The Plimsoll is a pub down a side road in Finsbury Park, north London, doing an ebullient trade serving burgers and more, that knows exactly what it is. It is not remotely a gastropub. It isn’t a shiny-floored, exorcised former boozer with its heart dragged out, replaced with heavily styled guinea fowl on white china and gelato of the day, Noble Isle hand soap, piles of neatly folded Egyptian cotton hand towels and a soothing George Ezra compilation floating into the private dining room. There are hundreds of pubs like this across Britain and although they’re very handy for anyone wanting a “civilised” meal with “the guys”, I’m not sure these same diners would appreciate the Plimsoll.
Or understand why tables in this not-gastropub are currently like gold dust, meaning they’d most likely settle for a table for two at 9.15pm sometime midweek, late March, only to find the menu is scallop bhuna fried pizza, or liver with colcannon, served on your great-gran’s best yet mismatched crockery, in a rather dark, brazenly “pubby” old pub, heaving with the ghosts of its past as an old-school drinking den, but now with Sonic Youth blaring out. Or they might turn up on a weekend or an Arsenal match day, to find there’s a very limited menu. At this point, some customers may become livid and bewildered, the two main emotions behind almost all Yelp.com restaurant reviews. Why would I send people there who’d be irked by what it isn’t? Especially as I do not want the table shortage to become sillier.
There was a point when a large slice of freshly made ricotta cheesecake – firm, New York-Italian style, slightly salty, compelling and served with a tiny ramekin of rhubarb – arrived and, as I picked up a spoon, Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill began to play. It was the most undiluted, multi-sensory, unadulterated fun I have had since 2020.
The Plimsoll is now in the hands of chefs Jamie Allan and Ed McIlroy, who, before this project, ran a well-loved semi-permanent pop-up called Four Legs at the Compton Arms in north London. Here, the pair became food-scene-famous for serving a very good Dexter cheeseburger – a glossy, slightly sloppy, cheesy, gherkin-blessed but certainly not salad-spoiled burger. It takes a lot to impress the food scene with a burger these days, but Allan and Mcllroy did, as well as with bowls of soft, deep-fried salad potatoes with fresh aioli, plates of almost blackened pork chipolatas, mince and tatties and then delicate plates of scallop escabeche, or a luxurious Middlesbrough-style parmo (chicken parmigiana) laden with cheese.
All this nostalgia, simplicity and brazen oddness would be a catastrophe if the pair couldn’t cook: it works because they are brilliant. Allan is formerly of Hill & Szrok in Broadway market and McIlroy was at the well-respected Bao; over two years at the Compton Arms they have honed a skill for pleasing the hungry. There’s a quiet finesse in their work that is streets ahead of pub food; so within this mismatched, single-sheet menu – which changes daily – expect a humble bowl of crisps served with a slick, pink pool of fresh cod’s roe. Or a plate of breaded, deep-fried herring perched on rough-cut baguette with a precise watercress mayo.
We ordered slip sole with shiitake, not quite expecting to receive the whole fish served with a buttery, earthy sauce rich with ’shroom and sweet rhubarb. The Plimsoll pulls you from St John to Ynyshir to Saturday lunch at Pearl Beach in Saint Tropez, yet somehow you’re in the Queen Vic and it’s being cooked by men who resemble members of the early 70s, Rod Stewart-era band Faces.
Service is incredibly good, prompt and knowledgable, which lifts the whole experience from pub to something beyond. But this all said, tables are tight, so expect to be there for a good time, but not a long time. If I’d had longer, I’d have lingered over a plate of aged comte, a bowl of the whiskey pudding and perhaps another bowl of the spuds and fancy garlic mayo. However it was Wednesday, the Plimsoll was mobbed and they wanted my 5.30pm table back.
I have to respect any restaurant that kicks me out – pen in hand, daft dangly earrings jangling as I finish my cheesecake – as they already have enough customers. No three-hour tasting menus and “would you like a tour of the kitchens?” for the men from Four Legs. They’re full and don’t need my feedback and I love it.
Four Legs at The Plimsoll 52 St Thomas’s Road, London N4; (no phone). Open Mon-Fri 3-11pm, Sat & Sun noon-midnight. About £45 a head, plus drinks and service.