The traditional London pub – or “old-fashioned boozer”, a phrase that could describe both the hostelry and The Gannet himself – is rapidly becoming an endangered species. Those that look after both their customers and their beer, however, seem to be thriving.
There are some gems in the centre of town. My regular haunts include The Ship & Shovell, near Charing Cross, which unusually comprises two pubs, separated by an alley; and the ornately Victorian Red Lion, in St James’s, where hearty food – sausage and mash and sticky toffee pudding – complements Fuller’s ales.
Many classic pubs, however, have struggled to survive. Some have become gastropubs – many of them in reality restaurants occupying, like hermit crabs, the shells of dead taverns – but others still serve British pub food alongside foaming brews from the handpumps.
The Andover Arms is a Tardis of a pub in a sleepy Hammersmith backstreet. Its modest exterior belies a dining room-cum-bar that, from midday until 9pm on Sundays, serves gargantuan roasts to appreciative locals, including me. I invariably order beef, roasted medium-rare, perfumed with garlic and thyme, on which I dollop a fierce quantity of horseradish, but you might order lamb shoulder with rosemary, or crisp-skinned pork belly with home-made apple chutney. Trimmings include Yorkshire puddings – crisp but not frazzled – and, of course, lashings of gravy. Service is swift and friendly, and they keep a fine pint of Fuller’s London Pride; you are strongly advised to book.
Of the other slices of old London still on offer in licensed premises, none are meatier than those in the steak, kidney and mushroom pie on the bar menu at The Guinea, just off Berkeley Square. Its new landlord, Oisín Rogers, who managed The Ship in Wandsworth and had a hand in restoring it to its former glory, has wisely left the woody, cheerily Victorian decor alone; and the pies are better than ever.
Top-notch skirt steak is simmered in an unctuously rich gravy with a gentle tang of kidney, its pastry emerging from the oven as a flaky, golden crust. The Guinea Grill (pictured), the pub’s restaurant, offers pies too, as well as London-cured smoked salmon, ox cheeks on toast, Aberdeenshire steaks and Dover sole in its clubby, wood-panelled dining room.
A forkful of pie, a swig of Young’s Special, and you could easily be back in the London of Mr Pickwick and Dr Johnson – as the latter once observed, “There is in London all that life can afford.” And we can all afford £11 for a three-times National Champion pie.