Historic pubs and places to eat in London

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A publishing revelation, The Epicure's Almanack of 1815 was the first London good food guide. A topographic encyclopaedia of eating houses, it revealed "where a man might readily regale himself, according to the relative state of his appetite and purse". It was the Herculean labour of one man, the poet, playwright and manic depressive Ralph Rylance. As an excellent and readable new edition edited by Janet Ing Freeman shows, Rylance tirelessly chronicled more than 650 eating houses (the word "restaurant" was obscure in 1815) from oyster rooms to boiled beef houses, dockyard taverns to coffeehouses, ancient coaching inns to London's first Indian restaurant. Of the 650 entries a paltry 15 remain in business today, even if the interiors of some have been remodelled. Yet, if the claims of innumerable "ye olde" pubs are to be believed, virtually every other London pub hails from an oblique and distant past. So where are the genuinely historic places to eat and drink in London? The following list are personal favourites that might not feature on a tourist's radar – it's by no means exhaustive – and four establishments make brief appearances in the Almanack.

Since medieval times, "that tippling street, distinguished by the name of Fleet" was renowned for its profusion of taverns. The Bell Tavern was built by Sir Christopher Wren in the 1670s for builders working on his "wedding cake" Church of St Bride's, which looms over the pub. It soon attracted hacks and inkies (printers) working in Fleet Street's burgeoning newspaper industry, many of whom scrawled out their copy while perennially hammered. Today it's a less clammy and less touristy alternative to its near-neighbour, the Cheshire Cheese. The front has colourful stained-glass windows and a stone floor, which gives it an appropriately medieval feel. By the bar, a framed copy of a Daily Mail proclaims "St Paul's stands unharmed in the midst of the burning city", published the morning after the Blitz. The hacks have long-since vanished, displaced by office workers and the odd tourist but, as the Almanack observed in 1815, "the beverages are good, and the [dinner] charges moderate".
• 95 Fleet Street, EC4. 020-7583 0216, nicholsonspubs.co.uk

On a leisurely Georgian street, nestling behind an 18th-century facade, is this beautifully-preserved Victorian pub. Faded photographs of Victorian actresses ("Miss Fanny Ward", "Miss Violet Friend"…) line the walls alongside framed Hogarth paintings, reflecting the layers of history that meet here. There's a muscular polyphone (the Victorian equivalent of a jukebox) in the corner but by far the most intriguing survival are the eye-level snob screens – revolving glazed glass panels – on either side of the counter. In an era obsessed with social stratification, they ensured that the respectable classes didn't have to suffer the sight of lowly bar staff when they ordered their drinks – or vice-versa should, say, the landlord come into contact with a member of the Great Unwashed. Today a less snobbish crowd of liberal, literary Bloomsbury locals, American tourists, and office workers take in the atmosphere and the impressive range of real ales and "amazing couscous soup" on offer.
• 94 Lamb's Conduit Street, WC1, 020-7405 0713, youngs.co.uk

Every unusual tavern name tells a story and the George and Vulture – tucked away in a labyrinth of dark alleys surrounding St Michael's Churchyard, and known for its associations with Dickens – is no exception. Established in the 1470s as the George Inn, it was reduced to a smouldering wreck by the Great Fire. When it was rebuilt, the landlord agreed to lease part of it to a local wine merchant who'd lost his own shop. The only hiccup was his sign – a live vulture, which he promptly tethered above the entrance to the George. Its squawking and flapping so alarmed customers that the leaseholders decided to absorb the name "vulture" and, after years of captivity, release the beast into the sky. Today, the dusky wooden interior (described in the Almanack as "an established old tavern [with] commodious dining rooms") feels like a time capsule from the 18th century, but it's a lunchtime restaurant, only open during the week. It serves much the same hearty fare as it did 200 years ago – steak and kidney pie, roast beef, and Welsh rarebit – at the kind of prices that mainly suit City workers on their lunch break.
• 3 Castle Court, EC3, 020-7626 9710, no official website but owned by Sam Smith's Brewery

Coming here on the day I handed in my PhD, I associate Ye Olde Mitre Tavern with bacchanalian release – as Elizabeth I must have done, when she allegedly danced around its cherry tree with Sir Christopher Hatton. But the overriding sensation felt by most first-time visitors is frustration. Down a narrow, blink-and-you-miss-it alley in Holborn, it's not easy to find – but it's a hidden gem. Awaiting you is a graceful courtyard festooned with colourful flowers, barrel-tables and, unusually, an outside toilet. A giant board screams "established 1546" as though to justify the pub's "Ye Olde" epithet. And sure enough, inside the pub you'll find Tudor-style panelling, windows, fireplaces and snugs – actually the result of a Tudor-style facelift in the 1930s. The current building hails from 1773 not 1546. The earlier Mitre Tavern was founded to provide some R&R for the servants of the Bishop of Ely, who resided nearby. Today it's Crown property and serves an impressive range of ales and plenty of pies and stews to mop it up.
• 1 Ely Court, Ely Place, EC1, 020-7405 4751, yeoldemitreholburn.co.uk

There's nothing worse, when you're trying to enjoy a quiet pint with a friend, than raucous drunks nearby. But the Barley Mow, built in 1791, offers a unique solution. It boasts a pair of wooden drinking boxes, attached to the left-hand side of the bar. Here, groups of up to five people can cocoon themselves away and drink in complete privacy. Sitting in the cubicles today feels surreal, like sneaking a pint into church. But in Victorian pubs they were ubiquitous, allowing drinkers to mingle exclusively with their social equals. This is why so many Victorian bars are U-shaped: with the interior carved up into booths, it was the only way the barman could reach everyone. The two booths here are a rare survival; different types of screens can be seen in the Princess Louise in Holborn and the Argyll Arms behind Oxford Circus. The Barley Mow also boasts Pieminister lunches, a range of lagers and ales, and muffled live music every night (at least, if you're listening from the boxes).
• 8 Dorset Street, W1, 020-7487 4773, thebarleymowpub.com

