The Drapers Arms


Gastro pub. What a stuck in-the-middle, fence sitter of a label. Trite terminology aside, my only real issue with it is that it’s become a cypher for stripped floorboards and style-over-substance, over-priced, bland, rubbish food. And so it ends up hiding a number of very good pubs that serve very good food. But what other term is there to use?

Simple food, executed with the highest ability. This is the mark of a true gastro pub. Places like the Anchor & Hope, The Gunmakers, The Fox & Anchor. And The Drapers Arms. It’s not about the presentation or the decor, it’s about the ethos of the food. A mongrel mix of unpretentious English-with-influences grub. Not too messed around with and of the highest provenance.

Sure, the Drapers Arms looks nice, with dark wood floorboards and simple tables that fit the high ceilinged Georgian building. It’s light, airy and big enough to allow you to focus on your food without bumping elbows with (or spattering gravy on) neighbouring diners.

The food is the very definition of unfussy and well prepared. It comes as no surprise that the chef is a former acolyte of Fergus Henderson, whose St John has incubated a lot of London talent, spreading its simple-but-brilliantly-cooked vision of English food around the capital.

We chose brawn, potted shrimp and broccoli with mustard seeds. And in keeping with this style of food, it was the simple sounding broccoli that starred. Cooked to tender perfection, the purple sprouting shafts had been bathed in a mustard seed, garlic and onion infused oil that gave the dish layers of aromatic flavour.

Brawn was a dense and meaty slice of piggy bits, well matched with a superb tangy sourdough. The intense shrimp came potted in a small ceramic ramekin bursting with small and tasty brown curls liberally laced with mace.

Onglet and chips
Onglet & chips

It was more of the same style for mains. Onglet came with chips and was cooked rare. Meaty and a little chewy. A decent steak but not spectacular. Mind you, I’m suffering from onglet overload at the moment – everywhere seems to have it at the moment, Chips were very tasty.

Baked bream was a triumph. A big, meaty fish served whole on the plate, it was packed full of moist and flavorful flesh, and having it whole meant that I could dig into my favourite part of the fish – the cheeks. Fish can be hit or miss in restaurants as chefs often over- or under-cook it. But not here.

Baked bream
Baked bream

Beef pie was full of tender, tasty beef, topped with a great crust. The only downside was that a side order of sprout tops came so over salted as to be inedible. But the staff took this with good grace, apologised and took them off the bill.

By this point in the evening my belly was straining at my shirt buttons and I was all set to gracefully decline dessert. Until I saw lardy cake. Lardy cake? I haven’t seen that since I was a small Cornish child tearing around town. I LOVE lardy cake.

And this rendition was hard to fault. The dough was springy but with a decent heft, the raisins were plump and moist and there was loads of spice. Perfect. The lard used in baking gave it a real richness too. Delicious.

Lardy cake
Lardy cake

The Drapers Arms then is one of those rare finds. A real gastro pub. Simple food cooked with real skill. And at about £25 a head for three courses and drink, it was a bargain.

Drapers Arms, 44 Barnsbury Street, N1 1ER, 020 7619 0348

11 Responses to “The Drapers Arms”

  1. Mr Noodles

    You make a great point about ‘formulaic’ gastropubs, but it isn’t just the decor that’s the same but quite often they all seem to serve the same few dishes. I always seem to see burgers, bangers & mash, fishcakes, grilled halloumi, a posh-ish pie and a token ethnic effort on the menu!

    Which is why it’s good to read about places like The Drapers Arms that offer something a little different!

  2. The Grubworm

    @Kavey – tasted pretty damn fine too.

    @Emyr – good article :) Funny, when i lived in Islington, i never visited. But now I’ve moved out, well, this will be the first of a few visits.

    @Mr Noodles – this is true, everything about them is forumlaic – they’re just like the “English” version of “Irish” (mostly run by English brewers) pubs. Happily, there is something of a backlash, and maybe the recession is causing a few people to look for good food at more reasonable prices – and there is plenty of that in places like this.

  3. Gail

    I think you’re spot on about onglet – it’s everywhere and good as it can be, it’s become almost too common! But I hear such good things about the Drapers Arms and you’ve just put it firmly on the list :-)

  4. Mzungu

    The Good Gastro are few and far between, too many pubs with boil-in-the-bag-brought-in-food out there tarnishing the name.
    Glad to see the Drapers is still keeping it’s ethos of good quality cooking. Haven’t been in an age. Due for a revisit

  5. Tori (@ Eat-Tori)

    What a great write up! Thank you! Our first real venture into English pubs was a weekend trip to The Sportsman, so I think we may have ruined ourselves a bit- but this looks like a great and more local substitute for when the weather really turns :)

  6. The Grubworm

    @Gail – it’s def worth a trip. Not just for the food, but the beer is good too. Kind of like a more laid back, gentler St John vibe.

    @Mzungu – you are so right about the boil-in-a-bag, pre-chopped-and-frozen plague that’s hit so many pubs. It;s a relief to find a decent pub with very good food.

  7. The Grubworm

    @Tori – oh you did treat yourself to a very good gastro pub experience :) Drapers is lovely, definitely the best option in Islington (although the Crown is good too, and The Barnsbury).

  8. Greedy Diva

    I’ve been meaning to go to The Drapers Arms for ages – sounds really terrific. Love places like this. I’m not over onglet yet – and had a great one recently at Bob Bob Ricard.

  9. The Grubworm

    @Greedy Diva It’s really nice – you get that deceptively simple food (that probably isn’t simple at all to prepare) and, on a thursday at least, it was very relaxing and laid back.

    As for onglet, i like it, but it would be nice to see some other cuts now and then, a good piece of aged rump, sirloin or rib eye would go down well. At the moment it’s all onglet, and I can see a bit of an anti-onglet backlash setting in which would be a real shame.

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