Where to watch the Euros in West Hampstead

Whether you are a die hard, St George’s flag wielding, vuvuzela-blowing, Barmy Army wannabe, a student of the international game or an occasional watcher with a passing interest in major tournament football, West Hampstead has a good seat and a cold drink for you for the next month (yes it really does last until mid-July!). All the matches are on terrestrial TV, so you could just stay at home, but where the fun in that? Here’s a brief guide of where to watch all the games in the hood.

Czechoslovak Restaurant & Bar: Showing a few games during opening hours (after 5pm in the week, 12pm weekends), with sound, but particularly worth a visit for the Czech Republic and Slovakia games. Bound to be noisy for those.

The Railway: All games live on two big screens and multiple big TVs. Also possibility of parallel viewing of final group games. Flags and bunting – tick!

Seems The Railway's big screen TV is straight out of the Flintstones

Seems The Railway’s big screen TV is straight out of the Flintstones

The Gallery: All games shown on two big screens, one upstairs, one downstairs. Sound will be on downstairs for all games and upstairs for England games only.

The Gallery keeps things simple

The Gallery keeps things simple

La Brocca: Sadly not yet (sob sob) but work appears to be underway. Check back here in the run up to World Cup 2018!

One Sixty: Multiple TV screens, showing all games during opening hours with table bookings available and strongly recommended (some home nations games are already booked out!). NB One Sixty opens 5pm Monday-Friday, 10am Sat & Sun.

The Black Lion: Every game shown live with several big TVs and a big screen. Sound for all England games otherwise confined to the near corner when you walk in. They did say though that demand will drive sound for other games – watch out for that Iceland v Hungary match…. They are taking bookings for areas and have red, white and blue bunting up!

Prize for "good effort" blackboard goes to The Black Lion (though it does have bunting)

Prize for “good effort” blackboard goes to The Black Lion (though it does have bunting)

The Alliance: Several big TVs and we’re reliably informed that every game will be shown live with sound.

Prize for classiest blackboard goes to The Alliance

Prize for classiest blackboard goes to The Alliance

There may be a few other places showing the odd game or with a TV in the corner, so keep an eye out an let us know if we’ve missed anywhere.

Games tend to kick off at 2pm, 5pm and 8pm. Happy watching…

Witch Halloween party is right for you?

‘Tis the season to be… scary, so here’s a roundup of Halloween happenings in West Hampstead.

First you’re going to have to get a tasteful costume sorted in time for Friday. Party Party on Kilburn High Road or Oscar’s Den on Abbey Road are your friends here. And if you go to Oscar’s Den on Friday or Saturday, staff are offering free face painting if you quote “SCARY” (this may be more aimed at young trick-or-treaters though).


The next task on your list must surely be pumpkin carving, and where better to find a good specimen than West Hampstead Fruit and Veg?

In terms of going out, Mexican restaurant Mamacita is celebrating Day of the Dead all week with a special cocktail and food menu – details on its website.

The Black Lion on West End Lane is opening until late on the 31st and promises “all things unholy” including Halloween-themed ales.

The Alice House of Horrors party is on Saturday November 1st, and fancy dress is, er, strongly encouraged. “Those not in costume will suffer an unspeakable fate” apparently. There’s a prize for the best costume and a DJ from 9pm.

Also on West End Lane, La Brocca is offering “tricks and treats all night” on Friday, and a DJ from 11pm.

Over on Kilburn High Road, nightclub Love & Liquor is putting on a night of surprises at its “Rehab”-themed night on both Friday and Saturday until 3.30am. Entry is £20, and a costume is required. Find full details on the Facebook page.

If you were planning to go to The Gallery‘s Halloween party on Friday, unfortunately it’s been cancelled. Refurbishment work in the bar has overrun, so it will now re-open on November 5th.

Finally, if you want to avoid the trick-or-treaters with a spooky night at the cinema, keep an eye on the film listings page (updated Thursday) for local horror highlights. And of course don’t forget WHalloween Food Fest on Thursday night.

Tom’s knocked out by Salt House gnocchi

I was pleased to find The Salt House on Abbey Road still a characterful pub after its recent refurbishment; it requires a subtle balance when a boozer aims for seriously good food but in a relaxing, pint & paper environment.

Equally pleasing was the quality of the cooking. Starters of smoked fishcakes, creamed leeks, mustard and chives, and goats’ curd with honeycomb and brioche, were delicately made and presented, with lively flavour combinations. £7.50 each, but the kitchen skills were evident.

Sides of tomato and red onion, and garden salads were decent, if basic, whilst a Chilean Pinot Noir from the Casablanca Valley was absolutely brilliant. That’s my main course sorted for next time then…

Was this taken after he'd already eaten half?

Was this taken after he’d already eaten half?

Side salads

Side salads

My star dish (and that of madam – who was in uncharacteristically unfussy mood) was a refined gnocchi of sweet potato, with roasted garlic and herbs. Delicate, light, and rounded off very nicely with Parmesan shavings. A simply lovely dish, so why not put a little more of it on the plate? Yes, the style here was most definitely upper-level pub grub, but for £12+ I felt it could have been a touch more generous – and I hope chef will take this as a compliment, as it was most definitely a delicious plate.

I’ve had some decidedly odd eating experiences recently; stroppy staff, missing items, and having to request being moved to the basement dining room due to the… errmm… ‘personal issues’ of another diner. So it’s reassuring to know there are establishments getting the basics right, even if my greedy appetite wasn’t completely satiated on this occasion.

Tom's wine pick

Tom’s wine pick

Tom’s cheesed off in Kilburn’s Black Lion

Where do a group of animated, hungry Italians (and other assorted nationalities) go to celebrate a birthday? Pizza? Pasta? Not on this occasion – instead, everyone made their way to the Black Lion in Kilburn, for a repeat of similar festivities a year ago. How did we get on?

Classiest-looking dish was a squid special with stir-fried veg, which the birthday girl Eliza described as “Lovely! Very delicate taste, soft batter and sweet & sour sauce. Cooked well, and very nicely served! I really like it when they spend some time on the presentation of the dish.”

Fish and chips proved popular, and as last time I had this in the Black Lion, the style was towards a less-crisp batter, which I’m still not quite sure whether or not is intentional, though the fish was fine and plates certainly seemed to be cleared.

I was a little nonplussed with my Cheddar cheese sandwich, though. At around the same price as the steak option (£9.95), I looked forward to a hearty, thick wedge of mature Cheddar, especially as previously when I grabbed a cheeseboard in the pub one Sunday afternoon, it turned out to be mammoth in quantity (and not lacking in quality either). However, here we had layers of thinly sliced, very mild cheese which looked somewhat ‘commercial’ and lacked flavour. In fact, upon reviewing the photos, I was surprised to see there was actually more than one layer present – it rather felt like a salad sandwich with just a mere snipping of cheese.

The thin end of the wedge?

The thin end of the wedge?

The pear chutney wasn’t so much a chutney as some marinated, cooked pears, which were pleasing all the same, while the bread, salad, and general feel of it were fab; so it mystifies me as to why it should be let down in terms of the key ingredient – especially at £10 a pop?

Triple-cooked chips were a deep bronze colour, and tasted great if a touch oily. Crisp / fluffy, triple-cooked textures were not in evidence at all though, and I do think it’s important for such things to reflect what’s described on the menu (and for those preparing the food to know what to do on a technical level – competition is fierce out there!)

