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!

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

BV London Pub of the Year 2022-23 - part one

It's that time of year again when I think about whether I should give up doing a London Pub of the Year award, and then go ahead and do it anyway. 

With another full year of no lockdowns and freedom-of-drinking under our belt, this year's contest should be a cracker. God only knows I've made enough visits to 'That London', as I'm now obligated to call it, in search of the capitals best pub. 

So here we go. This post will cover last years top five and part two will reveal five brand new challengers. Well, 'new' in the sense that they weren't in the 2021-22 contest.

Enjoy. Or don't.

Last year's Winner: Kentish Belle, Bexleyheath

South-East London's favourite Art Deco micropub, the Kentish Belle has had a lot of success in this competition, winning a special award for the 2019-21 lockdown years when everything went a bit strange, before going on to win 'properly' last Summer.

The perfect pint?
Range of draught beers: The selection is impressive; Whether you're a fan of session bitter, fruit sour or imperial pastry stouts, you'll always find something interesting on both cask and keg here, and there's a complete absence of anything 'Macro'. During 'special events' like Tap Takeovers and mini-fests the number of casks on offer will skyrocket, sometimes into double figures, which is obviously excellent. At less busy times (or immediately after very busy times) the number of casks might be down to three or four. While I applaud the common sense approach, it does appear that the frequency of the special events has decreased in the past year or so. For that reason, the Belle picks up 2 points this year.

Quality of real ale: I've never yet been served a pint here that wasn't really top-notch. And, crucially, when I've had the same beer here as elsewhere, it's almost always been better here, sometimes by some distance, and even when competing against other pubs in this contest! CAMRA members who claim to care about cask beer, but boycott the place due to petty squabbles are missing out! A maximum 3 points.
Bonus points: These points can be added or deducted, but there's really nothing 'bad' for which this pub can be penalised. The toilet facilities are an upgrade from most places that identify as micropubs and that's worth a point - piece of mind, I'm sure you'll agree, especially if you have elderly relatives. They also get a point for an extensive range of cask ciders as well as a decent craft can selection. The availability of the best commercial brand of dry roasted peanutes (Tavern Snacks) can be hit and miss lately, but they've still already done enough for the full 3 bonus points.

All in all, it's a unique little boozer that continues to perform very strongly indeed.

Last year's Runner-up: Hope, Carshalton

Another former winner, the community-owned Hope regularly racks up an embarassment of awards. It's become something of a destination pub for visitors from afar, and understandably so. A long-term programme of expansion means that the pub now has extensive indoor and outdoor drinking spaces, plus a permanent marquee that is home to the monthly beer festivals.
A change from the usual?
Range of draught beers: Two regular casks and two regular keg lagers, plus five guest casks and at least as many guest kegs, usually more. The selection runs the gamut from light and pale through to Imperial Hopmonsters and the strong dark stuff. Brewers that appear commonly include Kent, Downton, Drop Project, Siren, and our old friend Thornbridge. The keg selection in particular is excellent - fans of sours will normally find a choice of two different ones on tap, sometimes even more, and in all conceivable flavours and even colours! But as in last year's contest, the thing that prevents the Hope getting maximum points is that the cask range is sometimes a bit safe and samey. 2 points.

Quality of real ale: If you want a quick lesson in how important cellarship is, do a pub crawl around Carshalton and try the cask beer in each pub. Most will score somewhere between -1 and 1. Some might be as bad as a -2. Hell, I've had pints in the local area that were -3. But when you compare that to the perfectly served fresh cool pint of cask you invariably get in the Hope you'll notice the difference. A full 3 points here.

Bonus points: The food offering here is exactly what it should be: Specials at lunchtime, pot meals served all day, and little tubs of cheese, meat, wasabi nuts etc. on the bar, alongside rolls and chunks of pork pie. Definitely worth a point. They also pick up a bonus for their monthly beer festivals, which have become the stuff of local legend - everything in the main bar is as normal, but there's another 20-30 beers out back! Another plus point is the availablity of musical instruments and board games for customer use. There's nothing I'd take points off for, so it's a maximum 3.

Last year's #3: Southampton Arms, Gospel Oak

Following an absence of a few years, North London's Southampton Arms made a strong return to the competition last year, but can it really compete with the likes of the KB and the Hope?

