Restaurants: Fit for public consumption

The City reaches of the Thames are less than salubrious, but its characterful old pubs are a rich reward, says Cole Moreton

London faces the wrong way. Paris, New York and every other great river city in the world takes inspiration and oxygen from its waterways. Our capital turns its back. Try to walk beside the Thames through the City, and you will probably be alone, passing the rump ends of warehouses and office blocks, and hurrying along dimly lit, urine-stained walkways.

Yet such expeditions reveal hidden treasures, among them the marvellous old pubs of Limehouse. Eating and drinking there, where ships from all over the world used to dock, makes every London pub without water seem claustrophobic.

The Prospect of Whitby calls itself the oldest public house in the world, and is sometimes spoiled by coach parties as a result. Further on, the Barley Mow, by Limehouse Basin, is a wonderful place to sit and drink in summer, watching pleasure-cruisers approach along a sweeping curve in the river. Trouble is, the food's not very good, and it's just another chain pub inside. For a meal, The Grapes, in Narrow Street, is unbeatable.

Charles Dickens drank in what was then the Bunch of Grapes, and used it as inspiration for the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters, the pub at the start of Our Mutual Friend. Boatmen no longer make a living by dragging bodies from the river as they did in 1864, and you can't buy pints of Purl, Flip or Dog's Nose here any more, but the dark wooden walls still resemble the "gnarled and riven" panels described in the book.

Dickens mentioned "a crazy wooden verandah impending over the water", and there's still a scrum for a place on the tiny balcony at the Grapes. Competition is also strong for a seat in the restaurant upstairs, which serves the best of Billingsgate fish market every day. The bar food, by the same chef, is just as good, though you need to be hungry - my friend's salmon fishcake was bigger than a Whopper. Not bad for pounds 5.75.

I seized the rare chance to eat by the book: "hot sausages and mashed potato", as served to Lizzie Hexam; and mine for just pounds 4.95. Four thick pork sausages fenced in four scoops of mash, with onion gravy poured over the top. "Bread and butter" turned out to be half a loaf.

We sat by the fireplace at the back of the pub, with the landlord's Alsatian asleep at our feet and pints of Adnam's Suffolk ale on the table. Dickens called it "a bar to soften the human heart", and you really shouldn't argue with the greats.

The Grapes, 76 Narrow Street, London E14 (0171-987 4396)

WATERING HOLES

The White Cross

Water Lane, Richmond

(0181-940 6844)

The Anchor

Barcombe, East Sussex

(01273 400414)

The Boat

Redbrook, nr Monmouth, Gwent (01600 712615)

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