Elephant and Castle and Charlie Chaplin pubs, SE1: Review
December 4, 2016
The Elephant and Castle
The Elephant and Castle pub is arguably the most famous pub in London – the pub that gave its name to a tube station, a notorious roundabout, indeed the entire area.
Open in one form or another since 1765, it closed down last year after a drinker was stabbed in the eye with a pen – those sudoku drive you mad, don’t they? It was always a bit of a lairy pub, with a chatty, drunken crowd, and its cheap Thai food, lager and outdoor pool tables gave it the air of a budget South East Asian holiday resort with shit weather.
A concrete council estate pillbox with a tower block on top, exposed to the filth and fumes of the roundabout and loomed over by Metro Central Heights, you couldn’t miss it, but in recent years it was looking quiet and tired. And now Antic Pubs has dragged the elephant back to its feet, breathing a bit of council estate pub whimsy into the old beast.
Most successfully, the ceiling has been stripped back to its honeycombed concrete, exposing electric and ducting veins and looks impressive, like you’ve walked into a pub designed by Stanley Kubrick or the industrial zone from The Crystal Maze. It seems to mirror the stainless steel Faraday memorial on the peninsula outside, itself a brutalist gridded box.
Of course the views haven’t changed. I’ve always preferred looking out at street life set against concrete and glass than rolling hills so I’m happy. There’s sheet glass around the three sides of the pub facing out to the roundabout and the plum seats for bus spotters and general nosy parkers are in a comfy railed and raised area used for dining. There’s moody lighting and a good mixture of levels, seating and tables – indoor picnic sets, plush oxblood banquettes around the edges, stools and high tables – so there are always interesting angles and views on each visit, despite the pub remaining essentially a big open-plan box.
One of the great London concrete beer gardens has been planted with dusty palms and has a lean-to roof for smoking in the rain. It’s lost its pool tables and added tealights to the tables but kept its scuzzy feel – there’s no children’s play area and it seems most of south London’s smokers are here puffing away to the not-very-distant roar of traffic to a bottle of Sol and a Silk Cut. Brutalist masterpiece Metro Central Heights looms over the garden from one side, Nando’s the other. Hipster couples, eastern European workmen and commuters with headphones resolutely enjoy the November chill beside spiked railings and menus tied to a tree.
You can sustain yourself here quite nicely – regular drops include Heineken, Amstel, Murphys, locally brewed Orbit Neu, Blue Moon, George Arthur cider, Sagres, Ghost Ship and Volden Session Ale. On the night I was there, the Elephant was also pouring Dorking Brewery’s Black Noise (£3.80 a pint), Brighton Bier South Coast IPA, Adnams Old Ale and Hackney’s Crate Brewers Tap, Huells Melon Session Crate and Dorking’s Buffalo Buffalo (£4.20). And an open kitchen serves nouvelle British pub grub – steaks with bone marrow butter, scotch eggs and squid.
So far, so good. But some of the more faux-council estate pub aspects don’t come off. There’s some horrible sixties-style wallpaper up and a mock-up of a council flat interior in a window. And the pub’s now-almost satirical modern pub bric-a-brac of ‘quirkiness’ – a picture of a panda, a letter E, wall-mounted shoes and a sewing machine case, an Oriental fan, a portrait of the Queen treads a tightrope between self-knowing and grating.
Drinkers aren’t simply the young trendy creative types you might expect, although I spotted at least two Moleskine notebooks. Drinks are reasonably priced, so there are still plenty of old locals and despite some affectation, this is a snug and atmospheric pub in a grand old location. Maybe the Elephant is at the sweet spot on the road to gentrification, having the best of both worlds: trendy pubs, decent coffee and artisan pizza; 24-hour off-licences, pound shops and boozers like this.
If there’s one thing that makes you realise it’s an ersatz council estate pub, it’s the opening hours – what self respecting boozer wouldn’t be open at 11am on the dot? The Elephant and Castle doesn’t open until 4pm.
The Elephant and Castle
119 Newington Causeway
The Charlie Chaplin
Not thirty seconds from the Elephant and Castle pub is the Charlie Chaplin. If the former is repackaging council estate pubs for middle-class drinkers, the Charlie Chaplin is the real thing – a bastion of fruit-flavoured-condom vending machines, all-day lager drinkers, and dangerously priced lunchtime happy hours (Stella at £3.20 a pint, 11–3, Monday to Friday).
The mark of an old-fashioned pub is a ‘Toilets are for customers only’ sign. In the brave new world of Trip Advisor-courting, tourist-friendly, kids’ menu-toting pubs, this seems a trifle unwelcoming, like when the first announcement on a train is how much you’ll be fined if you don’t have the right ticket.
Inside it’s overheated, like your nan’s living room, and the speakers are pumping out disco music. An enormous man in a pink T-shirt is on the phone. A couple of tiny old ladies have pints of lager on their table that tower over them. There’s a drunken old man at the bar talking in a thick Irish accent to a confused but studiedly polite young lad. A sad barmaid serves me a pint of Kronenbourg for £3.60 and gives me one of the old fivers as part of my change. The only bitter, Bombardier, was off. You can also buy two bottles of Carlsberg for £3.
Young lads play pool next to a gigantic fireplace big enough to have a seat in, and silent couples with their shopping bags on the bar sup pints before home. Being on the roundabout, there’s an itinerant air to the place – people drop in for quick scotches at the bar and dash out again.
The centrepiece to the pub is an enormous fruit machine next to a huge and hugely inconvenient wood-panelled pillar – it’s called Take It Or Leave It. After half an hour of the radiators chugging out heat, it’s almost impossible to leave it.
Whether you prefer the Charlie Chaplin or the Elephant is entirely up to you. So close, but from totally different worlds, it makes sense to drink in the atmosphere of both.
The Charlie Chaplin
26 New Kent Rd
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