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London's Gastropubs

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By Malcolm Jolley

It's becoming widely known that Britain is in the middle of a good food revolution. From Jamie to Nigella to Gordon, the world watches English celebrity chefs and London now has more Michelin stars than Paris. But there are few examples of culinary innovation that we can firmly say come from Albion, with the shining exception of the gastropub. And London, with its booming population of young professionals, is where it all began and where the gastropub continues to thrive. I've been lucky enough to visit quite few of them, and have been glad to have enjoyed the marriage between the pleasures of drinking a real ale in an English pub and savouring the new style, simple British cuisine.

First things first: what exactly is a gastropub? One of two things, as far as I can reckon: either 1) it's an old neighbourhood local that's beefed up its menu and started serving things like rocket or steak Tartare, or 2) it's a casual, no table cloths, restaurant with a bar in it. The second brings up a point worth making, to understand the gastropub's appeal. Restaurants still carry with them a European air of formality on the right side of the pond. While North American's are used to a bar in every dining establishment (a hold over from the tavern and saloons of pioneer days, perhaps), it's a bit of an oddity in Old Blighty - or was. Many gastropubs fulfill this sort of casual neighbourhood restaurant role, or might be compared to a French bistrot - a real one - or brasserie. One of the fun things about visiting a gastropub is it usually means getting off the tourist's beaten track, and offers a chance to observe London life from the perspective of a local. Anyway, what unties all of them is casually served good food, and good drinks: real ale and a decent wine list. I've enjoyed myself in all the ones listed below.

The first gastropub ever to be so proclaimed is in Clerkenwell, a neighbourhood just east of Bloomsbury and north of The City that's becoming very hot. The Eagle is a hop and a skip away from the offices of The Guardian newspaper, and it remains the haunt of the scribes of Britain's left-leaning broadsheet. Perhaps the influence of Guardian writers like Nigel Slater and Hugh Fearnsley-Whittingstall have kept up standards. It's fun for a late lunch and a pint or two after on the hopes of some juicy journalist eavesdropping. Not far away is Exmouth Market, where the Spanish deli Brindisi sells wonderful things, but if you head south you'll find The Jerusalem, which is not technically a gastropub, but is a wonderful old pub which serves ales from the St. Peter's Brewery in Sussex. If you go in the evening it will be spilling onto the street with a mix of pinstripe suited City workers and neighbourhood hipsters. From there it's a short walk to St. John, which is currently in strong competition for my favourite restaurant in the world. Chef Fergus Henderson is famous for his modern advancement of nose to tail eating, and overseas simple, yet bold takes on traditional English dishes, with an emphasis on the nasty bits. St. John is not technically a gastropub, but by great London restaurant standards, it's not overly expensive and the room, which was once a smokehouse serving next door Smith field Meat Market, is Spartanly adorned, that I think it catches that spirit. The marrow bone with parsley salad must be ordered. Also the smoked eel. Further east in Shoreditch, which is becoming a very hot neighbourhood, as the city's East End gentrifies, is The Rivington. The Rivington's kitchen is right in tune with the new emphasis on local and seasonal foods. If you're headed that way, a few pints at The Ten Bells in White Chapel, where Jack The Ripper was thought to have preyed on the customers is good fun, though there is nothing gastro going on there.

Primrose Hill is a lovely leafy neighbourhood north of the touristy parts of London, and is home to stars like Kate Moss. It's also home to two great gastropubs on the same street. I haven't eaten at The Lansdowne, but I had a lovely pint on one of the picnic tables placed outside in case of rare London sunshine. For what it's worth my neighbour's plate looked delicious: a proper steak and chips. The interior is all about big wooden tables and is lit by great windows which overlook Gloucester Avenue's Victorian rows. Further down the street, near the Regent's Canal is The Engineer, which is an old converted pub, with a fantastic old bar with taps, and a menu of seasonal, local foods with an Asian accent (sounds weird, but it's not) and a few English wines on its list, like Chapel Down. When I had lunch on their very pretty patio last summer, I was surrounded by lingering office types, who were clearly stretching the meaning of a marketing meeting to order another bottle of wine. My wife and I took their cue and lingered ourselves, glad to take a break from pounding the pavement.

32 Great Queen Street is a long narrow room with a very log bar on one side in Covent Garden. It's packed and will generally require reservation. The menu is simple British/French, with a good wine list full of bargains from less well known regions in France and Spain. 32 Great Queen reverberates with noisy big city energy, which makes it a lot of fun. Further west, past the touristy core is The Admiral Codrington in South Kensington. The "Cod" as it is colloquially known has a great old wood bar in it's middle. Great for brunch or whiling away an hour in the afternoon. Not too far away to the north in Campden Hill is The Windsor Castle, a wonderful old and quirky pub dating from the 1830s. Good old fashioned English food, and fantastic wood decor make this pub a cozy hangout: prefect to bring a book.

The Havelock Tavern is in Brook Green, in between Notting Hill and Shepherd's Bush. It's on a quiet residential street, and its publicans take pride in remaining a true pub, and not "a restaurant in a pub building". This means it's cash only and you get up and order from the bar. The food is foodie-forward: monkfish cheeks with chilli dipping sauce rather than the standard fish and chips, but the atmosphere is purely local neighbourhood. On a weekend at lunch there are strollers parked around the bare wooden tables, and more than one newspaper opened. The Havelock is the perfect expression of this new English way of enjoying the best food and drink in a relaxed atmosphere. It works, and it's a delicious way to see London, if you have the time or are willing to make it.

Click here for Gremolata's London Travels page.


I know it's horribly provincial of me, but there are some folks in Toronto doing this vibe 'right'. The Dizzy in Roncesvalles has got it largely sorted out (while all the while balancing the need to keep a couple dozen large screen tvs solidly fixed on sporting events, for the folks propping up the bar). By all reports Jenn (previously of Cobalt fame) has racked up a good one at the old Cocktail Molotov on Dundas.

I'm hungry now.
Post Reply By paul on 11/27/2008 1:24:34 PM

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