Soon after 6pm in Soho and it’s five deep at the bar, four bartenders are struggling to juggle the three beer taps and the two house wines while everyone just waits.
Where Central London is incredible for food, and brilliant for getting drunk on average beer, it’s long had a dearth of really great beer destinations, and you could stumble from pub to pub in hope of finding something delicious only to be disappointed. But that’s changing - now you just need to know where to drink.
My go-to is BrewDog Soho. The 20 taps of beer is the main pull, with loads of excellent guest brews plus many of BrewDog’s own. Staff will give you tasters and they’re typically smart beer people, so know their stuff if you’re overwhelmed by the choice and the exotic names. There are decent beer snacks, too.
Before BrewDog opened, I used to drink in The Lyric. There’s not enough seats so I always ended up standing in the open space of this old Victorian, street corner boozer. There are always a dozen good beers and it’s in a great location near Piccadilly Circus.
Before The Lyric it was The Harp (and still is The Harp). A beloved, small pub that gets packed every evening with office workers delaying their Charing Cross train home with a few pints. Look for the cask beers which they sell fast and often, meaning they typically taste great. Expect to stand on the street while you drink, which is an essential part of the charm (though on quieter days you can sit upstairs which feels as cosy and lived-in as your nan’s front room).
And before all of those there was The Porterhouse. Have you ever been there? It’s the London pub where I went as often as possibly 10 years ago, before ‘craft beer bars’ existed, when I was thirsty to try every beer I could, when I wanted to have their wonderfully smooth Oyster Stout, when we wanted to order bottles of exciting Belgian beer. It’s a sprawling pub in Covent Garden, dark wood lit by the illumination of neon signs and the bright beer fridges. They pour all of the Porterhouse beers – wonderful rich, smooth stouts – and that’s where you should start.
Also in Covent Garden (sort of) is Craft Beer Co. This has the most beers and a very eclectic range of British and world brews – just watch out for some of the prices on the rarer, stronger imports. Their mix of cask and keg is excitingly broad and it’s a must-visit pub in what’s otherwise a barren area for beer, with the fine exception of The Princess Louise, a classic old Sam Smith pub with some of London’s best male toilets. Drink the cask Old Brewery Bitter, still drawn from wooden barrels.
Other options in Central London include The Lowlander, a Belgian-style bar with a long list of Belgian beers, or back in Soho there’s Two Floors, rammed by night but during the day you can sit and enjoy a few quiet pints of well-selected beers, like Camden Town and Lagunitas. And there’s The Old Coffee House, which looks and feels like a proper London boozer. Run by Brodie’s Brewery, their beer is on tap and that’s what you should drink.
There are lots of terrible pubs in Central London just like there are lots of restaurants that you wouldn’t want to eat in. In terms of pubs, these few are real standouts for their variety, quality or atmosphere.