We hold our hands up: when the legendary Haverstock Hill pub closed in January we thought that was the end for the doomed watering hole, especially with parent company Faucet Inn’s rep for shutting down north London institutions like the Black Cap and the Dartmouth Arms.
However, after seven months cocooned in scaffolding, the pub, named after the 18th century co-founder of the Spectator, finally began to take shape the other week. It opened again quietly on Saturday, so we popped in last night and – wow – it’s had quite a rethink.
First things first: if you were a fan of one of London’s last great eclectic, bohemian pub interiors, the above image may not be too discombobulating.
And yet by and large the colourful, eye-catching mish-mash of ephemera, books, paintings, pics, stained glass and furnishings has been stripped out, with the front door moved to the corner of the building, and the circular bar opened out to create a much larger, airier feel.
Happily the legendary painted ceiling remains. As does open fireplace, wood-panelling and banquettes. Yet, as you would expect, the vibe is more considered now than authentic: clusters of carefully placed frames, the odd book, a bit of greenery and old signs are dotted about.
The dark, candle-lit cosy snug behind the main bar, with its own hatch, is no longer; instead this section is a semi-wallpapered black-and-burgundy painted dining area (with some new toilets, thank goodness). A little characterless right now, to be honest, but it might wear in OK.
The biggest change is the sizeable new dining room and events space which has been built in an extension behind the current pub. This, explained the affable barman, replaces the upstairs live venue, now converted into flats, the consequence being that Camden Council demanded 18 hours a week be used for community events – comedy, music and other social gatherings.
The irony is, however, that now that the extra room has been built, they’re not allowed to host events like these until they get a “change of licence.” So in the meantime it’s a dining room, adorned with paintings and mirrors.
Peckish, while you’re mulling over that? Well, the new-look Steele’s has gone up in the world, cuisine-wise, with items like superfood salads, seabass and marsh samphire and smoked rump of lamb all vying for attention. Heck, there’s even waiter service, a la The Stag down the road.
Outside, the garden has been thoroughly cleared out, back wall blasted and filled with more modern sturdy furniture, as well as high bar tables and stools. On our visit it was full, the crowd as mixed as it always was.
The beer selection is better than before, with a good dozen or so craft beer and real ale taps, including old-school ones such as Guinness and Becks Vier; we drank a Portobello London Pilsner (a little flat, if truth be told). Extra points would be awarded for, say, London breweries like Beavertown, Five Points, Pressure Drop or even Camden which, at least, is local.
Anyway: with the newly opened Belrose opposite (in the former Load of Hay/ The Hill building), and the diminutive Tupelo Honey bar just downhill, you can even, if you wish, embark on something like a lower-slope NW3 pub crawl. And whatever you think of the obviously expensive reinvention of this famous London haunt, let’s repeat the age-old mantra: at least it’s not flats.