London: Britain's Pub Hub

By Rick Steves

Most new visitors to London are amazed at how "un-English" it feels. Chinese take-outs outnumber fish-and-chip shops, many hotels are run by foreigners, and curry is the "local" specialty. But there's at least one place in London that's straight out of jolly olde England — the pub.

The pub is the heart of the people's England, where folks, for generations, have found their respite from work and a home-away-from-home. These "public houses" were meeting places where groups, clubs, friends, lovers, and fellow workers could kick back with a not-so-cold-one. Since many pub-goers were illiterate a century or so ago, pubs were simply named for the picture hung outside (such as The Crooked Stick or The Queen's Arms — meaning her coat of arms).

London's classic pubs are now national treasures, with great cultural value, rich history, and good beer and grub. Pub-crawling in London is more than a tipsy night out — it's bona fide sightseeing. The city's most characteristic pubs range from places where Shakespeare could have made merry to classy 20th-century revivals. Each offer a glimpse — and a taste — of traditional English culture.

London's oldest authentic pub is Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, which was rebuilt in 1667 from a 16th-century tavern (at 145 Fleet Street). Before the late 19th-century, this "bar" had no bar: drinkers gathered around the fireplaces, while tap boys shuttled tankards up from the cellar.

The late Victorian era (c. 1880–1905) was the Golden Age for pub building. Back then, the economy was booming, and pub owners, drunk on profits, invested in fancying up their watering holes. These swanky places are often decorated with heavy embossed wallpaper ceilings, fine tile work, etched glass, ornate carved stillions (the big central hutch for storing bottles and glass), and even urinals equipped with a place to set your beer. The Princess Louise, built in 1897, is a perfect example (at 208 High Holborn).

In the early 20th century, pubs took on a modern Art Nouveau look, with organic, highly stylized art and architecture. London's best is The Black Friar, with carved capitals, lamp holders, and quirky phrases worked into the décor (174 Queen Victoria Street).

Lately, banks are turning into pubs. As banks increasingly go electronic, they're moving out of lavish, high-rent old buildings. Some of these former banks are being refit as pubs with classy bars and stillions providing a fine centerpiece. Examples are The Old Bank of England (194 Fleet Street) and The Counting House (50 Cornhill).

Spend some time in any of these pubs today and you'll have your finger on the pulse of London. These cozy hang-outs are an extended living room, where locals and travelers alike can eat, drink, get out of the rain, watch a sporting event, and make new friends. Like in days past, people go to a pub to be social. If that's your aim, stick by the bar (rather than a table) and people will assume you're in the mood to talk.

And, of course, there's the number-one reason why people have always flocked to pubs: beer. It comes in many varieties, from American-style lager, to amber-colored ale, to probably the most typically British beer: bitter.

Pub grub is better than it sounds, and getting tastier every year. Pubs often serve traditional dishes, such as "bangers and mash" (sausages and mashed potatoes) and roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, but you're just as likely to find pasta, curried dishes, and quiche on the menu. These days, even the old-time pub is starting to move to the beat of London multiculturalism.