Whenever I tell Deserter chum, Half-life, where we’re going, I get: ‘Why the fuck are we going there?’
Even when I tell him we’re literally going to the centre of time and space, at Greenwich.
‘What I want to know is,’ he asked, whilst frisking me for tobacco, ‘Will I have one testicle in the West and one in the East? Only, philosophically, that’s how I hang. Half-Mishima, half-Oprah.’
Not wishing to spend any more time contemplating an ex-con’s love spuds, I was quick to disappoint him. ‘We’re going to East Greenwich. The bit without the tourists.’
‘Why the fuck are we going there?’
East Greenwich, like everywhere in South London World, is undergoing a metamorphosis. It was always the shabby end of Greenwich, better characterised by ragged boozers like the King William IV, Frog & Radiator and the ironically-named Old Friends. The Old Friends was the first pub to close that I felt no sadness for. It could not have been less welcoming if you swapped the bar for the toilets. What customers did exist were indeed old, but nobody’s friend, except to their over burdened bar stools.
But while the kookiness is getting slowly squeezed out of central Greenwich by, to use the polite term, commercial interests, East Greenwich is coming of age. It’s always had some classic old haunts, like the 17th century Plume of Feathers and the Georgian riverside pub, the Cutty Sark, but it was the rise of the Pelton Arms (SE London CAMRA Pub of the Year 2016) to become the best of Greenwich’s 35-odd pubs that alerted us that something was afoot East of the Meridian Line.
Five years ago, the Pelton was a nothing backstreet boozer of little distinction. Now it’s a thriving music venue and community hub. I counted 10 hand pumps (though later there appeared to be 20), and enjoyed good, hearty food at non-tourist prices. It’s been a rollicking success story with a large loyal clientele that call it home, despite what it says on their mail.
By the time I’d sat in the smoking area for five minutes, four separate strangers had introduced themselves and we soon swapped tales that tickled. The smoking area is key, populated by old rockers with long beards and short memories. Welcoming characters with a glint. Old boys still talking up the benefits of trying new angles.
But the younger’uns have to get through there to reach the garden and there’s a constant exchange between youth and the opposite. It’s a pub where old musos and music students from Trinity sit comfortably together.
The only bad news is that one resident, who has lived there for 18 months, has consistently complained about noise and the council are threatening to take away the music licence which helped relaunch the area. Jay, the affable manager, was too polite to say who it was, which is just as well as Half-life wanted to piss in his letter box. At least he did until he was barred for life for totally misunderstanding the pub’s zero-tolerance drug policy.
The Pelton has plenty of competitors for best pub though, with the handsome Plume right by Greenwich Park providing a very cosy place in which to get out of the wind, escape family, or work. The Cutty Sark is a fine riverside boozer, too far downstream for most tourists, with enough outside space across the cobbled street to make you feel like you’re not in a pub at all, you’re just having a sit down by the river, with a giant pint in your hand.
It loses a point though for making the top table, the upstairs one in the bay window, for diners only. Before, you could sit there watching the boats go by armed only with a pint. Now you need to commit to a monkfish crepinette for a seat, meaning for much of its useful life, the top table is empty.
Zaibatsu does decent sushi and sashimi and I’ve heard good things about Rare contemporary steak house, but it not being open Friday lunchtime was a little too contemporary for me.
Hardy’s Freehouse we’ve already covered, but it still deserves a mention for the superb pies and the idiosyncratic chef, Tom, who also runs the Green Pea restaurant next door.
I’ve enjoyed Efes Meze too but the top prize goes to the Sunday roasts at The Plume of Feathers. Worth going for the crackling alone. As much as I like to see something new, when a traditional pub does traditional food well, it’s worth shouting about. Then having a nice snooze.
Not that long ago the Trafalgar Cafe was the undisputed champ, but it now faces stiff competition from Alacosta (better coffee), Fay’s Heavenly Deli (more chi-chi) and Winston’s Cafe Shop (BYOB!), coming up strong on the inside. The Trafalgar still nudges it though, partly for being unchanged in a changing world and partly for having tiny waitresses.
Trafalgar Road has always had an odd mix and been relatively chain store-free. There’s Chinese Herbal Medicine next to Plumbing Supplies and you can get a psychic combover, or something, at Stepping Stones. I tend to go to excellent Theatre Of Wine for my healing but I’d rather have somewhere selling past life regression than a Starbuck’s selling actual life regression.
