From October onwards, my Saturdays are invariably spent the same way until April - trying to find the perfect winter pub. How else does one survive months of British dreariness? The criteria for a cold-weather boozer is simple; lots of cosy corners to retreat into, hearty home-cooked food and enough pints of real ale to numb my senses. The Stag in Belsize Park might be known for its huge beer garden and roof terrace during the summer, but as I found out, the venue has some serious winter credentials too.
Built on the corner of Fleet Road and Lawn Road, The Stag arches round in a semi-circle, anchored by a grand wooden bar at its centre. In true traditional British pub form, the venue's quirks and eccentricities are what makes it interesting; the ceiling is painted an ivy green, the walls glower in grey and the rickety wooden tables are lovingly stained with past pints.
Every corner of the pub is crammed with something, from battered boardgames to a bar stool and extra table, but due to its sheer size, it feels cosy rather than cramped. One of the walls is taken up entirely by a blackboard listing their impressive pints list and posters of local band nights are dotted around.
Food & Drink
I have tasted heaven, it’s real and it’s a dish at The Stag; its name is Jacobs Rib Beef Ladder with Slaw (£15.50) and it may be the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my entire life. A chunk of buttery-tender beef was served on the bone covered in a mouth-wateringly rich gravy and contrasted with crunchy coleslaw.
All the food at the pub was indulgently flavoursome; duck and cognac rillettes with a pear chutney (£6.50) were heaped on to crunchy, thick bread, and Mac Balls with Chipotle Sauce (£5) were bites of cheesy naughtiness. Sides included poutine (£5), a pile of fries heaped in cheese and a gravy so good I could have licked the bowl clean.
The British have been sustained for centuries by real ale, and if you’re going to hole up for the winter sipping pint after pint, The Stag’s list of 24 tap lines and more than 50 bottles and cans should see you through. With everything from a Yeastie Boys beer infused with tea leaves all the way from New Zealand, through to local breweries such as Kernel from Southwark, the pub knows its stuff.
The Stag is in North London - codeword for fancy and family - and on a Saturday afternoon there were a lot of families fresh from a walk on Hampstead Heath. Toddlers stuffed chips into their mouths and teenagers skulked in the corner, but there was no overwhelming sense of twee or pretension due to the pub's down to earth nature. 20-something staff happily recommend beers and the venue has so many spaces, from a summer beer garden to swishy dining rooms, that everyone is made to feel welcome.
Winter I will defeat you through stuffing my face and snuggling up in The Stag. The pub might have a fancy-pants post code but at its heart it's a traditional, neighbourhood pub with excellent quality food, enough beer to sink a ship and a buzzy, laid-back atmosphere - see you next Saturday.