Bensoir! It's me, Benjamin. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You may have read stuff I've written elsewhere, but here on my own blog as Ben Viveur I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others, so pretty much anything goes.

BV is about enjoying real food and drink in the real world. I showcase recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. And as a critic I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended. Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Monday, July 15, 2019

BV London Pub of the Year 2018-19 - part two

Welcome back - it's time to crack on with the 2018-19 Pub of the Year contest, and here we have our five new contenders for this year. Four completely new ones and one re-entry hoping to make a triumphant return. Let's see how they stack up against last year's Final Five.

Contender #1: Albion, Kingston

The Albion is one of several siblings to last year's winner, the Antelope in nearby Surbiton. And it really is nearby - you can walk between the two without too much difficulty, even after several pints. There's almost no excuse for not doing so, really.

The beer policy is similar here - the Big Smoke brewery are in charge but don't over-dominate, and this pub has recently added a Gin Distillery out the back too! But sibling reputations count for nothing here - what you want to know, I'm sure, is how does this pub rate in its own right?

Range of draught beers: Most of the taps and pumps are occupied at all times, which means that you have a choice of 20 keg beers plus 10 on cask. Not something you'd have expected to see in Kingston a few years ago. It's an eclectic selection too - the locals are up for interesting and experimental stuff, so don't be surprised to see 9%+ Impy stouts or Double IPAs, sours, fruit beers, saisons and anything else that takes your fancy.

One thing that is fairly striking is that the exciting stuff isn't just reserved for the keg taps. Just the other day, I picked up Arbor Faked Alaska vanilla IPA on cask here, which is usually keg-only, and indeed rather deliciously creamy and delightful from the handpump, as it happens. A few days later they hosted a keg festival with double the number of kegs on offer. It might not be the biggest selection numerically, but I'm always particularly impressed by the range here and consequently award the Albion a full 3 points!

Quality of Real Ale: There's not a lot to say - if anything the cask quality here is better than it is at the Antelope. Temperature is appropriate, conditioning is good, no off flavours detected. Ever. I might've been lucky, but I've only ever had really good pints here. It's another maximum haul. 2 points.

Why is the food here not good?
Food: The menu is similar in theme to that at the Antelope down the road. However, I'm not entirely sure why, but I've never been convinced by the food here. It might be that I've ordered the wrong things, but it's just not as good.

Chips that didn't quite work as either soft chunky ones, or crispy skinny fries. Weird fish goujons coated in a sort of panko crunch that didn't work at all. A burger bun that was heading for staleness.

It's disappointing because the Antelope food is good, and I'm not sure what the issue is, but I'm going to have to give a -1 here and hope that things improve.

Bonus points: The Albion can recover some points here because there is a lot they do well. Cask cider is a big thing here - there are usually five different ones available so that's obviously worth a bonus point. They also have a neat loyalty scheme (that also extends to the Antelope and other pubs in the same group) giving you a free tenth pint every once in a while. (You don't need to drink ten at once, though you might be tempted to do so!)

The (packaged) bar snacks are excellent, their collection of vinyl records adds to the atmosphere, and the Gin range is impressive. In all honesty we could hand out many more than the maximum 3 bonus points.

Unfortunate food experiences aside, this really is a little belter of a pub.

Contender #2: Cask, Pimlico

Before there were any Craft Beer Companies, there was the Cask in Pimlico. The Mothership of the chain, it recently celebrated its 10th birthday with a big weekend bash and a load of specially-brewed beers. It's been in this competition before and makes a welcome return this year.

Range of draught beers: It's been there for a decade, but the draught beer selection is still the best in the local area, with 10 cask and 15 keg beers available. The 'Craft' House beers sometimes make an appearance but otherwise the selection is ever-changing, though perhaps at a gentler pace than in some pubs. If you're too full of beer to have the last couple you need on a Wednesday evening, there's a good chance you'll be able to go back for it on Friday.

I heartily endorse this product or service
The keg selection is very outward-looking, with top International micros often on hand, albeit sometimes at a price. The cask takes the form of wave-upon-wave of overlapping tap takeovers, so you might have seven different Thornbridge beers and a trio from Rooster's, but give it a few days and the Rooster's range is dominating, alongside a couple of Northern Monks, then the following week it's all Northern and Monkey, before the next takeover comes along. It's a system that works well and you can see what's coming soon a few weeks ahead.

Throw in some really rare stuff from time to time and it's all very impressive. 3 points.

Quality of Real Ale: OK, I have convos about beer here sometimes, with staff and customers alike. I enjoy beer talk, though it's very keg- and bottle-centric. Consequently, the cask here sometimes feels like a bit of an afterthought, which is a shame, but it's by no means poor quality It's also ironic, given the name of the joint!

