How to take over a local East End pub (and not ruin it)

All over the capital, pubs are closing. Some because of lockdowns, some because they were shit, some because they failed to adapt. The traditional London boozer has had to reinvent itself. Most Londoners, particularly ones of the east London variety, don’t just want a pint any more, they want an experience. They want to be part of something. And, in some cases, they want to dry-hump a stranger. I learned about these things when I had the honour of running the Twitter account for The Dolphin Pub in Hackney for a few years. A pub where a mate of mine once looked up from the toilet to see an alsatian watching him. As I say, Londoners want an experience.

Running a popular east London pub is hard. Taking one over and changing it is even harder. You need to do so without alienating your regulars or scaring people off. One classic reinvention pitfall is trying to make a trad pub too posh, then realising most people don’t fancy a kale-and-elderflower protein ball with their pint of Beavertown Lupuloid. Another common east London mistake is pandering too obviously and extremely to the hipster crowd by serving cocktails in plant pots or exclusively selling local craft ale that tastes like Savlon. No mate, we don’t do cashback in Bitcoin.

The Three Compasses in Dalston is a beautiful example of an east London boozer that has not only survived reinvention but become something far greater as a result. Like Madonna. But a pub.

The before times

For decades, The Compasses was a darts pub. The average customer age was 106. But in 2012, it was taken over by Lauren Johns, Briac Le Camus and former third owner Antony Johns, who wanted to do something different. Like many before them, they could’ve cocked it up; they could have driven people away. But they didn’t. They kept the good stuff, lost the bad stuff and brought in some fun stuff. They valued locals and regulars but also managed to attract the ‘youth’ with their Monzo cards. A delicate balancing act.

Regulars Paulo and Michael | Photograph: The Three Compasses

Ten years on, The Three Compasses is known for its ‘Game Of Thrones’ cosplay screenings (the only time I’ve taken a piss next to a belching six-foot-tall Tyrion Lannister), drag queen lip-synch battles that turn into street parties, and Emma Thompson smashing Pornstar Martinis.

Not many pubs can claim to have created anything as iconic as the Guinness Game, a contest featuring one pint of a popular Irish stout and some fingers, devised by then-manager Maddie O’Shea, and which is now played all over Ireland. Fewer still have been blessed with regulars as legendary as The Duchess of Dalston, Doris, who visited every single day for a brandy-and-peppermint, before passing away aged 86 only to be carried at her funeral by the staff and fellow regulars of her favourite boozer. Doris’s table now carries a plaque in her honour.

To mark the milestone of getting people shitfaced for ten years, Lauren and Briac share their biggest learnings, proudest achievements and tales of Dalston pub-filth.

It’s all in the delivery

Lauren, Briac and Antony took over the pub in 2012. The year of the London Olympics, Obama’s re-election and Carly Rae-Jepsen. Simpler times. But they didn’t exactly hit the ground running. ‘When we first got the keys, it was just before Christmas and we wanted to change all of the draft,’ says Lauren, ‘so we had a massive party that same night and sold every drink for £2. We sold out of everything, then realised we couldn’t get a delivery until after Christmas so had to go to Sainsburys and buy a load of cans of beer, cans of Guinness – everything – and cart it over in a shopping trolley every day for a week. Nightmare.’ Still,  a great month for Nectar points, so swings and roundabouts. 

Orange Gina and friends | Photograph: The Three Compasses
Orange Gina and friends | Photograph: The Three Compasses

Not all the old darts crowd fled the nest. ‘Some of the original locals ended up being our most loyal customers,’ says Lauren. ‘Sadly, they’ve all passed away now. RIP Doris, Michael and Angie.’ There were also some more unusual heritage occurrences. ‘One day, me and Antony were sitting at the bar and an old man popped his head in the window and said he grew up in this pub,’ Lauren continues. ‘He asked if it was still haunted. We said “Er… no idea!” And off he went. But for the next two days, the clock on the wall went backwards. The hands moved anti-clockwise. We were totally freaked out.’

Within a few months of the takeover, east Londoners were twerking on weeknights, most of them under the age of 70. Operation Rebirth was underway.

There’s plenty more fish in the pub

As the customer demographic broadened beyond elderly male ghost-whisperers, The Compasses became a (not hopeless) place to find love. Many of the people I’ve spoken to about The 3Cs talked about it being a place they hooked-up with someone. Sometimes to an inappropriate level. ‘I once went to get my coat during a lock-in,’ recalls Compasses regular Vicky, ‘only to find someone being fingered on it.’

