Something occurred to me the other day. I was lying in a rolltop bath in the middle of a hotel room, on a Wednesday night, watching television. And I thought to myself, I’ve lived in London eighteen years and I’ve never done this before. Stay in a hotel in London, I mean, not watch television from a bath. Although, come to think of it, I’ve never done that either. But you don’t, though, do you? Stay in a hotel in the city you live in?
And the reason for this indulgence? Precisely that, indulgence. It’s the bath. It’s IN the bedroom. It didn’t even matter what was on television, I was lying neck-deep in a rolltop bath at the end of the bed in a top floor suite of a boutique hotel in Clerkenwell in Central London. Were it not for the television I felt I’d stepped into the 1800s. Latticed windows overlooked rooftops and chimney stacks. All that was missing was a roaring fire in the room’s imposing marble hearth.
A few hours earlier I’d stepped out of the Underground and left the 21st century behind me as I turned the corner into Charterhouse Square, the quiet cobbled throwback to Dickensian London nestled between the bustle of Smithfield market and the main thoroughfare of the Barbican. My destination was The Fox & Anchor, a public house tucked into a secluded side street and, as if its charming Victorian façade wasn’t introduction, I stepped into the cramped, bustling interior, barely able to move but grinning at the prospect that I was right in the midst of the action. Here was character. Here was atmosphere. Here was me getting elbowed in the ribs as I approached the bar. I loved it. Somehow, amidst the maelstrom, I was spotted and ordered a pint of ale. It had to be, really. And back came a frothy pint of homebrew served in a pewter tankard. The last time I’d seen one of those was in 1797 and as I sat, perusing the menu and waiting for the blissfully unpunctual Mrs Larry to arrive, I kept one hand over the mug lest I fall for the King’s shilling and end up press-ganged on the deck of the Victory.
As the crowd lurched about me I decided to move myself to the back of the bar where I spotted more breathing space. I’ve never understood why the English favour being as close as possible to the door of their watering holes, packing themselves in to the front of pubs. For some sort of early exit, perhaps. Not likely on my part. The further I went in, the more inviting it became. A long, green leather-backed bench ran down the length of the wall opposite the bar where tables of people squeezed in among the standing patrons. The décor was classic, wood-panelled Victorian and silent Laurel & Hardy films played out on a screen above the bar tables to the soundtrack of The Kinks’ Dedicated Follower of Fashion. I doubt you’d get Sky Sports here.
Mrs L arrived presently, looking flustered. “Popular place, isn’t it?”, I attempted to reassure her look of surprise at our choice for dinner and a night’s accommodation. It transpired not to be surprise at all, she’d made an entrance by tripping into a group of gentlemen outside the front and was bundling herself to the back as quickly as possible to avoid further embarrassment. We adjourned, and were escorted, conveniently, into a small room at the back with three small tables I’d assumed was a sort of waiting area for the main dining room. “This is the dining room,” the waitress corrected me. And then led us into an even smaller booth to the side. Cosy doesn’t come close. We couldn’t sit opposite each other for space but were placed instead at 45 degree angles. This oddity, however, proved rather conducive for intimate conversation but also gave us a convenient position to address the waitress as one.
If there was a competition for the height of a burger, then theirs would compete with the best of them. The burger that arrived for Mrs Larry nearly came up to her chin. The corned beef hash I ordered, by contrast, was unlike any hash I’d seen. So much so I nearly corrected the waitress on my order. Rather than a bowlful of shredded slop I was presented with a discus of intensely-marinated torn beef on a bed of sautéed potatoes and topped with a perfectly circular fried egg. Full marks for hash presentation. Rather like our starters, the food is uncomplicated but classy. The fennel, stilton and walnut salad I opened with complimented the heavier meaty main perfectly. Similarly Mrs L’s smoked fish platter was a sumptuous appetiser for that meat mountain that followed.
At this juncture I should add that our feasting wouldn’t end here, with this meal. No, sir. Since we were staying over, I had ear-marked their ‘city boy’ breakfast, laid tantalisingly at the head of their mains on the menu as if to coax us into the challenge. Come to think of it, it was on being told of this legendary morning repast that I’d booked myself into the Fox in the first place. Well, I will freely admit here that by virtue of the dinner we were tucking into I was already resigning myself to a bowl of muesli on the morrow. It didn’t help that I couldn’t resist a dessert. It had to be the bread and butter pudding. Not only is it an old favourite, it’s a default, I’d order it on any menu over anything else and, as a consequence, I can be ruthless in my judgment. This was a little soft and spongy from a tad too much custard but nevertheless a sumptuous close to a hearty meal, and we – that’s right, I – polished it off gleefully.
The Fox & Anchor purports to be gastropub, but I beg to differ. It’s what a pub should be, plain and simple, before most comparable institutions fell in standards or became swallowed up and manufactured by the corporate machine. Everything about it spells classic, but in fifth gear. The attention to detail from the butter served with salt on the side, to the tea towel napkins and the breezy conversation of our waitress. In fact, they manifest it on their wall, written on a chalkboard is the service you can expect. And such traditional individuality is a refreshing change from the uniform standards of the chains. It’s a beautiful, bustling, effortless place. Somewhere you wished was your local. But then you’d never go home. Just as well we were staying over, then.
As we staggered up to the Smithfield suite – from the scale of the meal, I might add, not from the barrel of fine Argentine Malbec we washed it down with, chosen, suitably, from the list ‘For Foodies, Flavourists and Mavericks’ – it at least gave us a chance to peruse the cartoons and quotes about drinking and dining lining the walls of the stairs. Some of which rang particularly true. A gentle introduction to a room deftly appointed. There’s class to these suites. The polished minimalism of high street hotels is nowhere to be seen, similarly the tired, overt ostentation of some country retreats had been dismissed; this was clean, cosy and classy. And there’s a bath at the end of the bed.
I’ve stayed in dozens of hotels in many cities and whenever I’m asked to recommend a hotel in London my mind goes blank. Not anymore.
The Fox & Anchor, 115 Charterhouse St, London EC1M 6AA. Tel. 020 7250 1300. Website.