I get the impression that they keep the cask ticking over for people like me, without being particularly enthusiastic about it. But it's decent and worth 1 point. There was one occasion this year that I had to tell them a beer wasn't at its best, but then I still drank the fucker. Hmm.

Food: A simple menu is provided by Forty Burgers, and there are roasts on Sundays. As I've noted in previous years, I'm pretty indifferent to their meat offering, but I do quite like a plate of truffle oil and Parmesan fries after a few pints. The cold pies are very decent too. Overall I can't give or take away any points for food here.

Bonus points: As in the CBC pubs there is an insanely substantial range of bottled and canned beers in the fridge, which you can have at a 33% discount if you're taking away. That's worth a point, and their line in crisps, nuts, pitta chips etc. is worth another. Otherwise it's a no-frills drinking experience rather than a pub with a multitude of features, but I should probably give a third point for their spirits list which is most impressive.

Contender #3: Kentish Belle, Bexleyheath

As Micropubs go, the Kentish Belle is almost to big to qualify as such. Two of the things that people who claim they don't like micropubs often cite as the reasons they don't like micropubs don't apply here - firstly there are separate Gents and Ladies facilities, and secondly, all seating is at a low level. But it's still run very much like a micropub, at least in ethos and attitude. Which is no bad thing.

All cask, all good!
Nick, the young and aspirational owner, has had some fairly vocal spats with the local CAMRA branch, which can't be bad for publicity. The irony is that this pub is almost certainly the most cask-centric in the local area, yet some who are supposedly in favour of real ale won't darken its door. C'mon guys, life's too fucking short!

Range of draught beers: As is the case with many micropubs, there is no keg here, just ever changing casks, the number of which varies depending on projected and actual customer footfall, which seems to me an eminently sensible policy.

Tap takeovers highlighting the ranges from different breweries are frequent - every couple of weeks - and often include rare specials or beers not usually available in cask form. While it's all cask, it's mainly of the contemporary variety, with Arbor, Thornbridge and Tiny Rebel among the preferred suppliers here.

It won't please everyone and might divide opinion as Micropubs frequently do. But I like what they're doing and give the range a solid 2.

Quality of Real Ale: The upside of visiting a pub run with such a pro-cask policy is that you can be sure they're concentrating on getting that right - it's the sword by which they live or die, after all. And the quality of the real ale here is excellent. Consistently.

That's partly because Nick sensibly doesn't try to sell too many beers too early in the week when the custom doesn't warrant it, and also because beers that are in danger of passing their best are discounted, and then taken off sale. Better that than the risk of customers supping something that's no good, right? They also seem to turn over dark beers quickly enough that they don't become the poor relations in the place. I've enjoyed excellently-kept mild, stout and porter here. Does it score the maximum 2 then? Yes. Yes, it does.

Food: It might be bigger than most Micropubs, but there's no kitchen operation. Don't be silly.

Bonus points: Did I say cask-only? Well, yes, I did, but look in the fridge and you'll find an enticing canned selection, should you want something colder and/or fizzier. Omnipollo, Northern Monk, Buxton... surely enough to satisfy any craft wanker. It's worth a bonus point of course.

They get the 'snacky snack snack' point, mainly for stocking my preferred brand of Dry Roasted, and I'm going to award another for the fact that their opening hours are more generous than most micropubs, which all adds up to a maximum bonus score here.

Contender #4: Railway, Streatham

When I first started drinking as a teenager, the Railway by Streatham Common station was relatively local to me. And it was one of those pubs that people who drank beer simply didn't bother with. The mid-1990s were probably the high point of cask availability, and it was actually quite rare for a pub to have 'no real ale' - the tersest possible description in the local CAMRA Guide. 'A Bass Pub that doesn't serve Draught Bass' was the other damning description.

In recent years the pub has changed beyond all recognition though. Nowadays it has a deserved reputation in the local area for real ale from London-based microbreweries, craft keg and seriously killer Sunday Roasts.

Range of draught beers: There are typically five cask beers available, all from London. You can expect to see Sambrooks, Five Points, Redemption, Truman's and other mid-sized producers from the capital dominating the landscape. Occasionally casks are put in stillage on the bar in addition to the handpumped beers, increasing the range.

Some of the keg selection comes from further afield, with London craft breweries augmented by a few imported 'normals' (Estrella) and exotics (Affligem Blonde). It's not the most exciting range ever, but there's usually something worth having. 1.5 points.  

A big pile of roast
Quality of Real Ale: I have had a couple of issues with the cask beer here - mainly because it's sometimes served in a dishwasher-warm jug style glass, which does it no favours. Especially if it's a citrussy pale ale.

