The Bull and Bush is a pub with one great renown, which isn’t food
A meal is the epitome of hit and miss, though with the accent on miss
Florrie Forde is not too much of a pin-up these days, and nor, I suspect, was she even in her heyday, in that she did look like a rather ample bloke sporting a shingle. But she wowed them in the music hall, oh by George she did. She’d garner huge applause simply by stepping on to the stage, and then she’d say: “A chord in D please, Mr Conductor” and Mr Conductor would say: “Right-o, Flo”, and she’d be off into her best-loved hit, Down At The Old Bull And Bush. A terrible song, to be sure – but the English love nothing more than joining in the choruses of truly terrible songs: it’s what got us through the war and made us what we are. The refrain of this little ditty was particularly popular because it goes: “ Da da da da da...!”, so there wasn’t a lot to remember. She’d go: “There’s a little nook down near old Hampstead town” – and then she’d go: “Come, come, come and make eyes at me down at the old Bull and Bush,” and that’s the moment when all the dewy-eyed and half-cut fans in the stalls and dress circle could collectively let rip with their “Da da da da da...!”, amid much stomping and roaring.
Anyhoo ... I hadn’t been down at the Old Bull And Bush for decades because it’s between Hampstead and Golders Green, so why would you? Well I’ll tell you why: if you happen to be doing an event for the Ham & High Literary Festival at Ivy House slap bang opposite, that’s why. And so it came to pass. I’d finished my stint by about 1.45 – reading from and talking about, if you press me for details, my brand-new novel England’s Lane – and after I’d signed a few copies for the more discerning punters, the inner man was calling (as mine so often will). My wife was there with her chum Daphne (me, I don’t have any chums) and so the three of us crossed the road in quest of lunch. I spotted the Old Bull And Bush, and made eyes at it.
It’s built in the style of a 1930s roadhouse, although the heart of the place appears to be genuinely old. All the external woodwork is painted in a very drab grey – the colour of the undercoat before you bung on the black gloss: not very cheering. Most of the outside tables were taken, although it was a breezy day and North End Road is relentlessly traffic-ridden. So we bagged one of the few remaining tables and scanned the rather huge menu and then an amiable chap came along and set the table with paper napkins, cutlery and glasses of water, just before we decided that it was just too parky and just too noisy, and then (still amiably) he carted the whole lot back inside. There is a proper and rather swish dining room which was completely empty. A curious room, actually – full of white buttoned leather banquettes and classical urns: quite weddingy; quite bar mitzvahy.
The bar was pretty full, but still had room for us. There is a fixed price lunch – �10.95 for two courses, three quid more for another one – and a very extensive and pretty pricey carte, with unadorned mains going up to �20. The furniture is either brown and woody or brown and leathery, though the window seats are strewn with jewel-coloured velvet cushions. There are handsome etched mirrors, inviting buckets filled with bottles of champagne that turned out to be dummies, and the monochrome wallpaper is covered in bulls, though there’s no sign of a bush. We went for things from the cheaper bar menu – I was starving by this time, and I thought it might be quicker. And when starving, I rather like the notion of plebeian food: a good big plate of easy nosh. I discounted something called “Mac and cheese” (not in the mood for cheddar in a raincoat) and went for gammon, egg and chips. Daphne opted for prawn and scallop panciotti preceded by a bowl of mixed olives, and my wife was having two starters: chicken wings with plum sauce and sesame, and a salmon fishcake with dill and mustard and a salad. A bottle of Sangiovese at �16.95 was a bit of a snip.
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Daphne – a Dartmouth Parker – has spent her life in publishing, kicking off in the London office of Mondadori, a fine Italian art book publisher, then graduating to Penguin (as everyone I have ever met in publishing inevitably seems to) before a while at the Women’s Press, finally ending up as managing editor at my old publisher, Faber and Faber. So we talked of that until the food arrived – and I was so far beyond starving by this time I would simply have fallen upon it ... but the sight of the plate was not good, and I know why: it had been hanging around under a hot lamp for an eon. The gammon was dried out, the frites like crisps ... and the egg ... oh my dear, the egg ...! It looked just like those rubber ones you used to get in a joke shop (or, if you’re older, the Ellisdon’s catalogue). You could have bounced it off a wall. I didn’t, but you could have.
The chicken wings (enormous – more like ostrich wings) were apparently delicious: “succulent” was the word chosen. Plum sauce was wholly absent, as was sesame; in their place was watermelon and chilli, which I considered to be really quite comical. The panciotti – round ravioli – were decent enough, but the prawn and scallop were combined into a very finely minced pulp which might have been anything, really. The enveloping tomato sauce was very good indeed, however. So there you have it: the meal was the epitome of hit and miss, though with the accent on miss. Pudding ...? Limoncello posset. I wasn’t having it, I just liked saying it. My wife had a good affogato (double espresso poured over vanilla ice cream) ... and that’s all that happened when I went to a little nook down near old Hampstead town, down at the Old Bull And Bush. Now then, all together! Deep breath! Let’s hear it from you all! “Da da da da da...!”
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The Old Bull And Bush, North End Road NW3. Tel 020 8905 5456
Open every day for food from 12 noon. Dining room Mon-Fri 12 – 3pm, 6 – 10pm, Sat-Sun 12 – 4pm, 6 – 10.30pm.
THE FEELING 8
COST Set lunch �10.95 two courses, �13.95 three. Bar menu lowishly priced, carte highishly priced.