With the onslaught of closing pubs in NW3, this old timer, perched on an almost Disneyfied corner of the capital’s prettiest postcode, has undeniable February appeal. And its history runs deep: a pub since 1807, it stands on the site of an old stable block. Thirsty writers and artists have, of course, poured through its doors for centuries.
Most north Londoners would agree that the Holly Bush is part of their cultural backdrop, a special-occasion destination to be enjoyed three or four times a year. I’m no different: over the ages there have been romantic trysts by the fire, post-Heath pints, and boozy nights in the window booths, the fire crackling.
Nowadays, like most pubs, it’s gone (a bit) upmarket. If you chance it at the weekend, a gate-keeping member of staff will ask if you’ve booked a table. You can still just have a pint if there’s space, in the tiny nook-and-cranny bar, or resting on the counter itself, although don’t expect to be dazzled by charm: the staff are seriously busy here, and may even treat you like an imposition (or tourist) unless you’re a known regular.
We’ve noticed this increasing frostiness in recent years – ever since the pub became a sort of next-level guidebook destination – but it’s particularly apparent on the day we pop in for a bit of early lunch. Surely it’ll be quiet enough to get a table at this time of year without a booking, we reckon. The few tourists should be traipsing the markets in Camden.
Wrong. At 12:30pm the place is a roadblock. Buggies, parked at right angles, hog every corner, babies squawk, and harassed parents hurriedly scoff starters and bar snacks to a ticking clock. Elsewhere, ruddy hikers and solo drinkers in cagoules nurse drinks huddled round the circular tables. A flustered waitress is tearing about; we’re a little scared to flag her down with the simplest of queries.A quick peek in the dining room reveals a sea of reserved signs. So, ordering two bloody marys we linger by the bar, hoping a table will become free, while recovering from the shock of their £9.50-a-piece price tag. £9.50!
With our rather grumpy elderly terrier in tow, we inquire if we can take a quietish spot in the dining room that isn’t reserved until 2pm. The flustered waitress responds by saying we can have it till 1:45pm, if we must, and insists that we’ll only be able to have mains as there won’t be enough time for starters.
Okaaay. But glancing at the menu, the usual fish-and-chips pub classics with a decided sprinkling of ambition, we decide we would, in fact, like a starter. Can we not share the octopus, we plead? We promise to eat quickly. We will vacate the spot at said time, even if that means balancing half-eaten plates in one hand, dog in the other. She relents, and after setting down a bottle of red, the food arrives in record time.
We don’t regret our choices: the octopus is a delectable pile, with a purr of heat from the paprika oil, a whack of it from the chorizo, and padron peppers adding bitter notes to counter the tender, butter-soft tentacles.Naturally we gobble it all down as efficiently as we can. Next up? Rare breed sirloin on the bone – a hefty 340 grams – which costs an almighty £26 (hanger, meanwhile, is a more reasonable £18). But it too impresses: deliciously rosy, with necessarily thick black strips of carbonised crust, every inch is devoured. Burnt shallot lends its blackened sweetness, confit garlic a mellow richness and portobello mushroom a smoky earthiness. Providing some crunch? Thrice-cooked chips dunked in creamy hollandaise, and charred little gem with umami-rich anchovy mayo.
So is it especially busy today, I ask the waitress, as we pay, vacating the table exactly as requested. She smiles, for the first time. There are just very few staff on, she responds, and every table is booked, with resources stretched to capacity. We learn that apparently the pub’s owners Fuller’s won’t hire additional help to make up the numbers when people are away or sick.
Location, character, history, decent scran: the Holly Bush gets it mostly right. But in these days of dying boozers, if you’re lucky enough to run one of the busiest pubs in London, shouldn’t you respect your team just a teensy bit more? And then, in turn, we customers might feel a bit more welcome.