Friendly staff were on hand to assist with birthday cake presentations again, and all enjoyed the evening in this most attractive of local boozers. It’s a welcoming, relaxing pub, but perhaps just needs a bit of extra quality control to get it right back up where it belongs.

Pub quizzes in West Hampstead and Kilburn

Gallery pub quiz_ft

Starter for ten… where and when are the best pub quizzes in West Hampstead and Kilburn? This is a question we get asked a lot, especially during the cold winter months. The Black Lion on West End Lane seems to get a lot of love on Twitter for its Sunday night quiz, but what are the other options?

I set out to investigate the perplexing conundrums of which pubs hold a quiz, where are the biggest prizes to be won, and why are they all on a Tuesday?

The Gallery – Monday, 8pm

The Gallery, on Broadhurst Gardens, kicks off a week of #whamp trivia. It’s £1 per person to enter, with a maximum of 8 on each team. The winning team takes the jackpot, with runners-up getting a bottle of wine. There’s also a bonus point for the best team name.

North London Tavern – Monday, 8pm

General knowledge, sport and music rounds feature at the NLT’s quiz. There are also game show games, such as Play Your Cards Right, in between rounds to win free drinks. The entry fee is £2, and the winning team wins the pot. For the lucky team in second place, it’s free shots all round.

Black Lion, Kilburn – Tuesday, 8pm

The Black Lion on Kilburn High Road (quiz points deducted if you go to the one on West End Lane by mistake) is also £1 to enter. The winning team takes the pot of money at the end of the night, and there are bonus “free drink” questions along the way.

Earl Derby – Tuesday, 8pm

This is a music-themed quiz, so expect to hear plenty of song snippets from different genres to identify, as well as a picture round and other musical trivia. The winning team scoops the money pot, second prize is a bottle of wine, and the team in third place wins a “mystery booby prize”. £1 per person to enter.

The Priory Tavern – every 2nd Tuesday, 7.45 for 8pm start

Quizmaster Ben Jones hosts each fortnight, with questions across a range of topics. It’s £2 entry per person, and maximum team size is six. The winning team takes 90% of the night’s money pot. The remaining 10% is put in a Prize Pig for the highest-scoring quiz team of the season (approximately 10 quiz nights). The winners can also enjoy a round of drinks for the table, as well as branded gifts – tonight’s is a set of Peroni pint glasses. This quiz has its own Twitter account – follow @PrioryQuizHead for sample questions.

The Alliance – Thursday, 8.30pm

The Alliance has the largest prize pot of all, as the jackpot gets rolled over each week the tiebreaker question at the end doesn’t get answered correctly. The total currently stands at £1,273, so get yourself to Mill Lane on Thursday if you fancy your chances. Questions range across the usual categories, such as sport, food & drink and general knowledge. The team with the highest score on the night wins a meal at the pub. There’s also wine for the winner of the picture round. £2 to enter.

Sir Colin Campbell – Thursday, 9pm

The Sir Colin Campbell’s weekly quiz features a picture round plus a good mix of general knowledge, some local and London questions, as well as a bit of music. There is also a cumulative jackpot prize after the quiz itself.

Black Lion West Hampstead – Sunday, 7.30 for 8pm start

The pub advises booking in advance for this popular quiz night, especially if you have a bigger team (maximum 6 people) and want to settle into a booth. Sunday roasts are available all evening in case you need to nourish your brain cells. Questions include a picture round, name the song, and a cryptic round. It’s £2 to enter, and the cash is divided in varying quantities between the teams in first, second and third place.

Over to you – Which NW6 quiz gets your vote? Have I missed any out? And why DO so many take place on a Tuesday? Comments are open below.

Whisky and cheese? Yes please

This Tuesday, The Gallery on Broadhurst Gardens is hosting the next in its occasional whisky tasting sessions. This time around it’s whisky & cheese.

Tickets are £10, for which you get to try seven whiskies and matched cheeses. All the profits (i.e., whatever’s left after paying for the cheese) will go to The Winchester Project. Tickets are selling out, and you need to head to the bar to get one, so I would recommend doing so asap. Plenty of whampers are going to be there.

I went to the whisky & chocolate session a few months ago, and can honestly say it was great fun (and good value). Once again, Colin Dunn, Diageo’s Whisky Brand Ambassador, will run the masterclass and he’s an old hand at this sort of event. Last time around most people were whisky novices, but I think everyone really enjoyed it. I don’t think of myself as a whisky novice – certainly my drinks cabinet* suggests otherwise – and I thought it was great. Oh, and the “tastes” are pretty generous!

*cardboard box on the floor

Whampgather IX: Sunday lunch

It’s been a couple of weeks now since the ninth edition of the local get-together known as #whampgather.

Fifty of us took over the front half of The Black Lion on West End Lane while a sudden, if brief, monsoon arrived in West Hampstead.

The afternoon went well – it was great to see so many familiar faces and welcome lots of newcomers to their first whampevent. It’s the first time we’ve had so many people at a sit-down gathering, and thanks are definitely due to Martyn and the staff at The Black Lion for looking after us.

A smattering of folks hung around for more drinks until we got booted out as those who’d reserved tables to watch Italy beat England arrived.

I’ve said it before, but it feels like a long time since the very first whampgather when I wasn’t sure if anyone would turn up. Now, we’re heading inexorably towards the 10th, which will be sometime in the autumn. We’ll be returning to the usual Thursday evening drinks & music format and I’d recommend booking the next day off work.

In the meantime, here are some ropey pictures of Whampgather IX by me, and some better ones of the food by Anthony.

Sunday lunch at The Black Lion

When we did our initial Sunday lunch crawl through West Hampstead, the Lion – as it was then – was on the brink of shutting up shop for a while in order to be refurbed, rebranded, reimagined and reinvigorated. We therefore decided that it wouldn’t be fair to include it in the roast beef round-up and we’d return once it was up and running in its new incarnation.

Which is exactly what we did on that blisteringly hot Sunday a couple of weeks ago. You know the one. It will be remembered as “That hot Sunday in 2012”.

We were able to sit outside on the terrace of the newly refitted The Black Lion. Our table was hot enough for some benihana style Japanese cooking, and we lathered on the sun cream as we looked at the menu. After 15 Sunday lunches of sharing plates, his time we had the luxury at least of having our own meals all to ourselves.

A selection of the Sunday main course options

For starters we should have had gazpacho (which happens to be the oddest heckle I’ve ever heard at a comedy gig), but instead we all went for either the grilled asparagus, or the cured salmon. Both very good – although this is the second time I’ve had the salmon there and it was thinner and more delicate the first time.

Then came the mains. Obviously at least some of us had to have beef – in this case it’s Dexter beef (although the menu doesn’t specify which cut). Tom had fish & chips and Claire tried out the veggie option of roast butternut squash, wild mushroom and almond pancakes with a red pepper sauce.

Beef (and Dom’s arm)

The beef was good – i think they might have got their mediums and their medium rares mixed up, but no big deal. Portion size was impressive, the Yorkshires teetered precariously on top like some limestone rock formation, and the bed of vegetables were all properly cooked (in fact they were slightly over rather than very under as we had had elsewhere).

Tom seemed pleased with his fish & chips, which looked… well, it looked like fish & chips. Claire claimed her pancakes were a good vegetarian option; a change from risotto or the ubiquitous nut roast.

