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 31, 2023

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

Whenever there's a part one, there's always a part two. The second course. The revenge of the killer sequel, if you will.

And this is it - the second half of the 2022-23 London Pub of the Year contest, where five new contenders join the competition and go up against last year's Top Five.

This year sees a mix of complete newcomers and pubs that have been absent from the contest for a few years, so let's crack on...

Harp, Charing Cross

We start with a returning hero. The Harp took second place in the very first BV PotY, eleven years ago, but has been absent for a while now. How much have things changed since the days of the late and legendary Binnie Walsh? Well, it looks very similar to how it did in Binnie's day - if anything there are even more pumpclips adorning the walls and celiing - but the Harp is now a Fuller's pub. Albeit not your typical example thereof...

They've had a few different beers over the years...
Range of draught beers: These days Fuller's means effectively 'part of the International Asahi Brewing empire', and while that's definitely noticeable, it's not overbearing. So there will be beers from that stable, with Dark Star APA and Hophead and Fuller's London Pride on cask, and Asahi lager and Meantime pale on keg. But with half the handpumps dedicated to guest ales, you'll always find four of five more interesting cask beers from microbreweries. Expect the likes of Rooster's, Redwillow and Bristol Beer Factory. Seasonals from the Fuller's/Dark Star brand will also generally appear here. Most of the keg selection is macro/mainstream, but there are a couple of craft-oriented lines, usually dispensing stronger IPA-style beers. Sometimes the stylistic choice isn't as diverse as it could be, given the number of beers on (and the sheer size of the central London customer base) and for that reason it scores a 2.

Quality of real ale: The Harp gained a reputation for quality cask under Binnie's watch, and to be fair to Fuller's, this is something they take seriously as a company too. (Well, they do now - who knows if this is something their bosses as Asahi HQ are commited to in the long-term!) Cask turnover is still quite vigourous, which helps, and while I can't give them the highest score for absolutely blowing my little casken socks off, they earn a solid 2.

Bonus points: There is something intangibly 'special' about this kind of West End boozer where crowds spill out onto the street and it feels like nothing has changed in years, so they get a point for the in/exterior character. The toilet facilities are shonky, but not quite bad enough to warrant a deduction, and the 10% CAMRA discount means that prices are actually not unreasonable for the area, so they pick up a point for that. 2 bonus points then.

Craft Beer Co. Clerkenwell

It's back - the pub that pipped the Harp to win the inaugural contest, and a four-time winner of the trophy. Good to see you again, old friend, your past credentials are beerily impressive for sure, but how do you compare with London's finest pubs in 2023?

Range of draught beers: A few years ago, pubs in the Craft Beer Co. chain were absolutely unrivalled for choice on tap. This branch regularly had 16 different casks and as many kegs on at the same time - without any detriment to quality. Sadly, the chain has been significantly affected by lockdown, and while the keg range is as strong as ever, or somewhere close to it, the number of cask beers is nothing like how it used to be, and I do wonder if it ever will be. The house pale ale from Kent is a staple and Siren's excellent Broken Dream breakfast stout is regularly on; otherwise the cask range changes, but there might only be a choice of two or three. On keg you can find all styles and strengths from London, the rest of the country and indeed the rest of the world. Because of this I still have to award 2.5 points, even though cask drinkers might be disappointed in the choice these days.

Quality of real ale: The reduction in cask choice might have an upside, in that it enables the chain to ensure quality is maintained. If customers are drinking less cask, then it makes sense not to try and sell too many different beers at the same time. The theory fits like a glove, on paper. In reality - and this is just my own experience - I've actually found that the real ale here isn't as good as it used to be. In other words, when 15 handpumps were active, the beer that they dispensed was in better condition than it is now that several of them lie unused. This could be a change in management, less stringent training policies or - most worryingly - an indicator that local demand for cask has dropped off even more than the reduction in beer choice would indicate. That said, it's still very good, just not as special as it once was. 1.5 points. 

Bonus points: Something that hasn't changed here is the excellent range of bottled beers in the fridge, available at a discount to take away. That's worth a bonus point, and there's also a spirits selection that you'd be hard-pressed to beat, which is worth another. Rationalisation of the bar snacks in the past year means they can no longer pick up a point for those, so it's a total of 2 this time.

Sutton Arms, Clerkenwell

Sticking in the Clerkenwell/Farringdon/Finsbury area - call it what you like - and this is probably the most-requested pub for inclusion in this competition, so I had to check it out.
Generic pub exterior shot
Range of draught beers: It might be a coincidence, but like the Craft Beer Co. down the road, the range here is definitely more keg-oriented. Hazy/East Coast style IPA is particularly popular, but you'll also usually find something fruity and/or sour, and there are tap-takeovers from time to time. About eight keg lines in total. The cask selection is more conservative, with three ales usually available, including a house beer from Anspach & Hobday. It's also been a notable outlet for rare casks from Kernel, which is a good reason to visit. It's mainly craft stuff, with very little macro in sight (possibly only Guinness), and adds up to 2 points.

