Wine & Food

    The French House. Soho (Photo: Peter Clark)

    A criminally good pint: the best London bars with shady histories

    3 August 2020

    Given its rich history, it’s no surprise that our capital is the subject of thousands of salacious stories – particularly when it comes to organised crime.

    Having served all sorts for centuries, many London drinking dens were once closely associated with the city’s shady underbelly. Here were some of the most notorious.

    The Krays

    When it comes to British gangsters, few names carry the same instant recognition as the Krays – the psychotically-violent twins who famously ran London’s underworld during the 50s and 60s.

    The pub most associated with the duo is Whitechapel’s Blind Beggar – a longstanding East End boozer and the place where Ronnie Kray famously murdered George Cornell, a rival gangster who made the mistake of calling Kray – who was bisexual – ‘a fat poof’.

    The Blind Beggar, Whitechapel

    Having traded off the notoriety for years, the Beggar – revamped as a stylish gastropub serving gourmet burgers – now offers gangland-focused tours of the local area, putting it in competition with the many Jack the Ripper walks that bring tourists to Whitechapel.

    But the Beggar isn’t the only spot linked to the Krays. Pelicci’s – an art deco workers’ cafe in Bethnal Green that’s well worth a visit – was also a regular haunt, while the twins purchased the nearby Carpenters Arms for their beloved mum.

    Meanwhile The Berkeley, now a five-star hotel in Kensington, used to be a nightclub – owned by the Krays – called Esmeralda’s Barn. It was apparently the base for the brothers’ Mayfair operations.

    Meanwhile the Richardson gang, the Krays’ bitter rivals, are said to have frequented the Prince of Wales in Kennington – a hub for the underworld throughout the swinging sixties. Like most London boozers, it’s cleaned up its act considerably since then.

    Soho vice

    If there’s one postcode of London that’s historically been synonymous with all things criminal, it’s Soho. Throughout much of the 20th century, the area was the centre of London’s vice trade, and the subject of numerous gangland feuds.

    Though Soho was at times said to be under the control of different underworld bosses, one of the best known is ‘Big Frank’ Mifsud – a Maltese gangster who controlled a network of ‘clip joints’ throughout Soho.

    Unsuspecting punters would be lured in on the promise of cheap drinks and nude dancers, only to be fleeced of their money through hidden charges and inflated prices.

    The rapid gentrification of the West End, and the increasingly-professionalised efforts of law enforcement, means that the dens of criminality are now gone. Although not as quickly as you might have expected.

    The Yard Bar, Soho

    The area around Rupert Street was notorious for clip joints until the early 2000s. Just ask the regulars at The Yard Bar – a popular drinking den whose secluded pub garden is the perfect place for a spot of day drinking.

    At one point, it was practically surrounded by extortion joints (making it, in one sense, the only ‘straight’ place on the street). Now the old clip joints have been turned into bubble tea shops.

    Of the historic pubs that have traditionally been known for edginess, two have managed to survive: The French House – which has served everyone from Francis Bacon to Dylan Thomas – and Trisha’s – an underground jazz bar with a reputation for debauchery.

    The French House, Soho (Photo: Peter Clark)

    Little Italy

    Before Soho became London’s vice hotspot, organised crime typically revolved around Clerkenwell – home to many of the city’s first immigrant communities (most notably Italians) for hundreds of years.

    The area has had its fair share of mob types. Charles Sabini, born in the late 19th century (most likely by the Bleeding Heart gastropub), ruled Clerkenwell during the 50s, running his rigged horse-racing empire and frequently scrapping in The Griffin pub (still trading; still a tad on the dicey side).

    Bleeding Heart Gastropub, Clerkenwell

    Though ‘Little Italy’ has shrunk considerably since Sabini’s heyday, a distinct Mediterranean feel still exists, with a stretch of charming decades-old cafes and delis on Clerkenwell Road itself. Terroni’s – perhaps the most beloved of the remaining establishments – is an excellent place for a good glass of Italian wine.

    London’s oldest Italian Delicatessen in Clerkenwell

    The area paid a fitting tribute to its mobland past in 2017 with the funeral of Bert ‘Battles’ Rossi, a lifelong resident who reportedly rose to become the Mafia’s point man in post-War London.

    In his memoirs, Rossi – who ran a string of illegal gambling joints – claimed to have been close with Lucian Freud, who unsuccessfully tried to sell him a painting for £30. The portrait later fetched £35m at auction.

    If you do end up in the area for a drink (perhaps at the suitably bohemian Betsey Trotwood) be sure to stroll down to the diamond quarter of Hatton Garden – home of the most audacious robbery in recent times. and don’t miss Ye Olde Mitre: one of the most hidden pubs in central London.

    Bad behaviour

    Someone who’s long understood the lure of London’s underworld legends is Guy Ritchie, director of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Back in 2008, the mockney laureate – then married to Madonna – entered the pub trade when he purchased Mayfair’s The Punchbowl from gangland associate Freddie Foreman.

    The Punchbowl, Mayfair

    With Ritchie in charge the pub became known for unruly celebrities, as the likes of Clint Eastwood and Brad Pitt played their role in generating a string of noise complaints from neighbours. The pub is still open – albeit much quieter and under new management – today.

    Ritchie’s latest venture – The Lore of the Land – is a more sedate affair in Fitzrovia that apparently counts David Beckham amongst its clientele. The pub – which has an excellent food menu – has a bloody cameo in Ritchie’s latest film, The Gentlemen.

    The Lore of the Land, Fitzrovia

    A number of other pubs are worth mentioning for their historic connections to infamous film-worthy crimes. The Star Tavern in Belgravia was reportedly where the Great Train Robbery – still the largest theft of its kind in history – was planned in the upstairs dining room.

    Meanwhile The Lamb and Flag, a treasured back-alley pub in Covent Garden, was infamous in the eighteenth century for hosting bare-knuckle boxing matches. At the time the pub was known by its old nickname: the Bucket of Blood