The sight of fresh paint being applied to The Alma in Crystal Palace (established in 1854) gave me reasons to stay positive this spring, because it meant pubs were coming back. Despite everything, the fine British tradition of being busy doing nothing was not to be made obsolete, which was a spark of joy. I missed restaurants, obviously, but while eating out always seemed bound to return in some careful, sterile, heavily planned way, British pubs have never been about carefully laid plans. Their beauty is in their chaos.
A pub’s essential essence is fun: now, tonight or tomorrow – no bookings, no time slots, no table service. Pubs are any given Friday, six deep at the bar, jostling cheek and elbow with strangers. Sticky carpets, table swapping, shouting, with some tuneless singing thrown in for good measure. A rotund pub dog padding about having its ears fluffed. No cocktails, although they will do you a Bacardi and coke in a glass with a lipstick mark and no ice. If you stick around until closing, you might even get a snog. Not one of those things is remotely hygienic, of course, but, before Covid-19, worrying about germs was for neurotic sorts in bleach adverts.
I took pubs for granted before all the upheaval, but by late spring 2021, gripped by cabin fever, I’d have paid upwards of £100 for a night at the Rat & Parrot with a glass of corked, vinegary merlot and sharing a bag of Nobby’s Nuts with a toothless man while he told me of his trials for West Ham.
The Alma, I’ll bet, has possibly seen a lot of this sort of brilliant nonsense in its time. In its spanking new incarnation, however, it is smart, pale, airy and ever so slightly elegant. The Alma has moved with the times, but in its bones, it is still a reliable local watering hole, which is ever so rare these days. Large windows, lots of light draught ales, including the East London Brewing Company’s Foundation bitter and Five Points’ pale ale, both on cask in the garden,and Brick Brewery’s Peckham Session IPA and East End lager (pilsner) on keg.
Chef David Yorkston, meanwhile, has crafted a menu many times better than pub food even needs to be, with excellent baked sea bass, jersey royals and samphire on the menu. And a warm chocolate brownie with raspberry coulis and vanilla ice-cream. I’ve now eaten four times in the garden, because I remember full lockdown and this is literally the pub of my dreams.
The Alma is in what is known as the Crystal Palace triangle. That sounds like something from Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, but is actually where Westow Street, Westow Hill and Church Road meet, and it’s home to a heady mix of restaurants, independent shops, barbers and cafes. Close by is the well-respected modern European Joanna’s, the pizza place Four Hundred Rabbits and the exceedingly lovely Craft & Courage bar/beer shop, where I recently spent a restorative, silly evening drinking cans of Village’s Soft Suns in their backyard snug. Not one Crystal Palace resident will thank me for reminding anyone that this leafy, interesting, rather homespun postcode is approximately 25 minutes by train from London Bridge and boasts a large, leafy park with sphinxes, a maze and even the occasional alpaca. In fact, I’ll probably get told off for doing so. The queue for cakes at the Brown & Green cafe is already 50-long on a weekend.
One local told me that, once upon a time, back in the 90s, The Alma had the comfiest carpets in south London to pass out on. Nowadays, it’s certainly a little more refined – there’s a florist in the courtyard and red quinoa on the menu, for crying out loud. It has pretty, varnished floorboards and a gleaming, brand new foot rest along the bar, which its Scottish landlord Boydy is very proud to point out. The menu is surprising, ambitious and beautifully executed. I love the wonderful fried cauliflower with crispy chilli oil, spring onion and peanuts that I often dream about at night, and the plump chicken wings with homemade naga chilli mayo (they’re not scared of throwing out heat in this kitchen).
This is confident, imaginative cooking. I’m well aware that I’m the last person any chef wants to see when they’re running a restaurant out of a yurt in a howling gale, but I’ve kept appearing, as well as ordering Yorkston’s sourdough topped with broad bean and pea mash, whipped tofu and micro-greens, which will warm the heart of any vegetarian. And his tonka bean oat milk panna cotta with Kent strawberries. If this is how pubs are coming out of the pandemic, then there’s definitely light at the end of the tunnel.