While many might still think of Limehouse as a ’down and dirty’ area (it’s not really), it does enjoy a notorious past with The Grapes prominently featured: stories of drunks leaving the pub to be assaulted and drowned by local watermen after which the corpses were sold to teaching hospitals were common. Fortunately for drinkers today, following recent budget cuts, our teaching hospitals can no longer afford them.
Indeed, viewing the area through the prism of history, Limehouse was central to London’s dock trade through the 19th century and home to the lime kilns (or more accurately lime oast, hence the name Limehouse) as well as the original Chinatown. Unsurprisingly, these attributes placed Limehouse prominently in London based literature with for example Sax Rohmer making Limehouse the headquarters of underworld criminal genius Fu Manchu. Sherlock Homes meanwhile would spend his leisure hours in the Limehouse opium dens (The Man with the Twisted Lip, 1887); these same iniquitous opium dens further featured in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891).
But for the purposes of our story and The Grapes connection, it is Charles Dickens that holds centre stage because The Grapes itself features in his book Our Mutual Friend though with the name changed to The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters. Here, the Six Jolly Fellowship is described as ‘a tavern of dropsical appearance... long settled down into a state of hale infirmity’ but Dickens shrewdly noted that ‘it had outlasted and clearly would yet outlast many a better trimmed building’ (dropsical is Middle English, short for ydropesie from hydropisis from hydro = water).
The pub itself is full of ‘old London pub’ charm and the Dickens connection is present throughout (sketches of Dickens’ characters populate the walls upstairs and down) but it doesn’t feel obtrusive or cheesy. And with a pub so closely tied in with the river that passes its southern wall, there’s other dock related knick-knacks scattered around the place to keeping you visually entertained.
But it’s not the decor that will immediately catch your eye on entering, rather, ‘narrow’ is the first thing you’ll think of when stepping through the front door as the pub can be no more than 15 feet wide throughout; appropriately, the pub is on Narrow Street and it feels right that it is; the pub feels like it belongs in the space. As you’d expect, there’s lots of exposed timber and an already small pub is made yet smaller by the staircase that connects the upstairs dining room, in effect dividing the pub in two. The Narrow Street front end holds the bar and a handful of raggedy tables while through the very narrow corridor the river end is small with just four tables, a real fireplace and great views over the Thames. In summer, this small outside balcony area that only has space enough for one group of drinkers provides perhaps the best 'table' in London for fresh air, Thames views and watching the sun set over the capital.
With the maritime heritage, it seems only right that The Grapes operates a fish restaurant (with fish sourced from Billingsgate market each day) leading to both recurring menu choices and sometimes a catch of the day special. Given the restaurant's size, you’re advised to book in advance though on the occasions we’ve been, there’s usually a table or so free if you are a walk in. The downstairs pub area does serve food but it is a much more limited bar menu. Returning to the upstairs menu, on the starters list are all the dishes you might expect from an East London seafood pub (except eels which are absent), but old favourites like potted brown shrimp, whitebait, smoked salmon roulade and dressed crab are all there.
The wine list has plenty of wines at or around £20 though being a pub, you can have drinks brought upstairs from the bar, so if you fancy a pint, it’s easily accommodated. Beers on tap include Pedigree and Tim Taylor’s and it’s usually a pretty good pint.
Our main dishes consisted of one plaice meuniere and one deep fried scampi, sides of hand cut chips and spinach. The scampi was excellent, fried in a light crisp batter, the scampi being of good quality and totally fresh. The plaice, which like the scampi came in a generous portion was similarly fresh, well cooked, but the meuniere was more just melted butter than a proper brown nutty meuniere sauce.
The chips did have flavour and were adequately cooked but lacked a big crunch.
But we do go back to The Grapes and have done so over a period of many years. We don’t go there as our go-to food place, rather, the combination of a brilliant little pub, so much character and history, staff themselves with character and humour, and an environment where you simply feel happy makes us want to return. Sometimes we’ll just have a drink and enjoy the downstairs, but if it happens to be around lunchtime, the food and prices are good enough to see us move upstairs for a bite. On Sundays, the pub does a decent enough Sunday roast in both the bar and restaurant and it's a nice environment in which to sit back and read the Sunday papers, drink in hand.
This is not a place that we’d recommend people travel too far to eat at for surely there are better eats closer for most, but for those who enjoy pubs that have hundreds of years of history rather than the increasing uniformity of the large pub chains, The Grapes is certainly a destination and as a package, it works wonderfully.
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