This article is part of FT Globetrotter’s guide to London
“Shall we meet for a drink somewhere central?” Most people living in London have been asked this question at one time or another, and so endured the blankness that follows and an inability to conjure up the name of a suitable venue — no matter how long you’ve called the capital home.
For this reason we’ve compiled a list of our favourite pubs in the West End.
Before you scoff, the task was not as easy as it sounds. For a start there are hundreds to choose from, and we do not claim to have visited all of them. In areas such as Soho, the centre of the West End, it can often seem like there is one on every corner. This is also London’s unofficial party quarter, amplifying the difficulty in narrowing it down.
Then there is the definition of what constitutes the West End, an issue that has been hotly debated — with or without a pint in hand — for decades.
‘First things first: are we actually in the West End?’ Our authors begin their valiant quest by tackling a contentious issue
Most would agree it is loosely defined as the theatre and shopping district that lies to the north of the Thames and to the west of the City. But beyond that, the boundaries become hazy. Some would say it stretches as far north as King’s Cross and all the way west to Hyde Park. Others would draw a tighter circumference.
Does it include Fitzrovia, Bloomsbury and Marylebone? Or is Oxford Street the boundary? Even the authors of this guide could not quite agree.
It is important to say, you can have a great night in any London pub, in the right company. But what we’ve tried to do within our subjective map is to curate a list the places where we’ve most enjoyed a memorable drink with family, friends and colleagues.
Some have remarkable histories, perfect locations, particular specialisms in beer or an atmosphere you just won’t find anywhere else. Or a combination of all these. If you think we’ve missed somewhere — and we know you think we have — leave a comment below.
Browse by pub via the list below
The Harp (Covent Garden)
47 Chandos Place, London WC2N 4HS
Good for: A cosy Victorian atmosphere
Not so good for: A big gathering
FYI: Open Monday–Sunday, 11am–11pm; Sunday, noon–11pm
‘One of the true gems in the West End’: The Harp The pub dates from the late 18th century
Despite this pub’s central location behind St Martin-in-the-Fields church, a stone’s throw from Trafalgar Square, you could easily miss it, given its narrow frontage with stained-glass windows partially covered with hanging baskets.
But this venue, known as The Welsh Harp until 1995, is one of the true gems of the West End and has a long history going back to the late 18th century.
The characterful central London pub has a loyal clientele . . . . . . and is a worthy multi-time winner of Campaign for Real Ale awards
Squeeze past the handful of tables to the bar — above which hundreds of beer mats have been stuck to the wall — and you’ll notice the place is lined with old mirrors, oil paintings, pastel drawings and cartoons. See if you can spot a painting of Elizabeth Taylor and a print of Oscar Wilde.
The pub, owned by Fuller’s, serves an esoteric array of beers and was the first London pub to win the Campaign for Real Ale national pub of the year competition, in 2010. It has also won Camra’s west London pub of the year on no fewer than nine occasions.
Upstairs in The Harp is cosy Georgian-style lounge
When we dropped by, there was a pale ale from the East London Brewing Co, Neotropic from the Bristol Beer Factory, Pica Pica oatmeal stout, Hophead by Dark Star and Whispering Grass IPA by Pig & Porter. It doesn’t serve food other than snacks.
There’s a narrow winding staircase lined with yet more paintings that leads up to a Georgian-style lounge room with eight small tables. In the late afternoon, The Harp is often heaving with drinkers who spill on to the pavement outside.
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Lamb & Flag (Covent Garden)
33 Rose Street, London WC2E 9EB
Good for: Ye Olde London vibes
Not so good for: Embracing modernity
FYI: Open Monday–Friday, noon–11pm; Saturday, 11am–11pm; Sunday, noon–10.30pm
Head to the Lamb & Flag for a hit of ‘Ye Olde London’ nostalgia
Tucked away down a side street, the Lamb & Flag oozes history and claims to be the oldest pub in Covent Garden.