I thought the roast potatoes were good, but it took a long time to get Dom – the arbiter of all things tuber – to pass judgement, and even when he did he was a bit non-committal.

My only criticisms were that there wasn’t enough gravy (though I’m sure we could have asked for more), and it looked like mine had split. No complaints with the flavour though.

Deep bowl for Tom’s deep appetite

We managed to squeeze in desserts: cheesecake, cheese, and a sticky toffee pudding for Anna – a recent convert to the delights of stickiness and toffeeness. All were good – and the cheeseboard came with an extra menu with lengthy descriptions of the cheeses. A nice touch.

Dom and the girls blitzed their way through rather a lot of prosecco, while Tom and I demolished a really good Palestra from the Douro – excellent value as most Portuguese reds are at the moment.

There is no doubt that The Black Lion is an excellent addition to the eating options in West Hampstead. The prices are reasonable, if not cheap, but the service is good and there’s a sense that they are really trying hard to make it work. There are plans for a full-size barbecue on the terrace, which people might find more appealing than the one at the Alice House, which on that particular day was on the street outside the front door in line with the exhaust fumes of the 139 and 328 buses.

Of course lots of us will be trying out The Black Lion for Sunday lunch very soon at Whampgather IX – lets hope we all get as good a meal then as Team Roast did on our very very final Sunday lunch tasting. I’ve added the scores to the spreadsheet you can find here.

Roast beef: £14.50
Yorkshire pudding score: 8
Roast potato score: 7
Sets the bar high for West End Lane.

Sunday Lunch: The dramatic conclusion

One by one we arrived. Amid the clatter of cutlery and pouring of drinks we were the epitome of concentration. The task ahead was clear.

This was the conclusion. This was the final part of the trilogy. By the end of the day we would have found an answer.

It was a Sunday.

We were eating lunch.


And again.

And again.

Having already dissected and critiqued the Sunday lunch offerings of Kilburn and West Hampstead, we were turning our attention to the borders, the periphery, the crispy outer rim of roast meat offerings. We had five pubs in our sights, 10 meals to go. All the pubs apart from The Queensbury knew we were coming to review them (notably, all were much more engaged with that idea than the others we’d visited before).

And so it began.

Midday: The Clifton
We weren’t in Kansas any more – we were on Clifton Hill in NW8. There may have been tumbleweed. As had become traditional, we kicked off with the Bloody Marys and were asked how spicy we’d like them. I like this customisation. But then to the food.

The beef – 21-day aged sirloin – was apparently served medium rare, although ours was definitely on the rare side of medium rare. It did taste very good though. As at the NLT in Kilburn, it was one large thick slice rather than several thinner slices. The vegetables were fine, although the carrots were very underdone, which would be the theme of the day.

A mighty Yorkshire pudding on some (quite rare) beef

The roast chicken was acceptable, though it didn’t wow us, and although I know bread sauce is traditional, it doesn’t add a lot really when you also have potatoes and a yorkshire pudding. Especially when the Yorkshire pudding was so good.

Roast chicken came with bread sauce AND a Yorkshire

This was a promising start overall though. I ordered a side of crackling. Although roast pork isn’t on the menu, the chef buys pig skins specially – I’d suggest not bothering, crispy skin without any of the fat doesn’t work so well, what we had was more like pork skin crisps than proper roast pork crackling. Not unpleasant, but a bit pointless.

Throw these pig skins and you’d take someone’s eye out

Despite this being our first port of call, Tom was powerless to resist the ginger apple crumble for dessert, which received glowing praise from all.

Roast beef: £13.50
Yorkshire pudding score: 9
Roast potato score: 4
Excellent roast beef and good service
*our crumble was on the house

1.45pm: The Salt House
We’d been told that the restaurant had a big party in, so we’d be seated in the bar. Frankly, I think that the bar area is nicer anyway at this popular Greene King pub on the corner of Abbey Road and Belgrave Gardens.

The food came incredibly (almost too) quickly – one beef and one lamb this time. We had barely made a dent in the bottle of Carignan, which Anna declared a bit too heavy on the cherry just as I said “mmm… cherry” to Claire.

“Mmm… cherry”

The beef came in the Yorkshire pudding as we’d seen at The Alice House earlier. The presentation frankly wasn’t the best, but it was very hard to fault the taste of this dry-aged Angus sirloin. The vegetables were all undercooked, and the carrots were actually almost raw. Everything was well-seasoned although perhaps a little heavy on the salt for some of our tastes, but then it is The Salt House. There was some argument over the eventual score for the Yorkshire pudding – it tasted good, but it was too thin at the bottom to hold the gravy so – in Dom’s view at least – it was ruined by being too soggy towards the end.

Generous beef but did the Yorkshire get too soggy?

The potatoes, despite being cooked in the obligatory duck fat, were a little underwhelming, they weren’t crispy enough although they did taste good.

The lamb was very good – it seems pretty hard to screw up lamb, so if you like it and are wary of a pub’s cooking ability it may be the safe option.

Lovely lamb

We again indulged in desserts: a chocolate tart that Tom declared was so good he’d have it for his main course next time, and a sticky toffee pudding that was soft and smooth. We sank another bottle of Carignan as Anna overcame her aversion to cherry. As we went to pay, the manager came over and very kindly said the whole meal was on the house, which was a very pleasant surprise, so thank you Salt House. Doesn’t affect the scores of course!

Roast beef: £15.50
Yorkshire pudding score: 8 (Dom disagrees)
Roast potato score: 6
Good all round, quite expensive, buzzy atmosphere

3pm: The Alice House (Queen’s Park)
A short cab ride later and we were entering Queens Park’s Sunday creche, also known as The Alice House. This offshoot of the West Hampstead Alice House had presented the same challenge of a kitchen that closed for a bit in the afternoon, so we were under strict instruction to be there on time (in fact we were early), and we’d pre-ordered the beef and the pork.

Same menu as the West Hampstead branch, but now with prices!

The beef divided opinion. It had been very good at the West Hampstead branch, with the full yorkshire pudding also proving a hit. This version impressed Tom and Anna, while Dom and I thought it was merely acceptable. Claire was non-committal.

Good selection of greens (eat your greens kids)

The potatoes were good – but again, we were a bit split over how good. We all agreed that the Yorkshires were average, especially compared to the previous two pubs.

Presentation of both dishes was good and the presence of more green vegetables was appreciated, especially the bitterness of the spring greens. The carrots were also actually cooked – still a bit al dente, but cooked.

Some more bizarre crackling on otherwise tasty pork

The pork had good flavour although we derided the attempt at crackling that was artfully placed on top of the meat like a chive on a first round Masterchef plate of pasta

We blitzed through a couple of bottles of Tempranillo but were denied dessert despite being handed menus at about 3.55, no-one bothered to tell us that we’d have to order in five minutes or wait an hour, so we had to forgo this treat.

Minimalist label

The beef here is £1 more than the Salt House, but although Tom and Anna liked it, it was hard to see that it justified the extra price.

Roast beef: £16.50
Yorkshire pudding score: 6
Roast potato score: 7
Good vegetables, beef divided opinion

5pm: The Salusbury
It is a short stumble across the road from The Alice House to the Salusbury. This gastropub has a predominantly Italian menu, but is also happy to offer a traditional roast beef Sunday dinner. Again, timing issues with kitchens meant we’d pre-ordered the beef and also a roast spatchcock chicken, which we were having with all the roast trimmings but is normally served as a non-“Sunday lunch” dish.

blurry – but yes, that is £17.80 for roast beef

The beef (28 day dry-aged rib) was particularly good, with excellent gravy and everything was well seasoned. It was, at £17.80, also the most expensive roast beef in the area. Even the carrots were cooked.

