The Best Bar in the World

Drinks International magazine has named London’s Artesian the World’s Best Bar, 2014. Based in the Langham Hotel on Regent Street, Artesian has now won the award three years in a row.

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Endless fun in Artesian

At Artesian the decor is modern oriental, the atmosphere is ‘relaxed’ and according to its virtually unusable web site, the bar offers ‘experimental cocktails’ with ingredients such as leather, gemstones and rice (I really wish I was making this up).

It is so obviously not the best bar in the world, nor probably even on Regent Street, I didn’t know where to begin my bar-assassination. But rather than pull it apart feature by feature, which would just be like kicking a ball into an empty net over and over again, I pondered instead what elements might combine to make my own ‘best bar’.

Desirable features are as follows:

  1. Well-kept, cask-conditioned ale. Or at the very least some quality keg beer.
  2. Small, discrete and intimate enough to encourage conversation, if you’re in the mood.
  3. A good clutch of regulars
  4. Simple finger food
  5. Friendly, knowledgeable and familiar staff
  6. Music no louder than conversation

If you run all the above through a pubgorithm™ mainframe (my actual mind) the good news is that it spits out a clear winner. That place is the Beer Rebellion at 128, Gipsy Hill, SE19.

The bad news is that it closed two weeks ago.

The good news again is that it re-opened last week, at 126, Gipsy Hill (next door).

And the good news doesn’t stop there. Since the first Beer Rebellion opened last year, as an adjunct to Penge’s most excellent micro-brewery, Late Knights, two more have opened in South London: The London Beer Dispensary at Crofton Park (wherever that is) and the Beer Rebellion, Queens Road Peckham, in which I was the first member of the public to be served. As Roy Keane would say, every victory is vital.

Obviously, I was going to visit the new Gipsy Hill Beer Rebellion. Only death could be more certain. But an idea drifted through my transom: Why make it easy on myself? Why not turn it into an adventure? I could devise a walk that would take in all three of the buggers. And if I made it a triangle I’d be able to visit the first one again, making it, by my calculations, the world’s first four-pointed triangle.

And then, for added difficulty, I added old Deserter mate, Half-life, into the mix.

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Shelter at the Beer Rebellion, Queen’s Road Peckham

Beer Rebellion, Queens Road Peckham

Half-life was an hour late, naturally, and despite the fine coffee and lemon poppyseed cake from the new Blackbird Bakery in an arch beneath Queens Road Peckham station, by 2pm I was forced to take in the first point of my triangle alone.

I hadn’t been back to Beer Rebellion, QRP, since its insanely busy opening night in August and now I had it largely to myself. Previously a bookies, it’s a one-room bar with a glass-frontage ideal for a rainy day (though I accept, any room filled with fine ales could be considered ideal for a rainy day. Or any day).

As the rain tipped down I ordered a pint of Late Knights’ own Crack of Dawn from Aidan, the manager, who took the time to talk about how the place was doing and of upcoming meet-the-brewer events and food nights. It’s a feature of the Beer Rebellion family that staff are invariably open, warm and chatty. The hiring policy, instilled by group boss Steve Keegan, an ex-Fullers manager, is to actively seek people who haven’t had bar experience, so, as Aidan put it, they haven’t had the chance to develop bad habits.

I was tempted by another pint but decided to take advantage of a lull in the rain.

‘You can get a bus to the Beer Dispensary…’ said Aidan.

‘Too easy, Aidan. Too easy,’ I said, as I threw on my raincoat and made for the door.

Outside I was greeted with an ‘Oi!’ loud enough to momentarily stop the traffic. It was Half-life, dressed in a kilt, a dress shirt and aviator sunglasses.

‘You know it’s gonna piss down all day, right?’ I said.

‘What are you, some kind of weather cunt?’ he replied. To which the answer, if I’m honest, is probably yes.

After wasting another ten minutes watching Half-life in Tesco buying a small bottle of brandy and chatting up the girl on the till, we finally set off up the hill towards Nunhead, just as the lull in the rain ceased.

