As you can see this is a rather nice looking pub and, despite the fact it is a Nicholson’s I thought it would be worth a visit. It’s THE CLACHAN in Kingly Street, Soho, just behind Liberty’s (central London). I was in town for a meeting and joined an old friend for a few pints afterwards. He was quite keen to head for the West End (rather than stay at Kings Cross) and I knew of one very good pub near Carnaby Street, the SHASTON ARMS. Pricey but very good beer and good service. From there we decided to explore this part of Soho which we knew would not be a great place to get good beer – it never has been – but things have improved in recent years so we thought we’d give it a try, and the excellence of the Shaston Arms persuaded us that our quest might be worthwhile.
We sampled two pubs after the Shaston, firstly the WHITE HORSE just around the corner in Newburgh Street and secondly THE GLASSBLOWER in Glasshouse Street. Both of these were exceptionally indifferent, a common feature of central London pubs. The very odd seating arrangements in the White Horse raised a chuckle (at first); unless you are over 6’6″ it is impossible to stop your feet from dangling in mid-air, which is a slightly peculiar feeling. However, they did have a good range of mainly St.Austell beers, including Proper Job, which I wasn’t expecting to find outside the south west. The Glassblower was just dull but OK for a quick one if you’re stuck in Shaftesbury Avenue and need a pint.
After these two disappointments we were desperately hoping to find a bit of a gem. What we actually found is the pub with the worst service – and highest prices – I have ever experienced in my extensive travels. Despite the slightly shabby seen-better-days interior our hopes were raised by the six or so hand pumps with an interesting selection of beers. However the first beer poured was hopelessly cloudy and smelt of rancid socks. It was so obviously off that any normal barperson would have immediately thrown it away and turned the pump clip to face them. I was so astonished that the woman serving us hadn’t noticed this that I asked her to look at and smell the beer. The first problem then became apparent: her grasp of English was extremely rudimentary and she had no idea what I was saying, so she turned to a colleague (whose English was only marginally better) for help. The second barmaid then served me a pint. Served is the wrong word; she yanked on the pump with such force that great clouds of foam erupted all over the glass and the floor – and just carried on oblivious! I was so stunned I asked her if the Manager was available. He was, and spoke English, but seemed to have an upper storey to let, if you get my drift. In the end we both got our beers, but at a cost of £3.60 a pint. This was the icing on the cake for me. Not only was the bar service worse than dreadful but the prices were sheer extortion. I wouldn’t mind so much if the prices were reflected in staff training and wages, but evidently not.
I should own up to a certain amount of stupidity on my part here: this was a Nicholson’s pub and, as I indicated earlier, this brand is generally best avoided precisely because of unjustifiably high prices and often poor service.
I have a suspicion that poor pub service is endemic in England, but especially in central London. I guess that staff are paid very low wages and given little or no training. The only training they might get is in how to use the till, which sums up the priorities of most pub chains these days: getting the money into the till must be done properly and therefore requires training. Getting beer into a glass in a civilised way is not important so no training is required. When you find a pub with good service, even if prices are on the high side, stick to it like glue and never venture out. This is rather sad really, but when I am next in Soho and don’t have much time before I need to catch my train at Paddington I’ll head straight for the Shaston Arms; trying another pub for a change is just too risky.
Good service does, of course, exist. Most of the pubs in my hometown (Newton Abbot) will generally offer good service, but even here some are not too good and even the generally good pubs can be a bit variable, depending who is on at a particular point in the day.
I think the thing that worried me most about this experience was that a tourist visiting London and spotting a beautiful pub in a back street just off Regent Street might think they’ve hit the jackpot. They might think that this is what English pubs are all about and perhaps even risk trying a ‘real ale’. If they were served by any of the staff who served me that night god help them. They would take one taste of the rancid ale and perhaps take a few swigs thinking this must be what English beer tastes like. They would later be calling on night service at their hotel to supply more toilet rolls to deal with the agony they’d be feeling in their stomachs. On returning to Tokyo or San Francisco they would spread the news amongst all their friends – avoid English beer like the plague! This is most unfortunate but I have a hunch it happens rather more often than we would perhaps like to think.