And here’s what that gets you – really delicious beef

The chicken was also very good, and as with the Alice House, we were pleased to see some greens alongside the roast veg and Yorkshire.

NB: you can’t actually order this combo off the menu.

We were at the stage of the afternoon where my notes become harder to read, I know we had a selection of interesting sorbets including a very refreshing scoop of apple sorbet and what I can only assume from the hieroglyphs in my notebook was a chocolate fondant.

The house wine – a Vin du Pays de Gard – was under par, so we quickly worked through it and upgraded to a Chilean Pinot Noir (and then another one), just to keep Tom happy.

Literally our wine.

Overall, this was a good experience, and I know that the owners believe the quality of food justifies the price. Although we all agreed that it was very good beef, the total cost of the meal was probably a little high for this to be a regular Sunday lunch venue for any of us.We returned to the street and waited for our next and last taxi.

Roast beef: £17.80
Yorkshire pudding score: 7
Roast potato score: 7
Excellent beef, but at that price you’d expect nothing less

7pm The Queensbury
As with the previous two expeditions, we were starting to flag. Nevertheless, we loosened our belt buckles and bravely entered The Queensbury, by Willesden Green station for the final roast of the day. This was the one restaurant that didn’t know we were coming to review it (because we hadn’t been sure whether we’d make it – but I must say that they were incredibly friendly and helpful in the correspondence about what the Sunday options were).

(not sure why the lamb is in bold and has no price)

I do realise that this late in the day, it’s hard for restaurants to deliver the same quality of Sunday lunch that they might do around, say, lunchtime. So, we might be willing to forgive the Queensbury a slightly underwhelming selection of vegetables and trimmings with the roast beef. The broccoli was very undercooked though, which it shouldn’t be. The beef itself (sirloin), encouragingly, was actually good with plenty of gravy, and the Yorkshire was one of the better ones of the day.

That is a plate of roast beef. Oh yes.

In a futile attempt to stave off the onset of gout, we veered away from roast meat for our other dish and went for “seared salmon with rocket and anchovy mash”. While we might have forgiven any hiccups with the beef, the salmon really should have been spot on yet was disappointing. Seared wasn’t the first adjective that came to mind, it looked and tasted more just “fried” (or “pan-fried” as chefs like to call it). It was ever so slightly overcooked. The anchovy mash divided opinion. Tom felt it needed more anchovy and more butter, I actually quite liked it. The rocket though was just odd – did they forget to dress it, or is it meant to sit there dryly like a sort of papery peppery afterthought. Throw on a light lemon juice dressing to help both fish and rocket and the dish would have been improved immeasurably.

You can do better than this Queensbury, I believe in you!

It was our last port of call, so we called for the port – having already demolished two bottles of Petit Syrah. History does not record what we thought of it, just that it cost £17.50 a bottle. We had a second, so I guess we liked it.

We also had desserts – a baked vanilla cheesecake with a berry sauce (good), a chocolate tart, (pastry a bit thick), and cheese (with some leftover rocket!).


Roast beef: £14.95
Yorkshire pudding score: 8
Roast potato score: 6
Deserves a second chance for the meat.

It had been a long and expensive day. Anna might have run to the Clifton in the morning, but she certainly wasn’t running back home from The Queensbury. Dom staggered back to his house in Willesden, Claire tried to find a bus back to Kilburn, Tom looked a bit baffled by everything and I really really wanted to lie down.

Our quest was complete… on three separate Sundays we had eaten 30 main courses between us and could rightly consider our knowledge of local Sunday lunch options to be unrivalled. And then The Black Lion reopened on West End Lane. Luckily, I have an idea for that…

The conclusion? On average, these “periphery” pubs had delivered consistently better food than their competitors in Kilburn or West Hampstead. They were, however, also more expensive. The Clifton and The Salt House were my two favourites overall, while the beef at The Salusbury was probably the best roast beef overall. Taking all three weekends into account, if you held a gun to my head and asked me where to recommend for Sunday lunch (and this is my opinion, not those of my fellow testers), I’d say in no particular order, The Gallery, The Salt House and The Priory Tavern – all for different reasons.

A Tale of Two Lions

The Old Black Lion on West End Lane was established in 1751. It was a beerhouse not a tavern, meaning it could sell only beer.

The Black Lion on Kilburn High Road is older. It dates back to 1666. (The Red Lion on Kilburn High Road dates back to 1444! Thankfully now it’s called The Westbury).

Both pubs were rebuilt around the start of the 20th century. The Black Lion in 1898 and The Old Black Lion in 1912.

Click for full-size, taken from The Streets of West Hampstead, Camden History Society

When I first moved to Kilburn, the Old Black Lion was a Rat and Carrot. Yes, carrot. The Railway was a Rat & Parrot. The Rat & Carrot chain was fairly short-lived if I recall. It reverted to being the Old Black Lion.

Only a few years ago, the Old Black Lion underwent a transformation from fairly straightforward pub showing sport to The Lion – which always reminded me a bit too much of an All Bar One.

The Black Lion meanwhile became very popular, and I believe its ceiling is actually listed – if you can list a ceiling.

A few months ago, rumours were flying around West Hampstead that The Lion was closing and being sold. I contacted Greene King, the owners, who assured me this was not the case. It was being refurbed and would be all new and shiny and exciting. It took a while for that to actually get started but the refurb is taking place at the moment.

Then today I was followed on Twitter by @TheBlackLionNW6. Its bio clearly says it is in West Hampstead. The Black Lion in Kilburn (also in NW6) tweets – albeit rarely – under @BlackLionLondon (which might have pissed off some of the other Black Lions within the M25).

“Black Lion” search in Google Maps. “B” is Kilburn’s. West Hampstead’s isn’t there yet

This afternoon, The Black Lion (West Hampstead), tweeted a couple of photos of its dinner and lunch menus. They look quite expensive – it’s competition for The Alice House, not The Railway. At the bottom of the menus (very sensibly) is a website address: Don’t confuse this with The Black Lion’s (Kilburn) website:

I visited the website (of the Black Lion West Hampstead). It’s obviously not quite fully fledged yet, but it does have a contact page, giving its address (295 West End Lane) and a handy Google map. Which shows the location of The Black Lion in Kilburn.

West End Lane is suddenly the Kilburn High Road

With a degree of irritation, I pointed this out to the good people at the new (Old) Black Lion who said that that was indeed a mistake and they’d correct it asap. Hurrah.

In the meantime, the pub opens on April 26th. I am prepared to spend a lot of time explaining to people that there are two Black Lions (like there used to be) on two different roads but in the same postcode area. Before the internet this clearly wasn’t a problem as both coexisted for about 250 years. Now, everyone needs a unique identifier and perhaps “NW6” wasn’t the best one to pick. For a start why not go back to The Old Black Lion, or even call it “The New Black Lion”.

I shall leave the last word to Shannon, whose common sense could have saved the day.

