On a lively corner in the heart of Belsize Park, the Washington combines fine Victorian heritage features and a youthful, contemporary feel.
On the corner of Englands Lane and Belsize Park Gardens, among a cluster of specialist shops, the Washington explains its name with a sign featuring a face familiar from every dollar bill. Quite why the place was named after the first President of the United States when it was built in 1865 isn’t clear – but as the elaborate mosaic floor in the doorway that leads to Belsize Park Gardens indicates, the Washington was once a hotel as well as a pub, so maybe it hoped to attract American guests.
That mosaic, presided over by a bust of George himself, is by no means the only heritage feature. Within the generously proportioned interior are numerous fine surviving examples of late Victorian splendour, mainly dating from a refit around 1890. Most exquisite are the wall mirrors at the back, with hand-painted flowers, birds and foliage under the glass, but there’s also the best part of an original panelled wood screen at the front, a richly textured ceiling and the bar itself, topped with an unusual glazed screen. A more recent makeover has placed modern but elegant and sympathetically styled furniture into what’s now a single space, with heavy wood tables, comfortable armchairs and sofas, pot plants and decorative lampshades. A few tables on the street outside complete an attractive picture.
The Washington is now part of Mitchells and Butlers’ unbranded Castle chain and like several of its sister venues, is a great example of how to give a contemporary twist to a venerable old pub. It’s frequently busy with a mixed crowd of local young professionals and families, with a slightly arty and boho element, but it’s also welcoming to older drinkers looking for a decent pint. There’s a quiz night on Tuesdays, wine promotion on Wednesdays, and occasionally the piano springs to life. Board games and second hand CDs on sale for charity with an honesty box add to the impression of community spirit.
Like most Castles, the food is a mix of upmarket versions of pub staples and more exotic options. Typical selections include mixed speciality mushrooms on rye toast (£5.50), rare breed sausages and mash (£8.75), beef and red wine pie (£10.50), asparagus and mushroom tart with salad (£10.50) or slow cooked lamb shoulder (£13.50). There’s a fixed price offer of two courses for £13 or three for £16 – a short list of options features the likes of whitebait starters, haddock and chips or goat’s cheese tart. Also featured are sharing boards of cured meats, ham, Scotch quail eggs and olives (£13.50), hot sandwiches with chips (around £7) and Sunday roasts.
Appropriately for a pub named after a brewer and beer connoisseur, up to five real ales are kept to Cask Marque standards – Sharp’s Doom Bar, Taylor Landlord and guests from the likes of Purity – though the full range may only be available at weekends. They’re supplemented by a good selection of better known imported and British keg specialities – Veltins lager, Franziskaner and Schneider wheat beer, Meantime London Pale, Sierra Nevada Pale, Früli – and some bottled beers including Budvar, Duvel and Innis & Gunn. The accuracy of the information about these in the pub’s drink list could be improved though. Twenty-five cheerful, mainly New World wines are nearly all available by the glass (from £3.60), and there are specialist spirits too, including London’s own Sipsmith gin and vodka and a few malt whiskies.
The Last Word
The Washington is a fine example of how to reinvent a pub for contemporary tastes while respecting its individual character and heritage, and is deservedly successful, proving big pub companies can still sometimes get things spot on.