In the decades before and after 2000, the Admiral Duncan was the most iconic gay pub in London. It even achieved sad worldwide recognition in 1999 because of a horrendous homophobic nail bomb attack which killed three people and wounded 70. Present manager Oliver Blatherwick, however, is reaching out beyond LGBT clientele to attract anyone and everyone with an offering of nightly entertainment in the form of free cabaret.
On lively Old Compton Street, the Admiral Duncan has served the diverse Soho throngs since 1832. It’s long been favoured by the flamboyant and offbeat. Among diverse patrons in the 60s and 70s were magnate of porn Paul Raymond, master of painting Francis Bacon and musician of high esteem George Melly. The latter said, “In Soho you can be as your nature was...” This couldn’t be more apt an adage for a pub that attracted the gay community from the 1980s onward. The pub flew the pride flag and was painted in defining pink and black. Now, the absence of the flag and the bold green and gold frontage show a changed aspect. Interior décor is plain but attractive, with white-painted walls and wooden floorboards. Chairs and tables are few because of limited space – togetherness seems to be the motif here.
Atmosphere is the essence of the Admiral Duncan. Led by Oliver, a welcoming and friendly young bar staff relates affably to customers. A special something vibrates through the pub on brightly-lit evenings, spurred on by cabaret acts. Introduced in March 2012, cabaret is held on a small stage at the end of the bar and focuses on drag queen acts in particular. The shows are varied - Monday has karaoke with Tanya Hyde; Tuesday has Mary Mac’s interactive gig; Wednesday has guest artistes; Thursday offers the outrageous Bette Rinse; Friday has a DJ set with Frankie Fantastique; Saturday is the crowd-pleasing Guilty Pleasures and Sunday has gagster Baga Chipz. The acts will inevitably change but the addition of cabaret has been so successful that it’s sure to long continue. During the day, the pub is much less boisterous. It is chosen for a quiet drink by Soho visitors who enjoy its location and cosiness.
The drinks offering at the Admiral Duncan is standard and reasonably priced. Seven keg lagers are big sellers and include Cobra, Kozel and Peroni. The one cask ale is Brain’s IPA and ensuring that only one is available means it is in constant good condition. Bottled beers include Becks and Sol and the six wines available list a Pinot Grigio and a Merlot. Spirits are limited in number but adequate - given Russian homophobia, Russian Standard Vodka has recently been replaced with Swedish Absolut. Innovatively, there is a selection of five ‘campest’ cocktails named after resident drag queens – Bette’s Blue Rinse, for example, blends rum, peach schnapps, and blue curacao and is topped with lemonade and a dash of grenadine. Or try Tanya’s Tantrum, which mixes vodka and Malibu with aromatic cranberry juice and a hint of lime.
The Last Word
As testament to the relaxed and tolerant attitudes of present-day London, the Admiral Duncan no longer finds it necessary to be assertively gay. An out and proud attitude is still core to its character, but it welcomes one and all with open arms. Go along and enjoy the free cabaret.