Sunday Lunch in West Hampstead and Kilburn: The Ultimate Challenge

One of the most frequently asked questions on Twitter is “where’s good for Sunday lunch” and, frankly, the answer is often “go to Hampstead”. But surely NW6 can rival NW3 for a simple piece of roast meat and a few trimmings. It was time for some scientific research. Five Kilburn pubs one Sunday, five West Hampstead pubs the next. (jump to West Hampstead results). [update: the review of the five “periphery” pubs is also now online]

Two Sundays, twenty plates of food, and an awful lot of red wine

Two Sundays, twenty plates of food, and an awful lot of red wine

Sunday lunch in Kilburn
Today we would tackle Kilburn. We were a merry band of five and five pubs were in our sights: The Westbury, The Priory Tavern, The Betsy Smith, The Black Lion and the North London Tavern. Yes, yes, before you all start ranting, there are other Sunday lunches available, but we couldn’t do all of them in one day and we opted for the pubs that people generally talk about. And frankly we didn’t want to think too hard about what went into the £4.99 offer at The Bell. All the pubs had been told we were coming and all but The Black Lion had replied and reserved us tables.

Is the Westbury's hubris justified?

Is the Westbury’s hubris justified?

Midday: The Westbury
Bloody Marys in hand we took stock. Our methods were simple – one roast beef in every pub and one other meal from the Sunday lunch menu. Between us. Not each. We’re not made of lycra. Here at the Westbury, which rather boldly claimed outside that it did the best roasts, we opted for the veggie dish – mushrooms. This was a transparent and futile attempt to make us feel good about the amount of meat we were going to consume.

Westbury sign

Westbury's Sunday menu

Westbury’s Sunday menu

Not everyone knows the Westbury, I realise. During the daytime it’s a pretty nice spacious pub with lots of comfortable seating. It opens at 12 on Sunday, so we’d been sat outside on benches on the High Road like alcoholics desperate for the pub to open. We did have to wait a little while for our food, but we’d ordered just after a table of four, so we can forgive the kitchen for being a little sluggish so early in the day.

What of the food. So this doesn’t get incredibly dull I’m just going to pick up on the main points! Beef (Lancashire rib eye) was good – one of the better beefs in fact. The Yorkshires were average. The carrots were delicious (best carrots). The potatoes were… well, Tom will get annoyed if I call them inedible, and strictly speaking they were edible but they were the worst of what was frankly a bad bunch of potatoes across all five pubs. So, high marks on beef, low marks on potatoes. Good gravy (and we were offered extra when served).

The Westbury's roast beef

The Westbury’s roast beef

The mushroom dish tasted fine, but looked pretty underwhelming for £9.95 – we’d been imagining three really large mushrooms roasted with herbs and looking like they were any match for some roast beef. What we got was a four or five rather black looking mushroom discs that would have been quite nice as a mushroom side dish, but didn’t cut the mustard (also on the table) for a good veggie Sunday lunch.

Mushrooms underwhelmed

Mushrooms underwhelmed

Roast beef: £12.95
Yorkshire pudding score: 4
Roast potato score: 4
Tom’s favourite roast beef in Kilburn

1.30pm: The Priory Tavern
The welcome was warm as usual and the place was busy, so landlord Merlin warned us there might be a bit of a wait, although in reality it wasn’t noticeable.

Priory's Sunday menu

Priory’s Sunday menu

We ordered beef and lamb here. The Priory is the only place that said on the menu which butchers its meat comes from (Josh Pettit & Hillman’s). While we discussed the challenges of food waste – to doggy bag or not to doggy bag – we opened the house red (the first of the day’s many Tempranillos). Our food arrived – the potatoes were better, but still too soft. However, overall, the Priory offered the best vegetables of anywhere we went in both Kilburn and West Hampstead.

Priory's topside of beef

Priory’s topside of beef

The beef was definitely chewier than at the Westbury though perfectly pleasant. The lamb however was really good (I may be a bit biased here as I love lamb), tender, sweet, and the right amount of rosemary. The pub was “between mint sauces”, but did its best with a sort of makeshift mint sauce. The yorkshire puddings divided opinion.

Delicious lamb at The Priory Tavern

Delicious lamb at The Priory Tavern

We also decided it was time for a pudding and promptly gorged ourselves silly on a perfect (not a word I use lightly) chocolate brownie with ice cream. We have commented before on the Priory’s misguided fondness for chopping boards instead of plates. So I won’t mention it again. Just imagine what happened as the ice cream melted.

Perfect Priory Brownie (via Gail's Bakery)

Perfect Priory Brownie (via Gail’s Bakery)

Roast beef £12.50
Yorkshire pudding score: 4
Roast potato score: 6
The roast lamb was Jonathan and Claire’s favourite overall dish in Kilburn

3pm: The Betsy Smith
The strange Narnia meets Alice in Wonderland design of the Betsy Smith meant that this was the only Sunday lunch we were gong to have sitting in a wardrobe. It was lunch number three and by now we were a well-drilled team. The house red was ordered even before we’d sat down.

Betsy Smith

Betsy Smith

Long descriptions at The Betsy Smith

Long descriptions at The Betsy Smith

Then it was beef and our first roast chicken. Huge bonus points for hot plates – apart from Anna who for reasons only she can explain prefers cold plates. Also the staff were on the ball enough to offer us each a plate rather than having us all attacking the two roasts like starved hyenas.

Roast chicken at The Betsy Smith

Roast chicken at The Betsy Smith

Betsy scored high for presentation

Betsy scored high for presentation

Betsy’s chicken wasn’t a triumph – it was nicely presented, but was a little dry and bland. The potatoes were once again a step in the right direction with a crispy outside, but a little heavy inside. Both plates came with mange tout, which seemed incongruous, and a side dish of cauliflower cheese.

The beef was better than the chicken – nothing to write home about, but here’s the kicker: Betsy Smith’s roast is under a tenner. It’s cheaper than everywhere else, and perfectly decent. The wine (another Tempranillo) was also pretty decent. So much so that we had a second bottle with a top-drawer sticky toffee pudding.

Betsy's desserts all under a fiver

Betsy’s desserts all under a fiver

Delicious sticky toffee pudding

Delicious sticky toffee pudding

Roast beef: £9.95
Yorkshire pudding score: 6
Roast potato score: 5.5
Best value roast beef in Kilburn

4.30pm: The Black Lion
There was no room in the bar at the Black Lion so we had to go through to the fairly recently remodelled restaurant. It’s nice, but not as nice as the bar. Beef and pork was the order of the day here. We were starting to flag slightly at our fourth pub, but another bottle of Tempranillo soon revived us (once it had reached room temperature).

A "no frills" menu from The Black Lion

A “no frills” menu from The Black Lion

Overall, this was a good Sunday lunch, or would have been without the red cabbage (at least for me – it had soaked into the gravy making everything a bit too sweet and acidic).

Roast beef at the Black Lion

Roast beef at the Black Lion

We ordered roast pork, which was nicely cooked but a little bland. It was also pretty much gone before I had the chance to take a photo. The Black Lion was the first place that asked how we’d like the beef – and more or less got it right – in fact the beef itself was quite good. The veg was not great: most of our carrots were burnt. However, the Black Lion had better potatoes than most places and a good yorkshire.

Roast beef £13.50
Yorkshire pudding score: 7
Roast potato score: 7
Dom and Anna’s favourite roast beef in Kilburn.

