The Blacksmith & The Toffeemaker, 292-294 St John Street, London EC1

What happens when you turn up at a gastropub at the last minute – in every sense?

Anyone who has ever worked a shift anywhere knows the interminable agony of the Final Hour. You've been in since 9am, but these, the final 60 minutes, have a habit of dragging out. Much of that hour is spent plotting the conviviality to follow: a glass of Sancerre, a fag in the sunshine, an online catch-up with The Apprentice, perhaps. What you want least of all is some corpulent goon calling up 20 minutes before home time and asking if he can delay your exit. Today, that goon is me.

My girlfriend and I fancied an early dinner. We have been meaning to go to The Blacksmith & the Toffeemaker for some time, noting its attractive façade, intriguing name, and prime location. So I rang up at 5.40pm and was told that on this day the kitchen would be shutting at 6pm. Fine, I said, we'll come immediately: we want an early night.

I wish we hadn't. The place is empty, save for a small bunch of families on a long table. The chef comes down to enquire as to whether the final order has been made, and is reminded of this late-arriving couple, who happen to be staring at him in the hope that he'll say that he's got some burgers left.

There's a definite fin de siècle vibe around. I should here acknowledge, in advance of the reportage below, that late on a stinking-wet Sunday in a moribund English spring, we have come at a time when this place does not appear to be at its finest.

But isn't that the point? Isn't it the mark of a good restaurant or pub that it can serve an excellent meal even when the place isn't on form and heaving? The prices don't change because it's nearly going-home time. They're still high in inflationary London. So serve a meal you're proud of.

The burger – the burger is OK. Served medium-rare in a brioche bun, with big slices of tomato and passable lettuce. The chips are proper, too, skins left on and not too greasy. But those, for me, are the highlights. The rest is dire.

The chalkboard on which the food is boasted reads, "Beets – £2", which seems pleasing, until you eat them. These are cold, wet, lifeless chunks of fuchsia beetroot in a little ramekin. Suddenly, £2 seems steep.

There's celeriac remoulade for the same price, which is also nothing to write to anyone about. Then there is red cabbage, or something like red cabbage, hideous lukewarm shreds of some vegetable that tastes like a victim of bullying.

There is a terribly bad rabbit pudding for £10. I think its surface is made of suet, because it looks exactly like suet, but it doesn't taste like suet. Given there aren't many things that bear such a striking resemblance to suet while in fact tasting altogether different, my best guess is that this is suet. That said, I'm not having a second bite, so I can't confirm it. Below what I believe to be suet is a festering mulch of coldness that, were it served in your child's school canteen, would warrant a stern word at the next parents' evening.

Finally, there are the desserts. Or rather, the dessert. It being past 6pm, the only sweet on offer is a carrot cake, which is dry and tough, though with a superb icing.

Did I mention that this is a pub whose main selling point is booze, not food? I should have done. Come here to have a drink, not to eat. It is styled as a gin and ale joint that does hearty English bar snacks and dishes on the side. The burgundy tiling of the main bar, in the manner of the old Tube stations, is pleasing; and the taupe-coloured walls and line drawings of workmen's tools in the eating area are inoffensive enough. Situated on an open corner opposite City University, it appears to be a lovely spot for a pint on a summer evening – far more than it can claim to be a dining destination.

The name of the place comes from a song by the late Yorkshire crooner Jake Thackray, itself adapted from a paragraph in Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie. Almost certainly for much of the time, before the end of a chef's shift, one might suggest, it's a solid London boozer with solid English food. But I have to write about what's put in front of me, and for all the caveats in Clerkenwell, this was one hell of a missable meal.

4/10

Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets

The Blacksmith & The Toffeemaker 292-294 St John Street, London EC1, tel: 020 7278 9990 Lunch and dinner daily. About £35 for two, including two pints of ale

Great alehouses

Victoria Hotel

85 Dovecote Lane, Beeston, Nottingham, tel: 0115 925 4049

An old-fashioned boozer which offers an interesting menu, great beers and an amazing selection of whiskies.

The Cartford Inn

Cartford Lane, Little Ecclestone, near Poulton-le-Fylde, Preston, tel: 01995 670 166

By the Cartford toll bridge, this boutique gastropub offers regional ales from its own microbrewery.

The Horse and Groom

Upper Oddington, Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire tel: 01451 830 584

A stripped-down Cotswolds gastropub, with friendly staff and a fine selection of real ales; it serves a consistently good menu, too

Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2012' www.hardens.com

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