“…it’s the kind of place that would make you feel like you live a vacuous life of empty laughter and mushroom foam”.
Everyone loves an open fire. Except perhaps pigeons……and Santa. But screw him, this year has been a shocker (I blame him for Terry Wogan and Prince for a start) and consequently we haven’t behaved ourselves all that well so we’re pre-emptively putting him on our bad list before he can do the same to us. Smug old git.
Along with the joy of Christmas, the sparkly lights and sound of children laughing (and then crying/throwing an epic ‘tanters’), it’s important to find the time to escape to a good, cosy pub for a stiff sharpener to get you through the madness. As usual, our list is very well researched and has nothing to do at all with the locations in which we live and work. Lazy.
5) Forza Win – Peckham
My colleague highly recommended this place for its incredible cosy open fire and it sounded fabulous. But when I said, “What’s Peckham like these days?”, she answered, “It’s like Hoxton used to be but skankier”. This somewhat put me off being arsed to make the trip over but thankfully other Peckham locals I spoke to were less rude about the area and so off I popped with a spring in my step.
However, I was immediately irritated because they use long, communal wooden benches for dining – hate it. Wagamamas bothers me for the same reason. I’m a natural misanthrope so the thought of sharing the same bum space as strangers puts the willies up me. Which is ironic as I felt that was exactly why the clientele of Forza like it so much.
On the plus side though, the roaring fire goes a very long way to exonerating it and such a small, cosy detail actually allows it to blend the atmosphere together into a really nice place to be. It also offers an excellent combination of being both achingly cool and great value for money. On Wednesdays you pay £10 for a glass of wine or a beer and a meat or veggie pasta dish. Perfect to bosh down your neck and be in and out before 8pm feeling like you’re successfully ‘done’ Wednesday.
Upsides: Excellent deals and straight-forward, high-quality food
Downsides: Willies up you (this could also be classed as an upside)
The Fire: Its key redeeming feature
4) The White Hart – Barnes
It’s hard to beat a cosy riverside pub with an open fire, fabulous food and decent beer and the White Hart aggressively ticks all those boxes. It’s the kind of place you can move in to on a Sunday and do nothing except relax and natter about middle-class problems, such as the fact that I keep forgetting to give the Ocado man my plastic bags…or that I’ve only just discovered celery salt (with quails eggs, it’s remarkable).
They also have a good higher-end restaurant upstairs which therefore means that they cater equally for lazy, boozy Sundays and a posh date-night dinner. My only turn-off is that when they put sports on, it can sometimes take on a sort of bourgeois Wetherspoons vibe, the floors get all sticky and for some reason everyone seems to take up smoking. But you can’t have everything and so long as I’m near the fire with a gin and tonic, very little bothers me.
Upsides: Sunday afternoon laziness
Downsides: Rowdy sporting fans
The Fire: Wing back chair bliss
3) Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese – Fleet Street
Unfortunately for me, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese was one of the first pubs I went to in London at the tender age of 18. This was a massive mistake because in my naivety, I got the impression that London was basically like living in the 1800s and this meant that everywhere was going to be slightly dingy, quaint, low-ceilinged and basically charming as hell. The next pub I went to was an All Bar One…and so yet another childhood fantasy was burst like the proverbial boil on the arse.
On a more cultured note, YOCC has provided inspiration to the likes of Charles Dickens and P.G. Wodehouse and its wood-panelling and dark corners set off the open fire perfectly. It makes me want to sit in the corner wearing a bonnet and drink neat gin.
Unfortunately, depending on the time of day, it can get a little tourist-heavy and Christmas party season brings in droves of office workers looking to get sozzled enough to choke down their festive kebabs later on. If you can overlook that, it’s an absolutely essential pub to have in your repertoire and provides a great backdrop for some escapism drinking.
Upsides: History lesson/drinking sesh combo
Downsides: Can get taken over with office party bores
The Fire: A stalwart feature. It’s probably been burning since 1666
4) Chiltern Firehouse
I suspect that the Chiltern Firehouse is one of those places that when you’re having a good day you saunter in there and feel right at home with the swankiness, the celebrities and the smug lack of smugness…but on a bad day, it’s the kind of place that would make you feel like you live a vacuous life of empty laughter and mushroom foam. The high levels of self-esteem in there are difficult to compete with. Plus, I haven’t had any plastic surgery yet, so felt a bit left out.
I had heard mixed reviews about the food and having done a bit of Trip Advisor research, two of my restaurant pet hates kept coming up: being ignored at the bar and being made to leave before you’ve finished eating because they need the table back – greedy bastards. But I have to say, neither of these darkest fears came true when I went and annoyingly, I actually had a lovely evening. No crap bar staff or mushroom foam and the smugness was just the right level for me (that day).
I tend to try and steer clear of celebrity haunts until they’ve been overused, over reviewed, almost completely destroyed and then relaunched again (think The Ivy circa 2001). By this point (assuming they’ve survived), they are usually much better places. And you’re less likely to keep running into celebrities with faces like burnt mannequins. However, the Chiltern Firehouse has done a good job in almost getting it right first time around. And of course the fire gives it just enough sincerity and grounding to help with that. Such is the power of a good open fire…
Upsides: Celebrity watching and the food
Downsides: Celebrities and their melty faces
The Fire: Brings the whole place down to earth
5) The Gun, Docklands
Without doubt my favourite part of London is between the City and Canary Wharf. There is something about that area that rings hard of history and character that no other part of London can compete with. Somehow it carries wafts of all the decades of time past in the last 200 years (in some cases, literally); Jack the Ripper, the Krays, the Docks, badly lit streets, cobblestones, shadows, intrigue, plenty of gin and thigh-slapping good times. I almost wish I’d been around at the turn of twentieth century were it not for the bad teeth, opium and syphilis, although my early twenties came pretty close to replicating that anyway…
As with all areas of the country I believe pubs are an accurate barometer for the area and the pubs in the East End are no exception. Nine out of 10 of my favourite drinking holes are in the East End and The Gun is right up there.
It does an excellent job of maintaining its East End character amidst the developed docklands. The blend of white table cloths and great food means that as well as being a bloody good drinking pub, it’s also a foodie destination. It’s a tough balance find and The Gun is one of about 3 places in London I’ve been to that nails it without pretension.
In this environment, the open fire is almost extraneous but, like the wet cobblestones and twisty street of its location, it’s the litte things that add up to a great atmosphere.
Upsides: Perfect East End pub/good food combo
Downsides: Bit of a trek if you don’t live that way
Fire: Peripheral but important