Guide: London’s Proper Boozers
They're like dive bars, without the annoying stuff
There is no shortage of pubs to explore in and around London, but “proper boozers” are a dying breed. A proper pub is a delicate thing: comfy, a little old-fashioned if not downright old, not too loud or too crowded (just loud and crowded enough). The drink selection is limited to a handful of beers. Some will have a full menu of hearty, rich food. Some will only have a few packets of crisps (bags of potato chips).
Most proper boozers will have just a few bottles of spirits behind the bar: one kind of gin, one kind of vodka, one kind of whiskey, one kind of rum. You get the idea. And don’t even think about asking for anything more complicated in your drink than tonic, orange juice or Coke. I hit the town in London armed with a few recommendations from trusted friends and an iPhone for mapping instructions and settled in for quite a few pints.
Full disclosure here, I used to live around the corner from the Bricklayer’s Arms in Putney when I was a kid. There was a pub down the street called the Star and Garter and I wanted to write about it. But when I asked if the Star and Garter was still open, I heard, “Oh it’s awful now, it’s all wine bar-red up.” And that is the problem with so many of the good, old boozers these days—gut-renovated and stripped of all the quirks and character.
The Bricklayer’s Arms, however, shut down briefly in the '90’s and was bought and gut-renovated to bring back all the old quirks the pub had accumulated, now with just slightly less bric-a-brac. A lovely, old spot with the best selection of British craft beers we came across, it’s best enjoyed sitting in front of their fireplace in low wooden chairs. Take advantage of the selection by ordering a half of the chocolate orange stout, and several other offerings available most nights. No food, though. 32 Waterman Street, Putney London SW15 1DD
The Star Tavern
When you’ve spent a long day shopping at Harrod’s and Harvey Nick’s, wandering the Victoria and Albert, strolling through Hyde Park and gawping at Buckingham Palace and you think to yourself, “I need a rest… and a drink!” wander over to The Star Tavern in Belgravia—a little way down a charming little mews street right off of Knightsbridge. Along with the requisite pints of good British bitter ales, this is also a place to order a glass of Champagne. (Do remember, good fellows, Belgravia is a posh neighborhood.)
After work the pub will be full of pinstriped City chaps with double-barreled surnames discussing their country houses and their investments. Because, this is where they live after all. But if you can find a quiet spot at the bar or a table in the main room, you’ll be all set for a few rounds. It’s a good alternative to the Bunch of Grapes, which can get crowded since it’s situated right on a busy stretch of Knightsbridge. 6 Belgrave Mews West, Belgravia, London, SW1X 8HT
There is no love lost between the British and the French, so the irony that one of Central London’s most proper of proper British boozers is actually “The French House” is pretty ripe. This spot was recommended by several bartenders as a drinking choice for Central London. When you’re wandering the busy streets around Picadilly Circus, Regent Street and Soho, or you’re about to catch a show on Shaftesbury Avenue, meander the streets to The French House.
Their collection of spirits is a little more extensive than most pubs, and a lot more French, and the menu at the bar had things like pate and saucisson—available with chips! There’s a bit of history for the history buffs too. Supposedly Charles de Gaulle spent quite a bit of time there after the fall of France in World War II, and it’s always been a literary haunt. Dylan Thomas and Brendan Behan among many others liked to drink there. 49 Dean Street, Soho, London, W1D 5BG
Cock and Bottle
We love urban legends. So when we asked some music industry friends if they knew of any proper boozers we should check out, we were immediately pointed straight to the Cock and Bottle in Notting Hill. Apparently, the owner is a lovably cantankerous Irish bloke who gets offers to sell the pub on a daily basis, but he stubbornly stays put and refuses to change a thing.
We don’t know if that’s true, but we hope it is. Cock and Bottle is located in the middle of a beautiful residential neighborhood in the ever-fashionable neighborhood made famous by a late-'90s Hugh Grant vehicle and a choice spot for residents who want to go to a place where the barmaids know what you drink and don’t care if you’re famous. If you go on the right night, you could find yourself drinking with the guys from Coldplay (make them buy you a few rounds). And Mick Jagger has been known to pop in for a pint. 17 Needham Road, Notting Hill, London, W11 2RP
The Good Mixer
Camden might not be as cool as it once was, but it will always be cooler than the coolest place you can think of anywhere. We asked around for the best spot to grab a drink before checking out a gig and a friend who used to write for the NME recommended The Good Mixer.
When we arrived, the bar staff and regulars were incredulous that anyone would recommend The Good Mixer, and everyone tried to point us to the more popular and picturesque Elephant’s Head instead. But we were just fine, thanks very much. The pub had its heyday in the 1990’s and was known as a musicians' hangout, and a favorite pub for the guys from Blur. It’s still a great place to grab a few drinks, strike up a conversation and pat the head of Dodger, the resident bar dog who likes to perch on bar stools—and the only pool table we spotted in our giant pub crawl. 30 Inverness Street, London, NW1 7HJ
Tucked away in a little alley right on the River Thames in Hammersmith is a tiny entrance to a pub that was everything we could hope for in a classic British pub. There’s a reason The Dove is on nearly every “pub guide” to London. They’ve been open since the 17th Century, so they’ve had some time to get it right. The floorboards are worn, the pub is on split levels, and it’s the kind of place residents bring some work and their dogs on a sunny afternoon and sit down with a tasty pub lunch and a drink for a leisurely few hours. It’s like a proto-Starbucks, but so much better.
A welcoming staff and a delicious menu of updated pub classics (try the crispy gog!) is to be found inside. The pub is a short walking distance to the Fuller Brewery. We actually passed the brewery on the way to the pub, and they have a great selection of some of the more unusual Fuller’s brews, and it doesn’t get any fresher! The picturesque riverside setting overlooking the Thames doesn’t hurt the ambiance one little bit. 19 Upper Mall, Hammersmith, London, W6 9TA