The best pubs can pull you in like a warm hug, are comfortable like old sneakers and can captivate you like a good book. London is a city with some of the best boozers you can find, so here’s a mix of classic places to drink, some very old, some not, but each chosen because they have that intangibly wonderful feeling of being in a classic, quintessential pub.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is an absolute beauty and one of many great pubs owned by the Samuel Smith Brewery (yes, he’s the brother of John). Walking down the narrow, dark alleyway and in through the heavy, old door makes you feel like you’ve been flung back in time. Past drinking pals might have been Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle or Dr Johnson, so you share the space with illustrious alumni. Today you should drink a classic pint of Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter.
Dating itself to around 1520, this is said to be London’s oldest riverside pub. It’s another pub in which Dickens drank, as did Samuel Pepys, and in a different era Frank Sinatra and Mohammed Ali visited. It’s a very handsome old place with a dark interior of stone floors and wooden frame, though the real reason you drink here is for the Thames-side location. Sit outside and wonder how the skyline has evolved in the six centuries that others have shared the same view as you.
What makes the Market Porter a great place is its central location to the busyness of Borough Market. Walk around looking at all the food stalls, grab something to eat then come here afterwards and choose from the large range of traditional real ales. Unusually, this pub opens from 6am-8.30am for the market traders who have worked through the night, then it closes for a few hours and re-opens at 11am.
Built in 1546, the reward for finding this pub, hidden down a narrow back alley, is a warm welcome and some good London brews made by Fuller’s, London’s oldest brewery. Two rooms on either side of the central bar, with wooden chairs worn by constant use, the food menu is all bar snacks, so have a cheese toasties with a pint of London Pride.
This pub is so old and interesting that a whole book has been written about it (Shakespeare’s Local by Pete Brown), placing it as the ever-present beating heart in the ever-changing area around London Bridge. Today the book is more interesting than the pub but you should still go to see the old galleried front, experience what a coaching inn was like, and get cosy in the small spaces throughout this place. Dickens (who else) mentions it in Little Dorrit and while there’s no firm proof, it’s fair to assume that Shakespeare drank here given its proximity to The Globe.
Another old coaching inn, this perhaps doesn’t have the same far-reaching history as others on the list, but it’s still a must-visit pub, perched on the edge of Parsons Green, and serving one of the capital’s broadest ranges of beer alongside superior pub food. The best of British beers sit next to interesting imports. Look for the large copper tanks in the corner – they are filled with unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell which is driven directly to the pub from the brewery in Plzen, Czech Republic.
You’ll never guess who drank here… With a mention in both David Copperfield and Barnaby Ridge, our old friend Dickens must’ve propped up the bar here. Another superb Samuel Smith pub, sit in the back room in small Victorian-era booths and admire the cathedral-like ceiling and old wooden barrels above the bar. Dark beer lovers should have a bottle of the velvety Oatmeal Stout.
The Old Coffee House
This place, which has 18th century origins, is in the centre of Soho and it fits on this list because there’s something wonderfully charming and traditional about it. It’s quite small, often busy, there’s a mix of decoration to match the wide variety of drinkers who visit, the TV is usually tuned to live sport, the floor is worn, the chair covers fraying, but it has the comfort of your nan’s living room and you could stay for hours. Make sure you drink the beers from Brodie’s Brewery – this is their boozer.
This place isn’t that old but it feels like it is and the experience of oldness, of it being somehow new yet timelessly old, is what you get at the Southampton Arms. Dark wooden floors, there’s a central wood-clad bar with a line of handpulls serving mostly local beer. It’s especially good on cold nights when the fire is lit and there’s a warm vibe enhanced by a piano. Like this place? Try their brother pub The Cock Tavern in Hackney Central for a similar look and feel and the bonus of a brewery in the basement.
The third Samuel Smith pub on the list (and one which Dickens didn’t drink in as it was built two years after he died), this is another which never fails to impress with its remarkable interior (and really great toilets). A Victorian pub, it was originally a gin palace and has a series of drinking areas separated by elegant etched glass and centred around an island bar. Walk throughout and find your favourite spot to hide away, but don’t neglect to look down at the mosaic-tiled floor which runs throughout, then look up and check out the ornate ceiling.
Mark Dredge is an award winning beer and food writer and Pilsner Urquell Beer Correspondent. For more information please visit http://pilsnerurquell.com/