Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Best Pub In The World

It's The French House. In Dean Street, Soho, London.*

Now, I know it doesn't actually sell pints, just halves, spirits and wine since it's holding onto a tradition started years ago, so you might well ask why taking pride of place among the many photographs lining the walls of such luminaries and regulars as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud etc there's one of Suggs - formerly the lead singer of North London pop combo "Madness" and now general TV star and bonviveur around town - sipping from a full pint of Guinness? Well, I've no idea, I just drink there.

Ages ago, when The French House was just known as French's it confused people because the actual name above the door was The York Minster. I've been drinking there since I was 16 but the patron, Gaston, didn't like me (possibly because he knew I was 16 but being tall, looked 21). I discovered recently that it was his parents who founded the place, having converted it from a German butcher shop, and he is generally regarded as a living legend by all who drink there. Except me, obv.

It's tiny. But when I first started drinking there, the southern end of the bar was out of bounds to the likes of me, it being the high altar of intellectual debate, where matters of great import were discussed and Art Appreciated. Imagine the thrill then, one evening, to be in conversation there with, of all people (sound of very large name being dropped) Robbie Coltrane, the verrry famous Actor, whose party piece at that time was doing several Orson Welles voices, all the way from Citizen Kane through to the Sherry Adverts. Brilliant impressionist he was. Anyway, Gaston was never very happy with me drinking down that end - he would have preferred it if I'd moved the three feet back to the middle zone in front of the bar hatch - but he didn't have no choice. And even though that end has been officially democratised by newbies and incomers, it's still a bit of a thrill to be standing there with one of the luminaries. Even though they're generally drunk as skunks.

Upstairs, where the Free French Resistance used to meet during the Second World War (thus creating the name French's I assume) and were once graced by the presence of de Gaulle, the restaurant plies it's trade under a variety of chefs with a quite repulsive decor which, the last time I looked consisted of a shiny red leopardskin wallpaper. And apart from getting food poisoning one time, it's a very pleasant place to while away an afternoon lunch. I've never gone there for a quick snack in my life.

The wine is occasionally undrinkable. Last night, for example, the Cote du Rhone had a mouth puckering quality that almost brought a tear to my eye, so I switched to the Merlot which frankly was even worse. We settled therefore, for a very acceptable bottle or two of Pinot Noir which went down nicely thankyou, despite the presence of the dislikeable Victor Lewis Smith, TV critic of The Evening Standard, whose venom and irrational scribblings never fail to bore me. He was only a few feet away, (as everyone is) , but the crush currently extends to outside too, due to a large wire fence protecting everyone from falling into the roadworks, thus making the pavement impassable for pedestrians foolish enough to be walking on the east side of Dean Street. Bit of a scrum, frankly, what with outsides of pubs temporarily more popular than the insides due to fugitive smokers and associated smirters.

The window sills are a bit of a joke too, as my mate found out last night at the precise moment his large glass of Pinot slid off the sloping surface straight onto his shirt, tie and jacket. It's also where I meet Mark and June (read here) but they weren't there last night. No matter, voting for Pub of the Year hadn't taken place at that point.

Not much changed after Gaston left (I didn't get an invite to his leaving do, the only person in Soho I think) but the incoming owners decided, for reasons best known to themselves, to make a friend of mine the licensee, complete with name above the door - licenced to sell wines, spirits and beers etc - and everything. I even got to the stage of the occcasional, very occasional, lock-in. But French's never really did lock-ins. I think because it's too small. Gerry's is just yards away anyway, so what's the point of staying in The French House after hours when you can walk a few feet, go downstairs and drink quite legally and happily in there? Generally with the same people - or those sober enough to make the journey.

And not much has changed since. Except the addition of bar food. It's brilliant.

So there you have it. The French House. Best Pub in the World. Da-Daaa!

The runners up in this contest were Tennents Bar in Byres Road, Glasgow, and The Hand in Hand in Kemptown, Brighton, in loving memory of the late, dearly departed landlord Bev - creator and proud owner of Britain's smallest brewery.

* The jury consisted of myself and Monty the Dog. Voting took place last night at a secret location, a park actually, while Monty was doing his business.



Anonymous said...

It IS the best pub in the world!

Anonymous said...

No, it was never known as "Frenches".

It was, though, known in the 40s and 50s as "The French".

Interestingly, the size of the poky upstairs room where the WW2French Resistance met says a lot about the size of the French Resistance.

Roy Tuvey

Nationwide said...

You're exactly right, of course. But as a Johnny-come-lately here (by several years) it was sometimes referred to colloquially by the abbreviated French's.
This probably explains why Gaston refused to allow people like me to stand at the RHS of the bar beside the intellectuals and artists. I remember the baleful stares when I transgressed this unspoken rule.

Incidentally, on April 1 they're serving pints. Not forever, just one day. And no, it's not an April Fool, it's for charidee.