South east London, once a practical desert for decent juicers, has been undergoing something of a facelift of late.
While nearly every other area of London sees property prices buck current trends and breach the stratospheric, poor old ‘north Kent’ suburbia has remained steadfastly down-at-heel and has suitably drab boozers to boot, all the better to cater for its low-brow inhabitants.
And although pockets of affluence do exist - East Dulwich and Greenwich to name a couple - for the most part, south east London is forgotten town.
The upside, of course, is that all those normal people who don’t earn stupid salaries but want a place in which they can feasibly swing a kitten end up living there. And with those souls comes demand for better.
So dotted, not so liberally, between the turf accountants and the pound shops are the odd delicatessen, the fledgling restaurant and, latterly, the half-way decent watering hole. For this last arrival, the denizens of south east London owe thanks in no small part to Antic, a pub company that appears to go against the grain of its type in that it seeks to promote good beer, great atmosphere, decent food and - weirdly for the much-maligned PubCo - the prosperity and longevity of its managers.
A business model that seems to consist of taking over abandoned pubs or once-busy commercial premises and transforming them into credible drinkeries looks like it’s working well so far. Antic recently opened three pubs within a week. And not just in the nicer areas either. While one was in relatively up-and-come Forest Hill, the other two were in distinctly unfashionable Streatham (not strictly SE, but we’ll let that pass) and Catford. Among other areas blessed with Antic outlets are Brockley, Crystal Palace, Deptford, Camberwell and Lewisham. While Antic own a range of great pubs elsewhere, it’s definitely in south east London that their presence is felt most keenly.
But enough about the ethos - what are they actually like to drink in? Unsurprsingly, they’re genuinely excellent. Each has its charms and foibles, naturally, but all I’ve visited so far have had at least one unique characteristic that would see me drink in them wherever they found themselves. Even if that were west London.
Take the Sylvan Post in Forest Hill. Converted Post Office that’s now a pub, not a block of flats. It’s a triumph of the utilitarian married to the fashionable. So much of the original interior has been kept intact - from the counters and sorting racks to the safety deposit box - that you could quite easily fool a myopic old-timer into thinking this is where they need to cash their pension.
Five ever-rotating beers on hand pumps, a couple of kegged craft ales and a decent wine list is where the subterfuge would doubtless fall apart. But only just, as there’s more Post Office here than pub, frankly. Postal orders, stamps, postcards, filing cabinets - it’s all there. I’m genuinely surprised you can’t pick up a book of first class, frankly. What you can buy is good ale at a fair price - which is more than can be said for the stamps these days should Royal Mail get its way.
Not three minutes’ committed cycle ride away is the Catford Bridge Tavern. If OFSTED were in charge of pubs, this would be its flagship. Before Antic took over, this was a genuine failing pub. Even the battle-worn locals had begun giving it a wide berth after pub brawl and knife attack gave way to shoot-out and beyond. It was one of the only pubs I’ve ever been actually afraid of entering.
But no longer. The metamorphosis is quite something. Gone are the orcs, light weaponry and standard lager; in come the 10 hand pubs, 15 keg taps and craft bottled beer selection. Along with the now obligatory school chairs, stripped wooden floorboards and comfy if decidedly shabby armchairs. Meet the Brewer events and beer festivals are promised alongside more traditional crowd-pullers such as quiz nights.
Already, the food and snacks are from a different planet than Catford’s standard Kebabby Fried Chicken fare. Chilli and garlic pitta chips are preferred to run-of-the-mill salt and vinegar, but more traditional snackers needn’t worry, as a full complement of middle-class crisps rubs shoulders with the more oblique nibbles. The decor is pleasing, the food looks appetising and the welcome is warm. I can’t for a moment imagine Catford has ever had it so good.
So while great swathes of PubCo tied houses go to the wall in the face of an ever-declining customer base and built-in failure astronomical rents, Antic is quietly and literally cleaning up with a formula based on quality rather than lowest common denominator. I’ll drink to that.
By Ben McCormick