10 Years of… top drinking in top London Pubs (part 2 – the City)
Over the last ten years in London, I’ve been in many, many pubs. Indeed for quite a long time, we had a deliberate policy of always trying to find a good new pub on a regular basis.
And many a good pub have we found, so as part of this series I thought it was worth listing them. Yesterday I explored the West End. Today it’s time to move to the other part of London – the City.
Crown and Sugarloaf, Blackfriars
Okay this is a complicated but lovely little pub that sits next door to the more well known Punch Tavern on Fleet Street. And the two used to be one pub. But now they’re not. So here is the tale as far as I’ve managed to work it out thanks to various websites and an article written by Associated Press
The tale goes back many years ago when there were two pubs on the site – the Crown and the Sugarloaf. Around 210 years ago, they merged into the Crown and Sugarloaf. However the freehold to the site remained split – this is an important note!
At this time Fleet Street was the centre of the UK’s newspaper industry, and each newspaper had its own preferred pub. The staff of Punch Magazine made their home at the Crown and Sugar Loaf, and in 1893 it was rebuilt as a splendid gin palace. The then owners decided to name the pub in their honour and the new pub was born as the Punch Tavern. Co-incidentally pub company Punch Taverns is named after their flagship pub – the Punch Tavern.
Right. Now is when it gets fun.
The freehold of the pub remained split, and by the 1980s two thirds of the site was acquired by brewer Bass. The remaining third was owned by a charitable trust. Both parties leased the pub out to Nicholson’s pub company who continue to run a number of historic pubs in London. (Nicholsons itself would end up in the Bass empire in 1999.)
Anyway Nicholson’s lease on the third of the pub eventually runs out and Yorkshire brewer Samuel Smiths snapped it up.
Thus starts an interesting arrangement. Sam Smiths try to set up their own bar in their third of the pub – meaning the same pub is operated by two different people. Nicholson’s decide its not worth being there, and quit the remaining two thirds of the pub they lease. Presumably Sam Smiths had a plan of taking on the lease for the whole pub, but instead Bass took on the two thirds they owned.
This apparently leads to some interesting situations. Like many pubs, the Punch had a cellar drop on the street where barrels are dropped down. However for Bass’s beer to get to the cellar, it had to go through a corridor owned by Sam Smiths. Sam Smiths’s cellar meanwhile had to direct access at all. What happened to the customers is an interesting question I can’t answer – could you take your pint of Bass into the Sam Smiths section? Were glasses marked so they wouldn’t get mixed up?
If reading this reads like some bad Dan Brown novel then you’re right and after lots of negotiations, the pub was eventually shut for renovation in 1997. A new cellar drop was built to the Bass side, and a wall built between the two sections. Bass had the rights to the Punch Tavern name, and the bigger half re-opened.
Meanwhile the Sam Smiths half remained closed for several years, and finally opened as the Crown and Sugar Loaf in 2004.
The convoluted tale isn’t exactly why I like this pub although its an interesting part of its character. No, what makes this pub great is that it looks fantastic.
Sam Smiths reconstructed it to an extremely high standard, giving it the look and feel of an brand new gin palace. It’s full of elegant woodwork and mirrors and apparently it was refurbished using new and reclaimed materials although the bar is the original. There’s a beautiful fireplace and an elegant mosaic stone floor.
It looks like it cost a fortune and probably did. And it feels amazing to sit in, and as you sup your pint of Old Brewery Bitter, it makes you feel like you’ve gone back in time – like it’s 1893 and the pub has just re-opened.
It’s a small pub – very small by central London standards – being only a single room. It’s also been surprisingly quiet every time I’ve visited – mostly mid-week evenings it has to be said – which makes it a great pub if you want a seat and a quiet pint.
Sam Smiths have a host of fantastic pubs in London and they look after them and restore them beautifully and they did a fantastic job here. The Crown and Sugar Loaf may be a pub with a recent turbulent history, but now it’s a true gem.
Go and visit the Crown and Sugar Loaf at 26 Bride Lane, London EC4Y 8DT. Nearest tube station is Blackfriars and for National Rail either City Thameslink or Blackfriars.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, Fleet Street
Okay we’ve done the smallest pub in London, now how about one of the oldest pubs in London? I’ve mentioned the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on this blog before, but here we go again.
Rebuilt in 1667 after the Great Fire of London, here’s a pub which oozes history. Upon entering, on your right is a small tap room with a roaring fire and very dark wooden walls, whilst on the left is the famous chop room restaurant where Doctor Johnson and Charles Dickens could once be found. The food is pretty good by the way.
There are more dining rooms upstairs, and the low ceiling cellars and cellars have been converted into drinking areas too – some being part of the former chapel on the site. On the ground floor a modern extension (I guess built around the 1980s) is discretely tucked away at the back of the pub. Sensibly the designers didn’t try to fake any history, and built it in a more modern style that somehow is sympathetic to the overall pub style.
As ever, it’s a Sam Smiths pub and one that’s well looked after. That said, the illuminated beer pumps in the tap room are a little incongruous given the dark nature of the room.
You can find the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese at 145 Fleet Street, City of London, EC4A 2BU. The nearest tube will be Blackfriars, and the nearest train stations are City Thameslink or Blackfriars.
The Black Friar, Blackfriars
Whilst we’re in the area, it’s probably worth mentioning The Black Friar.
I confess it’s not a pub I’m hugely a regular in, but it’s a sight to behold when you do pop inside.
From the outside it looks pretty normal – an average looking city pub with a large outdoor seating area near the main road. Inside however is a very different matter.
In 1902 the pub was remodelled by Henry Pole, a leading member of the Arts and Crafts movement inspired by William Morris. Pole used the theme of a Dominican
friary which was on the same site in the middle ages, and he did it in serious style.
Alongside brass reliefs of happy looking friars, and signs proclaiming “Silence is Golden!” are huge numbers of marble plaques, carved marble pillars and, in one part, even the roof is covered with the stuff.
It feels more like a grand cathedral and the whole thing is an amazing piece of art work – and a piece of art work for the common man, for all of us can enjoy this marvel whenever we want for the price of a drink.
Successive owners have managed to keep their grubby little mitts of the place, and current owners Nicholsons, who own a number of historic pubs, keep the pub in good condition and offer a large beer selection too. Top one.
You can find the Black Friar at 174 Queen Victoria Street, Blackfriars EC4V 4EG. You may not be surprised to hear that the nearest tube and National Rail station is Blackfriars.
The Cittie of York, High Holborn
I make no apology for heading back to another Sam Smiths pub for the final one. I’m not a particularly massive Sam Smiths beer fan – it’s fine – but they have some excellent pubs that are a delight to drink in.
The pub has three bars – an atmospheric cellar bar, a front bar I’ve never been in, and a mighty church style back bar that’s like no other pub I can think of.
Behind the bar are huge barrels where beer and spirits were presumably once dispensed, although now beer is dispensed from the more usual handpulls and pumps on the bar top. Meanwhile there’s a large triangular stove in the middle of the room. There’s also a row of small alcove seats.
It all looks and feels rather fantastic. Although there is one problem – its city location means its frequently busy and hard to get one of the best seats in the alcoves. Get there early and settle down for a few!
You’ll find the Cittie of York at 22 High Holborn, London WC1V 6BS. The nearest tube station is Chancery Lane, and for overground pop to Farringdon or City Thameslink.
That’s it for the City – tomorrow in part three, it’s off south of the river to Borough.