Its precise origins are a little unclear. One sign outside the pub says it has served drinks since 1623. Another inside says the earliest recorded use of the premises as an inn comes from 1772, when it was called The Cooper’s Arms.
Either way, a sign above the alley invites the traveller to “rest and refresh yrself” in an “ancient tavern” enjoyed by luminaries such as Charles Dickens and Samuel Butler. Here too, or hereabout, was where the poet John Dryden was almost murdered by rogues hired by the Earl of Rochester in 1679.
Thankfully, long gone are the days when the pub was nicknamed ‘The Bucket of Blood’ because all of the bare-knuckle prize fights held there
The owner Fuller’s plays up to these historic origins, with old cartoons and pictures on the walls, which are also festooned with strings of Union Jack flags.
The pub’s reputation for staging bare-knuckle prize fights in the 19th century earned it the nickname “The Bucket of Blood”.
But none of the punters were fighting (with or without gloves) on the day the FT passed through, taking note of a well-stocked bar. Drinks on tap included Seafarers English ale, Dark Star’s Hophead golden ale, Stroud Brewery’s Budding pale ale and Fuller’s Golden Rays ale.
At the bar, there are snacks on offer — not cheap — including chicken and chorizo bites, truffled mac and cheese croquettes, and crispy squid. Upstairs in the restaurant, there is also a regular menu of main courses including sausages, beef burger, pie of the day and fish and chips.
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The Cask & Glass (Victoria)
39–41 Palace Street, London SW1 5HN
Good for: A swift after-work pint
Not so good for: Big gatherings
FYI: Open Monday, noon–10pm; Tuesday–Friday, noon–11pm; Saturday, noon–8pm
The Cask & Glass’s petite proportions mean the action often spills outside (weather permitting) © Marco Kesseler
If The Cask & Glass isn’t the smallest pub in London — which is the owner’s claim — then it’s hard to imagine an even tinier rival. With only a single bar and a handful of chairs, The C&G has the feel of a private living room.
This local is Victorian in more than one way: first opened in 1862, it’s also not far from the eponymous train station. It is the epitome of a no-frills pub, with no obvious pretensions at greatness. This, of course, is the secret of its charm. Sometimes less is more.
Pint-sized: the pub is said to be the smallest in London
The Cask has carefully tended flower boxes festooning its black-painted exterior in the summer and is just around the corner from Buckingham Palace — although it is very much not on the tourist trail. The pub was originally called the Duke of Cambridge but changed its name in 1962.
On a shelf overhead there are historic empty bottles of Shepherd Neame ales such as Early Bird and Bonnie Brown Ale. The walls are decorated with pictures, including sketches of Victorian-looking gentlemen. Look out for the bull’s-eye windows.
Drinks on tap when we visited included Whitstable Bay’s blonde lager, Bear Island’s East Coast pale ale, Orchard View cider, Moretti and Guinness.
The basic food offering consists of toasted sandwiches and tortilla chips.
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Admiral Duncan (Soho)
54 Old Compton Street, London W1D 4UD
Good for: Late-night karaoke fans
Not so good for: Real-ale aficionados
FYI: Open Monday–Thursday, 1pm–11.30pm; Friday–Saturday, noon–midnight; Sunday, noon–10.30pm
The Admiral Duncan very much contributes to the ‘party atmosphere on Old Compton Street, no matter what time of day you visit’ The pub is one of the oldest LGBTQ+ spaces in London
At the heart of London’s West End is the rabbit warren of closely knit streets that make up Soho.
The storied area conjures up images of the swinging ’60s, Carnaby Street punks, Ronnie Scott’s jazz club and seedy sex shops. It is home to a dizzying and ever-changing list of pubs, restaurants, members’ bars and niche specialism shops, as well as being a hub for the creative industries, from film production to advertising and public relations. It is also unrivalled as a location to people-watch. We recommend taking a drink outside The Blue Posts pub, on the corner of Berwick Street and Broadwick Street, to watch the world go by.