Three of our staff got matching tattoos of a kettle

The Compasses is famed for dancing. Some dance to remember, some dance to forget. Some dance because they’ve been hoofing Café Petron since 4.45pm and bloody love The Klaxons. And when it comes to kicking people out, bar staff often play ‘This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)’ by Talking Heads (the song with the line: ‘Home, is where I want to be…”) which always feels like a lovely way to tell drunk people to fuck off. Although it’s not always that easy. ‘I remember one of our regulars, Liz, arriving after closing time one night while staff were having a quiet drink,’ recalls Lauren. ‘She got on the bar and pretended to be a lion on all fours skulking down the bar, roaring. It was truly amazing.’ Welcome to the jungle.

The Three Compasses is one of those London pubs that can feel detached from the real world. A private getaway in a far-off corner of the Costa Del Hackney. You can never be sure what time it is. Or where your mates have gone. Or why you’re doing shots with a bloke carrying an easel when you’re supposed to be on a Hinge date.

Always expect the unexpected

If you want your east London pub to be a place where east Londoners can be their authentic selves, you should expect, and embrace, the unexpected. ‘One day a really burly beefy bloke came in,’ recalls former bar manager (and Guinness Game mastermind) Maddie. ‘He ordered a pint of lager and started a conversation about football with me. A real lads’ lad. He excused himself to use the gents then returned wearing women’s underwear with oranges in his bra. He picked up the football chat where we’d left it like everything was completely normal.’

Bar staff mucking about
The ‘staff’ | Photograph: The Three Compasses

If you’re taking over a London boozer that’s been around for a while, it’s likely you’ll need to brush up on your DIY unless you plan to spend all your profits on TaskRabbit. ‘I’ve had to learn nearly every trade possible and do them all badly,’ says Briac. ‘When you run a 150-year-old pub, there’s always something that needs repairing.

‘It’s hard work. Living on virtually no sleep is never a long-term option. But I can’t imagine doing a different job now. Particularly if the job doesn’t come with free tequila.’

Where everybody knows your name

Like most beloved east London drinking dens, The Compasses has attracted a number of VIP customers over the years. You might bump into Diane Abbott having half a lager. You might bump into a newsreader dressed as Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons chatting to an influencer who’s been doing balloons in Hackney Wick for 72 hours and isn’t sure what day it is. It’s that kind of place. ‘We’ve had some good celebrities at the pub,’ says Briac. ‘Liam Gallagher has been in, which makes us sound wild. But actually, he just had a few quiet pints with his mate then went home. No champagne or supernovas.’

Don’t fake it, you won’t make it

If buying an East End pub is on your to-do list, make sure you lean in to what you know. And what you love. Otherwise, you might as well give up and sell your stock to Wetherspoon’s. ‘Only do something that feels authentic to you,’ advises Lauren. ‘We’re not foodies, so we always rent out our kitchen to burger legends cos they are obsessive about making unbelievable burgers. We tried to run the kitchen in-house once, it was rubbish.’

If you’re not into cocktails, don’t do cocktails. If you’re not into disco, don’t put on a disco night

(Shout-out here to current burger residents Filthy Buns, and in particular their Millionaire Short Rib topped with peanut butter and Biscoffy biscuit. Anyway, sorry, Lauren, you were saying…)

‘If you’re not into cocktails, don’t do cocktails,’ Lauren advises. ‘We just have them on tap, so it’s impossible to mess them up. If you’re not into disco, don’t put on a disco night. Punters can sniff the insincerity instantly.’

You’ll also need to have the right team around you. ‘If you hire the right bar staff, it can feel like a family,’ says Lauren. ‘Albeit a dysfunctional one. Three of our staff got matching tattoos of a kettle because whenever one of them walked into the pub they’d say to the others “put the kettle on”, which meant start pouring a round of Guinness.’

Like the way you work it… no dignity

Former quizmaster (and excellent comedian) Ben Harris, says it’s a different type of gig at The Three Compasses. The heckling can be pretty brutal, although to be fair, one of the prizes the last time Ben hosted was a yam. What he feels sets The 3Cs apart is how hard it is to define. ‘I guess it kind of has a thin layer of respectability,’ he says. ‘You could say it’s a gastropub, with its wine list and food menu, but it’s always on the precipice of falling off the wagon and turning into full-blown dive bar which is what it really is underneath.’ Entropy into oblivion is something we all want from our local, surely? It worked for The Dolphin, a pub that The Compasses is often compared to. One local, Hannah, puts it this way: ‘The Dolphin was school, The Compasses is uni.’

I’ll leave the last word to regular Lucy, who captures the madness of The Three Compasses perfectly. ‘I was in there one night and thought I was holding it together really well,’ she recalls. ‘Until I couldn’t handle it anymore and confessed to Lauren that I didn’t like her burnt twist on a rum-and-ginger. She replied: “Babes, you’re drinking the ashtray.”’

If you’re looking for the ultimate east London pub reinvention, this, as Talking Heads say, must be the place.

The Three Compasses, 99 Dalston Lane, E8 1NH.

Thirsty now? Check out our list of London’s 100 best pubs.

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