Classic Pubs in Posh London

Meeting up with friends at the weekend we decided that, instead of trawling round the usual haunts from our post-student days, we’d take the opportunity to test out another section of Green & White’s Guide to London Pubs from 1968.

With a plan to catch the last train out of Lon­don back to Bris­tol we did­n’t want to stray too far from Padding­ton and so picked the sec­tion enti­tled ‘Chelsea’ which includes The Vic­to­ria not far from the West Coun­try ter­mi­nus. Based on a review of the pubs’ own web­sites, and pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ences with this kind of exer­cise, our expec­ta­tions were fair­ly low.

The book's map of Chelsea.

We went first to a pub we did know, The Star Tav­ern in Bel­gravia, where we used to drink occa­sion­al­ly even before we start­ed blog­ging, when we both worked in West­min­ster. Green & White say:

The Star Tav­ern… is one of the hand­somest pubs in Lon­don, both out­side and in, con­tem­po­rary with its sur­round­ings. It is a fine Geor­gian mews pub (a rare Fuller’s house in this part of Lon­don) built on gen­er­ous lines and – being away from the hurly-burly of the main roads or busi­ness areas – free from that mad­den­ing tidal crowd which packs more cen­tral pubs at lunchtime and evening open­ing.… The Star is the kind of place you might expect to run into James Bond, and if he is not famil­iar with the pub, he should be.

Approach­ing The Star is still mag­i­cal, through a stuc­coed arch and over cob­bles, and into the pub­’s warm trac­tor beam glow. Inside it felt approx­i­mate­ly (runs cal­cu­la­tions) 32 per cent less ‘authen­tic’ than we recall it, hav­ing appar­ent­ly had a vis­it from Fuller’s cor­po­rate style police. But there were still plen­ty of nor­mal peo­ple knock­ing back pints (“They get a lot of but­lers and door­men in,” some­one said at one point) and the over­all feel was of a secret refuge, espe­cial­ly in the implied snug by the counter. Fuller’s ESB tast­ed as good as we’ve ever had it, with the qual­i­ty of the Lon­don Pride not far behind.

Door at The Antelope.

Next, we made a brief detour to The Ante­lope – not in the 1968 book but also in a mews and with sim­i­lar ‘clas­sic’ sta­tus – to pick up anoth­er of our mates. This pub, too, was stun­ning­ly cute. In this part of town, in 2017, it ought to have gone full grey-paint-gas­tro but, no, it was dark, well-worn, sparkling and inti­mate, all cor­ners, cub­by­holes, ale and gin. The beer (more Fuller’s) was great there, too.

Back on track we pushed on to The Nag’s Head which upped the ante con­sid­er­ably. How is this pub real? With its Adnams ale and creak­ing floor­boards it feels as if it’s been trans­plant­ed from South­wold or per­haps more specif­i­cal­ly the South­wold of 1985. Or maybe it’s a film set? It is tat­ty in the best sense with an eccen­tric lay­out which means you can find your­self sit­ting below the lev­el of the bar star­ing at a rack of knives under a sag­ging union jack, or next to a vin­tage end-of-pier pen­ny slot machine by a roar­ing Vic­to­ri­an range. NO MOBILE PHONES say the signs but nobody – not the cou­ple snog­ging intense­ly at the bar or the mous­ta­chioed bloke in mul­ber­ry-coloured waist­coat and bow-tie doing a cross­word – looked as if they par­tic­u­lar­ly want­ed to.

The Nag's Head.

The Wilton Arms a few doors along was a com­par­a­tive let-down being too bright and too Shep­herd Neame, with Spit­fire at its nail-pol­ish-remover worst. Even so it was rammed and row­dy with more gen­uine pub char­ac­ter than many oth­ers in Lon­don – a mir­a­cle con­sid­er­ing the ster­ile acres of pris­tine man­sions for absen­tee mil­lion­aires that sur­round it.