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Lost already

Having missed his first pint, Half-life determined to have a swig of brandy for each pub we passed before reaching our next destination. So that was one at the Hollydale and one, due to an early wrong turning, at Skehans on Kitto Road. It was as we were crossing the railway from Drakefell Road, trying to get back on route, that Half-life announced the brandy wasn’t agreeing with him.

‘Jesus fucking Christ Almighty, my chest is on fire,’ he said belching and gobbing over the rail bridge.

‘Perhaps you should have spent more than £3.50,’ I ventured.

‘Where’s the nearest apothecary?’

‘Up here,’ I said, having no idea, but striding on anyway. This was a ten mile triangle, with added drinking time required, and I hoped to do most of it before dark.

Ar rhe street doctors
An appointment at the street doctor

As it happened we came across a tired-looking parade of shops on the end of Turnham Road where Half-life was able procure something for his dyspepsia while I tried to work out whether we were in Nunhead, Brockley or New Cross and more importantly, where the bleedin’ boozer was. Still the rain teemed and drummed.

‘Says take with food,’ said Half-life, hunched over his Gaviscon instructions.

‘I’m sure it’ll be fine,’ I said

‘I’ll get some chips,’ he said heading for Senol Fish Bar on the corner.

‘Oh, for fuck’s sake. For a renegade, you’re very risk-averse,’ I called after him, and he flicked me the Vs.

Outside the chippy some schoolboys were taken by Half-life’s wardrobe.

Mate… Check the garms.’ piped up one of the youths. ‘What’s under your dress?’

‘Silence, child,’ commanded Half-life, ‘Or I will show you.’ Which certainly shut the little fucker up.

Unable to take out my phone to check the way due to the incessant rain (that’s my excuse), I took another wrong turn and we headed up towards Honor Oak Crematorium, which seemed to be in Camberwell New Cemetery, of all places. Honestly, I thought, this could confuse a stupid person.

I came clean to Half-life and told him we would have to double back on ourselves once we got over another railway line into what I hoped would turn out to be Brockley.

‘We should be there in ten,’ I told him.

‘Good,’ he said. ‘I’m not missing Kazakhstan v Czech Republic.’

London Beer Dispensary

For reasons lost in the mists of time, Half-life will have no truck with the England football team. Instead he follows a frankly bewildering array of world football minnows, at least one for each federation, to which the Kazakh brothers are the latest addition.

As we dried off in the welcoming brown-wood gloom of the LBD we discussed the niche opportunity for the sports micropub, over two pints of Gipsy Hill brewery’s fruity Pale Ale.

Like many ideas that occur on the cusp of the third pint, it seemed to us to be the best idea in the world – a micropub with a hidden TV unveiled just for the football? – and Half-life scribbled it down on a napkin to show to some ‘investors’.

In fact, the LBD is less of a micropub and more of a pub pub, with its sizeable back room and beer garden. But it is different in one important respect – it doesn’t have a bar. Instead when you need a re-fill you wander over to the board and the staff – in our case, Karolina – emerge from the throng to talk you through the ales on offer which are then poured directly from the casks. Karolina recommended Brass Castle’s Snow Eater and it was a pine-tinged cracker, which at 4.8% made us feel strong and forget about the monsoon. (Incidentally, hats off to the graphic designer who came up with Brass Castle’s ambigrammatic logo – see the brewery link, above – or is this sort of thing done by computer these days?).

While Half-life watched the football on my phone, I eavesdropped on a couple of ageing luvvies who had wandered in, singing.

‘Peter Hall is the most loathesome man in the world,’ said one.

‘At least with Roger he completely understood the nature of regional theatre,’ replied the other.

‘Fuck this shit,’ said Half-life, as Khazakstan went two down, and we prepared ourselves for the next leg.

Tempter on Brockley Road
‘Excuse me, do you do soup?’

As we strode purposefully south down a rain-wet Brockley Road I took a call from my bank, the gist of which was that the branch manager was currently concerned about three overdrafts: Japan’s, Greece’s and mine.

