The Best Pubs in London: 7 Can’t-Miss Watering Holes

Bar Reviews, City Travel, England, Featured — By on January 14, 2011 at 12:00 pm

By Meghann Foye

Lost Girls Deputy Editor

On a recent stop-over visit to London, I decided to give myself a challenge. In two days, I wanted to try out as many new pubs as possible. There were no rules, other than to follow people’s recommendations, online top-10 lists and my own gut instincts to track down the very best bars in London right now. The result is this uncommon, yet perfectly logical list if you’re only in town a couple days and have a yearning to discover that elusive phoenix—the perfect London pub.

Stop 1: The Coburg Bar at the Connaught

Perfect for: Jet-lag induced people watching

The Connaught Hotel, in London’s posh Mayfair neighborhood, underwent a multi-million dollar renovation a few years back, including updates on room decor, a new Aman Spa, a fine-dining restaurant and two new award-winning bars (both the Connaught Bar and the Coburg have been named top bar in London in 2009 and 2010). Sleepy from an overnight on the plane, I arrived here at about 3 p.m. to meet a PR contact for tea. Filled with London’s brightest movers and shakers (I presume this because they were wearing the slim-cut British suits, megawatt shirt/tie-combos and David Beckham haircuts), this room would feel very alive, if not for the slightly grandma’s parlour-room feel imparted by restored velvet wing chairs and negligible, if any, sound-system. However, the hush-hush intimacy created by the big chairs, full tea service served by career waitstaff and roaring fire were perfect as drops of rain began to fall outside and my eyes started to glaze over.

Stop 2&3: The Punch Bowl and The Only-Running Footman

Perfect for: “City Guy” spotting

Around the corner from the Connaught, my friend in PR showed me to two of the most well-trod pubs in Mayfair. One was a historic public house dating back to 1750, now owned by actor Guy Ritchie, and the other a popular cornerside after-work “local.” Both bars had characteristic appeal of the modern gastro pub, so popular right now in the U.K.—worn-in dark wood tables and chairs and soft lighting of classic pubs, coupled with posh versions of pub food favorites like hanger steak and shepherd’s pie. Guy Ritchie’s was unfortunately closed for a private function—I wish I could have stayed for that one. But TORF’s intimate enclosed space about the size of a small New York studio apartment was packed with well-suited guys in their 20s and 30s and surprisingly very few women, a total switch from New York.

Stop 4: Tamesis Dock

Perfect for: Catching up with friends

Back across the Thames, just off the Vauxhall tube stop and right across the street from my friend’s apartment is Tamesis Dock, an old barge docked in the Thames that has been converted into a quirky and casual yet somewhat topsy-turvey tri-level venue for drinking, snacking and listening to live music. On the Tuesday night I found myself there, I was able to open up my laptop, relax with an inexpensive glass of Malbec and listen to the band play indie-style strains. Later, we moved upstairs to the open-air roof-top area and sipped some more while taking in views of the Tower of London. The Christmas-light-decorated space is dusty, dimly lit and a bit of a hodge podge—but the effect has a friendly, neighborhood appeal where all are welcome.

Stop 5: The American Bar at the Savoy

Perfect for: Pretending you’re glamorous

The next afternoon, I couldn’t miss checking out this infamous hotel lobby bar in the center of the theatre district. The historic Savoy Hotel was also recently restored to its former Edwardian and Art Deco glory, and the American Bar is known as the meeting spot for many major events of the 20th century. In fact, it’s here where the modern martini was said to have been popularized by legendary barman Harry Craddock. Sadly I couldn’t try one shaken, not stirred, but I was able to at least view the beautiful all-white space and chat with the long-time door man, complete with pianist in the center playing American jazz songs and imagine I’d been brought here on a date in the 1920s.

Stop 6: The Windmill

Perfect for: Feeling like a local

Later in the evening back in Vauxhall, next on the pub crawl came a classic working-class neighborhood “old-man pub,” as my British friend called it. While this pub is certainly not new by any standards, the Vauxhall area has become more frequented lately by young people because of its chill, low-key vibe and mix of going-out options. This bar had the all the makings of pub perfection: a dart board, nostalgic pictures of teams from bygone eras, mismatched brown wooden furniture from indistinguishable points in time, soccer (or should I say football?) games on TV, and a few men of a certain age debating them loudly. In fact, it was the kind of place where all conversations stopped abruptly when we walked in, then started back up again after checking us out for signs of snobbiness. At one point when I accidentally dropped a pound coin on the brass bar near the ground, clanging out like a bell for the whole bar to hear, one old man called out, “That’s it, Last Call!” and the other three or four men turned to taunt me good-naturedly.

Stop 7: Zeitgeist

Perfect for: Both beer snobs and indiscriminate late-night boozers

Around another windy road two streets in from the river in Vauxhall, we finished our night at this German beer bar. Proudly serving 14 beers on draught, this beer bar caught our attention for a few reasons—quality ales, raucous atmosphere, and the fact that they stayed open until midnight and were still pouring—a bonus when others in the neighborhood closed at 11. We sampled theweissbier, or German wheat beer, poured into the traditional foot-tall glasses with a slice of lemon, and toasted our cares away sitting next to the dark wooden center bar area. It was there we wondered if we should seize the moment to dance to the pop music playing on the tiny makeshift dance floor at the end of the pub, while watching groups of 20- and 30-somethings do the same in booths along the walls. Friendly bar-men allowed us one extra past last call.

Verdict: While trendy gastropubs and hotel lobby bars offer a certain sense of in-the-know satisfaction, the perfect London pub is simply one where something’s being poured and you’re with good friends.

Thumbnail courtesy of the Tamesis Dock

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  • Meredith says:

    You forgot Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese! It’s been open since the late 1660’s and is amazing!

    It’s my favorite spot to stop into when I’m in London to have a pint of Samuel Smith!

  • Meredith says:

    oh, it’s 145 Fleet Street not far from St. Paul’s.

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  • Christine says:

    great tips! I’m going to London in a few weeks – I can’t wait to visit some of these pubs!

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  • Thanks for the guide, I will check some (all) of these out when I’m next in London for business.