by Andrea Duty
The tradition of the London pub is as old and storied as the city itself. Bars of all kinds have been the capital’s social hub since the days of Roman rule—shape-shifting throughout the ages into taverns, alehouses, inns and most recently, gastropubs. Sure, plenty of joints still dole out dusty bags of cheese biscuits (that’s crackers to us Americans), but the gastropub shines through as a beacon of the British food revival. Where there were once pickled eggs fished from murky jars, there are now crispy duck eggs with truffle; fried pork-fat “scratchings” have made way for venison terrines; and steak-and-ale pies have been shelved for pad thai. But don’t be fooled that these joints are just quasi-restaurants with fancy ingredients. It’s important to remember that a gastropub is, first and foremost, a pub—simply one that happens to serve quality food. And with the majority of the gastropub’s focus being on beverages and community, menus are blissfully unrestricted by theme, wide open to interpretation and free to wander the map—hopscotching from cuisine to cuisine. Here’s a crawl through some of London’s best gastropubs.
159 Farringdon Rd.
This is gastropub ground zero. Since 1991, The Eagle has been credited with bringing quality food to the pub scene, and has been buzzing with customers ever since. The once-revolutionary open kitchen prints a new menu twice daily—focusing on hearty dishes such as lentils with sausages, beef tagines and a signature steak sandwich. Service is gruff at best, but just take it as a reminder that you are, indeed, still in a pub.
The Spaniards Inn
Keats wrote poetry here, Dickens was a frequent patron and the place drips with creaky, 16th-century charm. But despite its historic notoriety, The Spaniards Inn manages to avoid gimmick and remain a true local’s hangout. On Sundays, there will be families and friends in muddy “wellies” mingling after a jaunt in nearby Hampstead Heath. They’ll alternate between the bar and the crackling fireplace—stopping every once in a while to pat a dog underfoot. Eventually, after a few pints, they’ll tuck into a classic roast of 28-day, dry-aged rib eye with Yorkshire pudding, or maybe crispy beer-battered haddock with minted, mushy peas. The menu may be full of classics at The Spaniards Inn, but these are classics done to perfection.
The Harwood Arms
27 Walham Grove
Don’t quote me on this, but I think that The Harwood Arms may be the only pub in history to lay claim to both a rousing quiz night and a Michelin star. Here, you’ll find the perfect balance of refinement and homey comfort in dishes designed to showcase local produce and wild Berkshire game. Menu items, such as treacle-cured smoked salmon with pickled apple, whiskey and watercress, and lamb neck with potato dumplings, artichokes and Gentleman’s Relish are distinctly English in character and work in harmony with the well-stocked bar of British ales and ciders.
5 Regent St.
Since emerging in the early ’90s, gastropubs have gone from cool to stale and back to cool again. And leading the recent resurgence is Parlour—a funky pub that slings bold meals throughout the day, and in more ways than just flavor. Reserving a seat at the Chef’s Table is akin to buying a ticket to a private show. Music is blasted through headphones, dessert is “painted” on the table in a Pollock-meets-Adria flurry and occasional flames burst from a blowtorch. A la carte items served from the safety of the main dining room are equally creative; the chestnut hummus is sweet and mysterious, while an orb of Chicken Kyiv seems to defy gravity. Despite the madcap performances, though, Parlour is a neighborhood spot—meaning you can still get a table. And you should.
The Churchill Arms
119 Kensington Church St.
The Churchill Arms is famous for many things. It was once the watering hole of Winston’s grandparents, its facade is bedecked with award-winning hanging flower baskets and it was the first pub to serve…Thai food. Yes, this combo is admittedly incongruous, but The Churchill Arms has turned the whole Thai-food-in-pubs thing into a wildly popular trend, and many other pubs have followed suit—confusing tourists and expats alike—by offering curry with Carlsberg. Amongst the jumble of Churchill memorabilia, flags and wicker baskets, you’ll find a menu managed by an in-house Thai family, featuring things like spring rolls, ginger-pork stir-fry and a jungle curry that begs for the cooling solace of a pint. Perhaps that’s the point.
Biscuits: Cookies or crackers
Bubble and Squeak: A dish made from boiled vegetables and potatoes
Crisps: Potato chips
Chips: French fries
Digestive: A round cookie to be dunked in tea
Faggots: Meatballs wrapped in caul fat
Fairy Cakes: Cupcakes
Gentleman’s Relish: Anchovy paste also known as patum peperium
Jelly: Jell-O (In the U.K., it’s a peanut butter and jam sandwich.)
Moreish: Any food you want to eat more of
Nose Bag: Slang for a bag of crisps one might nosh while drinking beer
Soldiers: Rectangles of toast used to dip into soft-boiled egg yolks