‘Unashamedly fun’: the Admiral Duncan in a rare quiet moment
Soho is also a home for London’s LBGTQ+ community, centred around Old Compton Street. It’s lined with restaurants, pubs and bars, many with late licences, as well as a range of boutiques, providing a party atmosphere no matter what time of day you visit.
The Admiral Duncan, one of London’s oldest gay pubs, is a great place to sample the ambience. The pink-hued establishment is unashamedly fun: the tables were filling up when we dropped by on a recent weeknight, the espresso martini dispenser was in full flow and preparations were under way for a karaoke showdown.
After a few of these, you’ll be more than up for the Admiral Duncan’s legendary karaoke showdown
We found a quieter corner by the door and enjoyed our drinks to a singalong soundtrack that included Beyoncé and Madonna. What the 18th-century naval commander after whom the pub is named would make of it all is anyone’s guess.
A plaque on the wall also pays tribute to the victims of the horrific terror attack on the premises in 1999, which killed three patrons and injured dozens more. It is a sobering reminder of the deep prejudice that the community has faced over the years.
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The Toucan (Soho)
19 Carlisle Street, London W1D 3BY
Good for: Drinking Guinness
Not so good for: Those who don’t like an increasingly popular Irish stout
FYI: Open Monday–Tuesday, 4pm–11pm; Wednesday–Saturday, 1pm–11pm
Much of the pub’s decor is dedicated to the bird from which it takes its name
This is the third of these pub guides, and we have yet to feature a proper Irish pub. The Toucan, just off Soho Square behind godforsaken Oxford Street, is a great way to remedy this.
There are none of the clichés that characterise Irish pubs elsewhere in central London, but it does have two important accolades: atmosphere and a great pint of Guinness. The black stuff is everywhere at the moment: the Time Out city guide recently ran a story entitled “Why are Londoners suddenly obsessed with Guinness?”, and Kim Kardashian sank one on a recent visit to the capital, although with added Tia Maria and Baileys.
The Toucan does great Guinness, as well as cocktails in which the Irish stout is the prime ingredient
The pub is named in honour of the exotic bird that Guinness adopted as its motif in 1935, and which remained closely associated with the brand for almost 50 years. The upstairs bar has limited space, so better to take your slow-poured pints out on to the pavement, which on the warm summer evening we visited was crammed with a mixed crowd of after-work drinkers. The downstairs bar, where a range of Guinness-based cocktails and Irish whiskeys are available — and which in a former guise played host to, among others, a young Jimi Hendrix — is more suitable for colder nights.
The Guinness has the familiar malty sweet taste, with hints of coffee, chocolate and a warm creaminess that helps the Irish pub staple stand out from other black stouts.
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The French House (Soho)
49 Dean Street, London W1D 5BG
Good for: Spotting semi-famous actors
Not so good for: Drinking pints — they’re banned (except on April 1, when they are sold for charity)
FYI: Open Monday–Saturday, noon–11.00pm; Sunday, noon–10.30pm
Vive The French House, the second home of Soho’s creative communities for decades
It is surprising that a pub advertising its refusal to sell pints would make it on to a list of the best in London, but The French House makes its own rules. The pub is synonymous with the literary and artistic community that caroused around Soho in decades past and whose pictures line the walls, although a strict “no autographs” policy is in place. Talking on a mobile phone is also prohibited.
A public house has occupied this site since 1891, while the Gallic influence began in 1914 when Victor Berlemont is said to have become the first Frenchman to hold a publican’s licence in England, although others say he was Belgian. Charles de Gaulle and leading members of the Free French Forces were regulars during their second world war exile in London. The French House name was adopted in the early 1980s, and the pub retains an in-the-know vibe. This being Soho, the place is packed even on a midweek night.
The French House’s upstairs restaurant Breton cider is among the drinks on offer
Seating is limited inside, but we found an opening at the bar and ordered a bottle of Breton cider to share, drank over ice. Wines including Pinot Noir and Riesling are available by the glass, and there are bottled beers such as Duvel and Vedett. The absence of pint-drinkers also makes it an excellent choice for those who don’t really enjoy pubs, according to one recent visitor.
