Pub review: London takeaways

In last month’s lockdown, operators once again turned to takeaway to keep them afloat. So, what was on the menu? Tristan O’Hana found out.

I’m moving house this month. After 11 years of living in south east London, I’ve decided the time has come to clear my lungs of fumes and my mind of clutter by heading to the countryside and becoming one of those fresh air fanatics. I’ve got to be honest – the decision has been filled with apprehension, as I contemplate how my life will be without some of the best food and drink on the planet being on my doorstep. 

Like with any big life switch-up, I’ve sought regular console on the change of pace, chatting with friends and colleagues about why and when, and, with lockdown inspiring many city dwellers to also dash for the space of the suburbs, there has been no shortage of ‘moving to the country’ opinion pieces printed in our national press. One article’s closing point was greatly reassuring – London, with its vivacious culture and world-beating food and drink, will always be there. You are but one train journey away. Just keep telling yourself that, Tristan. 

John F. Kennedy once said that we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them. It’s not the best advice for a writer, granted, but on such a profound note of gratitude, which mind-blowing pubs, bars and restaurants did I visit during my last month in the smoke? That’s right… none. November’s lockdown once again pushed hospitality closer to the brink, shutting doors, emptying barrels and keeping millions on their sofa. The silver lining, which Pub & Bar will always look for, was that the inspiring operators of London and beyond reworked their menus and offered locals pub favourites to take away and eat at home. In the spirit of solidarity (and in the desperate understanding that Deliveroo doesn’t even acknowledge the address of my new home) I set about trying a trio of takeaways around the SE region. 

161 Kirkdale 

Without wanting to show a bias towards pubs, the takeaway journey started at wine bar 161 Kirkdale. Run by Alex Thorp, who cut his teeth at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, it’s an independent wine shop and bar in Sydenham that specialises in organic and low-intervention wine, as well as home-cooked food. The second lockdown saw 161 continue its 161@HOME offer, where kitchen whizz Ben Schultz readies lunchboxes and two-course dinners for collection and delivery on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. In a bid to break up the working-from-home lunch tedium, a lunchbox of tofu laksa was ordered, which was accompanied by an ‘oh my god that is absolutely banging’ slice of chocolate olive oil cake. Seriously, why aren’t more people putting olive oil in their cake? The hot laksa (which can also be ordered with lamb shoulder) hit the spot on a cold November lunchtime, and both dishes came in cardboard packaging too, meaning no plastic heading for landfill. Win-win all round. 

The Great Exhibtion 

Next up was an old favourite of mine – The Great Exhibition in East Dulwich, owned by Laine Pub Company. I’ve seen this place change managers a few times over the years, and it always seems to maintain its position as one of the leading pubs in the area. The Great Ex got in touch with me on Twitter, after I asked if any local pubs were refining their takeaways ahead of the second lockdown. The fact it took the pub a week to ready the offer shows two things: one – the on-trade wasn’t given enough notice to adapt operations; and two – this pub cares about its proposition and didn’t want to bash out any old food for the sake of offering it. Its buffalo chicken (or chick’n) burgers looked appealing, but I opted to sample a meal that really wasn’t built for takeaway. I wanted to see how well a Sunday roast and a pint ‘travelled’. The answer? Pretty damn well. Once again, the food – a half roast chicken, seasonal veg, roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding – was, like 161’s, sealed in a cardboard takeaway box. So too was the cauliflower cheese. A small plastic tub contained a decent gravy, while a pint of Brixton Lager came in a plastic pint cup, sealed with a lid. There’s an erroneous sense of comfort to plating up a pub roast at home – it was equal parts satisfying and sorrowful. A delicious meal readily available without hours of prep or washing up is a wonderful thing, but it didn’t half make me miss a Sunday visit to the pub.  

Prince of Peckham 

Finally, I ventured into Peckham to pick up some of the best jerk chicken going from the guys at White Men Can’t Jerk, who have a kitchen residency at the Prince of Peckham pub, owned and run by local lad Clement Ogbonnaya. It’s easy to see/taste why the jerk chicken meal is a best seller – jerk chicken smoked over wood, rice and peas, coleslaw, jerk sauce, and a quite brilliant pineapple and scotch bonnet jam. If you can stand the heat, get yourself to that kitchen – without a doubt one of the best meals I’ve had since Covid-19 reared its ugly face. There were plenty of delivery drivers waiting for orders when I collected mine, showing the success of Prince of Peckham/White Men Can’t Jerk’s delivery menu. It’s an established list of choices, which concludes with the enticing addition of ice cream sandwiches. 

So there you have it. Three hugely different dishes served up by peers with the same goal – to get through this battering period via adaptation and dazzling dexterity. If these pubs and bars have been able to adjust to the enforced restrictions thrust upon them, I’m sure I can make do with a longer train ride into London from my new home – I’d happily walk back to Peckham for more of that pineapple and scotch bonnet jam! And perhaps, once I’m there, I’ll soon be able to take a seat in the venue and enjoy a meal served as it’s meant to be, in the pub where it was cooked. Who knows what’s on the horizon. For now, customers (including this one) are grateful that they’re still able to sample food from their favourite pubs, and if gratitude is a fondness only doubled by wonder, then we can all look forward to what’s to come.