The Clarence Review
Best for: Filling, warming pub grub away from Piccadilly’s tourists.
Great: Sense of London tradition, and in line with that, chips.
As a virtuous woman, naturally, in 1873 – the year William Nicholson set up his chain of up-market taverns and gin palaces in London, of which The Clarence is one – pushing through the crowded bar and swishing my heavy skirts up the staircase to the elegant dining room above would have raised a few eyebrows.
As it is, in 2013, my entrance through the post-work crowd goes unnoticed. I’m wearing trousers, and checking a strange rectangular black device with buttons as if my life depended on it. Honestly, nothing impresses these days. What does a girl have to do to induce the flicker of a brow muscle? I dare not ask for fear of blushing deeper than my rouge.
Certainly the girls who arrived before me are doing their best. One has bright red hair. Another’s tee-shirt hangs off her shoulder in the most scandalous manner. (Goodness, my eyes). Others - part of an excitable party, including, dear God, men - are shrieking raucously.
Poet Alexander Pope, up there on the wall behind them – he used to live on the street - scowls. “It’s most uncouth,” he groans. It’s the perfect vantage point for a spot of satirical musing though.
The bright lights, careless fashion choices and general casualness of the crowd jar with the sense of history this pub, tucked away off Piccadilly, is attempting to conjure.
Dark wood floorboards, heavy gold and black window lamps, stripy black and white blinds, silver tankards holding cutlery, even a typewriter on the reception desk and a huge print of a 19th century painting of St James’ Park; it all whispers that mystical time: Yore.
The menu hints of those days too. Ale and onion soup, quince jelly, beef wellington, wild boar (albeit in a burger with chorizo), beef rib pie, a sherry trifle (OK, sundae). There’s cod goujons, BBQ chicken and crisp squid – all the chain pub favourites – but the air of 19th century feasting is there.
There’s a ‘Gin Fizz’ menu and they’ve even installed a ‘library’ downstairs. Don’t think roaring log fire or red leather slippers, though; it’s actually a shelf containing beer-related artefacts and books, but it’s a nice touch.
The Clarence is shouting ‘Victorian London’ at every turn; the trouble is, I’m not sure anyone’s really listening. The crowd here seem oblivious; simply supping after work under bright artificial lights which unfortunately strip atmosphere away.
You see, The Clarence isn’t the most beautiful in the Nicholsons’ chain. The Argyll Arms near Oxford Circus, for example, boasts the kind of stunning decorative glass screens that Poet Pope would never tire of glimpsing at to see his mock reflection. It feels almost as if it’s trying too hard to reinsert its history.
This is certainly no Weatherspoon’s, but you sense its homogeneity even though it’s attempting to mask it with quirk.
The food is very good. In fact, the steak and chips are better than very good. I’d go back for the chips alone. The sour dough bread with my smoked salmon starter was dense and tart. My Beef Wellington came with a mouth-watering circle of potato dauphinoise, and although the beef was under pink, it was an unusual menu addition. The vegetables though, tasted of microwave. And, the only thing to come without a liberal sprinkling of watercress, was my sundae. I plead, the Poet Pope pleads, the merrymakers in St James’ Park plead: put it away!
I suppose this is the rub. You sense libraries, floorboards and tradition and your shackles are braced for something more than a chain pub can provide. You want rough round the edges, individual, handmade food, and what you get is solid, tasty, crowd-pleasing, interesting, but ultimately chain pub food, even if it is of the highest calibre within that genre.
Perhaps I’m too critical. I blame Poet Pope’s influence. I’ve been spoilt by too many independent boozers and gastro pubs. Ultimately, with The Clarence and every other Nicholson’s pub, you know you’re going to get tasty grub that’s more than a chip’s length above the average. Add to that a pub steeped in London’s history - picture all those drinkers sitting and slurping behind you down the years - and you won’t be disappointed.
That’s all I’ve got to say on the matter, she says, swishing her skirts and patting her bonnet. Not sure about Poet Pope though, he’s got a sharp tongue that one....read more
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- Cuisine Type: Pub
- Average Price: Â£15.00
- Dress Code: Not Specified
- Group: Nicholson's
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