5.30pm North London Tavern
There was a distinct sense of acheivement as we arrived at the NLT. Like great explorers we had experienced adversity (those Westbury roasties), elation (delicious lamb), and had bonded over more bottles of red wine than was clearly advisable based on current government guidelines. We planted a flag in the table and settled in for the rest of the evening.

NLT Sunday lunch menu

NLT Sunday lunch menu

Expectations among some were high. Others (me) had been underwhelmed by the NLT’s food before. It was the most expensive of Kilburn’s roast dinners – would it be the best? Along with the beef, we had salmon for a change. I confess that by this stage my notes are slightly harder to read and not quite as extensive. The beef split the room – Tom liked it, I felt it had good texture but lacked flavour. It was one large thick slice of beef rather than a few thinner slices.

The priciest roast beef on the High Road

The priciest roast beef on the High Road

Roast salmon at the NLT

Roast salmon at the NLT

Portions were generally notably smaller than elsewhere. The salmon was nice, if perhaps slightly overcooked. The NLT did deliver the best yorkshire pudding of the day though.

We treated ourselves to more (quite a lot more if my hazy memory recalls) red wine (another Tempranillo blend) and puddings that we got to eat all on our own without clashing cutlery with each other.

Very good chocolate tart at the NLT

Very good chocolate tart at the NLT

Roast beef £14.50
Yorkshire pudding score: 8
Roast potato score: 6.5
The salmon was Anna’s favourite overall dish.

Kilburn summary: Nothing outstanding, but everywhere had something going for it. The lack of agreement on what was the best roast dinner here shows that it’s hard to recommend anywhere as outstanding. It also suggests that given that the cost of a roast beef lunch varies by £4.50 between the Betsy Smith and The North London Tavern, value for money and general atmosphere probably carries as much weight as quality of food.

We rolled home… but seven days later…

Sunday lunch in West Hampstead
There were just four of us for this installment of our Sunday lunch taste test. This would mean more food each, more wine each and less ranting by absentee Dom about the state of roast potatoes.

Under the microscope today were The Gallery, The Railway, La Brocca, The Alice House and The Alliance. We were back on home turf and we were hoping for a higher average standard. We bypassed The Lion, which was about to close for a major overhaul, but we’ve since been to its new incarnation as The Black Lion – what did we think?

Midday. The Gallery
I’m an unashamed supporter of the food at The Gallery since they revamped the menu some months back.

Sunday menu at The Gallery

Sunday menu at The Gallery

Therefore, I wanted our opening dinner to be good. The Bloody Marys once again got us limbered up for the task ahead. Along with the beef we opted for the poussin.

A damn fine plate of food

A damn fine plate of food

Good yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes at The Gallery

Good yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes at The Gallery

Right off the bat we were happy whampers. The potatoes were very good and the yorkshire was better than anything we’d had in Kilburn. The beef was good but not great, but the poussin was perfect – juicy and tender with a good flavour on the skin. The veg were a little bit bland – they needed the kick of herbs or just more butter. Cauliflower cheese was a nice addition, although Claire was a bit sceptical that the cheese sauce was quite right.

It was, very simply, a good start to the day.

Roast beef £13.95
Yorkshire pudding score: 9
Roast potato score: 8
The poussin was Jonathan’s favourite meal of the day

We crossed the road

1.15pm The Railway
We weren’t expecting great things from The Railway to be honest, but we wanted to see what it could offer at the value-end of the market.

The Railway keeps things simple

The Railway keeps things simple

The Sunday roast options were beef or “chicken breasts”, but we decided to eschew the chicken – partly ‘cos we’d just had poussin and partly because none of us were entirely sure whether we fancied chicken from the cheaper end of the industry. So, we had scampi & chips instead.

Lets get the scampi out of the way first – it was scampi. There. That’s it. It wasn’t bad at all – i’ve had much worse scampi. And there are some pubs in the area that would be better off with the Railway’s chips than the ones they make themselves. But that’s scampi and chips.

Scampi & chips at The Railway

Scampi & chips at The Railway

In case you didn't know what a Sunday roast looked like

In case you didn’t know what a Sunday roast looked like

The menu had a picture of what our roast beef dinner would look like but actually it looked better in real life.

Mash AND roast potatoes. And peas.

Mash AND roast potatoes. And peas.

We were a bit divided on this. Anna in fact just declined to eat it but that was hardly entering into the spirit. It was cold, which wasn’t a good start. Not deliberately cold, but definitely not hot. It was borderline complaining-level cold, but we couldn’t be bothered and the gravy and other bits and pieces were hot enough.

I felt that although it didn’t look hugely appetising, it actually tasted perfectly ok and I would happily have eaten it all. Tom and Claire were less convinced. The accompaniments – well, I’d be lying if I said the Yorkshire pudding was good. The mixed veg would have been absolutely fine if they’d not been overcooked. There’s nothing nutrionally wrong with frozen veg, but they shouldn’t be soggy. However, the potatoes were actually pretty good (and came in both mashed and roast form) and there were peas and who doesn’t love peas?

One thing that I will say about The Railway is that the service is always noticeably good – friendly, helpful and eager to please. They’d even given us an extra Yorkshire pudding as Tom had asked nicely. Had we complained about the cold beef I’m sure they’d have been nice about it and sorted it out. Obviously this was a lot cheaper than anywhere else, but it’s only £4 less than the Betsy Smith, which had delivered a better plate of food.

Roast beef £5.99
Yorkshire pudding score: 3
Roast potato score: 6
It fills a gap in the market in West Hampstead

3pm La Brocca
Tom practically lives at La Brocca but had never had Sunday lunch there, so we were all intrigued to see what the Italian-inspired kitchen could deliver. The Sunday roast options were chicken or beef, so we had both and branched out from the ubiquitous Tempranillo to Tom’s favourite Pinot Noir.

La Brocca's Sunday lunch menu is tucked away in a corner

La Brocca’s Sunday lunch menu is tucked away in a corner



The beef had good flavour, but needed the gravy without which it was a little tough. The chicken – again, just chicken breasts which is no good for those of us who prefer legs – was also nice, but it didn’t excite us.

Roast chicken from La Brocca

Roast chicken from La Brocca

The best roast potatoes

The best roast potatoes

The vegetables were average – perhaps slightly disappointing for a kitchen of this standard – and unsurprisingly the Yorkshire was so-so. But the roast potatoes… oh dear me the potatoes were almost as good as Dom’s mother allegedly cooks.

As we had a bit of time before the Alice House would be ready for us, we indulged in a good sticky toffee pudding and an apple crumble that was a lot more apple than crumble, but tasted good nonetheless.

The vibe is always good at La Brocca too, and although it was a mixed success, I could see myself coming back here for more of the beef (with extra gravy).

Roast beef £13.00
Yorkshire pudding score: 3
Roast potato score: 9
The best roast potatoes in Kilburn or West Hampstead.

4.45pm The Alice House
Now, before we get into the food, I need to sort one thing out. When I’d e-mailed to book the Alice House I’d been told that the kitchen was closed from 4-5pm on Sundays, and they couldn’t guarantee there’d be any roast dinners left when it reopened. The website does in fact say that Sunday lunch is served from 12-4pm, which I hadn’t noticed. Nevertheless, it seems strange in an area rife with late Sunday lunchers, and it’s not hugely conducive to doing a review! Anyway, after a very amicable correspondence, we agreed that I’d pre-order the food so they’d keep two plates back for us, and then when the kitchen reopened at 5pm they could serve us. This meant weweren’t entirely sure what sort of state the food would be in.

