For many people the words London and pub are synonymous. Even people who aren’t fans of beer are drawn to the social experience a good pub seems to promise. And since my husband and I were headed for London in December there was the added delight of a cozy booth beside a crackling fire with a cheerful publican presiding over all. Unless we wandered into a drinking establishment that specialized in Formica and surliness. Since London has pubs the way New York has pizza joints — not all created equal — the challenge was to get it right. I wasn’t taking any chances. Before we left home I did my research and came up with a list of winners. The Princess Louise in High Holborn which has an interior of stained glass, arches and marble columns that would make a country church jealous. Nearby the Cittie of York, opened in 1697, has a sweeping wood bar and a high ceiling supported by beams that look like the inside of a sailing ship. Both are near the Holborn tube station. Just for something truly historic I scribbled a few notes about The Anchor, the bankside pub from which Samuel Pepys watched the great fire of London.
But sadly our itinerary never intersected with the neighborhoods or the opening times of the gems on my list. So on our last day in London we found ourselves on Fleet Street, sheltering under an umbrella while a walking guide recommended Ye Old Cheshire Cheese — as famous as Disneyland to most tourists. I was about to turn on my heel when he said four magic words: Dickens, Tennyson, Twain, 1667. And it was blessedly close — a considerable virtue after several hours in the rain and wind. So we ducked into a tiny alley called Wine Office Court and pushed open the low door.
Eureka! Before our eyes could even adjust to the gloom we were seated in a cozy dining room, just five hefty wooden tables surrounding a glowing fire. The dark paneled walls were hung with oil paintings, the floor creaked appropriately. It was a veritable time machine and I was its jubilant passenger. We stripped off our sodden gloves and scarves and were swallowed whole by the warmth. Nothing would do but to have a traditional English meal — rib of beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes in a pool of rich gravy and of course, something to drink. I chose mulled wine to warm my hands and toast our last day. We had a lively discussion with the locals at the next table about the true meaning of pudding. Americans think of something viscous and chocolate, but for the English, pudding means any dessert with a warm sauce over it. The varieties are endless and the names do not tell all: Eton Mess, Sticky Toffee, Spotted Dick. In the end our dessert guide concluded, "It’s what we do when it’s cold. Sit around and eat sweets."
In all it was a perfect experience — beautiful, historic and congenial. I still have the other pubs on a list for next time, but they’ll have to go some to beat Ye Old Cheshire Cheese on a stormy afternoon. And next time I’ll save room for the spotted dick.