Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Pub Crawl

This morning I reunited with my personal trainer and signed up for twelve more sessions with him.  A week of eating London pub food will do that to a person.  

One of the highlights of our London vacation was visiting the various public houses that are everywhere to be found in the city.  Most are charming and serve hearty - albeit not extremely healthy - dishes.  Fish and chips were the fave of my husband, and I was happy to discover the cheese ploughman.  

We exhibited great restraint and ate the super-fantastic, over-the-top savory full English breakfast only once during our stay in the city, and it was on our last day that we ate it.  Good stuff!

The following is a list of some of the places we stopped in for a pint and/or a bite, in quasi-chronological order: 

The Silver Cross - Trafalgar Square

While walking through the city on our first night, we wandered into the Silver Cross for our first pint in London. Friendly and roomy with creaky old floors, the Silver Cross provided the perfect place to rest during our long walk.

Prince of Wales Pub - Kensington
This pub is located a short distance from our hotel.  The atmosphere there is friendly enough, but the interior is too brightly lit, and the ladies' room is a small, dirty stall.  I liked that two English gentlemen shared our big table with us even though neither party made eye contact or spoke to the other.  A group of youngsters came in, sporting JMU sweatshirts and baseball caps, but barely looked old enough to drink legally.  Marc and I had a chuckle because of our Virginia connections - Marc grew up in Richmond; I lived in different cities in Virginia during various stages of my life.

The Goat Tavern - Kensington
Even closer to our hotel than Prince of Wales Pub, The Goat was one of my faves, even after reading unfavorable reviews.  It's a comfy old place that's been there for three hundred years.  The bartender was a friendly chap or bloke or mate, and the food was good.  Marc insists that the reason I liked the Goat so much was because of the picture of the goat on the sign outside, but that's only partly true.

Churchill Arms - Kensington
This quintessential pub was listed No. 2 on Kensington's Pubs and Cafes list in the DK Top 10 London guide.  It's a huge, old, dark, cozy place that actually serves Thai food, which we didn't eat since we were just there for the beer. There were chamber pots and other bric-a-brac hanging from the ceiling, almost to the point where you couldn't see the ceiling itself.  I enjoyed reading the newspaper articles describing team cricket games and flower contests.  The flowers decorated not only the entrance of the Churchill Arms but the ladies' room as well.  Live potted plants and butterfly stickers filled the ladies' room, and the room was fresh and fragrant (the men's room, according to Marc, not so much).  Nevertheless, it was a fine place to raise a pint with my husband. The Churchill Arms is what comes to my mind when someone says "pub."

The Plough - Bloomsbury
Steps away from the British Museum, this pub looked small upon entering, but it actually had plenty of seating, including a dining area upstairs.  The staff is friendly, especially the bartender who helped us identify the proper coins for payment.  (I remain confused by British money; more on that later.)  This was Marc's first experience with "mushy peas" - quite tasty!  They looked like green mashed potatoes, but they were actually pureed peas.  The Plough, coincidentally, was also where I ate my first cheese ploughman, and I was hooked.  It's a simple sandwich, really - grated cheddar, tomatoes, read leaf lettuce, "pickle" (more like a relish) on a seven-grain "bloomer" - but I fell in love instantly.  I think I had three more cheese ploughmans (ploughmen?) before we left London. 

The Albert Pub - Buckingham Gate
During our meandering walk from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace, Marc and I happened upon the Albert.  I'm a sucker for hanging baskets.  This bustling, not-too-crowded Victorian watering hole was the perfect place to rest our weary foot bones. Like most of the pubs we encountered in London, the Albert was sprawling; additional seating could be found in a room behind the bar, and more formal dining was upstairs.  I remember navigating the tight spiral staircase with green tile steps and a wrought-iron bannister to find the restrooms.  

The Gloucester Arms - Kensington
This place is, well, it's a bit of a dump.  But I loved going there.  It may have been a little run down, but in a charming way.  I enjoyed my "jacket potato" (what the English call a baked potato) with beans and cheese; Marc had the Chicken Kiev, which, interestingly enough, is not from the Ukranian capital. Situated in a round-fronted building in Kensington, the Gloucester Arms seemed to have fewer tourists than the other places we'd been.  It had a "locals" feel to it; the same older gentleman with a stack of newspapers was holding court with a couple of men both times we visited.  This is also the place where I saw a man mistakenly walk into the ladies' room.  When he came out a few moments later, he had a confused look on his face.  

