If any of the new so-called ‘craft’ pubs can be said to have found their spiritual home, then it’s the Birdcage; standing proud and able to survey all around it from its spot beside the mini roundabout halfway along London’s achingly de rigueur Columbia Road. It follows suit as if playing a particularly obvious bridge hand, fitting in ever so well with the new-masquerading-as-old vintage emporia that pebbledash a once thriving if run-down East London street.
I swear I’ve been here before, when this was a busy, ramshackle, traditional boozer peculiar to the locale. That was as close to 20 years ago as makes no difference. Its warm, faintly threatening but heartwarming feel has been torn out like a job ad in the financial pages of The Times; roughly and without regard for subsequent users. In its place, what feels like a series of tick boxes have been imposed upon a building that deserves and could be so much better. Stripped wood floor – check. Bench seating – check. Ostentatious and almost certainly prohibitively priced lighting – check. Authenticity-adding-dried-hop-bines-as-a-decorative-feature – check. There are many more offences. Now, I don’t mind Draft House chain pubs, one of which The Birdcage is. I actually rather like some of them, but generally when they’re done with a bit of taste and commitment. This one is all over the shop, sorry, boutique. There is a piano, so I’m sure there must be the odd painfully ironic knees-up from time to time. There is quirky, pint glass-printed wallpaper that might work were it used throughout. I’m certain a homely feel was the aim, as evidenced by the low lighting and available board games. But the surgically clean, pharmaceutical industry tiling behind the bar jars like a train-wreck mix at a tech-house night. As does the bold, chalkboard-effect signage proclaiming Wandle’s, negronis’ and prosecco’s availability above the bar. It’s thrown together and it just doesn’t work as a whole. I get the distinct feeling someone’s attempted to recreate Nighthawks at the Diner here in fashionable east London just because there were some large windows to work with.
Which brings me to the dining. The over-stylised menu needs filing vertically where the sun will never shine. It can go the same way as the reference to mac ‘n’ cheese that’s on it. That kind of rebranding – the unnecessary sort that is seemingly embraced by this place – stinks. And speaking of stink, this pub, like many of its ilk, wants a better extractor fan. Or one that works. I’m forced to leave early as the reek of cooked death billows from the kitchen and clings to my clothes. Burnt, sorry, barbequed meat fumes are the new cigarette smoke that plant clues to your prior whereabouts. In years to come, sheepish husbands will find themselves smoking several fags before going home to disguise the greasy smell of the pub unless these kind of establishments sort that out.
There are some nice touches: the Doulton exterior tiling has been rightly retained and there’s a polite sign that reads: “Please leave quietly at night. We like our neighbours and they like their sleep,” which is the right side of jocular without being preachy. But then these notices always make me wonder at the wisdom of said neighbours moving to within earshot of a popular public house if sleep is their priority. I guess I’ll never know.
What saves it, just, is the enviable beer selection. Like most of its Draft House brethren, The Birdcage serves a great range and offers the lot in third pint measures, meaning you can test a few without feeling either drunk or mugged. And if it nails one thing absolutely, it’s the music: as mixed a bag as the pub itself, but the richer for it. Which leaves me unsure if I’d recommend this pub to a curious enquirer. I don’t mind it, but I’m not sure it’s strong enough to survive a change of fad among the hip. Though I do hope it remains a pub and that those who inhabit this area’s increasingly expensive streets value it enough for that to seem economically viable.