I organized an outing on Thursday night at the Charles Lamb Pub (16 Elia St, N1 8DE, 020 7837 5040), which just happens to be in my neighborhood (here’s to the prerogative of the planner).
I love that I live in a city where someone connected Elia and Charles Lamb. In case you’re a little hazy on your British essayists, Charles Lamb wrote “The Essays of Elia” in the early 19th century. His pen name, Elia, is a recurring clue/solution in the New York Times crossword (bc there are lots of vowels in a row?), and perhaps most interesting to everyone (to me, anyway) is that his sister stabbed his mother through the heart with a table knife. So sayeth the wikipedia.
So, back to the food, the pub is tiny, and you seat yourself. I arrived first asked a group of three men to switch from a table for six to a nearby table for four so that I could take over the six-table with my friends Brian, Jane, Bill, Bill’s cousin Kate, and Bill’s friend Raghav. (All of us American, except for Raghav, who’s from Delhi). The guys who moved tables were super nice about it, so cheers to them. I had every intention of ordering them a round when our orders were taken, because in the UK, nothing says “thank you” quite like free beer. But of course my group cheerfully chatted and waited at our table for about an hour before we noticed on a chalkboard the message: “order at the bar.” Oops. And by then the guys had eaten and left the pub.
It shows you (1) how easy-going the pub is to let a big group sit at a table for an hour without ordering anything; and (2) how accustomed we are to slow service here that waiting an hour for someone to take our order was OK.
The pub seemed to have just one server, so we figured the server was really overwhelmed and we didn’t want to be pushy Americans. Of course, it turns out the pub has only one server because, well, you’re supposed to order at the bar.
My chicken pot pie was pretty disappointing. It had a hot, flaky crust, but the pie filling tasted like oversalted chicken soup. How hard is it to make a nice, thick pot pie filling? Just spend two minutes spent adding some butter, milk and flour, right? The pub’s fish pies tasted better, I thought, with their pillowy mashed potato tops, and Jane’s duck confit was probably the best of all the dishes ordered (not dried out, but with most of the fat rendered and the meat salty and tender).
Who would have thought you should come to a pub and skip the pies but order the duck?
Of course, the beer selection was good, as was the price – our total was £17 a person. Throw in the cozy atmosphere – the pub had about five tables and a roaring fireplace in the dining room – the warm, soft lighting, and a buzz of locals in and out by the bar, and you have a welcoming place to meet friends. It’s worth another visit, and next time, I’ll steer clear of of my pre-conceptions of what a small pub cooks best.