This post starts with a sad story. A few months ago, Thomas and I went to try out a recently-renovated pub nearby, The King’s Arms. It used to be a proper local’s pub. But the new management took down the traditional swinging sign. They switched the pub tables outside for expensive benches, stripped out the interior and crammed the back bar with craft beers. Now The King’s Arms pitches itself as a “stylish modern take on a traditional pub”.
It’s on Buckfast Street – a dreary tributary off the main drag of Bethnal Green Road, lined with 20th century council houses. But walk into the King’s Arms, and it’s all racing green and wood panelling. Empty. We bought a pint from the elaborately moustached, hipster-tattooed barman, and took them to a corner of the silent room.
Then an old guy wandered in. Clearly The King’s Arms had been his local for years. But now he was a stranger in foreign surroundings. He’d had a couple, but hell, he was in a pub not a church – and it looked like he had every intention of propping up the bar until last orders. Only this didn’t fit with the new aesthetic, and somehow a row escalated with the barman, which ended with him threatening to phone the police to have the punter removed. Eventually the old man turned round, and slinked out of his once-‘local’, spurned.
Now, I’m all for change in the city. I’ve enjoyed watching The Shard go up, and I could sit and marvel at The Gherkin for hours. I love the lifts that whizz up and down the outside of The Lloyds building, and Battersea Power Station, and Zaha Hadid’s Aquatic Centre. But there’s something sacrilegious about changing someone’s local.
East London has always been a transient place. For centuries now, it’s attracted groups who have come, and then moved on. And it continues to do so. I accept, changing demographics require changing demands, and there’s no hiding the fact that the East End is becoming more Corona than Carling. But that’s no excuse to rip down old boozers, replace them with quite hostile, generic gastropubs– and isolate some of their most loyal patrons in the process.
And so I move onto The Old George. A lesson in how a pub can and should adapt, rather than tear things down and start again. Sit in The Old George’s beer garden on a summer evening. Look around you, and you’ll see that the pub has achieved that rare thing of appealing to people all across the ever-broadening spectrum of ‘East Enders’. No gimmicks, no devises. Just an old-school pub where people meet up for a pint. There are strong East End accents, and strong Eastern European accents. Some people wear suits, others sport a sleeve of tatts; some are sipping white wine others nursing a pint. It’s inclusive, not exclusive.
The Old George changed hands last summer, and its new management, Antic London, resisted the temptation to gut the early eighteenth-century boozer and start again. It’s enjoyably big and gloomy with a huge bar running down one side of the room. There are about 20 cheap little pub tables in the garden, and the odd tile missing in the toilets.
Where Antic London have invested time and money is in the kitchen. Sam Andrews was imported as head chef – a man who has shunned the microwaves and McCains used in lazy pub kitchens, and has introduced an ever-changing, seasonal menu. And my goodness, it’s exciting. This week, they were serving cockles…cockles! A joyous little bowl of Thames Estuary cockles with bacon and leek. It was almost like travelling back in time to the East London of olde.
The food was so tasty, and so unpretentious. Our other starter was a sardine fish finger sandwich. The sardines was served between two thick slices of bread, with some pickled slices of cucumber and horseradish. It was a thing of great beauty, and would’ve make a decent-sized supper on its own, had we not already committed to a main. Pretty flipping good for £5.90.
I had hake for main course, in a creamy sauce with spaghetti, and generous handful of garlic and herb fried breadcrumbs. Thomas had skate wing – an enormous and meaty fish. A real man portion, which came with crispy roast potatoes, salty with anchovies and olives.
The menu is so exciting, and the food certainly delivers – even reviving some traditional East End delicacies like cockles . It’s restaurant-standard cooking, but at pub prices, with the added advantage of a relaxed pub atmosphere, unbelievably nice staff, and a smaller mark up on booze than you’d see in most London restaurants.
In conclusion, I appreciate that things like a pub can’t stay stuck in time, and often a little change is a good thing.
But there are so many preservation societies out there (UNESCO lists Bulgarian fire dancing and Ecuadorian torquilla straw hats amongst the ‘intangible cultural heritages’ which it protects. Britain has spent an unholy amount of money protecting its crested newt, and I can’t help but think that parts of Barbican would be better being bulldozered than registered as a listed building). So why, oh why, are important local boozers allowed to be bought-up by chains and turned into faceless gastropubs. Hats off to Antic London for preserving The Old George, and bringing comfort, cockles and – I’m sure if people wanted it – Carling back to Bethnal Green.
Has a local near you changed hands? Did the new management change it for better or worse? And do you think that pubs should be preserved?
379 Bethnal Green Road, London, E2 0AN
Mon – Wed: 4pm – 11pm,
Thurs: 4pm – 12am
Fri: 4pm – 1am
Sat: 12pm – 1am
Sun: 12pm – 11pm
What we ate
Sardine fish finger sandwich, horseradish cream, pickled cucumber, £5.90
Cockles marinière, gem, bacon, charred sourdough, £6.50
Baked hake spagettade, lemon, parsley and garlic sauce, £8.90
Roasted skate wing, tartare sauce, potatoes roasted with olives and anchovy, 12.50