Pubs are the beating heart of British life, and they have been for centuries. Hundreds are scattered throughout the city, but you might be shocked to learn that many of the oldest premises have been so well-loved (or so well-bombed) that most of their original features are gone. Many other pubs, particularly in the suburbs, are what's called "locals" -- places that cater to a neighborhood, not tourist, clientele.
The following pubs will do you right, however. Be they truly ancient, stunningly beautiful, happily situated, or simply charming, they're all authentic and unlikely to let you down. All of them serve food of some kind (burgers, meat pies, and the like) and commonly charge under £3 for a pint.
Few pubs meld abundant history with an enviable location as perfectly as the three-story Anchor Bankside (34 Park St., SE1; tel. 020/7407-1577; MC, V; Tube: London Bridge), whose Thameside patio in sight of St. Paul's dome is perhaps the most agreeable (and popular) spot in London at which to sit a spell with a fresh-pulled pint. There's been a tavern here at least since the 1500s, when Londoners ferried to Southwark by the hundreds to experience bear baiting, gardens, brothels, and Shakespeare (the playwright surely would have known the place). Diarist and royal confidant Samuel Pepys is said to have watched London burn to the ground from the safety of this bank in 1666, and another Samuel, this one Johnson, may have kept a room here while he compiled the first English dictionary. The industrial Anchor brewery that subsumed it for 200 years was cleared away in the 1980s, a spacious (but always crowded) riverside terrace was added, and the pub building was thoughtfully restored to the maze of creaking rooms that captivates punters and river walkers today. If you're staying at the budget hotel Premier Travel Inn London Southwark (www.premiertravelinn.com), your breakfast is taken upstairs at the Anchor.
Having a beer in The Argyll Arms (18 Argyll St., W1; tel. 020/7734-6117; MC, V; Tube: Oxford Circus) can feel like drinking in a bejeweled, red velvet box. That's thanks to the many acid-etched glass screens that subdivide the space into dignified drinking areas. Originally installed in 1895 to prevent brawls between the working and middle classes, the screens somehow survived the 20th century and now serve to hide Oxford Street shoppers as they wait for their well-swiped credit cards to cool down. It's one of the prettiest pubs in London, and its location southeast of Oxford Circus (by several of the Tube's exits), makes it an easy stop.
A laidback, wood-lined, and easy-to-find pub situated east across the road from the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery, The Chandos (29 St. Martin's Lane, WC2; tel. 020/7836-1401; AE, MC, V; Tube: Leicester Square or Charing Cross) has an upper-floor Opera Room that's popular with staff and patrons of the English National Opera, a few doors north. Big and relaxed, it looks older than it is (it was renovated in early 2006), but it's heavy on charm and surprisingly light on tourists.
The simple corner beerhouse The Coach and Horses (29 Greek St., W1; tel. 020/7437-5920; MC, V; Tube: Leicester Square), in the thick of Soho's tourist crowd at Romilly Street, dates to the mid-1800s, and although several pubs in London bear its name, few others share its history as a hangout for inebriated journalists.
A onetime haunt of actor Edmund Kean, who drank himself to an early curtain, The Coal Hole (91 Strand, WC2; tel. 020/7379-9883; MC, V; Tube: Charing Cross or Embankment), rebuilt in 1904 in the Arts and Crafts style, is still a hangout for performers at the adjoining Savoy Theatre. Use the entrance in back, by the stage door, to access the clubbier lower level.
The 17th-century charmer The Dove (19 Upper Mall, W6; tel. 020/8748-5405; AE, MC, V; Tube: Ravenscourt Park) houses many legends: that Charles II would cheat on his queen by sneaking off with Nell Gwynne here (probably false); that the composer of "Rule Britannia" lived, and died prematurely, upstairs (true); that dissolute artists Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, and Richard Burton all got wasted here. (So very true, along with many other imbibers commemorated on the walls). It's a prototypical English pub with character, down to the low ceiling crossed by dark oak beams, brick facade, and open fire. But it's the terraced Thameside situation that makes it endure. Sitting outside and watching the river, you'll understand why Hammersmith was a favored retreat from the city for so many centuries. Arrive early on weekends to snare a seat.
Unquestionably one of the most important ancient pubs still standing, The George Inn (77 Borough High St., SE1; tel. 020/7407-2056; MC, V; Tube: London Bridge) traces its lineage to at least 1542, when a map of Southwark first depicted it; the Tabard Inn, from where Chaucer's pilgrims left in Canterbury Tales, was a few doors south (it's gone now). The oldest part of the current structure, a galleried wood-and-brick longhouse, dates to 1677, after a horrific fire swept the district. It later functioned as an 18th-century transit hub, and its courtyard was encircled on three sides with a tavern, a hotel, stables, wagon repair bays, and warehouses. Shakespeare knew it, and Dickens memorialized it in Little Dorrit, but the rise of a railway nearly saw it destroyed, and only one side of the former complex survives. The National Trust now protects it. Sip an ale in the low-ceilinged timber-and-plaster chambers, or sit in the cobbled courtyard and soak up the echoes of history.
You're going to hear a lot of stories about the Duke of Wellington when you're in this part of town (it was his 'hood), so you might as well be drinking when you do. The Grenadier (18 Wilton Row, SW1; tel. 020/7235-3074; AE, MC, V; Tube: Hyde Park Corner), it's said, was his local bar and the unofficial clubhouse for his regiment, hence the battlefield artifacts on display, from old trumpets to lanterns. This tiny plank-floored pub, pretty as a picture in a cobbled mews, comes off like a boozer in some tiny upcountry village, with only 15 places at its island bar, part of which is still faced with its original pewter top. It's less known for its resident ghost (a soldier) than for its freshly mixed bloody marys, nicely tart with a giant celery stalk (£5). Find this secret place by heading down Grosvenor Crescent from Hyde Park Corner station, hanging a hard right upon arriving at Belgrave Square onto Wilton Crescent, and taking your first right on Wilton Row.
