On a stormy weeknight in early November, the steamy windows of a new north London pub provide comfort to the wet and weary. Inside, it’s the idyll of a bygone era: the hum of chatter, people talking to strangers; tables occupied but free from chaos. There are bar stools, a line-up of intriguing beers — many you’ve never heard of — and reasonable prices.
To say it’s a tough time for pubs is an understatement — particularly in London. As the price of a pint continues to rise, 46 pubs closed in the capital in the first half of 2023, more than anywhere in England.
One man, Nick Bailey, hopes to buck the trend. “With things being as hard as they are in hospitality, counterintuitively it’s sort of the best time for something like this,” he says.
It was a leap of faith, but when a site in Stroud Green became free, Bailey snapped it up. Previously called Brave Sir Robin, Bailey reopened as The Robin Ale and Cider House in the autumn. The refurbished site is simple: green leather sofas, suede banquettes, a few paintings on the walls, and a small upright piano with a wooden bar at the back. It all comes from one of London’s most respected landlords.
Bailey spent over six years at the Southampton Arms, a beloved Kentish Town boozer with a cult following, where punters converged for its wide range of ales and ciders and convivial atmosphere. “That’s where I learnt to run a pub,” Bailey tells me over a crisp, malty pale ale from the Burning Sky brewery in East Sussex. “I’d done everything I could. The next logical step was to open my own place.”
Bailey is crazy about good beer. As the capital's watering holes increasingly serve the same generic beers — think Guinness and Madrí — at The Robin, there are six real ale and four hand-pulled cider lines, and never more than one lager. When the cellar engineers came to fit it, they were shocked at Bailey’s request. But, as a free house, he can do what he wants.
The beers, all from independent UK breweries and chosen by Bailey, constantly rotate, but there is always a range of styles, from IPA to bitter to porter. The Southampton Arms became famous among northerners thirsty for real ales, and football fans would often flock there when in London for an away match. Not far from the Emirates, the same could soon happen at the Robin, says Bailey, an Arsenal fan himself.
Bailey’s prime motivation, however, is creating a welcoming community meeting spot. “Pubs are more than just pubs,” he explains. “If you’ve ever been to the Southampton Arms, you know that. People depend on pubs more than many realise. Especially older, working-class men. That’s where they go. Without that, where do they go to meet their friends? It’s the one place where you’re liable to meet a working-class person, an investment banker, all these disparate groups on equal terms.”
A community atmosphere is well under way in Stroud Green. During our afternoon conversation, about five people stop to greet Bailey. When one local wants a pint, Bailey tells him to pour it himself. “It’s a very welcome addition, there’s a nice little buzz going on,” a punter tells me. A few minutes later, another proposes to his girlfriend — at 4pm on a Wednesday. That he chose to do so here says it all. Bailey rushes off for a bottle of fizz and plays Just the Two of Us on the record player. On a return weeknight visit, it’s busy but not overcrowded. Six weeks in, it’s clearly a beloved local, Sunday evening music sessions always busy.
What makes The Robin’s success all the more remarkable is that pretty much all London’s post-pandemic pub openings have been more gastro than pub. Think The Parakeet, The Baring and The Plimsoll, the latter just down the road. This month Tom Kerridge is set to open The Butcher’s Tap in Chelsea, while the recently restored The Devonshire in Piccadilly features a full-blown restaurant upstairs. At The Robin you can get a salt beef sandwich, pork pie or pickled egg, and not much else.
“It’s tough, but we just want to be a good boozer,” says Bailey, who has plans for a more extensive menu to make use of the kitchen. There will absolutely be no cutlery on tables, Bailey insists, and definitely no reservations. “If I opened the kitchen straight away, you’d get the foodies, and I didn’t want anything to distract from the beer. If we had dinner plates, it just becomes self-contained, all a bit too civilised. Whereas at the moment people are just mixing and it’s fine, they’re having a drink, and the atmosphere is great.”
Startlingly, most pints are priced between £4.74 and £5.22, at a time when £7 is becoming standard. “I just take less money,” says Bailey. “That’s fine, I’m happy with that.” He shakes his head mentioning a nearby tied pub selling cask ale for £6.65. “The truth of the matter is, pubs are struggling, and that’s true. [But] I’m busy all the time, and we sell more beer. You can only charge so much for a pint.”
Despite taking on a 15-year lease, Bailey describes himself not as a landlord but a “custodian”. What does he mean? “Pubs are more than pubs. It’s a community asset and I’m temporarily in charge. I think people think, ‘I own [a pub]. So it’s mine.’ It’s not really yours, you are serving the community. I’m a custodian because this was a pub before my time and if I do it well, it will be a pub after me.” Judging by its early success, it surely will be.