‘Can I call you back tomorrow?’ I said, ‘I’m in the middle of a beer triangle and we’re trying to make up some time.’

‘I see. Very well,’ replied the clerk, or whatever the fuck he was. I could hear a hint of recognition in his voice that I was having a better time than him. I almost felt sorry for him. But I didn’t have time to waste feeling sorry for bankers, I had to buy some tobacco so we could roll a massive joint.

The light was fading as we turned right onto Honor Oak Park and trudged up past the station. It seemed so uphill. It’s leafy enough but exhaust from the rush hour cars clogged our lungs. So, to be fair, did Half-life’s superb weed, which we smoked on One Tree Hill while gorging on Gaviscon pills washed down with brandy. It was a delightful break but One Tree Hill, despite its catchy name, is actually home to thousands of trees, all of which seemed determined to drip us to wet death, and so tarrying was not an option.

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If we must

Onward we marched towards the South Circular. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised that Sydenham Rise rose, but boy, that is some rise. Something broke inside us and when, on Sydenham Hill, the downpour became torrential, we were forced to duck into the Dulwich Wood House.

I’m glad we did, in a way. It reminded me of everything a good pub isn’t. Cavernous after a recent extension, all the drinkers (and the bar) have been kicked downstairs while the lovely rooms with a view are given over to absent diners. But it was warm and dry and did a decent enough pint of Adnams’ Ghost Ship as we summoned the strength to push on.

‘It’s all downhill from now on,’ I told Half-life.

‘Thank fuck for that,’ he said.

‘Apart from Dulwich Mountain.’

I didn’t elaborate on the joke since he looked like he was going to drop me. After all, this is a man who once stamped on a mate’s hamster due to a perceived slight over his dancing. (Though, to be fair, he was eight at the time.)

BT Mk 1
Original Beer Rebellion, Gipsy Hill

Beer Rebellion, Gipsy Hill

Mercifully dry once more, we cut down Rock Hill and on to Paxton Green for the final push up Gipsy Hill. And there, opposite the station, in what now felt like the dead of night, was Beer Rebellion Mark 1, its sign still up but now standing dark and empty. But next door, like a phoenix from the ashes, there was light in the window and the unmistakable aura of hop-based conviviality.

Still with a whiff of fresh paint, the new place is a little more hard-edged than before, with its oak bar and high tables. Gone is the feature stillage and instead of the back-room seating area an open-view kitchen has been created. But the Beer Rebellion magic persists in innumerable details, not least the beer, and the lovely Fran was on hand to provide the best kind of continuity.

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New original Beer Rebellion, Gipsy Hill

She poured us some Chelsea Blonde by local brewery, London Beer Factory, and now feeling strangely peckish, we ordered a couple of burgers. There has been much hyperbole about the Beer Rebellion burgers. All I can say is, it’s all true. Just have one, and it will be the burger by which you compare all others.

Downstairs is charming, with a little snug complete with fireplace, where Half-life removed first his shoes and then his socks. But I preferred being upstairs, gazing out into the wet night and across to the station, trying to guess which of the frazzled commuters was going to come over and push on the door to paradise.

Replete, I turned to Half-life.

‘Right mate, you ready for the last leg?’ I said.

‘Uh?’

‘Back to Queens Road Peckham, to do the triangle.’

Bollocks.

‘We’ve got to, otherwise it’s just been… a line. What about the hypotenuse?’

‘You’re on your own with your fucking hypotenuse. I’m staying here.’

And so did I.

Update, Septemebr 2015: Since this piece was first published our love affair with Late Knights has blossomed further, culminating in our bid for immortality, Deserter IPA, a punchy all-day breakfast ale. Read about its creation (and availability) here. The Dulwich Woodhouse has since undergone (another) refurbishment which we experienced on this day out.

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See also: Pubs Fight Back – The Micropub Revolution

Image credit: Feature photo of Beer Rebellion by Paul Grace, used with permission.

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