The Seven Stars, London

53 Carey St, London WC2A 2JB
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 7/10
  • Style and Décor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 5/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Claiming to originate in 1602, the building itself containing The Seven Stars has survived The Great Fire of London, and – just as impressively in my view – the next 400 years of change unscathed, all the while serving as a public house. It’s a remarkable feat that places  it as  one of London’s core heritage pubs.

Many pubs trade on their history, (and that of The Seven Stars is an interesting read) , without backing that up by being an enjoyable place to drink in the here and now. Thankfully, The Seven Stars is not one of those places: it’s a little cracker.

Carey Street has a row of townhouses that are overshadowed by the enormous London County Court, Royal Courts of Justice and LSE library, so it is quite easy to wander halfway past The Seven Stars before realising. It’s a very quiet street and doesn’t seem the most likely place for a pub to be situated these days, though that makes it a perfect venue for those in-the-know. The frontage of The Seven Stars is squat and compact with the predictable (but entirely appropriate) gothic signage. It looks like a small place and it is – there’s no TARDIS effect once you walk inside.

 

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Although micro-pubs may now be reversing the trend for enormous, open plan pubs, none of them are made quite like this old thing. You’ll walk through the entrance to find a low-beamed venerable establishment with a bar directly opposite the entrance, and a narrow space set over two rooms. There are stools to sit at the bar and drink, and tables decorated with checked tablecloths and candles (a little dressy for my tastes, but it did make me think fondly of Den Turk in Ghent, which is not dissimilar).

For the last decade or so, The Seven Stars has been the domain of a ruff-sporting and locally famous pub cat who sadly passed away not so long back. Nevertheless, I have been informed a new cat has entered the premises! If you venture into conversation at the bar with the owner Roxy, she may expand on the and possibly get into the tale of one punter who mistook the cat bowl for bar snacks. Don’t be shocked – anything can happen in London.

The décor and ‘lived-in’ nature of the pub is where most of its character comes from, a pleasingly ungentrified and carefully preserved sense of welcome that tends to strike an immediately positive impression with people regardless of any preconceived ideas. This impression is important to cling onto for when you order a beer (or food), because those London prices hit hard and hit deep. This isn’t worth singling The Seven Stars out for, however, that’s just how things are. It is worth bearing in mind a lot of lawyers drink here.

Nevertheless, you’ll find a set of well kept cask ales from regional breweries served via hand pump – it’s a decent if unspectacular range which will keep you satisfied for at least a few.

In a similar way to Whitelock’s in Leeds, the toilets are located above the pub itself via a satisfyingly creaky staircase, where you will also pass by the kitchens and a room crammed full of odds and ends. By any standards these days (particularly London’s), this is a characterful and individual place that isn’t interesting in the Farrow & Ball school of interior design or repainting itself to remain ‘on-trend’ every ten years.

As mentioned above, the pub is popular with local lawyers and court staff, and due to the small size you may find yourself unable to grab a seat. However, trade is brisk in the evenings so be patient and things will move along – grab your chance when you see it. There’s nothing like being seated to enjoy the atmosphere of a tangle at the bar in a traditional pub such as this.

As the lights from the outside dim, and those from the inside take over, there can be no question of whether this is a pub of outstanding merit.

Although The Seven Stars may have lasted 400 years, the obnoxious pace of gentrification in the last 30 years means that pubs like these perpetually under threat from people who simply want to run poor facsimiles of bars they’ve seen elsewhere. This is a pub that demonstrates the importance of being your own thing. That’s worth something.

I’ll leave you with this anecdote from their website:

While enjoying a few Friday afternoon wind-down drinks, a group of 15 or so lawyers (young ones) entered the Seven Stars awkwardly and decamped nearby. There then began a cacophonous symphony of table and chair scraping, until they had blocked all passage in or out of the bar. Regaling of a most competitive flavour followed, ever louder, underwritten by a desperate, pleading “notice me” subtext. Its volume only matched by the ethereal transparency of its content. We drank up and moved on – our seats snatched hungrily into their possession before we got to the door. Congratulations, you’ve emptied the pub! Not all lawyers are like this, true, but this was selfish and shameful behaviour. Hopefully, few noticed.

Have you visited The Seven Stars? Any comments, feedback or suggestions for our write-up? Please get in touch!

Whitelock’s, Leeds

 

Turks Head Yard, Briggate, Leeds, LS1 6HB
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 5/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor – 9/10

Amid a shower of mediocrity Whitelock’s is a beacon of preservation and tradition. You might call the place an object lesson creating a characterful pub.

