St. Stephen's Tavern, Whitehall, Westminster
Located in the Whitehall tourist hotspot and having the distinction of being the closest pub to the Houses of Parliament, St. Stephen's Tavern offers a pleasant respite for the weary sightseer.
St. Stephen's Tavern is literally a stone's throw from Big Ben.
The Tavern stands opposite Big Ben (properly named Saint Stephen's Tower, hence the pub's name) on a street generally so crowded that many pass by without a second glance at the attractive late 19th century building with its wrought iron sign and balconies, and a big glass lantern over each door. But it's well worth ducking inside for a look at the gloriously restored high Victorian interior, once frequented by Winston Churchill and Stanley Baldwin (prime minister three times between 1923 and 1937) and still a politicians' favourite today.
A political clientele and the Division Bell
There has been a pub and dining rooms on the site of St. Stephen's Tavern since at least as early as the 18th century, however the present building dates from around 1875. Unsurprisingly, given its location and historic political connections, St. Stephen's Tavern remains popular with Members of Parliament (MPs), civil servants, journalists and other political hangers-on. Many an earnest conversation takes place over a bottle of wine in a silver cooler bucket. Of course, the tavern also welcomes a steady stream of tourists. Lunch times and early evenings can be unbearably crowded, but in the mid-morning (full English breakfast is served until noon) or mid-afternoon it can still feel like something of an undiscovered secret.
The Division Bell
In common with several other pubs (and indeed restaurants, clubs and shops) in the area, St. Stephen's Tavern retains a curiosity: a Division Bell mounted on the wall above the bar. This device, in use for over 150 years, summons Members of Parliament back to the House of Commons for a vote, or 'division
'. When the bell rings MPs have just eight minutes to dash back to the House of Commons, or risk the wrath of their Party leaders.
Disappointingly, the Division Bell in St. Stephen's Tavern is not a traditionally shaped bell, but rather a square box with a gold-coloured grill that houses an electronically transmitted 'alarm'. The ringing, which lasts for a minute or so, is said to be frequently mistaken for a fire alarm by tourists who on occasion evacuate the premises. If you're in the pub while Parliament is in session you may well hear the bell ring. Look around to see who (if anyone) gets up and leaves, and enjoy this little piece of British political tradition in action!
Looking down onto the bar from the balcony.
The bar features carved wood, etched glass, mirrors and pendant lamps.
High Victorian décor, real ale and a small but tasty menu
Big Ben viewed through the window.
St. Stephen's Tavern has three public areas - a double height front bar with high etched glass windows and a lovely coffered ceiling, a cosy saloon bar to the rear (with a range of daily newspapers available), and, up a narrow staircase, an attractive mezzanine balcony area with green leather banquettes arranged in a series of snugs. A recent refurbishment has reinstated a lot of the original features, and the ornately carved bar, decorative etched glass, and Pugin
-style wallpaper throughout combine to give a rather grand atmosphere. Even if you're seated downstairs, it's worth going up to the balcony for the view down onto the bar area. The Victoriana extends to the toilets, which have some nice period tile work.
In the summer drinkers overflow onto the cobbles on Canon Row to the side. This is an excellent place from which to contemplate Big Ben, especially at night when it is beautifully illuminated. There are also views of Big Ben from inside the pub, if you are seated in the right area.
The wrought iron sign and big old lantern over the entrance.
The menu offers some tasty snack options such as roasted camembert and a meze platter.
So a historic pub with an attractive interior. But what of the food and drink? St. Stephen's Tavern is owned by the independent family brewery Hall & Woodhouse
and sells their award winning Badger Ales plus German Hofbräu lager. There is a wine list, and jugs of Pimms
are available in the summer months.
The food menu is small but reasonably priced (especially considering the location). There are a dozen or so main courses - including several vegetarian options - and snack and 'mezze' platters that are good to share over a pint or two. The small selection of desserts usually includes some typically English ones, such as blackberry and apple pie, or bread and butter pudding. Most diners opt to sit upstairs on the balcony where there are full sized tables and a dumb waiter to haul meals up from the basement kitchens. Download the current menu from the St. Stephen's Tavern website
The staff are a friendly lot, and are happy to chat to tourists (when they're not too busy, of course) and point out the division bell and explain how it works.
Essentials: St. Stephen's Tavern, Whitehall, Westminster
10 Bridge Street, Whitehall, Westminster, London, SW1A 2JR