Time Gentlemen Please

IMG_1234The great British local. That pub within walking distance of home where the barman knows what you want before you do, and everyone knows your name except that weird drunk guy who never, ever leaves.

The default location for the excitable Friday night post-work debrief pint, the I-hate-my-job-and-I-want-to-die mid week desperation beer, and the ill-advised Sunday afternoon ‘one more won’t hurt’ glass of red.

A good local is a hard thing to find – it’s not just about location, despite what Kirsty and Phil might say, it’s more about… I dunno, fit I guess? When you find a pub that’s not only walking distance from your house, but also feels like an extension of your living room, where you can pass the time of day with the bar staff without having to worry that they think you’re coming on to them, or sit there alone supping an ale without feeling like a Barney Gumble-esque barfly.

Thanks to the Wetherspoons juggernaut and Brains (as much as I love them for being a Welsh icon), the average Cardiff boozer nowadays is as cookie cutter as a family-size pack of Oreos. The same faux-hand written signage;  the same ‘quirky’ symbols for ladies and gents; the same lager selection: Fosters (kangaroo piss),  Stella (Belgian fighting juice) or Carling (not even worth taking the piss out of).

But every now and then, you find an oasis; a tiny island of individuality in a sea of samey boozing dens. And that’s how, a couple of years ago, I washed up at the Lansdowne.

*Croaks 'Nevemore' in the voice of James Earl Jones*
*Croaks ‘Nevemore’ in the voice of James Earl Jones*

I knew we weren’t in a Brains pub as soon as we walked through the door; the wood-panelled British racing green bar festooned with dried hop plants and a plastic raven (that may or may not have been quothing nevermore) would have given even the hardiest corporate brand manager an instant coronary. There were DOGS in there for gods sake. And ham baps on the bar. Like we were in Yorkshire in the 1800s or something. It was bloody great.

And it has been ever since; from Christmases to birthdays, from the Grand National to the Six Nations, and from pub quizzes to beer festivals, the Lansdowne has been there, an unshakeable booze-dispensing rock.

Don’t get me wrong, the Lansdowne’s not perfect – the seating is made from reclaimed pews that could once have belonged to an extreme catholic sect who believed agonising arse-pain brought them closer to god.

Also, the fact that there isn’t a beer garden makes it a bit less appealing than say The Romilly or The Conway when the mercury edges up much past the 20 degree mark.

But then, my living room isn’t perfect either – sometimes there are woodlice, one of the pictures stays wonky no matter how many times you straighten it and there’s a horrible tea stain on one of the chairs – it’s still home though.

I’ll have the usual

They ain't lyin'...
Them Cornish ain’t lyin’…

So what’s so good about it? Well, The Lansdowne pretty much perfectly walks the line between ‘proper’ pub and hipster tap room. You can get a craft beer from their famous Fridge of Doom with a ridiculous name like Faceless Spreadsheet Ninja if you like, or a pint of Sharp’s truly awesome Cornish Pilsner on tap, but you can also have a pint of old-fashioned mild and sit in the corner with a pickled egg grumbling about kids these days.

You can play a tidy game of darts with the old Canton boys or crack open Cards Against Humanity with man-bunned hipster types; tuck into a grilled halloumi burger on your way to see a contemporary dance performance about gay Lithuanian communists in the 1930s at Chapter, or chow down on pie and chips before going down The City for the game.

And speaking of which, the food is bloody great without being gastropub pretentious. The Lansdowne was one of the first places in town to realise that pop-ups weren’t just for ‘that London’ and could work in the humble ‘diff – it was here that Hangfire Smokehouse reached critical mass before becoming a streetfood superpower, after all.

But their own chef, Gav, ain’t no slouch either. I’ve raved about the black and blue burger before (a huge, juicy, tasty beast of a thing, set off perfectly with a face-puckering slab of blue cheese), but their Katsu curries break the mould too, and are a welcome change of pace from the boil-in-the-bag tikka masala that most pubs offer. The best part is, the menu changes all the time apart from a few lynchpins, so there’s always something new to try. Not that you will, because the burger and the curry are so bloody good.

IMG_1240
Salad? On pizza? Bloody madness. It’s ok though, there’s ham too.
Katsu. *Bless you* #DadJoke
Katsu. *Bless you* #DadJoke

It’s also home to some cracking pizza – the yin-yang combo of a slice of their super spicy diavolo followed by a slice of the (sadly defunct) blue cheese and grape was a taste of pure pizza nirvana.

Then there’s the Sunday Lunch. For sheer value for money alone, the cow to plate ratio is nothing short of remarkable. And they’d be forgiven for banging them out without too much care given how busy they get of a weekend, but I’ve never had a bad one – perfect roast beef, veg cooked just right and Yorkshires big enough to wear as hats, with gorgeous (if potentially lethal) molten cauliflower cheese on the side.

Last orders at the bar

So we’ve established that the food and booze are great. But for a good pub to transcend to true greatness, it needs an iconic landlord/lady. A Moe Szyslac; a Mike from Only Fools and Horses; a Ted Danson from Cheers before he became a massive racist.

I’ve known some greats in my life, like Brendan the angry Irishman from the Coopers Arms in Aberystwyth, who would look at you like you’d just set fire to his favourite kitten if you ordered a non-alcoholic drink, or Roz from the Mount Pleasant in Mountain Ash who would positively fuck you the fuck up if you were impertinent enough to put your feet up on the chairs.

Aw, butter wouldn't melt. By all accounts she was literally dancing on the tables a couple of hours later.
Aw, butter wouldn’t melt. By all accounts she was literally dancing on the tables a couple of hours later. (photo nicked from @binkirees)

And the Lansdowne? Well they’ve got Binki. Canton’s finest award winning, art teaching, beer-brewing booze pixie. Not only does she share a name with death’s horse (kinda), she’s also got her own beer; she once came in at Christmas a bit pissed in a spangly dress, looking like she’d escaped from the set of strictly after liberating a couple of bottles of bubbly from the green room. On a busy day she’ll squeeze almost everyone in for lunch with the kind of conspiratorial wink most landlords reserve only for regulars who’ve put in 15 years of hard-time.

And that, really, is the secret of a great pub: making you feel welcome. Binki and the rest of the Lansdowne crew have always understood that, and that’s why they’ve got a bar so packed with awards that you need to bring a step-ladder to order a pint.

All of which makes it all the more devastating that she’s off to pastures new this month, leaving the good ship Lansdowne in the hands of a new captain. That’s a big ‘ol pair of shoes to fill, and I don’t envy them the task. But if they can just nail that warm welcome it’ll stay my local for a long time to come. Pint of the usual please, guv.

What’s your favourite Cardiff boozer? City Arms or The Conway? Brewdog or Buffalo? The Romilly or The Rummer? Let me know in the comments below…

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