Why, oh why did I ever come up with the idea of the Ben Viveur London Pub of the Year? I must have been mad. Or just very, very thirsty.
Oh well, mustn't grumble. Here's the first batch of contenders (apart from the Craft Beer Company, which started this whole silly business, obviously)...
Pub #2: Southampton Arms, Kentish Town
I have to admit that until recently I was only vaguely aware of the Southampton Arms via their adverts in London Drinker and hadn't got around to visiting, but given that they are currently CAMRA London Pub of the Year, it would be morally wrong not to check them out in consideration for this award. Even if that means braving North London!
And it has to be said, it's a bit of a hidden gem - I only wish I'd taken the time to venture 'oop North' before now.
|Beer to the fore (cider at the rear) at the Southampton Arms|
Quality of real ale: I was umming and ahhing between giving them a 2 and the maximum 3. The reason it's a 2, is simply because while all the beers I sampled were undeniably in very good condition, there wasn't really a moment when I rubbed my eyes in disbelief and went all 'Wow. This fucker is notably, exceptionally good!'
That's not to say that a two isn't a really good score, just that I'm going to be reserving threes for the pubs where the quality literally takes me by surprise, and that only happens very occasionally.
Range of real ale: The beers change all the time here, and there were ten on on my visit, four of them new to me, from nine different breweries. That's an encouraging start, and Mild fans would have been in for a special treat with a light, a dark and a ruby mild (the excellent XT 'XT 6') available.
Add to that the big roasty Dark Star 'Sussex Extra Stout', a couple of standard bitters, a hop monster (Redwillow 'Wreckless') and a tayberry beer. With such an eclectic range, all coming from small breweries and no mass production in sight, they meet all the criteria for a maximum score of 3.
Food: With no kitchen as such, they neither gain nor lose a point. However, the range of bar snacks includes something very special indeed...
|A truly magnificent bit of pie!|
I tried a slice of award-winning rare breed pie and it's no exaggeration to say that this was simply the finest pork pie I have ever eaten. Perfectly seasoned, extremely meaty, rich, crumbly pastry and no jelly! I simply have to find out who produces these bad boys.
I thought the pies at the Craft were good (which they are) but these are something else!
Pork baps and cheese plates are also available as are Scotch eggs, but Scotch eggs with a difference. Confounding the 'meat' ethos, these are actually veggie, using smushed-up chickpeas, lentils and nuts'n'shit instead of seasoned, minced pork.
It's an interesting idea, they certainly look the part, and I see what they're trying to do. But I wouldn't want another one, and I wish I hadn't filled up on this before eating the heavenly pork pie!
|Scotch egg - but not as we know it!|
There's nothing I could really deduct points for here - it would be unfair to penalise them simply for being in a silly part of London! - so the Southampton picks up 2 bonus points: one for the range of cider, and one for the meaty bar snacks.
Pub #3: Red Lion, LeytonstoneThis is another pub that I'd been meaning to try for a while, a) because it's part of the Antic collective, with whom I've been impressed; and b) because it's the CAMRA East London and City Pub of the Year.
It's certainly improved the beer choice in an area that really was a desert a few years ago, but is it going to score enough to challenge for the BV award?
Quality of real ale: My first pint here was Arbor 'Yakima Valley', a 7% ABV American Pale Ale. Such a beer should be served fairly cold, with plenty of natural condition. What I got was a warm, flat pint served in a hot glass, which is particularly unacceptable for a beer of this style.
If pubs commit offences like this, more and more drinkers (and brewers) of strong, hoppy pale ales will switch from cask to keg, which would be both a crime and a punishment.
The other beers I tried (and I had several pints) were perfectly fine, but overall, I can't in my heart of hearts give them a rating higher than 1 - 'generally acceptable' - which is a shame because Antic pubs in general would usually get a 2 from me for beer quality.
