – a lightly floral example of a style largely responsible for that drink’s recent resurgence – and it’s always in cracking nick. Ideal for chasing down a ramekin of roasted almonds or wasabi peas. Or chilli crackers.
The cooking here is honest and the food’s really bloody decent. Simple but not plain, thoughtful but not over-elaborate, the menu has a French-flavour and for London is very sensibly priced. Above all though, and I love this about it; it’s tight. There’s choice without there being too much to think about. A handful of Starters, half a dozen Mains, four or five Desserts. From examples such as potted crab with aioli and toast (£5.50), through lamb sausages with lentils and crème fraiche (£10.50), to a custard tart (£4.50), it’s all deadly. This is a great thing for two reasons. One, it doesn’t distract from the fact that this is, unmistakably, a Pub. Two, by keeping it compact they’re indirectly reaffirming a duty to their customers and their responsibility as a Kitchen to supply fresh food. They can and will allow themselves, just occasionally, to sell out of a dish or two. Leave them hungry. Besides, the enormous quiche flaunting itself on the back bar and the lazy susan of sausage rolls and pasties under your nose are available either hot or cold. With ketchup. So get stuck in and have another pint. And get me one while you’re there.
If I had to take issue with the menu itself, it would be to say that it can often require too close scrutiny in order to determine precisely what’s what on it. Make no mistake; I appreciate a blackboard. But they’re a means to clearly and concisely deliver information. If it’s your only means, presentation (this one isn’t brilliantly written) and positioning (just inside the door) are key, particularly in a place as crowded as the Lamb gets. Given I’m often a few sheets by the time I come to order mine invariably it couldn’t matter less to me. But I do know there are punters who can be reticent to approach the oche, especially if either the board or its vantage point encroaches on others people's dancing space. It can be a private matter deciding what to eat, and taking the floor can be daunting enough without getting in anyone else’s hair.
I do recall also thinking that the CL’s last Christmas party menu trod all too precariously the line between keeping it tight and almost missing a trick. It’s an art, sure, and in no way should any establishment feel an obligation to its offer. I would worry, however, that by opting to overlook the traditional rather than simply get creative around it I might just dissuade an office collective with a budget that’s otherwise ready to party. No turkey ? No chocolate ? Enough said…
In terms of rough and smooth, mind you, that’s all I’ve got. The pub’s owners know exactly what they want this place to be. The temptation, particularly in this part of town, to try be all things to all people must be enormous. The decision to set your gastronomic parameters to those things you know for certain you can do consistently well, whilst appearing simply to be common sense is therefore, I think, two things. It’s bravely reserved, and it’s confidence inspiring to consumers who, in uncertain times, just want something they can rely on. People, I give you the Charles Lamb.