Before the realisation...
Range of draught beers: You'll typically find at least half a dozen beers apiece on keg and cask. There has been a gradual shift towards the former, and it's all from crafty/smaller producers which is good. They do their best to have local-ish beers, so expect to see some of London's finest on the bar - Kernel, Five Points, Howling Hops etc. If I had a criticism it would be the same as the last couple of entries - that the keg range sometimes makes the cask look a bit boring and uninspiring. But they can only sell what the breweries put out, I guess. 2 points.
Quality of real ale: I wonder sometimes if the expansion of the keg range here has meant that they sell less cask, and that has had a knock-on effect on quality. A few years ago when it was very cask-centric with just a couple of kegs on, the beer here was undeniably superb. Sadly that hasn't been my experience lately and I've had a few pints here that were lacklustre and one that was outright bad. And that's why they only score 1 point these days
Bonus points: Unfortunately I have to relate another incident that will cost this place a point - they didn't have any of their famous pork pies available, and instead offered me a Scotch Egg, which was fine. Except that it turned out to be a meat-free Scotch Egg, pretty horrible at that, and they hadn't mentioned that fact up front. It might've been an innocent mistake, but for a pub that proudly advertised 'MEAT!' on the outside wall to have only a vegetarian disgrace as its food offering...  On the plus side, when they do have the meaty snacks, they are excellent, and the proper pub interior with jazz records and an old piano is worth a bonus point too. Having taken feedback from readers, I feel their card-only payment policy should now mean a point deducted. They'll pull another one back for their range of cask cider - dry; sweet; adjunct; one of the best in London - and overall they score a net bonus tally of 1.
I won't lie - a couple of things have disappointed me with the Southampton Arms this year and this is going to be reflected in their scores. I hope they can raise their game again in the future.

Last year's #4: Rake, Southwark

London's original micropub? Maybe so, but the Rake has long extended its reach out into the decking area and beyond, out into Borough Market where thirsty drinkers can sup al fresco. A converted greasy spoon rose through the ranks to become the best pub in what is still quite a pubby area, but how does it fare against the best in all of London?
The writing is on the wall for this pub
Range of draught beers: More keg-oriented than most pubs in the competition, the Rake uses technology to show the extensive range of beers currently on offer live via the UnTappd app and on-screen in the pub, allowing users to make a selection without cluttering up the rather limited bar space. A typical day will offer three or four casks, plus maybe 12 on keg, and a couple of lines devoted to cider. The Rake has always sourced its beer from a wide area, so you might find genuine Czech or Belgian imports on draught, and maybe even something from the USA. Another quirk is that a low-alcohol or radler-type beer is often available on tap, resulting in a really eclectic range. Like so many other pubs it scores 2, but for quite different reasons.

Quality of real ale: Cask isn't really the main focus at the Rake, but they do keep it pretty well. Indeed, I wonder if a lot of the customers are missing out here by overlooking the real stuff. Always decent condition and it really ought not to be an afterthought. 2 points.

Bonus points: The big bonus here is the bottled and canned selection from all over the world. If you honestly can't find anything you want to drink on tap, you definitely will if you look in the fridge. A sensible dining policy is to allow drinkers to pick up street food or farm produce from the market and enjoy it on the premises, so that's worth another point. The pub is small and functional and primarily a vehicle for beer-delivery (not literally) but it's earned it's 2 bonus points.

Last year's #5: Golden Ark, Selsdon

Rounding out last year's final, we have the quirky micropub in the forgotten corner of the London Borough of Croydon that surprised us all. It put Selsdon on the map, but it's up against some serious competition this year, before we even get to the five new challengers...

Raiders of the Golden Ark
Range of draught beers: You'll usually find three or four cask beers plus half a dozen on keg. Everything comes from smaller breweries and they try to have something dark and something light, something weak and something stronger, something hoppy and something - you get the idea. The policy works well, though it can be hit'n'miss if you're a ticker like me always looking for something new. 1.5 points.

Quality of real ale: It pains me to say it, but over this past year some beer here has been average and some has been a little better than average. Nothing terrible per se, but I have to score in the context of the competition here and while I can't quite bring myself to say zero, on a scale from -3 to 3, it has to be a 0.5.

Bonus points: The snack selection is tremendous and eccentric - Biltong, salami sticks and various ethnic carbohydrates from the four corners of the cash & carry. It really is a veritable tuck shop. Another bonus point for the community presence - quiz nights, darts tournaments and live music all serve to make the smallish space into a venue and it can get pretty packed when there's something on. An interesting fridge selection and indeed the 'top shelf' gives the place a third bonus point, and if I could give another one for the interesting characters one regularly meets in here I'd do that too. 3 points.

And there we have it - last year's top five, freshly reviewed and rated for the 2022-23 contest! Come back in a few days when we'll do the same for the five new contenders...

Where to find it...


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

The Hope
48 West Street,
SM5 2PR (map)
website / whatpub

Southampton Arms
139 Highgate Road,
Gospel Oak 
NW5 1LE (map)
no website
  / whatpub
14A Winchester Walk,
SE1 9AG (map)
website / whatpub

Golden Ark
186 Addington Road,
CR2 8LB (map)
website / whatpub

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