Range of real ale: As in most Antic pubs, the range changes all the time, and there were eight beers on in various styles. Sometimes they seem to stick to the same breweries and beers, which means that you'll often see beers that you had in another Antic pub the day before, but on the whole they earn a solid 2.
But they really need to read my review of the burgers at the Ravensbourne Arms and circulate a memo to their kitchen staff because this is an area where there is intergalactic room for improvement!
I likes me burgers, and I likes them done properly. So when I ask for a burger to be cooked rare, I do not expect it to arrive medium well!
It's not like it was the greatest burger ever either. At least the Ravensbourne's bland offering had brilliant potato wedges and onion rings with it. This was a couple of quid more expensive, yet the only accompaniment was some averagey thick-cut chips. The optional extras of bacon, cheese and a big flat mushroom were more interesting than the burger.
Mrs B-V tried a club sandwich which was nothing special, and the skinny fries that came with it were dry and tasteless.
Look, I'll reconsider this rating in the future if I eat there again, but the fact that they asked how I wanted the burger done, then completely ignored my reply is only going to result in one thing. Or, more specifically, a -1 thing!
Bonus points: Like most Antic pubs, the Red Lion is trying hard 'to do stuff for the community'. We entered their boisterous and popular pub quiz (coming about 5th out of 20 I think), and they have a beer festival planned soon. But is there really anything that justifies adding or deducting points from their score of 2? Probably not.
It's a shame because with just a few tweaks this place could be scoring far more than this, as indeed most other Antic pubs do - even those which haven't picked up CAMRA awards.
Pub #4: Crosse Keys, City
While I've been to around 350 Wetherspoon pubs, I'll be the first to admit that there aren't many many on this shortlist, and it wouldn't be right if there were. But as this is essentially their flagship London pub and has a few extra things going for it, it's worth a crack.
Quality of real ale: With such vast floorspace inside a huge former bank, and heavy custom throughout the day (huge former bankers?) they turn over beer very quickly.
The net result is that generally beer quality will be better here than in other Spoons. It's the opposite situation to the Red Lion where they underperformed the Antic estate as a whole, and the beer is probably just about good enough to merit a 2.
I did once have a very, very unpleasant pint of Moles 'Landlord's Choice' here that made me feel physically sick, but given that this was in 2001, it's possibly not admissable evidence for a 2011-2012 pub of the year contest!
Range of real ale: With 24 handpumps, admittedly many of them often out of service, there's usually a big range of beer. Most of it will come from the standard Wetherspoons list, but unlike most of their (smaller) pubs, you won't have to wait weeks for the beer you want to come on, only to find it's been and gone.
|Big, round bar with lots of beer|
The score of 2 is therefore a notch higher than most Spoons would merit.
Food: Unfortunately, Wetherspoons food has generally gone downhill over the last 15 years as their estate expanded and menus were standardised. Most of the dishes on the menu are defrosted, microwaved rubbish that you really wouldn't want to it.
It's not negotiable, and it's -1.
Bonus points: The awesomeness of the building would win some Wetherspoon pubs an extra point, but I just can't get that excited about the Crosse Keys, impressive though it is.
However, the chains twice-yearly beer festivals are worthy of a bonus point, and the Crosse Keys is a reliable destination at the times when these become something akin to a Treasure hunt.
Wetherspoons exceptionally reasonable prices also get them a bonus point, which few would begrudge them.
But they'll lose a point in the bar snacks department. Given how disappointing their food is these days, it would be nice if they offered some quality pork scratchings, pitta chips or even just better crisps. Something for Tim Martin to think on, perhaps.
So, add two, subtract one, and you're left with 1 bonus point.
And so, after all that, it looks like the Craft Beer Company can sleep soundly atop the perch for now, but there are still a further eight pubs to be reviewed and rated!
Where to find it...Southampton Arms
139 Highgate Road
NW5 1LE (map)
640 High Road
E11 3AA (map)
9 Gracechurch Street
City of London
EC3V 0DR (map)