London's Drinking Problem: Where Are All The Classic Pubs?

Courtesy Craft Beer Co.

A good local is hard to find—and it's only getting harder. Are pubs disappearing or just evolving?

During the winter of 1946, George Orwell wrote a memorable essay about his favorite London pub. “The Moon Under Water” was a two-minute walk from a bus stop, tucked on a quiet side street. It was busy, but never crowded; well run, but not stuffy; homely, but not oppressive. The barmaids called you “dear”—“Pubs where the barmaid calls you ‘Ducky’ always have a disagreeable raffish atmosphere,” wrote Orwell. You could buy a postage stamp from the bar and always hear yourself talk. “Everything,” said Orwell, “has the solid, comfortable ugliness of the 19th century.”

“The Moon Under Water” was a fiction. Orwell said he knew of a few London pubs that had many of its qualities, but none that had them all. More recently, his vision of the quintessential British institution has come to read more like an elegy. Since 1969, the number of pubs in the U.K. has fallen, at an eversteepening rate, from 75,000 to just under 50,000 last year. London’s pubs, an important subspecies, have not been spared. In and around the capital, 10 close every week and reopen later as supermarkets, betting shops, or condos. Many that remain are lifeless places serving generic beer and squalid food to tourists who sit there wondering what it is they are missing. The Moon Under Water name has been appropriated by J D Wetherspoon, one of the U.K.’s largest pub companies. There are dozens, and they all look exactly the same.

On a recent Friday afternoon, I went to the “Moon” in Leicester Square to have a drink with Neil Walker from the Campaign for Real Ale, a 172,000-member organization that fights to protect Britain’s pubs and traditional beers. Since 2010, Walker explained, there have been signs of a promising undercurrent against the overall tide of despair. In the past five years, no fewer than 55 new breweries have opened in London, freshening up and reviving the capital’s pubs. In Covent Garden, down a side street, Walker and I drank a pint of London Fields Pale Ale—by Brodie’s, a brewer founded in 2008—at the Cross Keys (31 Endell St.; 44-20/7836-5185; crosskeyscoventgarden.com), a Victorian pub garlanded with flowers that has been there for more than 150 years. “This is a real diamond in the rough,” said Walker, as we devised an incomplete list of things to look out for in an authentic London boozer: plenty of bric-a-brac; half a dozen hand pumps; and, if possible, a chance to drink outside, in the street, or in a garden—one of the great pleasures of pub-going in the capital. “Once a pub like this is gone, it’s gone,” said Walker. “You can’t rebuild an antique.”

The reasons London’s pubs are closing are many and complex—the rise of drinking at home, for example, and the decline of the working class. But you don’t need to feel too despondent. There are still more than 5,000 to choose from, and as informal gathering places, they must reflect the society that uses them: shrinking, expanding, and evolving. After our drink at the Cross Keys, Walker led me a few hundred yards to a new incarnation of the London pub, the Craft Beer Company (thecraftbeerco.com), which has five branches in the city and more than 40 specialist beers on tap. The place was bright. The decor was simple. The atmosphere was utilitarian. We drank Pale Fire, by Pressure Drop, a brewery that opened in Hackney in 2012. Walker declared the beer “hop forward” and the sun shone. No one called us “Ducky.”