Amazing how places can change. Once a late-drinker repository hidden in the outer reaches of Stamford Hill borders, the Jolly Butchers is now one of London’s premier beer purveyors. In much the same way as this Tubeless area of north London has undergone a not universally welcomed transformation in recent years, so has this humble corner boozer metamorphosised.
Having once only had the notoriety of showing Premier League games on Norwegian satellite telly to boast of – followed by having the dubious claim to fame of being one of the only places in north London you could still get a drink after 11pm on a Friday evening – The Jolly Butchers now attracts clientele far removed from its former frequenters. It’s had a fair few different names over the years too.
I first crossed swords with it when, in the early 1990s, it catered for mainly Irish immigrant thirsts. As a third-generation ‘English’ McCormick, I figured I had just as much right as anyone else to patronise the place, though I’m not sure I fitted in as well as I imagined I did after several pints. It was the kind of place you didn’t want to stay in too long any way, but if you wanted a late pint, you had little other choice. I don’t think I ever witnessed a fight here, but the latent level of threat was noticeable.
By the late 1990s, it had changed its name, spruced itself up a bit and ditched the illicit sports channel, but lost nothing of its rough and ready nature. If anything, it felt even more incongruous with its gradually gentrifying surroundings. Now it fits in just fine. In fact, if you were to design a pub from scratch that says everything it needs to about its neighbourhood, this is probably what you’d end up with. From the stripped, solid wood floor and structurally unsound seating to the obtrusively smelly exposed kitchen and risibly oversized lavatory sinks, the ratio of style to substance is dizzying. Until you get to the main point of the pub. Then it seems to claw back some of the integrity this area used to have before its property prices entered the arena of the stratospheric. The choice is genuinely interesting (though on my last visit, it was ‘any beer you like, as long as it’s a pale ale’). Not everything is the latest thing, but its regularly rotated selection keeps you guessing, while there are enough bottles in the fridges to ensure most tickers can find something to tickle their fancies.
It also manages to maintain enough unreserved seating to make casual, impromptu visits still possible. But if pushed for what I think is the place’s best feature, I’d return every time to the thick, crimson velvet curtain that hangs just inside the entrance to keep the cold out. You feel like you’re walking on stage as you push it to one side and, in a way, you probably are. The entire pub feels like a collection of parts being played to differing levels of success by a troupe of performers consummately practised in the art of affectation. But the beer is real and you can comfort yourself in that at least.