The fifth lager is always the worst, he thought. The old man was full, sick of the sweetness, and the alcohol was yet to erase his memory for the evening. He had virtually melted into the bar, his hunched frame draped in a wax coat that was as beer-stained as the wood he leaned on. He could have been there for a thousand years, for all the couple that sat next to him knew.
He stirred at the sound of them raking their stools back from the counter and stole a glance from under the frayed lip of his cap. A hideous, balding ginger man and a rather delightful young lady had stationed themselves next to him. They were clearly a couple, but the old man did not know how. He took solace once again in his effervescent pal, having seen enough.
A passerby looked curiously through the window into the bustling pub and the peculiar threesome at the bar: an unknowing allegory of the dichotomy that defines the Canton Arms. The old man watched the bubbles rise to the top of his glass as he wistfully remembered the Canton 20 years prior. The restaurant in the back – where he had never dined – had transformed the social fabric of his dingy local.
I moved to Stockwell in the dying moments of 2016 and The Canton Arms is the closest boozer to my new digs. I neglected it for several months, however, since from the outside it resembles the kind of spot where haggard men go to speak to other weather-beaten folk about dogs and things only found in the back of white vans.
In a rather ironic turn of events, my girlfriend and I were tipped-off about the pub’s restaurant in a nightclub. Incredulous and slightly concerned that the recommendation was in fact the preamble to an ambush, we went last week for an apprehensive Lilley and Skinner.
We took a pew at the bar next to what I thought at first was a pile of old sails that later transpired to be an drunk octogenarian. The Canton Arms pub is on the Snatch end of the grittiness scale. Nonetheless, it was still 70% full of management consultants in New Balance trainers.
We decided to have bar snacks for starters, opting for a toasty each. I had haggis; my better half had cheddar and beans. They arrived pressed into triangles, hot off the machine just like mother used to make them. To put it bluntly, a jar of the cold stuff with a warm haggis butty splotched with a generous dosage of brown sauce is a force of nature. Nobel prizes have been won for less. No wonder half of BCG was here on a Thursday night eating them; this stuff was yuppie crack.
Toasties obliterated, we were ushered into the backroom to take a seat in the restaurant. While the front of the pub is reserved for Irishmen trading whippets over cheap drams, the rear is for middle-class families trading quaint stories over reasonably priced plonk. It is a little schizophrenic, but it is nothing if not characterful.
The menu is brief and awash with confidence, with ingredients like gurnard and confit rabbit leg given pride of place. It was Hereford bavette and chips that tickled my fancy, though, and Datterini tomato gnocchi for my fairer companion.
Steak cooked with that skill will never go out of fashion. A pensioner could have eaten the lot without their fake gnashers in, and the accompanying Béarnaise sauce was luxurious. I heard similarly gushing “umms” and “ahhs” of praise from the other side of the table regarding the gnocchi. We proudly returned two polished plates to the waitress in short order.
In for a penny in for a pound, we both wanted dessert: a ‘little custard pot’ and a scoop of hazelnut gelato to share. Both arrived in dinky glass tumblers, which was staggeringly trendy and utilitarian for Stockwell. The ice cream was simple and excellent. The chef was prescient enough to stir the hazelnuts in at the last minute, thus keeping them chewy. The pot offered layers of rhubarb and custard – the acidity perfectly balanced – with a shortbread lid that added bite to the joyous melange. It was a triumph topped only by the number at the bottom of the bill, which was small enough that we had to ask if it was a typo.
As we exited through the tavern I had another chance to reflect on the bizarre environment the Canton Arms upholds. The place is as befitting an ale-fuelled brawl as it is an accomplished banquet, but this two-faced charm only serves to enhance the surprise that the fare and the prices deliver. One has to feel sorry for the Canton’s true hardened locals, however, who are being displaced by throngs of toasty-loving millennials.