Odd little pop-ups and junk-type shops are starting to appear, but they’ve hardly taken a hold in an area where the La Salumeria Italian Deli has sat happily for decades next to the KFC, like visitors from other worlds.
What else is there?
The Vanbrugh Tavern has a long-standing reputation for good food in a relaxed pub which also hosts some lovely ales (Burning Sky and Clarkshaw). Being on a backstreet and on a vertiginous hill, The Vanny always seem to be working hard for its slice of the pie. And it always seems to be refurbing in one part or another. However, it’s a good boozer for locals and foodies and beeries and will be even nicer if they ever figure out what to do with the garden after years of Council arse-ache.
And it would wrong not to mention The Star And Garter, a no frills boozer from the old skool. It’s got one foot in 1973 and the other also in 1973, but is no less welcoming for it.
It’s easy to sneer at another man’s castle, but John Vanbrugh not only designed his own castle overlooking Greenwich Park, but also Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard. He was, among other things, a controversial playwright. His play, The Provoked Wife, scandalised Restoration society for suggesting an abused wife might consider leaving an unhappy marriage.
What is there to moan about?
Trafalgar Road and Blackwall Lane are constantly chokingly busy and hideous, but what can you do? Cars ruin everything.
There also used to be an amazing walk along the river from Ballast Quay all the way to the Dome but with flats going up throughout, it’s become less remarkable. Quite why planners have forced the Thames Path back from the river and past the flats is a mystery, unless it’s ‘exiting through the gift shop’. Funny, but I go on the Thames Path to see the river, not investment opportunities.
I was hoping to report on the funny little rum bar in the basement of the Caribbean restaurant on Trafalgar Road (Windies Cove) that I’ve been to a few times, but sadly, it closed very recently due to non-payment of rent. Shame, it was a great after hours dive with a fine selection of rums, run by friendly people who couldn’t believe you’d dropped by.
Instead, I have to thank Darryl at 853 for alerting me to the Northern Soul nights at Greenwich Town Social Club, though I hear even that last week’s Boogaloo Soul night might be the last as the lovely old building is to be demolished and turned into flats. That’ll be nice. It’ll provide symmetry with the Italian bakery opposite that has now been turned into flats. And the cinema on the corner (flats). And the hospital opposite (you’ll never guess).
Thankfully the plan to ban smoking in Royal Parks has been shelved, or Greenwich Park, with its breathtaking views and plentiful hideaways would have be to expunged from this report. Next they’ll be making smoking weed illegal. You can get a beer and a Full English in the cafe, but you’re more likely to see an artisan pizza of Slightly Embarrassed Chicken with Sun-Chastened Tomatoes on a hand-dropped bed of Reluctant Rocket.
There’s also the East Greenwich Pleasaunce, a lovely tree-lined garden with a naval graveyard that keeps officers and enlisted men apart, even in death. There are plans afoot for live music and a booze licence to make it even more betterer.
But perhaps the best place to partake of the green, is on the Thames, just along from the Cutty Sark pub and down the steps, where you can easily enjoy an undisturbed riverside reverie in the company of the holy herb.
One to watch
The Crown is doing everything it can to shake off its former reputation as a drab old boozer and has transformed itself into a funky, cosy pub, waiting to be discovered. The interesting menu, well-kept ales and enthusiastic staff deserve to be found by more than their much-loved regulars. Though competition is fierce, an area can never have too many good pubs.
Being a very loud man, Half-life was perturbed by how quiet it was during the day. ‘I can hear myself think,’ he moaned, which, as you can imagine, could be terrifying.
Greenwich has rightfully earned its UNESCO status – it is one of earth’s glories – but East Greenwich provides an off-guidebook gem of a wobble around in less charted waters.
Update Nov 2018: While all the above pubs are still going strong, they are joined by Greenwich’s first micropub, the River Ale House on Woolwich Road. Converting an old lingerie shop, Trevor and his family have created a lovely little beer temple that is also welcoming to boozers of other persuasions.
They recently won the SPBW London Pub of the Year 2019, quite an achievement for a pub that’s only been open a year.