This is the sort of pub that one visits for reasons other than the beer, and while it seems harsh it has to be compared against the other pubs in the competition. That's not to say the beer is bad, but it's only a little above average. Hence, on a scale from -2 to 2, I give it 0.5 points, which balances up the above score nicely.

Food: The Railway has become a bit of a food destination and it can be hard to get a table sometimes without prior booking. This is particularly the case on Sunday where their roasts have become famous and frequently sell out early. The beef is tender and delicious and the chicken with sausagemeat is excellent, but the real star - when it's available - is the pork belly. The roasts come piled high in a big mess with vegetables and excellent potatoes and Yorkshires, and the crackling is amazing. Go there and try one and tell them I sent you.

Needless to say, they earn the foodie point.  

Bonus points: An unusual one here - they actually serve really good coffee, probably due to their presence in the local community as a 'something for everyone' sort of pub. They even host coffee mornings during the daytime, apparently.

I'm going to have to deduct a point for customer service though - it may be an issue with their booking system, but trying to book, being told you can't, but to turn up and it will be fine, then being turned away despite tables clearly being available isn't a great experience. It's harsh, it was probably a one-off, and I've dined there a couple of times since without any issues, but there was no goodwill gesture and they just didn't seem to care about the customers because they had so many others.

They can have a point for their Quiz and Comedy nights, but on balance it's not going to be a big score, largely due to the negative, which I feel has to be taken into account.

Contender #5: One Inn The Wood, Petts Wood

Micropubs are becoming a common sight on high streets these days, but this was one of the first to show up, located virtually next door to Petts Wood station, right on the fringes of South East London. Some people would call it Kent, but since 1974, they've been wrong, obviously.

As well as being rather small, it is, perhaps, the most 'dog friendly' pub I've ever visited. There always seem to be three or four of the things in attendance and, amazingly, they always seem to get on with one another! But what's the beer like?

Range of draught beers: A house beer from Tonbridge (actually just their standard Traditional Bitter, renamed) is complemented by between four and six guests, depending on the time of the week. These now come from all over the country, and while Kent-brewed  beers may show up, they're not as prevalent as in some of the other micropubs along the SE London/NW Kent corridor and indeed this place in its early days.

Simple fayre: Beer and scratchings
There's no keg, and the beer veers towards the traditional - expect to find an ordinary bitter, a best bitter, a stronger ale and something dark and porter-like. It's possibly not the place to visit if you really want saisons and sours, but then it's not a place for people who hate dogs either. As a micropub range, it's perfectly fine, though when compared to the other pubs in this contest it might struggle. 1 point.

Quality of Real Ale: As noted at the Kentish Belle, when cask is king there is nowhere to hide. The cask quality here is good, with beer fresh and clear and perfectly solid.

That said, it's not absolutely outstanding and I've encountered a couple of temperature issues, but as I have to reiterate often: 1 point on a scale from -2 to 2 is actually a good score.

Food: Like most micropubs, there is no kitchen - only cold snacks available.

Bonus points: No points for dogs, sadly, but the snack range including some delightful pork scratchings with a real 'home made' feel about them are worth a point. Customers can also enjoy a quirky range of local-ish cider, country wines and fruit juices which are also worth a point. And when many micropubs are criticised for limited opening times, OITW keeps to far more traditional hours, with lunchtime opening, except on Mondays when they are closed all day. Add up that lot and you get the maximum bonus.

So, those are the new contenders this year. Give us a few weeks and we'll announce the top five, including this years winner!

Where to find it...

45 Fairfield Road
KT1 2PY (map)
website / whatpub

Cask Pub & Kitchen
6 Charlwood Street
SW1V 2EE (map)
website / whatpub

Kentish Belle
8 Pickford Lane
DA7 4QW (map)
website / whatpub

2 Greyhound Lane,
SW16 5SD (map)
website / whatpub

One Inn The Wood
209 Petts Wood Road
Petts Wood
BR5 1LA (map)
website / whatpub



  1. I'm detecting a distinct "south of the river" bias in your competition this year, Mr. Nunn. Surely nothing whatsoever to do with your now being a Man of Kent who ne'er ventures North of the River?

  2. Agree, there is a bit of a Southern bias, but all good pubs nevertheless.

  3. It's actually Surrey I live in now, but I take the point. I don't get to North (or indeed East) London all that often and that's probably reflected in the shortlisting process.

    Tell you what, recommend me some pubs off my beaten track, and I'll endeavour to get to them over the coming year. No guarantees they'll make the competition, mind, but if they're good enough...


Comments are always welcomed and encouraged, especially interesting, thought-provoking contributions and outrageous suggestions.