We had to use Google Maps to find Aldington

We had to use Google Maps to find Aldington

I’m delighted to say it was in an excellent state. We had the beef and the lamb and for the first time we had a REAL Yorkshire pudding – that is a proper size one with all the beef and gravy and vegetables served inside.

Now THAT is a Yorkshire pudding

Now THAT is a Yorkshire pudding

If we’re being very pedantic (and as someone who’s half Yorkshire that’s not just a right, but a duty), the yorkshire wouldn’t be served like this, it would be a separate dish, but this was a good approximation of the idea and it was good, although not quite as good as The Gallery’s.

The beef was also top-notch, very tender and well cooked. The lamb was good too, though not as good as the Priory’s for my money. There was a very good range of vegetables, but the potatoes divided opinion. Tom liked them, while the rest of us thought they were ok, and more like mini-jacket potatoes with a very thick skin albeit soft inside.

Roast lamb at The Alice House

Roast lamb at The Alice House

So, the end result was that we left the Alice House pretty happy. But had we been lucky? I saw a tweet that evening from someone who – for the second week running – had been told at 2pm that they’d sold out of Sunday lunches and there would be a lengthy wait for the next batch to be made. Surely, the AH must know that it’s going to be a popular place for Sunday lunch and can prepare accordingly? And if the food is always this good then they really are missing out on a goldmine.

Roast beef £14.50
Yorkshire pudding score: 8
Roast potato score: 6 (amid a lot of argument)
Best roast beef in West Hampstead

We needed the walk along Mill Lane to The Alliance by now. Although the conversation had remained sparkly, we were feeling the weight of responsibility – largely in our stomachs – as the mission drew to a conclusion.

6pm The Alliance

By the time we reached The Alliance most people had sensibly stopped eating lunch and were perhaps having a cosy pint in front of the football. Not us. No siree.

The Alliance menu

The Alliance menu

The menu sounded appetising and good value, but we decided to finish as we’d started a week earlier with the beef and the vegetarian option. We’d heard good things about the roast dinners here, and although the beef wasn’t exceptional it was perfectly fine. The veggie roast was more than fine, it was damn good and long-time vegetarian (obviously not any more) Claire said it was much better than many she’d had.

Top-notch veggie roast

Top-notch veggie roast

Ironic then that the potatoes weren’t the best, ranking down with the Westbury’s. The Yorkshire wasn’t bad either but by this stage we were all well and truly roast dinnered out.

Our tenth and last plate of roast beef

Our tenth and last plate of roast beef

Obviously we had room for pudding. Duh. Plum fools, more crumbles (really really good), a cheesecake and generous cheese plate all found their way down.

You can’t argue with the friendly service at The Alliance, and if you’re up that end of town it’s well worth the money – we were also right at the end of their service, so it’s possible that the potatoes might have been better earlier in the day. And although we only tried a couple of non-meat options across both weekends, if there were many veggie dishes better than this then I’d be surprised.

Roast beef £11.50
Yorkshire pudding score: 6
Roast potato score: 3
Good value – would try again a bit nearer traditional lunchtime!

We were done. We were very full. Kids, don’t try this at home. I have literally no idea how Anna ran to work the next day – I could barely move.

West Hampstead summary: Definitely a higher standard overall, although again struggled to say that one place got everything right. The Alice House food was very good, but I wouldn’t want to get there and find the kitchen was shut. La Brocca’s atmosphere was lively and it delivered top roast potatoes. The Alliance was good value, but I’ll be heading back to The Gallery for that poussin.

Across both Sundays, the lamb at the Priory and the poussin at The Gallery were my two personal favourite dishes and the beef at The Alice House was my favourite roast beef.

Before you ask… yes, we know there are more places in Kilburn that do Sunday lunch; no, we’re not going to do Hampstead, you can explore the pubs there for yourselves; but yes, we will do one final Sunday lunch field trip when we tackle “The periphery” [update: This is now online]. In the meantime, thank you to Tom, Anna, Claire, and Dom for their company and firm opinions.

Photos are courtesy of Anna, Claire and me.

The Lion’s future

There seemed to be some confusion as to what was happening to West End Lane pub The Lion, so I wrote to Greene King, the owners. Here’s the response:

“We are planning to close the Lion in West Hampstead temporarily for an exciting refurbishment. The plans and timings for the refurbishment have not yet been finalised but we will keep the local community updated. We apologise for any inconvenience the short-term closure may cause.”

Not adding huge amounts of info, but it does seem to suggest that the pub hasn’t been sold, but is being revamped – so the gastropub rumours may be correct.

David Locke of La Brocca reflects on 20 years

All this weekend, La Brocca is celebrating its 20th birthday. Moya “Scoop” Sarner, spoke to the owner:

The impressive figure of David Locke, usually found dominating a bar stool of West Hampstead local La Brocca, is familiar to many of us. He opened the restaurant 20 years ago today, and one of his first customers was his granddaughter Yasmin, then a baby in a moses basket. Today she’s the warm, sparky brunette, working as a waitress in the bar upstairs. It’s very much a family business, as he explains: “My wife Edda does all the hard work in the back office, our daughter Laura is the manager, and I’m in charge of ‘marketing, strategy, and drinking'”. Sounds like a damn fine strategy to me.

The bar is much the same as when it opened – but the area certainly isn’t, he says. “West Hampstead has changed totally in 20 years. There wasn’t much here back then, but it’s grown more and more upmarket. When they opened the Jubilee Line through to Canary Wharf [in 1999], all the pine doors and brass knockers appeared, and property prices doubled”. That’s reflected in more sophisticated tastes – so the bar sells more champagne and prosecco, and the restaurant has branched out from pizza and pasta into meat, fish, and other specials. But, he is quick to point out, “West Hampstead is an amazing place to live. Although it’s gentrified a bit, it’s nowhere near as up itself as Kensington or Chelsea – in my view, it’s still one of the last villages in London.”

The regulars – and they are many – haven’t changed at all. Take the two white-haired gentlemen who rarely leave their window seat. “Pen and his friend Peter started coming in about 10 years ago, for lunch,” David says. “Now they’re addicted and come every day. They have two large sherries, a bottle of red, three large green chartreuses and two courses – I hope I’m doing that when I’m 87!”

And there are celebrity customers too, from the Crediton Hill mafia’s Emma Thompson and Imelda Staunton, to rugby and cricket stars including Ricky Ponting. “And one afternoon”, David continues, “I strolled in to find Peter O’Toole sitting at the bar, with his sparkling blue eyes”. Then there are the well-respected jazz musicians who started off at La Brocca’s Thursday night jam sessions, friends and students of our very own local musician and teacher @cyberdonkey, aka Simon Whiteside. Many are now big names, like jazz pianist Gwilym Simcock, Mercury Award nominee for best album, just pipped to the post by PJ Harvey. “The jazz is a love”, David explains, “but it doesn’t make me money. You want to know how to make a million pounds out of jazz? Start off with two million.”