Whether Leeds is serving up mediocrity in the form of cut-and-paste industrial chic craft ale venues or boring chain pubs, you only have to look at Whitelock’s to tell the difference between a here-today-gone-tomorrow fad, a Greene King IPA/Sports screen piece of gentrified nothingness and character of a sort that endures. Read the Historic England listing if you don’t believe me.

Whitelock’s itself was first founded in 1715 as The Turk’s Head, and served as a city centre mainstay in the Georgian era, although you’ll find the current state more akin to late Victorian in style, with mirrored panels, stained glass, tiled bar and tarred black wood, a strange halfway-point between the opulent and the down-to-earth.

The pub functioned as a ‘Luncheon Bar’ after being taken over by the Whitelock family in the 1880s, and in the daytime the place has much the same feel as it would have had a century ago; a bustling busy atmosphere (partly due to the compact space) with food service and drinking intermingling. Whenever you visit you always feels like you are part of a grand old tradition.

Situated down of one of Leeds many arcades off Brigate, the pub used to stretch along the length of the yard, albeit part was rarely used for years. It’s a narrow snaking venue, now effectively two bars, one of which is now a stylish cocktail and craft ale bar called The Turk’s Head in homage to the original name, but which typifies everything Whitelock’s isn’t – this may be a good or bad thing depending on your preferences. The pub can be approached from either side of the arcade, although I recommend approaching via the Trinity Centre entrance where it is hiding in plain sight surrounded by modernity. You access a quiet corridor, still called Turk’s Head Yard, which builds into rabbit-hole like escape from the noise of the street and shopping streets – it really makes you feel like you’ve been transported back in time. You will find benches outside, which can be nice to sit out on a warm evening but are not the main reason for venturing down here. Head inside and chance your arm at finding a seat – not always the easiest easy task in here.

The crowd at Whitelock’s rises and falls in swells. In the space of half an hour the scene at bar can change from a breathless tangle vying for space to calm and sedate. It’s really quite interesting to spectate.

The bar area itself is unusual and –of course– old-fashioned. Despite the pub having a low ceiling, the bar itself seems raised above the level of the pub so after pulling your pint it seems like they are lowering it down to the bar top where you are stood. The toilets are accessed via a narrow little staircase at the end of the bar, which is quirky, almost like being on a ship rather than a pub.

The best beers by far in Whitelock’s are the cask ales, as the lager offerings remain a little behind the times. You’ll find some of the classic real ales kept well on cask, along with some interesting local options. They have some forays into what are deemed ‘craft’ styles, and a sister partnership with the (in my opinion) bang average Five Points, but the guest cask ales feel far more in keeping with what the place should be about.

Although I am largely interested in a pub as a place to drink, for a change, I would like to enthuse about the food. They have put a lot of thought into how to bring the idea of Luncheon menu into the 21st century, and have largely managed it, with most dishes having an English pub heritage, and they use fresh ingredients, the majority of which are sourced from Kirkgate Market, which shows in the flavour. You pay for it, yes, but it’s well-prepared. It isn’t just a generic pub grub place, as Leeds University alumni and restaurant critic Jay Rayner remarked in his review.

It doesn’t stop there, as Whitelock’s and the Turks Head now host beer related events, annual festivals and suchlike, so you can’t go around Leeds for too long before your head is turned back to Whitelock’s.

Once you’re inside and sat down, with only the dappled light coming through the frosted glass, you can really soak up what is an extraordinary environment. With it being a typically cosy old pub, this works particularly well in autumn and winter – once holed up it won’t feel like there’s any reason to move elsewhere. Whole afternoons and evenings can come and go here supping quality pints of ales safely swaddled by its comfortable surroundings.

Whitelock’s is by far the best of the category ‘traditional pub’ in Leeds and due to its very particular preserved features and it could stake a fair claim to being one of the very best in the United Kingdom.

In the ‘40s and ‘50s Whitelocks was a haunt for artists and has been deemed characterful enough to be a subject of artistic study, as this vivid artwork demonstrates. John Betjemen, who always had a taste for the preserved, compared Whitelock’s favourably to another venerable public house, The Cheshire Cheese in London: a ‘less self-conscious’ equivalent.

I have linked to a 1968 video documentary of Leeds, ‘A Poet Goes North’ where this features. Highly recommended as a terrific watch.

