Recently, my boss was granted the ‘Freedom of the City of London,’ which means that he now belongs to one out of many very old sects of London’s political society. Originating from medieval practices, the title is given to people who are valued for contributions to a certain field, although not with benefits as practical as they used to be. As he likes to point out, my boss will not soon be exercising his right to drive sheep and cattle over London Bridge, although I’m sure it must be nice to know that you could.
For the sake of comparison, it is similar to getting a key to the city in the States, but with the added components of formal wear (top hats, full tails!), parchment scrolls and calligraphy that Brits typically use to regalize any occasion. In-keeping with a day of history and tradition, a celebratory lunch was held after the Freedom ceremony at another of England’s finest institutions: the pub. This venue in particular, the Ye Olde Chesire Cheese, is a fantastically moody pub with far more history than you’d expect such a small establishment to hold.
Rebuilt circa 1666, shortly after London’s great fire, the pub manages to act as a time capsule without being snooty about it. Typical of the seventeenth century, the low slung doorways, tight corners and impossibly tiny staircase make you forget instantly what year it is. Even for those who may have previously been out enjoying all the glamour of modern day London, coming to the Cheese is an unequivocal reminder of the city’s wood-paneled, dimly lit Dickensian roots. The menu features hearty, traditional English fare at reasonable prices, such as steak and kidney pie, bangers and mash, and fish and chips.
Speaking of Dickens, planning a visit ahead of time could mean the chance to borrow his seat! In the dining room are a handful of wooden booths situated lengthwise from a fireplace. You can find a placard above one such spot telling you that this was where Charles liked to sit when he visited the pub, usually in the company of other great thinkers of the time. Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the philosopher Voltaire were said to be patrons, not to mention Samuel Johnson, creator of the first English dictionary, whose very large and imposing portrait hangs above the table and stares judgmentally down at your menu choices. In fact, when you’re finished with your pint or meal, you can pop around the corner to Dr. Johnson’s House at 17 Gough Square, which is cheap and well worth the visit.
The pub staff seem genuine and knowledgeable about the premises, if asked. When several of our entrees came out slightly late, our party was quickly given a complimentary bottle of wine in apology, so there were certainly no bad marks for service. Reservations may be necessary for sit-down parties of a certain size or to request a specific table (like Dr. Johnson’s), but the informal atmosphere is clearly much more about simply wandering in off the street to have a drink, a laugh and a load off.
I now try to bring everyone who visits London to this spot, although I was once innocently stood up by a guest who thought I was joking when I told her the name of the place and went elsewhere. Nothing will humble you quite like standing on bustling, rush hour Fleet Street while yelling, “Chesh-er Cheez!” into a cell phone. But despite the occasional mishap, I have never been sorry that I’ve brought a visitor to this pub, nor have the visitees.
The Ye Olde Chesire Cheese can be found at 145 Fleet Street, on Wine Office Court and a more detailed history and list of outstanding literary references can be found here.