The Coach & Horses, a short walk away on Greek Street, is another pub steeped in Soho history that’s also worth a visit.
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The Fitzroy Tavern (Fitzrovia)
16 Charlotte Street, London W1T 2LY
Good for: The UCL students who flock here
Not so good for: Cocktail drinkers
FYI: Open Monday–Saturday, noon–11pm; Sunday, noon–10.30pm
Savour a beer in The Fitzroy Tavern’s snug The pub is named after Charles FitzRoy, who first developed the area and whose father was an illegitimate son of Charles II
Like many of those on this list, The Fitzroy Tavern is another establishment with a long history that is indelibly linked to the surrounding area. The pub is named in honour of Charles FitzRoy, who was the first to lay out this section of the capital during the 18th century and whose father was an illegitimate son of Charles II. Nearby Fitzroy Square is among the finest of its kind in London.
Fitzrovia is something of a hidden pocket that lives in the shadow of its big sibling Soho. Yet the first half of the 20th century it was home to a vibrant set of artists, writers and activists that included the likes of George Orwell and Dylan Thomas, many of their activities centred on The Fitzroy Tavern. The pub even has its own autobiography, written by the late Sally Fiber, whose family ran it for decades.
The Fitzroy Tavern was a frequent haunt of Dylan Thomas – photographs of whom hang on the wall in its upstairs room – and many 20th-century writers and artists
The ground-floor bar, which retains much of its original Victorian panels and fittings, is bright and welcoming, with a snug accessible via a separate door. The beers are familiar to anyone who has visited a Samuel Smith pub, although watch out for the organic lager priced at an eye-watering £7.30.
If weather permits, take your drink outside to the kerbside tables on lively Charlotte Street. We’ve complained about the poor quality of the toilets in London pubs before but the ones here are great: spacious, clean and airy. Other owners, please take note.
There are no shortage of other places to stop for a drink nearby if you wanted to make a night of it, including The Newman Arms — said to be the model for the “proles” pub in George Orwell’s 1984 — and The Wheatsheaf.
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The Audley Public House (Mayfair)
41–43 Mount Street, London W1K 2RX
Good for: An eclectic list of beers on tap
Not so good for: Fomenting revolution with your leftwing friend
FYI: Open Monday–Friday, 11am–11.30pm; Saturday, 11am–midnight; Sunday, 11am–10.30pm
The late Phyllida Barlow’s ceiling installation at The Audley Public House . . . . . . which is now under the auspices of the hospitality wing of art giants Hauser & Wirth
Mayfair may not be the first place people think of when considering where to grab a pint, but the wealthy district has several worthy of mention, as well as a more genteel ambience than many of those on this list further to the east.
We have chosen The Audley, a traditional wood-interior public house recently given a loving 21st-century glow-up under its new Artfarm ownership (the hospitality wing of art giants Hauser & Wirth). A pub has operated on this prominent site since the 1700s, although this version was rebuilt in the 1880s by the same man who designed the pavilion at Lord’s Cricket Ground.
Bar snacks at The Audley include prawns by the half pint . . . . . . and there’s a restaurant upstairs for more substantial fare
The pub is bright and airy, with ample table space and a long bar featuring a range of lesser-found ales such as Sambrook’s Brewery’s Wandle and Lord Marples classic bitter from Thornbridge brewery. The walls are crammed with familiar Victorian memorabilia, while the ceiling is dominated by a vibrant work created by the late Phyllida Barlow, who died in March — a few months after The Audley reopened with her eye-catching display at its centrepiece.
A word also for the excellent food on offer, which ranges from substantial dishes such as beef and ale pie to bar snacks such as sausage rolls and prawns sold by the half-pint. This should line the stomach if you plan on extending your stay in the area, which should include either a segue upstairs to the Mount St Restaurant, or to the excellent The Guinea Grill tucked away on Bruton Place.