Too tiny and thronged to give tourists much respite, The Lamb and Flag (33 Rose St., WC2; tel. 020/7497-0504; Tube: Covent Garden or Leicester Square), is nonetheless the epitome of a city pub, tucked as it is down an atmospheric brick alley and blessed with an original fireplace. It has been known throughout its 375 years as both the Coopers Arms and The Bucket of Blood, and its building is said to be Tudor in origin. No one can prove it, since it was heavily rebuilt in the 1890s. You'll find it on a lane just east of the intersection of Floral and Garrick streets. But you probably won't find a place to sit unless you start drinking after lunch.
McGlynn's Free House (1-5 Whidborne St, WC1; tel. 020/7916-9816; AE, MC, V; Tube: Russell Square or King's Cross St. Pancras) isn't hundreds of years old, or even important, but it fulfills the image of a "local" where the neighborhood folks hang out in peace and the landlord welcomes new faces. Its coal-blackened brick corner building, painted in old-fashioned green and red trim, is hard to find (it's southwest of Argyle Square in King's Cross), which accounts for some of its appeal. Its street is so quiet that, unlike at most London pubs, you'd actually consider loitering at one of its outdoor picnic tables in summer. It's the sort of place with a giant juke box (100 CDs), a few "pokie" gambling machines jangling in the corner, and a rugby or football game on the TV every afternoon. The food's retro, too, starting with prices: £3.95 burgers, £4.95 lasagna. Because it's a "free house," it can serve a range of lagers and stouts from a variety of brewers.
The enchanting Old Mitre (1 Ely Court, off Ely Place, EC1; tel. 020/7405-4751; AE, MC, V; closed weekends; Tube: Farringdon or Chancery Lane), suspended between streets and seemingly between centuries, was once part of a great palace mentioned by Shakespeare in Richard II and Richard III. The medieval St. Etheldreda's Chapel, the palace's surviving place of worship, stands just outside. As further proof that it's a straggler from another society, this extremely tiny pub (established in 1546 but built in its present form in 1772) has two entrances that feed either side of the bar. The one on the left grants you access to "the Closet," a fine example of a semiprivate sitting area called a "snug." The one on the right brings you face-to-face with a blackened stump said to be part of a cherry-tree maypole that Elizabeth I danced around. (Yeah, right, drink another one.) Suck down one of the house specialties: pickled eggs, for 60p. To locate it, seek a little alley among the jewelry stores on eastern Hatton Garden between Holborn Circus and Greville Street.
There's no pretending that The Narrow Boat (119 St. Peters St., N1; tel. 020/7288-0572; MC, V; Tube: Angel) is historically significant. It's simply a smashing place to pass a few hours on a pretty day. Picture windows overlook an attractive basin of the Regent's Canal, where you can watch barges, ducks, and wealthy folks in their waterfront loft conversions. Combine a visit with a stroll along the canal's footpath, and you've got one of the most romantic afternoons London has to offer.
The Covent Garden/Leicester Square location is unbeatable, and the ornate exterior and interior of The Salisbury (90 St. Martin's Lane, WC2; tel. 020/7836-5863; AE, MC, V; Tube: Leicester Square) is unmistakably Victorian -- ostentatious, just-how-much-did-the-designer-drink Victorian, to be precise. Thrill to the Grecian urns in the brilliant-cut glass, the pressed-copper tables, and the nymphs entwined in the bronze lamps. Long a haunt of the city's theatrical community, it's now a suitable pit stop for any West End exploration. The plate meals run the gamut of international offerings -- baked asparagus tarts; chicken tikka with pappadum; sausage and mash -- and they're £5.45 to £7.45. On Sundays, you can get Yorkshire pudding with gravy, plus lots of meat, during its roast (£7.45).
The facade of The Sherlock Holmes (10-11 Northumberland St., WC2; tel. 020/7930-2644; AE, MC, V; Tube: Charing Cross or Embankment) is a valentine to Victoriana, its interior subdued, and its stock of Holmsian memorabilia (assembled a half century ago as a tourist gag) will save you a trip to the similar attractions at the Holmes museum on Baker Street. Note that it's not on busy Northumberland Avenue, but on the street of the same name, which runs just north.
Just the sort of rambling, low-ceilinged tavern you imagine London is full of (and was, once), Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (Wine Office Court off 145 Fleet St., tel. 020/7353-6170; AE, MC, V; Tube: Blackfriars, Temple, or Chancery Lane) was built behind Fleet Street in the wake of the Great Fire in 1666, and because of steady log fires and regularly strewn sawdust, it still smells like history hasn't finished passing it by. In later generations, it played regular host to Dr. Samuel Johnson (who lived behind on Gough Square), Charles Dickens (who referred to it in A Tale of Two Cities), Yeats, Wilde, and Thackeray. You can get pretty well thackered yourself today: there are six drinking rooms (some in a courtyard converted for the purpose in our day), but the cozy front bar is the most magical. Ask to see the Chop Room's oak paneling and furniture or, if you're free-spending, to sample a steak dinner. Don't confuse this place with the Victorian Cheshire Cheese pub at nearby Temple.
This article is an excerpt from Pauline Frommer's London, 1st Edition, available in our Online Bookstore now.Talk with fellow Frommer's travelers on our Great Britain Message Boards today.