Jokes aside, David glumly says that La Brocca is not immune to the effects of the economic downturn. “Our turnover’s gone down 15 to 20 per cent over the last couple of years. We’ve had to cut back on staff and wages – we’re okay, but life isn’t as much fun as it used to be.” But David still seems to be having a pretty good time, as do his customers. “Loads of couples have met here in the bar,” he says (at this point I decide to spend even more time in La Brocca). “They get married, and they all come back to see us with their kids. When we first opened, I was maitre d’, and trying to get rid of a couple who were, shall we say, lingering. It looked to me like it was a blind date, and they were deciding whether to go off together or not. So, eventually, I said ‘Ain’t you got no homes to go to? Ain’t you got a bed?’ The best thing was, the guy was called Mr Rutter! Anyway, they came back six months later, married, and they’d brought me a little model of a double bed. ‘There you go’, they said, ‘We’ve got a bed now!'”

Don’t worry folks, despite the tough economy, La Brocca won’t be going anywhere soon. “I want my daughter Laura and the next generation coming up to carry on running the place”, David says. “That portrait of me on the wall is about 15 years old – I hope it stays there for my grandchildren and my great grandchildren – for at least another hundred years.”

Priory Tavern, Belsize Road menu tasting

A couple of weeks ago, a small group of us were guests of Merlin and Lucille – owners of the Priory Tavern on Belsize Road. They had asked us to roadtest their menu, and who were we to say no.*

When the couple took over the pub last year they opted for a fairly straightforward pub menu, but a trip to Vancouver and a restaurant called Meat & Bread prompted a change of direction. With a chef hired from No.5 Cavendish Square, and ingredients sourced from ‘proper’ suppliers, including local outfit Gail’s Bakery, the Priory is striving for something a little different. “The only things that are frozen are the peas, the sorbet and the ice cream,” says Merlin.

We kicked off with some chunky dippers – huge jenga-style bricks of bread and a bowl of gravy, which got the seal of approval from Anthony, our professional northerner.

We also tried a baked camembert, which was suitably fondue-gloopy but needed more bread or something to scoop it out with (and seemed oddly overpriced compared to everything else). It was served with a cranberry and rosehip syrup sauce – a nod to the couple’s impressive mixology pedigree and that impressed Mark. The last of our starters was a rather nice salad with a subtle dressing that lived up to the high standards expected by Tom.

The next round of food was the one most influenced by Meat & Bread. We had a gammon and egg sandwich – the meat was delicious, and this would make a great brunch dish (although Kat wondered whether the chips and the bread might not be overkill). There was also a ribeye steak sandwich in a ciabatta, and a vegetarian sandwich full of amazing chutney and that converted a couple of avowed meat eaters to the delights of vegetarian food. In each case the bread was chunky and delicious, but it does make these very filling sandwiches.

These sandwiches came with “squishable” fries (definitely fries not the sort of chunky chips that one might expect) served in little wire baskets. The sandwiches – in fact everything – is served on chopping boards. It’s fashionable, but is it practical? Lauren was unequivocal: she prefers plates. Certainly anything with a gravy or sauce is not best served on a wooden board and, given the generous servings, it does seem to be an issue. Put to a vote, the majority of us were pro-plate.

After the “meat and bread” dishes came the “meat and veg” plates (or boards). We tried a rosé veal dish and a pork dish served with a variety of well-cooked vegetables. These main courses were good and well-seasoned. If you’re choosing your own food then you get to choose your meat, your veg, and your sauce. The menu changes every couple of days depending on what’s come in.

Our meal closed out with a couple of amazing brownies. “Dish of the day” said Anthony. They were large and excellent (although the melting ice cream rather proved our chopping board point as it ran onto the table).

Much discussion about our meal followed over after-dinner drinks concocted by our hosts. The consensus was that the food had all been very good and very enjoyable. The overall menu was perhaps a little too meat and carbs heavy, with very few light dishes. There’s not much fish on offer and, given the high quality ingredients, there was a suggestion that having a couple of top-notch staples such as sausages and mash would be a good addition. Offering so much choice for constructing a main course probably isn’t necessary – simply letting the chef decide what works well together is enough for most people (and you can always accept substitutions).

So the overall verdict was that the Priory Tavern serves good food that’s well cooked, and you can sense that real care and thought has gone into the offer. Perhaps a few tweaks to the menu could broaden its appeal without damaging the concept and ethos.

The Priory Tavern will host Whampgather VII (Four Worlds Collide) on September 8th – yes, I know it’s not right slap in the middle of West Hampstead, but there’s a good reason we’re having it there. Trust me.

*As regular readers know, we generally do our whampreviews anonymously so, while it was very kind of the Priory Tavern to invite us and provide us with free food, we had also agreed that our opinions wouldn’t be swayed by their generosity.

Photos courtesy of Kat, Lauren and me

The Betsy Smith, Kilburn – Opening night

(photo: courtesy of Kai Reysenn)?

The Betsy Smith opening night last Friday attracted the crowds. The bar staff, vying for the Artful Dodger lookalike prize, were struggling. At one stage the crush at the bar was seven-deep and getting a drink took upwards of 40 minutes. Bluntly, the place was heaving.

A cunningly worded press release had set the scene earlier in the week. This sister venue of The Winchester in Islington and Ealing’s Lodge Tavern was already being referred to as the “Narnia” pub although it struck me more as Alice in Wonderland.

The front of the bar, in what used to be Osteria del Ponte, is heavy on seating and a little crammed. As my companion commented on arrival, “It’s about 15% All Bar One”. Ouch.

Force yourself through to the back, however, and the décor, ambience and style change gear. Here, the tables are more secluded. There’s a mezzanine level perfect for private hire and below that a small area where a band was setting up. This was clearly the place to be. It’s darker, quirkier and far more seductive, especially on a night when the hordes were clamouring for their cocktails at the bar.

The drinks list is laden with contrived idiosyncracies, with cocktails categorised by their degree of whackiness. Parsnip and blue cheese? Really? More standard cocktails and of course beer, wine etc. are also available.

The Betsy Smith has aspirations to be almost 24-hours, opening 8am-midnight Sunday through Thursday, and closing at 3am on Friday and Saturday. On opening night there was finger food being passed around, which was certainly better than average and bodes well for the quality of the kitchen.

The Earth Lights Boogie Band, led by Spencer Kennedy, cranked up the volume and blasted everyone’s eardrums through the wardrobe or looking glass or somewhere into the nether regions of Cricklewood at the very least. They were good. Very good in fact. Playing a mix of boogie and funk covers at full throttle, with a few poptastic tunes thrown in for good measure, the surprisingly (and pleasingly) mixed crowd settled in to listen for the first set. At such decibels, talking was pretty much out of the question.

By the time the second set kicked in, numbers had thinned slightly, it was possible to get a drink within just 10 or 15 minutes (!) and the small dance floor was getting its first workout. In the dark, with the multiple lampshades on, any All Bar One-ness from earlier in the evening had vanished. Revelling continued into the early hours with Louisubsole on the decks.

(photo: courtesy of Kai Reysenn)??

The Betsy Smith looks like it will be a success as long as it can keep appealing to a mixed Kilburn crowd. It’s too far from the entertainment core of Kilburn (Tricycle/Good Ship/Luminaire/Powers) to draw many drinkers from there, but close enough to The Westbury to be direct competition. It will need local support as well as to lure people from beyond Kilburn for its DJ nights. Midweek reports since opening night have suggested it’s been quietish and coupley rather than meat-market sweat-on-the-dancefloor, but if it can get both groups in it might just last. If it hopes to turn NW6 into Shoreditch, it might face a revolt.

For more details on what it offers, check out its Facebook page, along with loads of photos from opening night
The Betsy Smith
77 Kilburn High Road
T: 020 7624 5793