Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Harp correctly named best pub in Britain

It couldn't happen to a nicer pub. The superb Harp in Covent Garden, handy for Trafalgar Square tourists and Charing Cross commuters alike, has today become the first London pub to be named CAMRA's National Pub of the Year. Whether it was the excellent and ever-changing selection of great beers, the unbeatable level of service or the all-round, constant hum of good feeling that flows through the place that swung the judges, this is a hugely deserved accolade for Binny and the gang. I recommend an urgent visit for a taste of this delightful place, the best of all possible pubs.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

All together now

Taking up an issue is a dangerous business these days. Express mild annoyance at some aspect of the world and next thing you know you're being kettled until past closing time. But someone's got to do it, which is why it's worth raising a hat to beer-enthusiast-about-town Rupert Ponsonby and restaurateur Mark Hix, who this week launched Britons Backing Beer, at a time when launching a campaign could easily see you married to an undercover copper without knowing it.

To be fair, "campaign" might be putting it a bit strongly. The initiators themselves describe it as "a coming-together" or even a "non-campaign", the general aim of which is to bring those involved or interested in beer together to create a kind of surge towards increasing awareness of its delights and countless styles. Whatever you call it, that's a noble cause, and the surge was launched in suitably classy style at Hix's basement bar in Soho, with a variety of beer-favouring celebs - such as Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet, now a confirmed brewer, fello muso Alex James and TV chef Valentine Warner - and a jolly crowd of barley farmers, brewers, politicos and bloggerati.

There's been a wide and welcome rise in interest in and appreciation of good beer over the last decade or so. The days when pubs could happily feature just one tap of uncared-for ale appear to be receding, and any leading-edge restaurant that fails to offer at least the beginnings of a beer list will win few friends. But the  non-campaigners argue that there needs to be a push among those who care about beer to cement this broader understanding and put beer where it belongs in the national consciousness. As Ponsonby puts it, "Beer massively underplays its strengths. It so often adopts the meekness and humility of the Trappist monk, rather than the voluble style of the opera diva. And whereas wine has pride and verve and a language which adds value to its category, we expect the future of beer to grow of its own accord. Beer is often left to speak for itself."

It's a good point and a worthy (non-)campaign, deserving of attention and worth keeping an eye out for. I would point you to a website, but there isn't one. That should keep the authorities guessing.

Monday, 8 November 2010

In praise of gastros

For some purists, if a pub serves any food more elaborate than three flavours of crisps or, for special occasions, slippery eggs fished out of a jar of pre-war brine, then it's not really a pub. The presence of flavoursome meals and cutlery, the argument runs, is a desecration of a sacred institution, worthy of derision, boycott and, worst of all, the terrible label of gastro, the pub purist's equivalent of accusing someone of drinking lager.

It's true that some instances of gastrofication are, in effect, restaurants taking over pubs, with the existing premises remaining but the atmosphere and experience being totally transformed so that if you're after a drink and a chat you'd be better off at Starbucks. But such cases are relatively few. Far more often, providing good food and the space in which to eat it does nothing to diminish a pub's character and welcome to non-diners, while doing a lot to boost the pub's chances of survival without any appeal to the local community or the government, which is surely a good thing. And, rather than, as is often the complaint, the offering for non-diners being reduced, my experience is that it usually improves, with a better selection of beers and greater attention to their condition.

Take the Anglesea Arms, tucked away in a residential street on the borders of Hammersmith and Shepherd's Bush. Reportedly one of the earliest gastro-pubs in West London, it should in theory be a hostile and unrewarding environment for the visitor with nothing but a thirst. Instead, it offers a small range of excellent beers, with regular changes of guest ales, and a pint of Harveys Sussex Best I had on a recent visit was in superb shape. The staff are friendly, the atmosphere is cosy and easy, and there's plenty of room to sit and drink and talk all evening without any hint of pressure to order hand-fed octopus in maple syrup with sun-dried chitterlings. Yes, a pub going gastro can mean a few changes. But if they're the kind of changes that create a place like the Anglesea, there's nothing to complain about.


Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Last orders at the Wenlock?

There's no shortage of fine pubs about the place, but within that number there's a handful that are nearly mythical in their fabulousness. Is there a pub that sits almost on the beach in the shadow of Golden Cap in Dorset? Yes there is. Is there a pub hidden away by a canal in Staffordshire where jugs of beer are carried up from the cellar by the umpteenth generation of the same family? There is indeed. Is there one in the heaving heart of North London that dispenses probably the widest and most interesting variety of beers on the planet? Yes, but maybe not for long.

The Wenlock Arms is mythical not only due to the quality and variety of its beers, the thickness of its sarnies and its rare atmosphere, but also because its very existence seems pretty unlikely. As you turn off City Road and make your way down a dim, quiet and faintly unsettling street, the chance of finding one of the world's finest pubs seems slim. But it's always there in the end, a warmly lit jewel with more levels of delight than a blogpost has space to describe.

But, after 16 years of doing the world a very big service, the owners of the Wenlock have decided they've done their bit and are selling up. And hats off to them. But the question is what happens now. The pub sits in a corner of London that, being close to the centre of things and graced with a network of canals, has undergone intense development in recent times. Things have slowed a little in the last couple of years, but the Wenlock is a site that must have developers licking their chops.

Whether the Wenlock remains a pub or not appears to be up in the air, and some concerned locals have valiantly begun a campaign to try and ensure that it does. Whichever way it goes, it's worth heading down there sharpish for a taste of this genuinely unique place. It may be your last chance, and if it's not, it's an opportunity to tell future punters how you remember it in the old days, and that's always worth taking.