There is something very impressive about a genuine Victorian boozer. In the 1890s, pubs were the epitome of classy and comfortable. Working men who couldn’t afford sufficient coal to warm their own front rooms could go to the pub and sit next to a roaring fire. Pubs had comfortable seating. Pubs had glamour. Pubs had beer.
The Half Moon in Herne Hill is a huge place with high ceilings and as much carved wood and as many cut glass mirrors as you could wish for. The fact that everything looks original is down to Fuller’s, which has lavished money and time on a monster refurbishment of this Grade II-listed building. The boxing gym on the first floor has been replaced by the largest of a dozen letting bedrooms. The ‘workshop’ behind the pub has been emptied of several elderly, slowly rusting cars and refurbed for private parties. The venue and music stage has re-emerged as a spacious dining area with room for 62. There’s a classic beer garden (room for another 80 diners). There’s a new and bulky wooden terrace to the front on Half Moon Lane.
None of these changes have been easy, and the loss of The Half Moon as a music venue caused quite a stir in the locality – improbably enough the pub has been home to gigs by everyone from Frank Sinatra to U2, Billy Bragg and Paloma Faith. The bar’s also had its fair share of celebrity drinkers ranging from John Ruskin to Dylan Thomas (he lived in nearby Milkwood Road and used to call in on his way home with his friends from London Welsh Rugby Club).
Perhaps the most charming room is the snug, which would probably seat about 20. It’s hard to tell where the original decorations have given way to the refurb. Splendid mirrors are decorated with birds – ducks, herons, swans – it feels warm and comfortable.
Even by the standards of beer revival Britain, The Half Moon drinks list is a long one – five cask ales, 10 draught beers, 20 bottled beers and ciders, followed up by a forgivingly priced wine list and a comprehensive range of spirits (you have to wonder what Dylan Thomas would have made of a choice of three tequilas). The ales are well kept.
The dining room comes under the Fuller’s Kitchen brand and the head chef is Mike Blizzard. The pub is already home to various mother and baby groups and is starting to build a good (if noisy) trade. The lunch menu is made up of six starters, nine mains, three desserts and a cheese board. Plus there’s an extra section for substantial sandwiches – a chicken and bacon club sandwich (£10), a falafel flatbread (£7) and a fish finger sandwich (£8). Lunchtime starters range from potted brown shrimps on toast (£8.50) to New Forest venison carpaccio with pickled melon and kohlrabi (£10) – a very elegant dish with the venison cut exceedingly thin. Good complementary textures. Or there’s a heavyweight option that would pass as a main in many establishments – pig’s cheek with potato purée, pickled shallots and chervil sauce (£8.50). It’s gloriously sticky. Dark rose-coloured smoked salmon (£7.50) is cured in London Porter and that gives it an impressive silky texture. There are two veggie starters – a goats’ cheese and pumpkin tart with a walnut salad (£7) and garlic wild mushrooms with Hollandaise and a poached egg (£8).
The menu is an enlightened one – four of the mains are veggie. Spice roast cauliflower with chick peas, herbs and pine nuts can serve as a starter (£7/£12) as can the goats’ cheese with grilled chicory salad and hazelnut dressing (£7/£12). One showstopper is the grilled salmon, which comes on a chorizo and butterbean cassoulet (£14). The rich red paprika beans work very well with the crisp skinned salmon. There is also a classic fish and chips on offer – Frontier battered cod with house chips and mushy peas (£12.50). The fruity nature of Fuller’s Frontier makes for a good batter. There is also a large and imposing burger in the Chalcroft Farm beef burger (£12.50). The burger has a solid texture and comes in a Cholla bun. The trimmings are impressive – HSB Gouda cheese, lettuce, bacon, onion, gherkin and rather good house chips. Unexpectedly the best dish of the day is another of chef Blizzard’s veggie options. Pumpkin gnocchi (£12) holds a magnificent array of textures through seasoned, fluffy gnocchi. The gnocchi is teamed with kale and toasted pumpkin seeds all brought together with sage butter.
The dessert offer is short and sweet. There’s Paul’s chocolate brownie (£5) or apple and rhubarb crumble with custard (£6.50). Sensibly enough, the Fuller’s Kitchen operation has a range of ice creams made by Laverstoke Park – Jody Scheckter’s farm. Try the Fuller’s orange choc chip ice cream. The coffee ice cream also stands out.
The drinks list is everything you would expect from a large brewer – almost every style of beer is on offer and there is a wine list that doesn’t make you think you’ve been mugged. Wine-wise, almost everything comes in at under £30 a bottle (except for Champagne) with plenty of options by the glass.
The cooking is good here – dishes are well balanced, portions are sensible and the presentation is mercifully unfussy. The vegetarian dishes are particularly good and the service is unobtrusive and slick. Should you ever fancy time-travelling to the Victorian era, you just have to take a seat in the Half Moon snug.