Olde Cheshire Cheese - 145 Fleet Street, London
Black Friar – 174 Queen Victoria Street, London
It’s been 15 months since our last visit and examination of some of the most iconic and
authentic pubs in London. So let’s refresh our memories about what makes a London pub worth writing about.
The public house or publican for short, or pub, shorter still, is not to be confused with a restaurant or café. Pubs, likes churches, in one form or another have traditionally been the focal point of many communities. They’ve been a place for the locals to gather, drink ale, gossip, drink ale, discuss local and world events, politics, family life and death, all while drinking ale. Notice the word, “Local” in that last sentence? “Local” is sort of an affectionate nickname for a pub populated, mainly by locals. Plans for battles and ousting monarchies have been decided over pints in pubs. Since the Bronze Age Britain (2500 – 850 BC), pubs have been engrained into the British culture. Meet at the pub; grab a pint and talk…in that order. The pub has faithfully served as the platform, ale as the social lubricant.
Pubs are evolving, though. They can retain their cozy charm and rich, inviting appeal without being dark, musty, cigarette smoke-choking bat caves. The furniture can be comfortable and inviting without being old tattered sagging, worn out fart catchers. A decent pub though, must pour more than a few decent beers!
A pub can be brewery-owned and operated, where you will find for the most part, beer from that particular brewery. A Free house, on the other hand will generally serve a wider variety of beers from many different breweries. Just because a pub may be owned by a large corporate brewery, it doesn’t mean it has to be molded into some cookie cutter corporate theme. And just because a Free house serves a wider variety of beer choices, doesn’t necessarily make it a more desirable place to grab a pint or two. Large brewers like Young’s, Fuller’s and Samuel Smith have poured millions of dollars into saving and restoring many historic pubs from certain ruin, and for that they should be commended.
Just how does the modern day public house keep up with the times?
There are plenty of well-established London pubs who have managed to retain their original inviting DNA footprint whilst welcoming all generations and classes of the new world order. And speaking of order, I think I’ll order another pint of Real Ale!
Which brings us to this week’s Must Visit Pubs of London. Our friend Kate Thorp Draycott (can a name be more British?) recently planned a short, yet very meaningful pub crawl for me, wife Kathy and niece Jennifer. WAY more meaningful for me, that is! Two Pubs; both listed in CAMRA’s Regional Inventory and both London Heritage Pubs.
Olde Cheshire Cheese, a Samuel Smith’s local is one of the oldest and oddly named pubs in London. A pub and/or tavern have stood on this site since 1538. The vaulted, arched cellar once housed a monastery in the 1300’s. The building was razed during of the Great Fire in 1666, but was quickly rebuilt the following year.
One of your first impressions upon entering the Cheshire is; folks were really short in 1667! The doorways, arches, stairways and some of the side snugs are a bit height restrictive, but this adds to the charm from a bumped forehead’s perspective. The second impression is that very little natural daylight is capable of penetrating these olde walls.
To the right of the entry is a small, dark mahogany paneled parlor anchored by a blocky Victorian-era bar. To the left, a more formal-looking dining area with a narrow spiral staircase which leads to a cozy fireplaced space with various vaulted nooks that may have been used to store wine and/or beer barrels at one time. Further to the right is a cave-like snug with small seating area, which winds to the stairway to the basement bar, kitchen and food pickup station (Servery). Here lies the most spacious area of the olde pub. It’s also the most crowded. It’s Friday night and mobbed! Multiple haphazard lines form to the bar. Although there are 3 workers behind the bar, only one is actually taking orders. As my “line” and the one to the right approached the bar at the same moment, a nice old tipsy chap with whom I had been trading jokes, took my order of Samuel Smith’s Double Four and waters for me and even insisted upon paying. Now that’s a pleasant pubby experience!
Kate and party had found a small table on the second floor so we drank, nibbled on chips (French Fries) and took in our surroundings. The walls are lined with portraits of some of the literary giants who have imbibed here. Charles Dickens, Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson, Alfred Tennyson, W.B. Yeats and Mark Twain are said to have been regulars at the pub. And being that Fleet Street was the hub of the London press, it’s no wonder that so many writers have frequented Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. Adding to the atmosphere is a story floating about of a ghost who haunted the old pub. If there are ghosts at all, this would be the ideal place to haunt. There does seem to be a sort of gloomy charm to this time-tested local.
Next up: Black Friar
Just a short walk down Fleet Street, right on Bride Lane, right onto New Bridge and down to Black Friar Tube stop, you’ll literally stumble into the Victorian-ornate and sturdy wedge-sliced building famously named, Black Friar. It could have been named Ye Olde Cheddar Wedge and folks would get it, but being how Black Friar was built in 1875, and remodeled as a collaboration between artist and architect in 1905, upon a thirteenth century Dominican Friary, we understand. The pub is wedged into an assemblage of walks, street crossings and tube entrances, so mind the gaps, trolleys and curbs!
I must now confess, we walked right past some very well-regarded pubs on our little Pub Walk, but Black Friar had been on my radar for more than a decade. Old Bell, Tipperary and Punch Tavern have been on my radar as well, just not signaling as urgently as this Pub’s Pub.
Handsome inside and out, it’s what other pubs may aspire to be. Sculpted of solid and masculine marble, alabaster, oak and mahogany, Black Friar also maintains a light and whimsical theme throughout. Intricate monk-related copper friezes, and witty slogans, like “Haste is Slow”, “Finery is Foolery”, Wisdom Is Rare” and “Don’t Advertise, Tell a Gossip” are carved into the rich interior of the snug. Look up! The way over-the-top ornately tiled ceiling is not to be missed!
Black Friar is a Free House so it does offer a fairly good selection of Real Ales to choose between. It tends to get a bit crowded into the evening, so arrive early if you want the full Pub Museum effect. A small exterior patio is offered if you’re not concerned about things like rain, traffic snarls and pedestrian gawkers staring in your direction. Not to worry, they’re not all looking at you.
You can get a feel for London by visiting Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Tower Bridge, Westminster Abbey/Big Ben and other obvious London tourist attractions, but for a real taste of London, try one her iconic and historic pubs. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese and Black Friar are two such places!
Thanks Kate and Cheers!