Quality of real ale: I make no secret of the fact that I'm primarily a cask drinker, and this is weighted fairly heavily into my pub reviews; probably more so than with most other people who write about beer and pubs these days. I'm scoring this place a 1, which sounds negative, but it literally isn't (zero would be neutral, so this is above average). I've found my cask pints here perfectly good, but just not wonderfully smashable, and some pale beers weren't served as cool as I'd like for the style. I know, I know, I'm some sort of decrepit CAMRA dinosaur and I should just drink keg...

Bonus points: I know this pub has some dedicated supporters, and I'm probably missing something, but I find it hard to see too many extra little things to get excited about here. It's a rare example of a place where you can watch live sport without having to drink shit beer, so that's worth a point. Sausage rolls are available from the heated cabinet, but I was fairly ambivalent about them, compared to those you get in some places these days.

Sultan, Colliers Wood

A proper locals pub in South London, the Sultan is something of a favourite with the local CAMRA branch, and has been so since the 1990s when the Hopback brewery first took the place over to gain a London outpost.
Oh the games people play now
Range of draught beers: When the pub first opened, Hopback beers were something of a novelty outside Wiltshire. They are more widely available now, but it's still slightly strange to find oneself in one of their few tied houses, especially given the location. The cask range consists of all the standard Hopback Beers like GFB, Entire Stout and their flagship Summer Lightning, plus whatever seasonals the brewery is currently doing and one or two beers from Downton, usuallly another seasonal special. The keg range is in 'standard macro' territory, but apart from a few lager drinkers, most customers here seem to be happy with the cask. If you don't like Hopback you may struggle, but overall the range is worth a 1.5.

Quality of real ale: I was always really impressed with the beer quality here back in the 1990s, but there was a period of inexplicable slumpage that lasted quite a while. I'm happy to report that the condition of cask here now really is excellent. Indeed, I had a couple of pints of (Hopback) Garden Party recently that were possibly the best conditioned beer I've had all year. It's not always quite that good, but the CAMRA credentials here are actually meaningful, which isn't always the case. 2.5 points.

Bonus points: Beer festivals out the back are always a highlight and offer a chance to drink beers from other breweries in the pub. And I'll give them a second bonus point for the selection of board games which is, well, substantial. They also host live music nights, with a focus on the folky, and that's another winner in my book. A little library/book exchange adds to the community feel of the place, and I should mention that their pork scratchings (JTS brand) are excellent. 3 points.


Star & Garter, Bromley

We round off this years contest with a trip to Bromley, and given how South East London has become dominated by micropubs, it's perhaps unusual to find a full-size boozer lurking in the midst of a busy high street. A surprise contender? Well...
The Garters of the Show...
Range of draught beers: This is one of those pubs that surprises you with its beer range. They've gone all out to make a statement and be the place to drink in the local area, and they've pretty much succeeded. You'll find 10-12 kegs plus somewhere around half a dozen casks as well as proper cider. Multinational brands are eschewed in favour of interesting craft offerings, and they're not afraid of some pretty extreme beers - Imperial Sours, Pastry Stouts, whatever you go for, they've likely got you covered. Thornbridge, Kernel, Verdant and other top-drawer brewers figure prominently, and you might even see some interesting European imports on tap. A solid 2.

Quality of real ale: Something of a mixed bag. I had a pint here that was borderline undrinkable (and from Howling Hops who aren't exactly known for making bad beer) but some perfectly palatable beers and one that was really pretty good in the same visit! When this sort of thing happens, I tend to assume that either extreme is most likely the result of sheer accidentalism. If that's a word. Does it all average out to a 0? No, because it wasn't quite that bad altogether. 1 point.

Bonus points: The modernised interior lends itself to some quirky decor - particularly en route to the facilities - you'll have to go and check that out. While they have no kitchen, diners are allowed to bring in food from outside, and the range of crisps and snacks is pretty good here, which is worth another point. And as a verified Untappd venue, it's easy to find out exactly what beers are on at any given time, which is something I wish more pubs would do. I can't think of anything to deduct points for here, so they earn a maximum 3


So... those are the pubs - and in just a couple of weeks time we'll have a final verdict on who is the 2022-23 BV London Pub of the Year!

Where to find it...


47 Chandos Place,
Charing Cross
WC2N 4HS (map)
website / whatpub

Craft Beer Co. Clerkenwell
82 Leather Lane,
EC1N 7TR (map)
website / whatpub

Sutton Arms
16 Great Sutton Street,
EC1V 0DH (map)
no website / whatpub
78 Norman Road,
Colliers Wood
SW19 1BT (map)
website  / whatpub
Star & Garter 
227 High Street,
BR1 1NZ (map)
website / whatpub


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