London's Zone 1 has loads of terrible pubs, many good pubs, and a few great pubs - but I can really only think of two (I am always keen to find more) which rank among the best places I've ever raised a pint to my lips. One is the Ye Olde Mitre off Hatton Garden - more of which later. The other is just off Saint Martins Lane. This is The Harp, near the hateful tourist ghettos of Leicester Square and Covent Garden and has every right to be rubbish, but it isn't. They could have replaced the stained glass front windows with plain glass. They could punt nothing but easy-to-keep eurofizz and nitrokeg. They could have wipeclean menus of whirr-ping bar snacks, brought to your table by a surly backpacker who will have quit by the end of the week, taking with him the contents of the fruit machine. In this location, the tourists will come anyway - the pub wouldn't even have to try. It's maybe a miracle that none of this has happened and the Harp hasn't been turned into Uncle Walt's idea of a British pub.
Beyond that stained glass you'll find a narrow room with an imposing bar decorated with dozens of pump clips, and two or three barmaids waiting to ask you what you would like, darlin'. It's almost always busy, with a good mixture of regulars, pre-theatre ladies, couples, tourists and stagehands nipping in between acts with their earpieces in. Usually there are six ales on handpump, Taylor's Landlord, Black Sheep and Harvey's Bitter being permanent fixtures. All the beers are well kept, but as I always want my Yorkshire beers sparkled, I generally give Landlord and 'Sheep the swerve. The Harvey's is sublime - one sip and i'm in a sunwashed field of freshly mown grass a long, long way from London.In summer, the front windows will be open and you can watch humanity streaming past. In winter, the best place to sit is on the high tables at the back watched by James Mason and his cat. This is one of dozens of portraits of varying quality that line the walls. The romantic drinker might imagine a hollow-cheeked artist giving one to the guv'nor to settle a bar bill. No microwave nosh here - they'll do you a sausage sandwich on the griddle behind the bar if you like, with a smell so seductive it would tempt Morrissey. This is the pub experience everyone in London deserves, resident or visitor. The next time you see someone with a rucksack and guidebook about to get their first and probably last British ale experience at a sticky, sour beer hellhole like the Porcupine on Charing Cross Road, do them a favour and point them at the Harp.
(Photos by spacekadet, Wimseycallme and edmundv. Used with thanks.)