For most of the 17th and 18th centuries, tea was a luxury few could afford – a pound of tea cost half of the daily wage of a London tradesman. Before tea became affordable in the mid-19th century, London was a city of coffee addicts. The coffeehouse opened by Thomas Twining in 1706, one of three clustered in Devereux Court, was one of the earliest tea retailers (another being Garraway's coffeehouse in Exchange Alley). More than 300 years later, it's still trading from exactly the same spot long after tea eclipsed the "bitter Mohammedan gruel" as the English's preferred non-alcoholic drink. Walking underneath its 19th-century portico, watch out for a lion flanked by two Chinamen, a reminder of the exotic status of tea. Inside you'll find every type of tea imaginable, from sweet vanilla tea to smokey Lapsang souchong. You're free to sample any you like and for ?25 you can book a special tea-through-time session led by experts in tea history.
• 216 Strand, WC2, 020-7353 3511, shop.twinings.co.uk/shop/Strand

Down a long, dark alley, away from the snarling traffic of Cornhill, set in its own minute courtyard, lies the Simpson's Tavern. Don't be fooled by its name: it's one of London's oldest surviving chop houses. As a French traveller observed, in chop houses gentlemen ordered "beef, mutton, veal, pork and lamb; you have what quantity you please cut off, fat, lean, much or little done", hence "chop house". It was opened in 1757 by fish purveyor Thomas Simpson and soon became a magnet for local bankers, stockbrokers, and Lloyd's workers who relished a hearty midday dinner; the Almanack draws attention to its "sumptuous larder". Brass railings were installed for City gentlemen to hang their top hats. More than 250 years later, nothing much has changed. the food heartier and meatier than ever: not just chops but pies, stews, and roasts: in short, a vegetarian's worst nightmare (although fish is on offer). Although in a slightly higher price bracket – you'd be hard-pressed to eat for under a tenner – this is a wonderful alternative to a rushed, joyless Pret-a-manger lunch.
• Ball Court, 38 1/2 Cornhill, EC3, 020-7626 9985, simpsonstavern.co.uk

Walking down the stairs of this busy candlelit wine bar, braced for the wall of heat that's about to engulf me, I'm reminded of Ned Ward's sensuous account of walking into an 18th-century coffeehouse: "in we went, where a parcel of muddling muck-worms were as busy as so many rats in an old cheese-loft; some going, some coming, some scribbling, some talking, some drinking, others jangling". Established in the 1890s, in the vaults of long-demolished Georgian houses (one of which was once occupied by Samuel Pepys), the wine bar remains true to its original spirit (smoking excepted). Customers sit around rickety wooden tables with flickering candles sparking a sense of intrigue. There's no beer in sight but a panoply of wine is sold alongside sherry, madeira and port served from the barrel – to be ordered with mature cheese for maximum indulgence. It attracts a great deal of lawyers but they tend to mind their own business. Not for nothing is this known as the "adulterous barrister's bar".
• 47 Villiers Street, WC2, 020-7930 1408, gordonswinebar.com

The next time someone asks you "if you could be anyone in history, who would you be?" you could do worse than to reply "Judge Jeffreys", the bloodthirsty judge who sentenced hundreds of men to death after the failed Monmouth Rebellion in 1685. He drank here, overlooking the river Thames in the Prospect of Whitby, or "Devil's Tavern" as it was formerly known, as commemorated by a noose hanging from a window. The original building is early 16th century (its original flagstone floor survives) but its facade was rebuilt 300 years later. The interior, greatly altered over the years, reflects the pub's long association with shipping, piracy, and smuggling. Barrels prop up its bar and chunks of timber ship masts are embedded into the architecture. By far the best place to take in the sweeping view of the Thames is one of the outdoor terraces. Only a poor choice of pumping house music threatens to sully riverside reveries.
• 57 Wapping Wall, E1, 020-3582 4854, taylor-walker.co.uk

If, like me, you're more than six feet tall, you may well have no recollection of ever having visited this pub. Not because tall people like to obliterate themselves by mixing strong ciders (you can buy five types here) but because its socially-segregated bars and "sherry rooms" are separated by punishingly low doors – absolutely lethal after a few sherries. When the pub was built in 1826, the area was still a rural suburb of London and farmers stopped here for a cheeky ale or two as they herded their cattle to Hyde Park market. Back then, it allegedly offered a clear view of Windsor Castle, some 22 miles away, hence its name. But the view was obscured by Victorian terraces which sprouted en masse over the next century. Perhaps in defiance of the increasingly urban character of Notting Hill, the pub's interior was remoulded in 1933 in a self-consciously rustic English style, replete with panelled oak screens, wooden benches, mahogany shelving and straw tossed about the floor. It still oozes character today and is genuinely welcoming despite the exclusive tone of the area. The food is as you'd expect – traditional, satisfying (especially the sausages) at standard gastropub prices.
• 114 Campden Hill Road, W8, 020-7243 8797, thewindsorcastlekensington.co.uk

• London historian Dr Matthew Green is the co-founder of tour company Unreal City Audio and leads immersive historical tours of London. His latest tour Hawkers, Harlots and Hacks traces the depraved history of Fleet Street

The Epicure's Almanac is published by the British Library and costs ?30

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