The pillar of many a neighbourhood, the great British pub rustles up a lot more than just a good ale. ‘Locals’ are a gathering spot for after-work banter and expertly pulled pints, sure, but the best ones also offer a mean line in soul-soothing comfort foods. From nostalgic mushy peas to the acquired taste of the pickled egg, good pubs are keeping classic British dishes alive.
Don’t ask for a negroni or anything fancy in an old-school boozer (telltale signs include a swirly-patterned carpet, and bags of scampi fries behind the bar). Instead, head to the glut of public houses with creative chefs behind the stoves. The Eagle, in Clerkenwell, kick-started the gastropub trend, and still serves the capital’s best steak sandwich. You’ll find plenty of scrumptious options in all corners of London, mind – here are five of our favourites.
Forget overcooked lamb and overpowering mint sauce – championed by young inventive chefs, the classic Sunday roast is in the midst of a rightful renaissance. Beef & Brew’s handsome take (medium-rare rump, charred hispi cabbage, star-anise carrots) is a snip at £18. The proof is always in the Yorkshire pudding: the ones here are exuberantly tall and undeniably fluffy.
London department store Fortnum & Mason claims it invented this moreish picnic treat as far back as 1738. Its origin story hardly matters: wrapped in sausage meat, coated in breadcrumbs and deep-fried until golden brown, this egg is the pub snack of kings. Best washed down with a crisp cider or two, The Opera Tavern‘s version is made with morcilla blood sausage for extra kick.
Don’t be surprised if your pie takes the form of a stew with a loose pastry lid – pubs sometimes take shortcuts to avoid the dreaded soggy-bottomed crust. Anything but humble, the Camberwell Arms’ chicken and leek pie is worth the trip south of the river. Expect feather-light flaky pastry, creamy mash and garden-fresh greens, but be warned – it’s only served during the pub’s award-winning weekend lunches.
Cockney slang for ‘cash’, bangers and mash are a long-loved working-class staple. Head to the East End for a plateful of the hearty, soul-soothing stuff. Right on Columbia Road Market, the Birdcage is a restored Victorian boozer with a striking green-tile façade. You can’t go wrong with this banger: the wild boar and apple sausages are served with a buttery dollop of mash and plenty of gravy.
Bread, cheese, onions and chutney: this packed lunch was once designed to be taken to the fields. These days it’s zhuzhed up with all manner of extras (pork pies, terrines and their ilk), but increasingly hard to find. Thankfully The Clarence – the Prime Minister’s local – keeps tradition going with a platter of punchy Sussex Charmer cheese, apple slices, mustard and a sausage roll.
In smaller groups, you take it in turns to buy everyone drinks (‘a round’). Fake yawning then leaving just before your turn is considered very bad form.
Those people standing at the bar may look casual: in fact there’s an invisible, fiendishly complex queuing system in play. Wait your turn and never try to speed things up by waving a tenner at the barman.
You’re not expected to clear up after yourself, but bringing glasses back to the bar in a busy pub will get you heartfelt thanks (and sometimes generous measures) from the staff.
A classic British pub isn’t where you might expect to find a thoroughly modern, expertly done brunch. Drop in to The Royal Oak on Saturdays for freshly picked Brixham crab on English muffins with orange-yolked poached eggs and a devilled hollandaise. Or share filo-wrapped merguez with whipped feta, ’nduja Scotch eggs and a fair few Bloody Marys. It is a boozer, after all.
Where better to head for Sunday lunch than chef Tom Oldroyd’s new, grown-up Hackney pub? Start with the heady mushroom punch of a girolle vol-au-vent, bathed in a luscious reduction. Sunday roasts here come with a twist: order the wood-grilled Suffolk lamb leg, in garlic-butter gravy, followed by a soothing mirabelle mess on a bed of perfect meringue.
Fresh from a renovation, this Soho boozer is in the finest of fettle, with its aluminium bar, leather stools and highly superior bar snacks. Squeezed into the old beer cellar, a tiny restaurant awaits. Eleven seats around a low-lit marble counter overlook the kitchen. Share a pretty baked-beetroot salad, fight over the bucatini and leave room for a rich lemon tart and scoop of cherry sorbet.
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Image credits: © Birdcage; © Birdcage; © Beef & Brew; © Alamy; © The Camberwell Arms; © Shutterstock; © The Clarence; © JAMIE LAU; © Barrafina; © The Ritz; © The Royal Oak; © The Duke of Richmond; © Evelyn’s Table