Sad­ly The Grenadier, the clas­sic of clas­sics, was closed for pub­lic order rea­sons (there is a Christ­mas fair in the park near­by and the author­i­ties are appar­ent­ly con­cerned that peo­ple will stag­ger to the pub from there and cause trou­ble for the well-to-do mews dwellers) so we fin­ished with one more in the Star. There the whole par­ty sat in qui­et amazement.“I can’t believe I’ve nev­er been to any of these pubs before,” said our mate, a born-and-bred Lon­don­er who has been to Italy more times than he’s been to Bel­gravia.

It is odd, giv­en that these pubs are rec­om­mend­ed in the 1968 guide, the 1973 edi­tion, many edi­tions of the Good Beer Guide, Roger Protz’s 1981 rar­i­ty Cap­i­tal Ale, and so many oth­ers. Per­haps it’s because we’ve all been trained to assume the worst – that what was good 30 years ago must almost inevitably be either gone or gone to rot today, and that Lon­don in par­tic­u­lar Ain’t Wot it Used to Be. But here, in these mews pubs at least, pro­tect­ed from the real world by the sheer weird­ness of West Lon­don, there’s some kind of per­sis­tence.

If you haven’t been, and espe­cial­ly in the run up to Christ­mas when twinkly and twee is in order, do treat your­self.

11 thoughts on “Classic Pubs in Posh London”

  1. Oh man – I for­got about The Nag’s Head, I haven’t been there in years and I think that might have some­thing to do with that fact that on the rare occa­sion I’ve dropped in I end­ed up drink­ing so much Broad­side that I did­n’t know where I was any longer.

  2. I won­der if there are any oth­er places where the clas­sic pubs iden­ti­fied fifty years ago would still be most­ly there and well worth vis­it­ing today. Edin­burgh, maybe.

    1. Could you list these pubs with their address­es and post­codes please?
      As an aid to find­ing them!

  3. I’ve had a hypoth­e­sis for a while that cer­tain parts of Lon­don – the well-heeled and/or high foot­fall Zone 1 parts – are quite good at sus­tain­ing traditional/old man/classic/characterful pubs sim­ply because peo­ple will drink there regard­less on account of loca­tion, so any “grey-paint-gas­tro” makeover would be redun­dant.

  4. The grenadier was a godaw­ful tourist trap with bare­ly any beer when I was there last. Does Green King pro­duce any­thing drink­able?

  5. The pub­li­can at the Nag’s Head is a clas­sic bloke. A year ago my wife and son and I decid­ed to go to Lon­don dur­ing our Amer­i­can Thanks­giv­ing. My son want­ed to pick up a Har­rod’s Christ­mas bear for his girl­friend’s daugh­ter. We went to the Nag’s Head for a pint after­wards. We sat on the padded bench near the win­dow. As I was get­ting the pints, my son put his coat on the bench before he sat down. The bar­tender yelled, “Hang up your f’ing coat, this isn’t Aus­tralia!” I have been going to this pub since 1999, and this bar­tender has been bark­ing at cus­tomers since at least 2002. Hilar­i­ous!

  6. My late hus­band ‘Arry and I met with Tony White and Mar­tin Green at the Admi­ral Mann, a MacMullen’s house in Ken­tish Town on August 30th, 1973. The occa­sion was the gath­er­ing of those peo­ple who had writ­ten in to the pub­lish­ers of the Evening Stan­dard Guide to Lon­don Pubs (1973 edi­tion) nam­ing the fic­ti­tious pub in that book. ‘Arry’s claim was the first one received, fol­lowed by two or three oth­ers. It was a real­ly good evening but not so good the day after when we missed our train to Chester for a long week­end explor­ing the pubs there. How­ev­er the evening was also mem­o­rable for two oth­er things. One was learn­ing about the exis­tence of CAMRA. (We attend­ed our first meet­ing a month lat­er at the Express Tav­ern in Kew, still a thor­ough­ly good booz­er) . The oth­er was meet­ing the authors, Tony White in par­tic­u­lar. We sub­se­quent­ly met with him for a cou­ple of pub crawls . He sim­ply oozed pubs, loved them and their his­to­ry with a pas­sion. It was a huge shock when we learnt of his death aged only 45 in Jan­u­ary 1974, the result of a bro­ken leg from play­ing foot­ball.

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