In 2006 Whitelocks was awarded an overdue Civic Trust plaque for historical importance.  Therefore, if the team running Whitelock’s can deal with all this level of praise magnanimously then I assume my more modest inscription on European Bar Guide won’t alter their unabashed heads-down on-with-the-job approach. Viva Whitelock’s!

Café Vlissinghe, Brugge

Blekersstraat 2, 8000 Brugge, Belgium
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 8/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  10/10

Every town deserves at least one historic place in which nothing ever seems to change. Being able to link aspects of our own lives to the past (as futile as that endeavour may seem at times) helps to provide our own existence with a sense of place and purpose, in the knowledge that we have retained and respected at least some things of value along the way, and by frequenting these places we contribute to their survival.

Café Vlissinghe takes this idea and extends it beyond all usual historical parameters, and the news gets better still – it’s a pub! Even in Brugge, a place not short of preserved architecture and institutions, it can reasonably claim to be one of the most evocative links to their past, the business traceable for centuries and thankfully keen to preserve the format for centuries to come. Once you have a good thing you don’t easily let that go.

The earliest record of the pub dates back to 1515, extraordinary in and of itself and it claims to have been running continuously from then until the present. This earns Vlissinghe a place on the list of oldest companies in the world. The look of the place may be redolent of a late Medieval inn, however it appears some of the appearance was lovingly and coherently retrofitted in the mid-1800s (an era steeped in fascination and nostalgia for all things Medieval), with the installation of contemporaneous artworks and paintings and furniture that are consistent with the period. It’s all very brown, black, tarred, burnt caramel and crusty textures. Precisely the sort of thing you want with an old pub.

Vlissinghe is located mercifully outside of the main tourist drag, down a typical Brugge alley: cobbled street, whitewashed walls, ancient brickwork, and a bicycle propped up outside that’s so old you wonder whether it’s become an ornament (until a man in a flat cap emerges from the door, tucks his newspaper under his coat and rides off on it). It must be no more than 50 metres long, but the amble down the lane, with the pub entrance coming closer with your every stride has become somewhat of a ritual for me, just long enough to build a sense of anticipation for what’s to come…

Vlissinghe’s gothic lettering is painted above the entrance, so dive straight in and turn left and head down a long corridor entrance with a series of side rooms. This may lead you to believe it is a large venue, but the pub itself is really just a central room, up a couple of steps at the end. You will note it is appointed with large, sturdy, venerable furniture, cushioned with studded leather upholstery, warped floorboards that creak underfoot, faded oil paintings hung on the wall which you have to swivel to and fro between the sheen of the lighting to properly discern, and an impressive and unusual centrepiece: a cast iron steam heater kicking out warmth into the room, most welcome on those days when the cold is piercing and the wind is rushing down the North Sea through the canals and arteries off Zeebrugge.

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There is a pub dog, for good measure who is unobtrusive and content with its existence, pottering around, sniffing and having naps.

The main room overlooks a garden and terrace area used as a bowling green in the summer and has outhouse toilets, which gives the place a friendly and ad hoc feel. These toilets are modern, which I will concede is the one part of a pub which should keep up with the times (though, rather incongruously, they also ‘have’ an APP!)

The kitchen is in an adjoining building and focuses on winter fuel – soups, toasties, meat and cheese platters, miscellaneous bar snacks, which are all done Belgian-style, reliably homespun, the purpose being to warm you up and soak up the drinking. Service is friendly (occasionally disorganised and a little slow, which comes with the territory) and the prices are par for the course, with a few cheaper options.

Nevertheless, there are other things going on here than a pocket sized ethnographic museum, Café Vlissinghe stocks a local beer, the delicious tripel Fort Lapin brewed in a garage five minutes up the road by a new brewer. As this is part-fermented in the bottle and unfiltered, as you pour in the last part of the bottle you will note the colour change from bright amber to a cloudy, yeasty colour! Even with this beer choice, you get the sense of sentimentality and heritage at wanting to promote a city project, even with the hundreds of other Belgian beers they could have chosen to sell. The total range of beers available is modest (most Belgian cafés feel obliged to offer at least 60 bottles and 8-10 taps these days, which does showcase their extraordinary brewing very well, but is often unnecessary) but it is well chosen, with at least one of each main style, and with local options.

The main appeal of frequenting Vlissinghe is the sheer sense of relaxation. Whether it is 11.30 in the morning or last thing at night, I doubt anything about the feel of the pub changes hugely. Hunker down for an afternoon of supremely enjoyable beer drinking, hearty soups and toast, or head down in the evening and sit amongst the throng, frozen- in-time but warmed through with merriment and the satisfaction of your own quiet contribution to keeping the whole thing going. Cheers!

