The taverns that time forgot

Never mind the lastest foodie hotspots – some restaurants have been serving up for centuries.Samuel Muston takes a taste of the past.

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It was Raymond Postgate, as we all know, who took us by the hand and introduced us to good food. His 1951 Good Food Guide was a game-changer, a printed weapon against the mock cream, boiled meat, and blow-torch manners of the 1950s hostelry – and a way to pilot hungry stomachs to decent fillings.

It was, in his own guide's words, "the first mapping of an unexplored country" and Postgate became a legend for minding the nation's stomach. Only it wasn't the first food guide. Postgate wasn't mapping virgin territory; he was following a path cut by a Regency buck called Ralph Rylance.

Rylance, a Grub Street drudge of slim means and capacious stomach, published his own guide some 136 years earlier in 1815, which the British Library last week republished. The Epicure's Almanac is a full directory of all the taverns, coffee houses, inns and eating houses in Regency London. Rylance reviewed them as he went. He was the father of today's critics.

It was a unique, almost bizarre, undertaking. Although Rylance says in his introduction that his book has been modelled on the Alexandre Grimod de la Reynière series of French almanachs, title aside, it is a very distant cousin. Grimod was a voluptuary, listing only the exquisite, the celebrated and the expensive; Rylance's volume is earthy, looking to situation, service speed, and the contents of his wallet.

Alas, on publication the book sank like an over-egged soufflé, disappearing into the obscurity of libraries' rare manuscripts room, the province only of culinary scholars and regency dons. Now, though, with it republication, we can reopen the time capsule and gaze inside the manners and mores of 19th-century diners and drinkers. And more than that, we also get to see which pubs and eating houses are still going strong in the same premises with the same name they had two centuries ago. So, over two rainy days, I visited six of the most historic to create my own 21st-century update of this Regency guide.

The first pub, the Seven Stars, hiding on Carey Street right behind the Old Bailey, is eccentric, a condition to which a 400-year-old pub is surely entitled. The walls are purple and red with a vaulted ceiling and a Soho émigré landlady, Roxy Beaujolais, has the habit of calling you "squire" if she likes you. The pub cat, wearing a Tudor ruff, looks on without favour.

Rylance notes: "The gridirons and frying pans are in constant service of the red-tailed knights [of the law] here." And the crowd is still all briefs and clients, pinstripes and bundles. The eight-dish menu – marked out on a chalkboard to the left of the bar – has a cured herring and potato salad (£12), which I have, and which most of barristers seem to be chowing down on. Long, glistening fillets, silver-backed and sweet cured, with a potato salad melting away into its oleaginous dressing arrived after 10 minutes spent drinking the Adnam's beer.

"Not a bad spot of lunch," says a wig-wearer on a neighbouring oil cloth-covered table – and I have to agree; 198 years later it's chugging along just fine.

My next venue, the Cock and Woolpack on Finch Lane, sidling up beside the Bank of England, leads me to ask a question: when did we first begin to suffer under the yoke of capricious, celebrity-hungry chefs? You might think it all started with Auguste Escoffier at The Savoy Hotel in the late 19th century. But even over half a century earlier, at least one was around the Cock and Woolpack: "A cook [Mr Denton] occupies as authoritative a position as the Lord Chancellor... with almost as much dignity."

Today, Denton's modern heirs – Blumenthal, Darroze or Ramsay – are much missed. The only food on offer consists of sandwiches and burgers. But still, as Ruth, my banker friend, says, "at least my glass of pinot grigio is cold". Which is something.


Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is next, at 145 Fleet Street. In Rylance's day, John Calton reigned here, with "dexterity and precision to the universal satisfaction of all comers" serving dinners "smoking" and "porter foaming". Latterly it victualled the denizens of Fleet Street, when newspapers still lived there and papers were still launched on great tidal waves of booze.

The printing presses have gone, Lord Beaverbrook's Express building is Goldman Sachs' London set-up and the front bar, once marked "men only", now rings with chatter about eurobonds. It's an odd juxtaposition, the youthful bankers in a room so dark with its stuffed eagle and dominating metal fireplace, sawdust on the floor. It's like a 19th-century theme park and it appears it hasn't been repainted since the Great War – but perhaps that's the look. The beer is fine, and the food of the "ye olde steak chop" variety. It was nice to see, though – I wish I'd been here 50 years earlier.

Down the street at No 96 sits The Bell. Built as lodgings for Christopher Wren's masons, who were working on nearby St Bride's, it is described in the Almanac as "dress[ing] dinners to order; the beverages are good and the charges moderate". It was a working man's pub and is similar today.

"What d'you want?" the unsmiling barman says. I want, and have, a pint and the "beef rib pie" (£9.95), which is big enough to power you through an afternoon building a church, but not so good as to gain a place in my own mental almanac of places to revisit.

Simpson's Tavern on Ball's Court, however, I might use as a canteen, if I worked close by. It serves the type of food you used to get in certain English school canteens: fisherman's pie, stews, massive roasts and calves' liver are the order of the day (around £10). Rylance notes its "sumptuous larder"; you wouldn't call it that today – maybe hearty and comforting.

A walk now to The George at 77 Borough High Street. This is a pub owned by The National Trust. And the barmen do seem to have sympathy with those stern chaps at stately homes who tell you not to get to close to the Sèvres china. The "substantial cheer" Rylance found is as distant a memory as are the coaches that used to stop here.

So what did I find? Several things: antiquity is no guide to quality; there is a thriving chop scene in and around the City of London; and, most importantly, the best of places move with the times, cherish the past, but don't forget it's 2012.

Give me a proper pub – with simple menu and a cat in a ruff – rather than a museum any day.