london pubs

The shit London pub, 2023 edition

It starts when you walk in: this Victorian building, this beauty that has survived two world wars and the better part of two centuries, has been gutted.

Strip it back to the brick. Install some off-the-peg neon signs advertising cocktails. Paint everything else grey.

Then on the bar, there’s what looks at first glance like incredible choice, until you tot it up:

  • Moretti lager (Heineken)
  • Amstel lager (Heineken)
  • Cruzcampo lager (Heineken)
  • Three Beavertown beers (Heineken)
  • London Pride (Asahi, pumpclip turned round)
  • Lager from a London brewery we’d never heard of

So you decide to try the local lager at about £7 a pint. And, yes, that’s just what things cost now, but it doesn’t even taste good. It leaves a sour taste, literally and figuratively.

You watch other people’s dinner come out and think, how do they even make burgers that small? Didn’t those used to be called ‘sliders’? And what would you call that number of chips? A garnish, perhaps.

As you sit in the corner two dogs yap at each other, intending violence, and you feel a nerve twitch in your temple. The owners don’t do anything. The bar manager doesn’t do anything. It just goes on and on and on and on and on…

So, you leave about £4.50’s-worth of acidic lager in each glass when you depart, in search of something better.

Between us, we’ve been back and forth to London a lot recently and keep ending up in pubs like this.

And perhaps we’re not alone:

Via Patreon, Alex says:

The bane of my life as a Blackfriars office worker is that people insist on, to name names, going to Harrild & Sons (bricks, handsome, soulless, and £7 Neck Oil) rather than walking to somewhere with a bit of character. I would be interested in trends behind it, as well as how far Heineken are hollowing out London.

It’s depressing because, for years, you could say that the beer in London might often be warm and flat, but at least the pubs were often atmospheric and attractive.

That feels less true today than a decade ago – though of course there are plenty of exceptions.

We know it’s probably not the publican’s fault, or at least not entirely.

Everything costs more, everything is hanging from a thread, and it’s still the case that nobody has any money.

And as one Bristol publican explained to us a few years ago, decisions about décor are often made by some far distant ‘head office’ in pursuit of this year’s hot demographic.

“They want to paint ‘Gin house’ on my outside wall,” they said, in total despair, “and I don’t even like gin.”

How can big pubcos and chains think this is sustainable?

If your pubs feel bland, miserable, and poor value, even fewer people will come through the doors.

Perhaps what’s frustrating is that it probably looks and feels like progress to them, just as every other round of blandification has for the past 60-odd years.

The interior of a modern pub with iron girders and leather seats.

On a more positive note, we were somewhat impressed by The Wapping Tavern, a brand new pub in a former industrial building not far from the river.

On paper, it’s got a lot of the same stuff going on, including yet more bare brick.

And yet, even mostly empty, it had something like atmosphere, perhaps because the building itself is old and interesting, and hasn’t been completely trashed.

There were a lot of TVs showing sport – as in, a lot – but they didn’t seem especially intrusive.

And on the beer front, it was doing more than pretending to be a craft beer bar. There was a long list of interesting keg beers and bar staff who were keen to talk about them.

As we sat there drinking Private Universe, an excellent collaboration between Elusive and Hackney Brewery, we felt quite content.

Not ripped off, not disrespected, not stressed.

That’s not a high bar, is it?

12 replies on “The shit London pub, 2023 edition”

So you’re saying you had to run for shelter, endless summer lift the curse.

Feels like nothing matters, drinking Private Universe.

You inspired me to take a look at the Wapping Tavern on Google Maps. Certainly looks lovely.

Interesting to see a photo in amongst the reviews of a blackboard listing all 28 beers (and ciders) available. They ranged from 4.0% to 5.4%. Huge brands like Guinness and Peroni and plenty of craft.

But all were priced at £6.45 per pint. Not sure I’ve ever seen a standard price like that before?

Also surprised not to see anything more adventurous available above 5.4%. Maybe in bottles or cans in fridges?

There’s a whole separate post about the drop off in availability of strong beers. A decade of people demanding more session beers, and a severely heightened sense of price awareness, will do that, maybe.

Having seen a few comments and cost analyses put out by brewers suspect the recent changes in beer duty structure will accelerate this further.

London pubs look great externally. In any other town/city there would be an expectancy of good beer and atmosphere. As you say, the experience inside is underwhelming.

You might give some thought to going to the not-shit pubs – luckily there are a few – and skipping the ones that make you miserable. Punching down is not clever, really don’t understand why you would be going to places that a few clicks would tell you aren’t going to offer what you want.

This is interesting. Why does it feel like punching down to you? We’re not in a position of authority or power; didn’t name specific pubs; and mention that it’s chains, pubcos and multinational brewers we consider to be particularly at fault.

Strikes a chord. For me, what have noticed is, over past couple of years, have been doing far fewer different London pubs than used to. Never a ‘ticker’ of pubs, but wandering along would think ‘never been in that one, let’s give it a try, what’s to lose if turns out to be shit’. Definitely increasingly sticking to my core pubs that have known for years in various areas of the city and (of course with the odd unpleasant surprise as changes in ownership/management can completely alter an establishment) am pretty confident will not cause regrets at walking through their door.

“never been in that one, let’s give it a try” Yes, exactly – you should be able to do this with a reasonable rate of success!

There are terrific pubs in Greenwich but you won’t find any in the town centre. Head east to the Pelton Arms, Plume of Feathers or River Ale House. Or head west to the Morden Arms.

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