À la Mort Subite, Bruxelles

alamortsubite
Rue Montagne aux Herbes Potagères 7, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium

There is sometimes a premium to be paid on a special occasion, so on my annual visit to A La Mort Subite I breathe in deeply and dive more deeply still into my wallet, on account of the luxurious overall experience of visiting this splendid Bruxelles bar.

Distinctly Parisien in format, this opulent faded-grandeur art nouveau venue (translation: At The Sudden Death) is one of Brussels and Belgiums most famous bars, so no surprises or left-field picks from me this time. A la Mort Subite might count as a brown café for the bench seating up the sides of the long room, if it wasn’t for the lack of brown elsewhere. Cream walls and pillars, the elegant ornamental décor stacked with studded crenullations, mirror panels and a stately, out of time design. You have a venue somewhere in between a café and a salon, originally built as a place for socialites to be seen in, yet, being Belgian, still focused predominantly on beer. The décor has such an authentic and preserved quality (no change since 1928, save for the occasional running repair) so it’s difficult to think of too many other places that are alike.

Mort Subite supplies the draft beer, and this brewery serves fruit beers and lambic effect rather than the real wild yeast sour lambics McCoy. They are still rich in flavour and sweetness, and a tad sour, but lacking any sort of dryness and depth that might indicate the traditional lambic brewing process. A small serving of their kriek for example, which would be a good choice, will set you back five euros on its own. Some of the other options are fairly astronomical considering the price one can drink for elsewhere in excellent surroundings. Mort Subite beer may as well be drunk here as much as anywhere on the globe. With this being Brussels you can expect a small food menu with cheese, charcuterie options and the usual pub food like croque monsieur to help your beer go down (as if anyone should need help finishing a Belgian beer!)

 

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The bar clearly feel they are unique to set such a high price, and annoyingly, they are right. An afternoon drink in A la Mort Subite can feel rather like a drink in a grand café, nice enough in itself, but the bar character starts to come alive in the early evening time as the crowd changes, and you can suddenly start to absorb some of the atmosphere and understand the underlying reasons for the endurance of this place. A special bleary eyed feel starts to develop, the sharp lines and corners blurring into the cream colours, like dropping into a dreamworld. That’ll also be the strong beer…

The grandeur and glamour of socialising in the inter-war era is yet to be recreated around Europe on any identifiable level, save for the odd outstanding example, partly because of the lack of venues who have committed to investing the kind of money to pull it off well, and also because the eventual crowd it attracts tend to have little to no appreciation of their surroundings anyway.

Service is almost classically continental, with wide stomached balding René type characters smoothly dissecting the venue with assurance and steady hands under the drinks trays. They are immaculately professional and patient considering conveyor belt of foreign tourists and the format of table service requiring more work than is strictly necessary. These characters add further to the sense of intransigent and reliability that lend a place a certain charm, that A la Mort Subite certainly possesses.

Although the evening and night crowd appeals to a few nostalgic locals who insist bars like these used to be abundant, a large volume tourists of venture in during the daytime, and because of the heritage of the place, often an aged crowd at that. The only sudden death that occurs in this bar is from pneumonia and cardiac arrest, I suspect.

Changing the venue in anyway seems to be verboten, and I wouldn’t approve major adjustments either ,however it seems to me there is nothing to stop the place rejigging the drinks choices and doing some marketing from the outside, as this venue is not designed for middle aged obese American sat in Burghaus jackets, it is designed for the young, the stylish and the vibrant. The way to really bring back the good old days isn’t just to leave the décor and service meticulously unchanged and hope for the best. The good old days were good because they were vital, vibrant and inhabited a nascent social scene. The place could do more in that regard by hosting more events, perhaps some understated live music, and so on.

In order for A La Mort Subite to take the next step, they need to be brave enough to recapture the zeitgeist in a way that doesn’t upset the period features, rather than settling for being a museum.

A La Mort Subite is a preserved remnant of a particular era and a great opportunity for anyone with a real passion in the rich and diverse history of socialising, beer drinking and recreational culture to step out of the every day experience and soak in the special character of the place. There are scarcely grander or more historical venues to recline and get merry with some astoundingly good beer. It may be so well known as to be passé, and it isn’t the pinnacle itself of pub going, but that doesn’t stop it being one of the best bars in Europe.

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 7/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 5/10
  • Value for Money – 4/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10