England has mastered the pub, but it’s America that has mastered the gastropub. Since moving to London I’ve spent the past five years fighting depression every time I scan the menu of a gastropub (so much promise in the name! so much disaster on the plate!). The Crooked Well seems to have been hiding in plain sight from me in Camberwell, South London. Here is a pub that combines high-calibre cuisine with the ubiquitous neighbourhood comfort of every English watering hole.
The boyfriend remarked to me that it felt like someone’s home. Three connected rooms all have tables and seats, but with a slightly different vibe: the “dining room” (tables for four, standard restaurant set-up), the “kitchen” in the middle (tall tables and a bar where you can watch the mixologists) and the “living room”, with plush seats pulled up to low tables.
It may be homey, but it’s not your parents’ home. The whole place has an air of artless cool to it…rough-hewn wood tables and old lighting fixtures, twee wallpaper, line drawings of common fish and insects, an old railway map, and a small library perched among large mason jars of pickled things. It’s like the home of your hip older sister who runs a vintage stall and makes her own furniture and killer cocktails.
Enough visual feasting; the drinks arrived and we tucked into some sublime salt-and-pepper squid with spiced mayonnaise. Most calamari should be ashamed of itself, dripping with oil or suffocated with batter. This struck the right balance of texture and didn’t fill us up before the second act. At this point we noticed random twos and threes of swanky-looking customers floating down from a back staircase. Turns out there are rooms upstairs you can hire. There’s also supposed to be live jazz and other happenings, but the website’s out of date on this point.
I can’t really emphasise how pleasant the staff were. Not that “we’re-English-so-we’re-always-polite-but-just-masking-our-menace” — but, like, genuinely pleasant and dispatching the kind of elegant table service that made me forget I was in, essentially, a pub. We didn’t have to visit the bar once, although that is an option if you’re just there for drinks. A small crowd idled by the bar for hours, chatting and watching the bartenders shake the living daylights out of designer spirits.
My sea trout steak made its entrance on a broad glass plate, balancing itself against a stack of stiff crushed potato and festooned with a sprig of greens. The pink flesh fell apart neatly with the touch of a fork, cooked to perfect moistness — the little pot of creamy butter sauce was there only for added flavour. Small cubes of gummy lemon were scattered about the scene. You could take away most of the players here and still have a fresh, tasty meal but the full cast made it outstanding.
The boyfriend ordered the no-nonsense chargrilled picanha, or rump cap as we call it in the States. You have to admire a dish with only three ingredients, two of them arguably condiments. It was all about the steak, which delivered tenderness and rich flavour. A dish of cafe de paris butter was at the ready for slathering, a blend of 16 ingredients. A lone roast tomato completed this simple spread, which the boyfriend supplemented with pommes frites in a moment of panic at the prospect of a one-item meal. The fries were a welcome addition and big enough to share.
Camberwell has some really nice choices for foreign cuisine, but there’s a shortage of droolworthy upmarket English food anywhere in South London. I’m hoping this means the Crooked Well has secured its niche for a long future. I’ll wander back even if I’m not hungry — they have a Thursday Night Cocktail Club, and your hip older sister makes a mean Peruvian Shakedown.
16 Grove Lane, Camberwell, London SE5 8SY