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The Ship & Shovell (Charing Cross)
1-3 Craven Passage, London WC2N 5PH
Good for: Dickensian snugness on a cold night
Not so good for: The geographically challenged. It isn’t easy to find
FYI: Open Monday–Saturday, 11.30am–11pm
Divided but united: the two halves of The Ship & Shovell face each other across a narrow lane © Marco Kesseler
The Ship & Shovell — effectively two pubs looking at each other across a narrow lane, linked by a common cellar below — deserves to be far more well known than it is.
The venue is not easy to find, being hidden away behind Villiers Street, up some steps from the walkway underneath Charing Cross station.
It claims a history going back to the 1730s but its current incarnation is said to date from 1852, when it was the “Ship and Shovel”. In 1997 it changed its name to The Ship and Shovell in homage to a 17th-century sea admiral called Sir Cloudesley Shovell.
The Ship & Shovell claims its history goes back to the mid 18th century Many of the pub’s drinks are by its owners, Dorset brewery Hall & Woodhouse
The venue is owned by Hall & Woodhouse, a Dorset brewery that provides many of the drinks lining the bar, including Badger best bitter, The Fursty Ferret and Tangle Foot. Other drinks on tap include Amstel, Stowford Press and Guinness.
There’s nothing wrong with the larger pub, on your right if coming from Villiers Street, with a somewhat generic Victorian vibe and mirrored walls.
The real find, however, is the atmospheric little pub on the left, which has a couple of tiny wooden booths where you can settle in with friends for a long night of boozing. This also has a cosy upstairs room.
The venue’s decor reflects its nautical name The smaller of the pub’s spaces features a couple of wooden booths
The walls of both are adorned with old-fashioned paintings, mostly featuring sailing — as befitting the venue’s nautical name.
On a warm evening plenty of drinkers — and not only the smokers — stand on the pavement between the two pubs, using scarlet-painted barrels as impromptu tables.
The food menu includes bar snacks, sandwiches and generic pub food such as pie and mash, ham and eggs and loaded nachos.
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Gordon’s Wine Bar (Embankment)
47 Villiers Street, London WC2N 6NE
Good for: Intimate liaisons in a timeless atmosphere
Not so good for: Beer drinkers
FYI: Open Mon–Sat, 11am–11pm; Sunday, noon–10pm
Opened in 1890, the family-run Gordon’s was London’s first wine bar The bar does a range of sherries, Madeiras and ports
Arguably we have broken or bent our “best pub” rules here by including an establishment that is not a public house. The family-run Gordon’s near Embankment Tube station can legitimately lay claim to being one of the greatest boozing institutions in the capital — despite not selling any beer.
Imagine a gloomy stone-floored subterranean bar — it dates back to 1890 — lined with ancient faded Daily Express articles about royal weddings and anniversaries hanging from peeling walls. Behind it is a bar with several old barrels, lines of glasses and wine bottles and a blackboard showcasing ports, Madeiras and sherries.
There is an extensive wine list that leans heavily towards Europe and is dominated by France and Italy, although a couple of offerings have slipped in from further afield, including a bottle from the Nandi Hills of India.
The cheeseboard is just the ticket for soaking up the wines at Gordon’s . . . . . . which has a large terrace should it be too crammed inside
Near the doorway large smoked hams hang from the ceiling and there is a vast fridge stocked with delicious cheeses. The Gordon’s cheeseboard is the perfect accompaniment to its wines.
Beyond the main bar is a crepuscular stone-vaulted cavern, although you’d be lucky to get one of the candlelit tables: this place can be overwhelmed by drinkers in the early evening.
Don’t worry if it seems crowded, though: outside there is a terrace with countless tables to cope with the overspill of drinkers.
As for historical notes: Rudyard Kipling lived in the building from 1889–91 and was there when part of it was first converted into a wine bar.
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What’s your favourite West End pub? Tell us about in the comments below. And follow FT Globetrotter on Instagram at @FTGlobetrotter
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