I don’t subscribe to the North/South London rivalry. It’s petty, pointless and anyway, South London is clearly much better. Below is a small selection of the special places that keep us from campaigning for the removal of all bridges from the Thames just yet.
The neckties hanging from the ceiling and the names of regulars chalked on the wall tell a story – a history of lost afternoons in the Frenchest of London’s wine bars on the borders of Soho. It’s so French, it’s taken us 15 years to get a hello. Too dark, too small and too charming to leave in a hurry, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re in Paris. Thankfully, you’re not. You’re only a mile from South London, trapped by excellent wine, cheese and the agreeable timbre of the Gallic tongue.
2. The Harp
This is where ale goes to enjoy myself. An expertly kept, rousing selection in a former CAMRA National Pub of the Year would be enough for any friend of the hop. However The Harp also boasts back alley boozing, at the end of a magical journey through a tiny entrance in St.Martin’s Lane. Too popular for after-work drinking, it’s best to knock off at lunchtime before they run out of sausages, stay the afternoon and then consider your options.
Despite having no ales, not selling pints* and ordering mobile phone users out the door, The French is an unimprovable Bohemian jewel. Once the haunt of Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, it is still home to characters of warmth and wit. Like all the best pubs, it’s too cramped to avoid talking to strangers, which in lesser places would be hideous. Often the last port of call before Gerry’s, an after hours bar whose location I can never recall until last orders at The French brings a magical clarity.
*Pints are only served once a year, for a deserving charity.
The oldest wine bar in London, somebody reckons. The dark, candlelit catacombs make it a perfect spot for a date, or a drink with unattractive mates. Mind your head though and don’t invite anyone over five foot six, unless you enjoy watching them bend over. There are lush al fresco boozing facilities next to Embankment Gardens, so you can gaze at South London while knocking back a nice Malbec.
Now claiming to be London’s first vegetarian pub, like that’s something. Still, it’s a classic old skool boozer with its Double Diamond and Ind Coope signs intact. It remains unchanged since the 70s, including the ratty old bogs and is still notable for its louche Soho atmos and links to Private Eye. Outside drinkers will require either lots of change or a stern demeanour to deal with the constant flow of the needy.
6 The Mahogany Bar at Wilton’s Music Hall
The world’s oldest surviving music hall is a wonder, aesthetically and historically, hosting gigs, magic shows and sing-a-longs and stuff, while still in the process of restoration. But as much as I enjoy singing shit songs in the company of my peers, I prefer the gorgeously ramshackle and atmospheric Mahogany Bar, which dates back to 1725, where beards provide beer. The eponymous mahogany bar is a thing of beauty, combining craftsmanship with a safe haven for the elbow in the most convivial of settings.
The small, cosy, wooden rooms give you the impression you’re imbibing in the bosom of Olde England. You are: This place goes all the way back to the 1990s. It is however a singular place for a sit down of an afternoon if you’re stuck in Clerkenwell. Like the Harp, though, it gets unbearably crowded after work, unless you enjoy frotting with the legal profession.
It’s a shame they’ve modernised the furniture from the 40s to about the 80s, but the India Club Bar still retains the air of a throwback, serving Cobra, puri and dosa to those joining in the timewarp on the Strand. It’s the perfect place to escape the present century and is often deserted, just minutes from the beautiful South, with a restaurant and hotel upstairs, should you want to boast you once spent the night in the North.
Better known as Shutters, it’s little wonder that the side street it lives in was used in Harry Potter: There’s magic down them stairs. When you get a 1am text saying ‘Shutters!’, you know you’re going to meet people who are already in a miraculous state of excitement. Tomorrow will be cancelled, but tonight goes on and on.
This article was meant to be a Top Ten, but you can only work with what you’re given.
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