15 Denman Street, London, W1D 7HN
Nearest tube: Piccadilly Circus 0.1 mile
Nearest attraction: National Gallery 0.3 miles
If it weren’t for the fancy lettering above the Queen’s Head you would probably walk straight past it, so unassuming is its shop front-style exterior. And when you actually open the door you will find yourself staring up a steep staircase which hardly seems welcoming. But venture inside – the interior is charming.
EST: 1738. Monarch: George II
When I asked the duty manager about the pub’s history he shrugged and pointed to a sign that claimed the Queen’s Head had been around since 1738 and “remained true to its roots”. If that were so it would be a pretty grisly place today. According to the internet, the Queen’s Head was once one of London’s many smoky, gas-lit, blood-stained venues that were regularly used for rat-baiting – a sport where people laid bets on whose dog could slaughter the most rats. Punters would gather together in venues such as the Queen’s Head and watch avidly as their bull terriers seized rat after rat in a vice-like grip and tossed their corpses aside. One dog could apparently kill 100 rats in under six minutes. Despite being a particularly nasty sport, rat-baiting did have the benefit of ridding the city of a lot of disease-carrying rodents. It was extremely popular in the early 19th century and at one time there were 70-odd rat pits in London, which meant someone had to keep them all supplied with vermin. Victorian London’s best-known rat-catcher was a flamboyant character who styled himself in a green coat, scarlet waistcoat and white breeches along with a broad leather belt inset with cast-iron rats. He went by the name of Jack Black (no relation. Although, come to think of it…).
Rat-baiting died out towards the end of the century on account of it being hideously cruel (who knew?). The Queen’s Head then smartened up its act and reinvented itself as a squeaky-clean meeting place for pedigree dog-owners. A picture on the wall featuring top-hatted gentlemen sedately showing off their dogs bears this out, effectively skating over the pub’s more sinister past.
The gilded mirrors, ornate chandeliers and wooden pillars provide a delightfully over-the-top Victorian feel with a nod to the art deco. Background music adds to the atmosphere and there is plenty of seating, mostly on stools. Service is friendly and the place has a pleasant buzz.
The other stuff
Brewery: Free house
Open: Every day
Food: Served from midday to 10pm
The beer options vary and on our visit included London Pride and Dark Star Hophead. At first glance the food menu seems fairly standard and disappointingly pie-heavy, but our meal was delicious with plenty of quirkier options such as beetroot salmon mousse, Jerusalem artichoke tart and asparagus and broad bean pie. Great value, too –and with free limoncellos all round to celebrate our daughter’s birthday. Much better than an indoor firework in a pudding for one.