The Minories - Tower Hill
Marc and I had lunch here before touring the Tower of London.  Built under a bridge, the Minories's ceiling was an arch of brick.  It was big and cavernous and looked to be a dance place by night.  The music that was playing didn't match the music videos on the handful of flat screen TVs scattered above the bar.  Lunch was decent:  I had the tuna and cucumber sandwich, but it came on white bread even though I asked for wheat.  I would've complained, but since it took so long for the food to arrive in the first place, I wasn't about to wait any longer for them to correct their mistake.  Marc had the chicken Caesar salad wrap and said that it was good, but not remarkable.  I must confess that I was rude to an English woman as she walked by our table and asked about my food.  As I lifted up the white bread of my sandwich, revealing the tuna underneath, the woman looked at my plate and asked, in a very excited and breathy way, if I were having salmon.  Looking at her as if she were crazy, I told her it was tuna and didn't engage her in further conversation.  Afterward, I felt bad about not being nice to her, but I can't stand it when people look at my food.

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese - City of London
My all-time favorite pub name.  After reading about this place in Rick Steves' London 2008 and DK Top 10 London, I knew I had to go there!  This old, dark, creaky, musty, multi-roomed pub has been standing on Fleet Street since 1667. It is truly a gem. We sat in a small, dark room with a fireplace and a bar that extended the width of the room on one side.  Two tables and a long wrap-around bench occupied the other side.  Despite having a window above the bench, the room was still considerably dark.  I didn't like the fact that there were young hooligans playing cards in the alley by the side entrance.  Although they were loud outside, they were respectful when they came in to buy pints. It's ironic for me, a tourist, to dislike being in a place because it's a tourist stop, but I was ready to leave when more people arrived and spoiled the solitude of the small room.  After downing our bitters, Marc and I walked through the dining rooms of the three-hundred-and-forty-year-old building. We went neither upstairs - the rooms were closed - nor downstairs to the cellars, but we enjoyed the history that we saw.

The George - Temple
Across the street from the gothic Royal Courts of Justice, the George was one of the few places where we sat on stools at the bar instead of at a table.  That's because the George was one of the few places that actually had stools at the bar.  An American couple ordered pistachios from the jars of nuts that lined the back of the bar.  Marc figured that they had to be old and no one ever asked for them because the bartender seemed stumped as to what to charge for them.  "Umm, £1.50?"  she asked, her hands in the air in confusion.  Later we noticed the girl left half of the pistachios in the dish, another sign that the nuts were old.
Old nuts or not, the George was still a comfortable stopping point during a long walk.

The Lord Moon of the Mall - Whitehall

This was probably my least favorite pub.  Love the name, not the place.  It's near the traffic circle that surrounds Trafalgar Square, so it is frequented by huge crowds of tourists.  It was loud and had a commercial atmosphere.  A brightly lit open space, it was devoid of the charm of the old places we liked.

Tattersalls Tavern - Knightsbridge
Tucked in a neat little corner near Harrods, the exterior of this pub looked inviting.  Upon entering, however, we were engulfed by the just-after-work pinstriped set.  Jockeying for position at the busy bar, I waited a long time for our pints while Marc fought through the crowd to find a restroom.  We managed to find a corner to ourselves and enjoyed looking at the scene.  The staff poured beer in plastic cups for the patrons who stood outside.  

The Stanhope Arms - Kensington
Our favorite!  This is where we had our first pint in London in 1998.  Marc recognized it when we went to the Gloucester Road Tube station.  It's a classic old pub with an excellent full English breakfast (see picture at the top of this entry) that's served all day.  The staff here was really nice.  The barkeep who served us breakfast one morning made a point of thanking the customers as they left the pub.

The Old Star - St. James's Park
We ducked into the Old Star late one afternoon because (1) we wanted a pint and (2) rain was about to spill out of the skies.  The waitress was not nice to anyone; Marc overheard her yelling at a co-worker.  Still, we enjoyed sitting at the large booth together, and we decided to order dinner.  (Marc: fish and chips; me: scampi and chips)  The interior of the Old Star was atypical of what we'd seen at most London pubs.  The hardwood floors were light, not dark, and the bannisters were painted white.    The bar downstairs was actually nicer than the room where we sat, but there was no one down there when I went to the restroom.  Speaking of the restroom, this was my favorite in the city.  It was built into an arch of the low ceiling downstairs, and it had stone tile flooring and lots of brick and white wood.  The rain subsided a few minutes before 6pm, and we made our way to the St. James's Park Tube station across the street.  Good timing: the Old Star closes at 6pm on Saturday nights.

Trafalgar Tavern - Greenwich
I wouldn't call this a tourist "trap" per se, but it does get a good deal of traffic based on its proximity to the attractions of the town:  the National Maritime Museum, the grounds of the Old Royal Naval College, and the Royal Observatory.  In the tavern we saw many of the same people we saw at the Painted Hall.  Those tourists were eating fish and chips in this friendly and inviting place, but we basically used it as a shelter from the rain.  And we enjoyed a drink.

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