I fled London in a bit of a rush a few months ago and since then I have missed a few things: my friends (which are top of the list); walking out of the house and actually getting somewhere; local, independently owned coffee shops; a range of cheap but good cheese that isn’t obscenely orange in color; the wide-open spaces of the city’s parks; my local Londis supermarket (a two-minute walk) and its fresh bread in the mornings; and pubs.
The local London boozer is hard to emulate in the bright San Diego sunshine, but there are places that have tried. Last night I went to one of them. Let me preface this by saying that my nights out are not quite what they used to be. It’s hard to get really excited about going out when know you have a 20-mile drive ahead of you, most of it on the freeway. It kind of takes some of the fun out of the experience, because how much drinking are you really going to do? There’s no question of letting go and staying ’til closing time if the mood takes you.
Nevertheless, at 7.30pm on Friday night, I find myself in the Princess Pub and Grille in Little Italy (a small neighborhood in downtown SD). It serves traditional pub food: bangers and mash, fish and chips, jacket potatoes, a sausage roll with Branston pickle and a number of fried foods that don’t really appeal unless you are looking to raise your cholesterol to dangerous levels. While most pubs in London are trying to offer more sophisticated food choices a la the ‘Modern British’ trend, the Princess Pub seems to be stuck in 1995 and proud of it. There’s a lot of dark wood, some exposed brick and neon drinking signs; the latter doesn’t remind me of pubs at all, more like the inside of some newer West End bars. The walls are covered with posters of Princess Diana and the Beatles, while plaques of famous London landmarks and tube stops are tacked up at random. There’s also a disproportionate amount of restaurant-type seating, with cutlery wrapped up in paper napkins and beer coasters.
I order a lager and my friend orders a ‘Pimms Cup’. She’s never had Pimms and lemonade before, but I tell her that it’s meant to have, at the very least, cucumber and mint. But when the drink arrives, it only has a huge wedge of lemon perched on the glass rim. There is no fruit, mint or anything else. This is the kind of Pimms you get on a sticky summer night, at midnight, after the bar has run out of everything and you’re being served by a surly bartender who looks like he’d rather shoot you than cut up an orange. She seems to like it, though. Despite the gas fire behind us, this place doesn’t have the warmth of the pub or the casual drinking environment that the best pubs have grown almost organically. After less than an hour we are both checking the time.
An American bar
Craft and Commerce, two streets away, is a totally different experience. Earlier that night we had tried to get a table at this bar and failed. We put our names down and they told us that they’d text us when a table came free. Just over an hour later we get the text and find our harassed host, who is holding some sort of tablet (the clipboard is very last century); she tells us to wait for someone called Sophie.
I have my reservations about Craft and Commerce, which was named one of America’s best bars by some sort of magazine, so I’m told. I went here on New Year’s Eve for a drink and they told me point-blank that they didn’t serve vodka. I can’t remember their exact reasons, but I think it had something to do with making ‘craft cocktails’ with strong, discernible flavors. Vodka, being a peasant drink made from potatoes, perhaps doesn’t fit it into their trendy image. Honestly, though, what kind of bar refuses to serve vodka? It’s like going to a hamburger joint and being told that they don’t serve french fries.
When I look at the menu I find out that you can’t get ketchup, but they do serve mayonnaise. Is this meant to give the bar – which is already beautiful – an added bit of mystique? I’m not sure, but it’s vaguely annoying and indiscriminate. Since I know that most of you are reading this from England and probably will never end up here, I won’t dwell too much on the food but it was much better than what you’d get at your run-of-the-mill pub. The cocktails are even better. Forget about getting a watery gin and tonic. I order something called a ‘British Firing Squad’, to keep with my British theme. Not entirely sure why it’s called this, but maybe a few of these will have the effect of a bullet to the head. If you want to try to make it, it’s 2 oz Plymouth gin, 3/4 oz grenadine, 3/4 oz fresh lime and 2-3 dashes of Angostura bitters. It comes out looking a bit pink, but it’s well balanced and not sickly-sweet. I only order one – the freeway beckons. When our bill arrives it comes in a small notebook, full of people’s random scribbles, including drawings of a woman’s naked body and someone’s interpretation of a penis.
Would I go back? Yes is the short answer. Maybe one of you would like to come with me. But I’d like to go there when I don’t have to drive and I can sample a few of the $10 cocktails without worrying about getting back on the freeway. Have I mentioned how much I hate driving everywhere? Probably have.
My search for a traditional pub continues.