There are many landlords out there working extremely hard to maintain pubs and bars that were actually serving customers in the Victorian era, over a century ago. Several of these are in London, and are wonderful places to visit, a sense of history pervading through the clatter of glasses and merry chatter, as you wonder who may have had a few too many in the same spot all that time ago. They are relatively rare though, and as such a few clever chaps have skipped this process altogether and just opened bars from scratch and pimped them up, Victorian style.
There appears to be a fair amount of desire to drink old school, as it were, as plenty of cocktail bars in Shoreditch and other trendy spots have gone with the theme, to varying degrees of success. The cavernous, gorgeous Booking Office bar in the new Renaissance Hotel has old fashioned punches mulling away on the bar, and a cocktail list full of imperial pleasures. The Worship Street Whistling Shop, a tiny lair aging cocktails in their own wood barrels behind the bar is fun without being pretentious.
Another to try its hand is Powder Keg Diplomacy, located in the quiet bit of Battersea, a few minutes’ walk from Clapham Junction, and despite this handicap (everywhere in Clapham being terrible of course) I actually quite liked it. If this is how the well-off lived a century ago, we have pretty much wasted the last hundred years. Lots of highly polished wood and dark leather makes the world outside seem lurid and unrefined, a world away from the upper class comfort within, the dimmed lighting and shiny cocktail mixers eliciting an air of decadence. This is a place where the smoking ban is a crying shame – a haze of silky smoke would complete the desired effect.
It is not particularly attached to tradition though – you are still afforded all the alcoholic mod cons that are a must in any cool bar - wines from the New World, American craft beers, triple cooked chips. I was there primarily for the beers, which are a pretty mixed bag. The bottle list has some interesting stuff from at home and abroad, with some rarely seen breweries, but was a bit incoherent and lacked many affordable stand-out options. Windsor & Eton Republika was sublime and well worth the £3.75 I paid, but prices in the double figures for many bottles that I wouldn’t buy at half the price was disconcerting.
On tap, the 5 keg lines also felt oddly selected (3 British lagers on keg along with Anchor Steam and a cranberry stout) but the cask beers made more sense with Oakhams and Dark Star providing quality options. A house lager from Lost Brewing was slightly uninspiring but good enough to interest me in more of their beers. As with all pubs in London these days, they have scotch eggs, which we tried and enjoyed, the piccalilli making up for its diminutive size. There is a restaurant somewhere in the back, and the cocktails looked amazing, but we left after a couple of beers because we had to, it was simply too expensive. My £3.90 pint of lager was the cheapest thing available on draft, and everything else felt largely out of our price range for a January night out. This place would be good for a large group of friends, where the varied drinks and comfortable surrounds would entertain a range of tastes – although probably best to wait until pay day.