A stone’s throw from the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, would Bow Road make or break the dreams of two eager young hopefuls embarking on the 28th leg of the ultimate test in pub crawl endurance?
Only time would tell…
Bow Road had two possible identities in my mind – I imagined it as either a cockney stronghold or a hotbed for hipsters, spilling over from nearby Hackney. In fact, we didn’t find a great deal near Bow Road itself. Mindful of not impinging on Mile End (to the west) or Bromley-by-Bow (to the east) we turned right along Bow Road, planning to then meander north along the River Lea towards Hackney Wick.
The two pubs Bow Road did deliver – The Little Driver and The Bow Bells – were agreeably traditional establishments with a great beer garden and possibly the comfiest sofa in the East End respectively. Andy and I sank into easy conversation, discovering neither cockneys nor hipsters, just friendly Londoners enjoying a lazy Friday evening drink.
In a relaxed mood, we set off towards the River Lea. The Olympic Stadium swam into view and our endurance was tested as it took almost 30 minutes to find another pub. No matter – we enjoyed the evening air, sporting sights and multifarious graffiti along the river’s edge until The Plough at Swan Wharf appeared, along with the promise of a cool craft beer. I let the barmaid advise my choice of beverage, ending up with a Mokko Milk Stout, a hearty and sweet concoction bringing to mind the Korova Milk Bar where Alex and his droogs supped on drug-laced milk in A Clockwork Orange. Andy received a German wheat beer and we felt quite cosmopolitan sitting on the high outdoor terrace. Shame the bar was only sparsely attended, the burly doorman’s presence surely redundant for such a well-behaved and modest gathering.
Winding through the warehouse-lined backstreets we came across Formans, a rather well-to-do eatery where we imbibed Shoreditch Blondes and munched on olives in the sterile bar area. The sliding doors to the restaurant were decorated with an HD image of smoked salmon, blown up to such monstrous proportions that it made me feel vaguely nauseous just looking at it.
Moving swiftly on, we soon arrived at Crate Bar and Pizzeria. On the banks of the River Lee Navigation Canal, it boasted a huge outdoor drinking area, ample space to dance indoors, a trendy but unpretentious crowd and its very own barge complete with onboard bar. This was a real find, one of the best of the crawl so far. We wandered around, soaking up the atmosphere and settled gleefully on the barge, grinning like schoolboys.
Reluctant to move on but pulled by the restless spirit of the crawl, we took a few steps along from Crate and discovered Howling Hops, the UK’s first “tank bar”, opened only recently but already building up an impressive clientele from Crate’s passing trade and their own enviable beers and impeccable service. Kat, one of the bar staff, let us sample from several tanks and provided gentle suggestions when we seemed indecisive. Andy fell in love within seconds but her dedication to the job was such that he found no appropriate moment in which to woo her with love sonnets. A quick photo had to suffice. We could have stayed all evening, sauntering between Howling Hops and Crate, but the road lured us on. If you ever find yourself in the vicinity, do pay a visit to these two glorious pubs – you won’t be disappointed. And say hi to Kat for Andy.
The Yard Theatre was just a few yards away from Howling Hops and upon entering their bar we found a near perfect vacuum containing just three bar staff and ourselves. Attempting to break our record for the shortest time spent in an establishment we opted for tequilas and were back on the crawl in seconds.
Kat had recommended a venue called Number 90 and we were determined to honour her proposal. Alas, we first came across Turntable and were greeted by a hostile doorman who was deeply offended by Andy’s attempt to enter the venue in the normal manner – by the door. Biting our tongues, we withstood his irksome tirade and eventually managed to gain entry, only to find the bar closed. Number 90 was thankfully next door and, while quiet, it provided some entertainment by way of a pop-up art exhibition. The artist in question was the monstrously talented Stefano Ronchi, better known as RONCH, whose minutely detailed creations kept us diverted until the last tube beckoned. Indeed, it is RONCH who I blame for missing the final train and being forced to splash out on an Uber to Waterloo. (RONCH, if you’re reading this, if you provide an original artwork each as compensation for our disrupted travel plans we’ll call it quits.)
And so we found neither cockneys nor hipsters, but an easy-going, arty district and two genuinely outstanding venues. Crate and Howling Hops, we salute you.
Next stop: BRENT CROSS