Great drinking and dining at London’s gastropubs

The pub is a fine British institution, but the eating is rarely as good as the drinking. When you order food at most pubs, what you get is a preprepared meal that’s heated up in a microwave, not something that’s cooked especially for you.

Some pubs do have good kitchens where they make everything from scratch, like The Fir Tree, my local in Oxford, but it can be hard to tell just by looking at a pub whether the food is good or not. If you want to get some good dining with your real ales, either ask a local or go to a gastropub.

Gastropubs are just what the name implies–pubs that pride themselves as much on their kitchen as on their bar. Last week I tried the Anchor and Hope, named by the folks over at Square Meal and several other reviewers as one of London’s best.

I must admit I wasn’t going in with the clearest state of mind, having just flown in from Missouri that morning and done a full day’s work at the British Library. (Ever read medieval manuscripts while jetlagged? Neither had I) The meal soon perked me up.

It was a Tuesday night but the place was packed and noisy. My friend and I didn’t bother trying to get a table and simply sat at the bar. Service was quick and we enjoyed watching the chefs do their thing in the open kitchen. I ordered the braised hare, and my friend ordered the fried eel, peas, mustard, and bacon.

The braised hare was tender and rich, and I found my friend’s dish pretty good too, even though I am by no means an eel fan. Both dishes came with plenty of flavorful sauce and we cleaned our plates with some sourdough bread. For dessert we had custard fingers. They were good too, but nothing special, so after the excellent entrees they were a bit of a letdown. Our two meals, three pints of Bombardier, and dessert came to just 43 pounds ($70). That’s good value in a city infamous for overpriced and mediocre food.

Other dishes on offer included Foie gras terrine and poached quince; pot roast partridge; braised cuttlefish and chickpeas in ink; and whole roast sea bass, fennel and anchovy dressing. As the night wore on items were crossed off the menu. This is a good sign because it means they only had limited quantities of quality ingredients, but it can lead to disappointment. I’d gone in with my heart set on the wild rabbit, tomato, anchovy, and almonds.

Located at number 36, The Cut, the Anchor & Hope is conveniently close to Waterloo station and the Old Vic and Young Vic theatres, so give it a try when you’re in town, or try one of the many other recommended gastropubs listed at Square Meal.

The word “gastropub” was coined back in 1991 by the owners of The Eagle in Clerkenwell, pictured here. Gastropubs, like many other aspects of English life, are very class-specific. Working-class types tend to dismiss gastropubs as being full of toffs who don’t know what a real pub is, and I have to say there’s a bit of truth to that statement. The gastropubs I’ve been to tend to be a bit less social and attract fewer of the regulars that make traditional pubs into little communities. The three times I’ve lived in England I always had a local pub where I was a regular, but I’ve never become a regular at a gastropub.

Now if someone opened a gastropub that served Ethiopian food, that could change. . .