Day 9 cntd (18th July 2009)
The American Bar and Grill (North Greenwich) 3 x little bt Magners, 1 x Gin and Tonic £14.50
There was a strange sense of loss hanging in the atmosphere around the O2 Centre, presumably from the concert promoters lamenting their impending lack of income – poor old Michael Jackson moonwalking off this mortal coil less than ten days before he was due to start his residency in the arena.
There was already a tribute wall surrounded by kids pouring out their grief via the medium of Graffiti. We offered a silent “Cha’mone” to the heavens above and headed for the Dome’s main entrance. Can anyone explain to me why there is an airport style security gate here where you have to ask someone before you get scanned? Otherwise you just ignore it altogether and stroll through the huge expanse that is the rest of the entrance.
There are nigh on 30 different bars and restaurants in the “Entertainment Alley” area of the Dome, but fortunately The American Bar and Grill is the very first thing you see as you walk in, taking all doubt out of the “nearest bar” question. We headed straight in, and, like the rest of the Dome when there is no concert on, we found that it was two thirds empty. Still, the chap behind the bar was very pleasant, and the decor was tasteful and inoffensive – not quite as quirky as the Union Bar just across the hall, but it turns out they are both owned by the same people anyway. They had some very cool music playing during the time we were in here, and actually had one wall of the room adorned with at least half a dozen plasma screens, all neatly lined up and showing a video of Joe Cocker doing his version of “With a Little Help From my Friends”. You know the one – where he looks like he’s had his upper arms and elbows superglued to his body and he’s flailing around desperately trying to break free.
It’s a shame we were there at the wrong time actually, because the bar looks like it could be good fun when it’s heaving before or after a concert. There’s even another bar and club area upstairs, so the whole thing is pretty huge. The menu looked good too, although it being an American Grill you probably need to take a fistful of blood thinners to dinner with you. The drinks list was basically fine, although we did struggle on the English drink initially until I magnanimously agreed to force down an ice cold, fresh lime-infused Gordon’s and Tonic. Always the martyr.
Smollensky’s Bar and Grill (Canary Wharf) 2 x ½ Steinlager, 1 x Pimms and Lemonade £9.40
Remember Full Metal Jacket? Remember the second half of the film when the marines are trying desperately to evade a sniper in a desolate, nightmarish urban landscape? That’s my first proper memory of Docklands. Stanley Kubrik didn’t like filming abroad, and back in the eighties this part of town was basically just as destroyed as the Vietnam it stood in for. If there is an air of desolation about the place these days it is probably due to the after effects of our recent financial meltdown and the realisation of the surviving workers here that bankers and traders are now amongst the most hated people in Britain – right up there with murderers, lawyers, Nick Griffin from the BNP and the presenters of Loose Women on ITV.
Canary Wharf does remain a hive of activity, however, and it is still surprising to see just how much is there in terms of cafes bars and restaurants all catering to the city folk and their lunchtime/after work whims. As we arrived we could immediately see that Smollenskys was the closest venue for us despite there being a Slug and Lettuce, an All Bar One, a Corney and Barrow, a Carluccio’s and a Nando’s all practically within spitting distance of the station entrance.
Smollensky’s started with a legendary Bar and Restaurant on the Strand, and developed into a bit of a chain from there, although it has since fallen on hard times. The Docklands outpost was ok though, nice modern decor and a lovely outside area with plenty of dining tables and some giant parasols to keep the sun/rain off your face. There was some seriously funky music being played throughout, although someone should really remind them to turn the volume down when the bar is empty. The last thing you want is to have the few remaining customers you’ve got sitting there with bleeding ears.
Another potential disaster on the “drink English” front was averted when Keith decided it was time for lunch, and therefore plumped for a Pimms and lemonade – allowing him to stay true to our quest and pick up one of his Five-a-Day at the same time. Much Kudos to Mark and Kim as well, who again boldly stepped forward and insisted on buying the round. Thanks guys, you can definitely come again.
“Not bad I suppose” Keith said, casting his eye around appraisingly, “Even if the only thing English is a girl’s drink”
Kim was most impressed with the comfy bar seats, but less so with Smollensky’s toilets. “They’re Unisex!” she said, “Far too confusing at this time of day.”
As we drank up we thought we could hear the rumbling of the tube trains beneath our feet.
“That’s probably my stomach” observed Kim, “Definitely time for lunch”. And alas, this is where our generous partners for the afternoon took their leave from us as they went in search of sustenance, and presumably somewhere they could stop for more than fifteen minutes.
The Albion (Canada Water) ½ Bulmers, ½ John Smiths Smooth £2.50
Well this was more like it. I think we had been spoiled at the last couple of stations, going to shiny venues in huge re-developments – it’s about time we found ourselves in a proper boozer again, the kind of place where you go in not sure if you’ll come out alive.
Firstly, we need to point out what a ghastly station Canada Water is. It is a grotty, big, circular building, and even the little local map didn’t help us find which road we needed to go down, since it didn’t show where on the circle the entrance was, and all the road signs themselves seemed to be missing or hidden. Luckily our pub radars came to the rescue and took us the right way, past the beautiful piece of architecture that is the Seven Islands Leisure Centre, and towards the descent into hell that is the entrance to the Rotherhithe Tunnel.
We thought we were looking for The Ship (according to our research), but what we found was The Albion – about a hundred yards closer than the former, and possibly excluded from any pub search website just because it is so very special. It was a small lovely old building with a central island bar separating it into two main areas – sort of a main bar and a games room. In the games room area a group of lads played pool in an atmosphere that was playfully drunk, but with huge potential to turn into violence at any point. In the main bar, men with arms like slabs of granite and faces made of leather sat and stared menacingly into their pints. To say we felt like outsiders is a huge understatement.
Still, no worries, because they had three TV screens showing the cricket, and the day was just getting better and better. England were 200-4 at this point, which gave them a magnificent lead of 410 runs – where are all the bloody Australians when you need to gloat a bit?
There was a huge projector screen in one corner (not on) and various Man Utd and Celtic pictures around the walls, plus chalkboards announcing “Live Music Every Sunday” and “Karaoke on Friday and Saturday”. Curiosity was really tempting us just to see what one of these sing-along sessions was like in such a place, but then we all know what curiosity did to the cat. Actually, music was by far the most interesting thing about the Albion – I truly hope that one of the leathery old boys had put his “special” jukebox selection on, because in the space of three songs we went from: Heavy Hip-Hop courtesy of Jay-Z, melding seamlessly into the mayhem that is Run to The Hills by Iron Maiden (possibly a message to us), finishing off sublimely with Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush, a song choice as eccentric as the lady herself. You just don’t get that sort of mash-up in Pacha or Ministry of Sound.
People were starting to look at us in an odd way at this point, so we agreed that discretion was the better part of valour and got back on the road. To be fair to The Albion however, we did decide that however uncomfortable we felt in there, unlike some of the pubs we have been to, this one was genuinely still the centre of its community. That is what the British Pub is all about, even if this particular community was based on being, well, surly and violently drunk.