Tuesday 28 March 2023

They Have Sam's in London too You Know

No doubt, my many readers are wondering whatever happened to my series of visits to Sam Smiths pubs.  In fact, I often wonder myself why I have not returned to this rich seam of pub culture and idiosyncrasy. Perhaps I have a small lingering doubt about Humphrey himself reading how the denizens of his establishments really conduct themselves, as opposed to how he wishes they would. It is also true to say that I have some slight concerns about how he may treat landlords and landladies, who, perhaps, in his distorted vision, would appear by my words to have somehow failed to live up to his expectations. On that point it is worth mentioning that in every Sam’s house I have visited, the managers have singularly, and with good humour, tried their best to honour Mr Smiths instructions, however odd they may be.

Of course, knowing myself, it may be that I just have been as usual far too lazy to get out and about and actually visit the 20 or so Sam’s pubs that are still open in my area. That number is of course an approximation, given that Humph has already closed more than one of the pups already visited and reported on – no doubt for some minor infraction of his somewhat arbitrary rules. But as always, I live in hope that one day, all 32 pubs in my Rochdale, Oldham and Bury area may all be open, and that some may actually sell Old Brewery Bitter in cask conditioned form.

But I digress from my original purpose. A couple of weeks ago, when in London checking that Tandleman Towers South still exists, we ventured into Soho with the intention of having a look at how some of the London Sam’s pubs operate. While it has never been officially confirmed, it is known that Humphrey's son Sam is the supremo of all the Southern operations. Things are done differently there, and while recently in the North, innovations such as paying by phone and card have been accepted, it is true to say that no such restrictions have operated in London for quite some time.The reasons for this are pretty obvious when you look at the clientele. I think it's fair to say that in the absence of paying by card or phone Mr. Smith would find insufficient customers willing to pay by cash, as payment by such is, in London, the exception rather than the rule.

Also missing from most of the London pubs is the plethora of notices forbidding this, that or the other, though it is fair to say that the one prohibiting electronic devices is generally clear and present, butparticularly in the case of phones, is blatantly and wholly disregarded.

Our first port of call was the White Horse in Rupert St, more or less opposite the John Gielgud Theatre. It can best be described as a basic corner street local set out in typical Sam Smith dark wood, bare floorboards and a slight down at heel appearance. Old Brewery Bitter in cask format was available at £5.70 a pint, and was somewhat middle of the road in taste. E’s Pure Brewed Organic lager was an astonishing £6.90 a pint.  It is as well at this point to mention that Sam Smiths pubs in London are pretty expensive. Banish any thoughts of the cheap pint they used to be, and given the somewhat basic nature of some of the pubs visited, could be regarded as less than value for money.  The pub wasn't busy, but a steady stream of people wandered in, vaguely looked round and then blatantly zoomed downstairs to use the loos before re-emerging, pretending to consider drinks at the bar, before darting out the door.  At the bar more than one person sipped their pint while surfing their phone. The landlord, an Al Murray lookalike was clearly used to such behaviour and simply ignored all this while occasionally tilting his eyes in our direction.

Now, Sam's pubs are usually pretty good for people watching, but not in this case. The only real entertainment was a young couple, the male of which would occasionally lean in for a kiss, while the female would carefully move away. Fair dos, it didn't discourage him, and she happily allowed him to hold her waist. Likely she wasn’t keen on public affection, which is just fine. In fact, we bumped into them in a later pub and they seemed quite cosy. So, all was well.

Leaving this mayhem we walked a few steps to the Duke of Argyll, another Sam's pub but this time absolutely rammed.  This was a step-up in class. Multi partitioned, with each area jammed with customers, the lone bar person zoomed up and down at breakneck speed trying to keep up with demand. It took us quite some time to get served, and my pint of stout looked more like Coca-Cola. Clearly the nitrogen gas had gone, and subsequently the beer was poured as flat as could be. There was no opportunity to earhole the frantic barman, and frankly the poor bugger was doing the best he could. At last, when he had a second, I explained the problem with the pint and he offered an exchange. He took the opportunity in the meantime to call someone on his phone, who a few moments later emerged from upstairs to lend a hand. I suppose that was technically a breach of the rules too.

We struck up conversation with a guy who'd come up from Kent for the day. He turned out to be an ex-RAF type and we passed an agreeable half hour with him telling tales of avoiding customs duties from various tours of overseas duty - a subject E knew a bit about somewhat oddly - while we dodged around, juggling our pints, to let people in at the bar. Frankly, it wasn’t a comfortable experience, though I’d like to go back when it was less busy.

Our final stop, nearby, was the Glasshouse Stores. We have been there before and remembered it just as it was. Long, thin, narrow and very busy. It was there that we bumped into the young lovers again, though I doubt very much if they noticed us at all. The pub was full of all types, but nothing of any great interest to the nosey parker. It was simply a Sam's pub with a typical London mix of people and tourists. The beer list was straightforward Sam's – I think the OBB was keg -  but this time my pint of stout was thick with a creamy head, though well north of £6 a pint. From our vantage point in the centre of the pub (fortunately we were able to nab a seat) we observed none of the usual Sam's forbidding notices. We left after one drink.

So, to sum up, in Sam’s pubs in Rochdale and areas you are likely to find the pubs are locals with a loyalty to the pub. In London Sam's pubs are just another convenient location to drink beer, have a glass of wine or whatever, while visiting a popular area. Of course, this is just a snapshot of three pubs, but having visited many, while some are more interesting than others, none have the idiosyncrasies and character you will find further away from the city. It is clear that's in business terms Sam Smiths offer a similar experience to other pubs. There is no price advantage, the pubs themselves vary from quirky and old-fashioned, to just played old-fashioned and a bit dowdy.

When compared to Humphrey’s ridiculous strictures in the North, it seems somewhat bizarre that in the same company, two different schools of thought apply to the way the pubs are run, with sometimes devastating results for pub regulars and managers alike. But that Sam’s for you.

On a previous, but recent London visit we went to the rather good Crown by the British Museum (no cask). There were some more obvious notices there about electronic devices, but again, completely ignored by the punters. 

I wonder if Sam's have got themselves ahead of the game pricewise and will refrain for quite a while? E who has scant regard to prices  is switching to Taddy lager when in Sam's pubs for the foreseeable.  Well, in London anyway.