Where to find the best English pub and pie

The trouble began, as it so often does, with a beer-induced boast. "British pub pies are so good I could eat a different one for lunch every day," I told friends at a dinner party, some weeks before an upcoming trip to England. In the manner of such flippant remarks, a wager was placed, bets laid and the challenge accepted. To avoid eating humble pie I attacked the project with a researcher's eye: consulted pie experts, analysed pie charts and reviewed lists of award-winning pies, before mapping out a driving route taking in London, Portsmouth, Cambridge and Gloucestershire. 

For centuries, travellers could map their journeys by the puddings and pies consumed along the way; a pasty from Cornwall, a pudding from Yorkshire, a pork pie from Melton Mowbray. Today, thanks in part to the annual British Pie Awards, which aims to protect and promote regional specialties, there is a renewed interest in traditional, seasonal pies. Matching them with an icy cold pint (OK, a slightly warm pint) takes the experience to whole new level.

THE GUINEA

As befitting its upper-crust location, the Guinea attracts a well-heeled crowd of bankers and business "suits". Established in 1675, and part of the Young's group since 1888, it is a Mayfair institution. A founding member of the Scotch Beef Club, the Guinea serves some of London's best steaks in its signature restaurant, The Grill, but for lunch it's all about pies. 

Not just any pie, but a three-time national award-winning steak, kidney and mushroom pie. Served in a ceramic dish the suet pastry is crisp on top and fluffy underneath, while inside, the gravy is dark and full-bodied with an earthy aroma and the perfect ratio of ox kidney to field mushrooms. 

The order: Steak, kidney and mushroom pie ($20.50), matched with Young's Wells Bombardier.

Tip: Sneak into the gent's toilets to see the honour wall of awards. 

30 Bruton Place, London; see theguinea.co.uk.

THE OLD BANK OF ENGLAND, FLEET STREET

This Fleet Street pub wins the trifecta - great food, warm atmosphere and a grisly back story involving slit throats and boiled body parts. The Old Bank of England allegedly lies between the site of the barbershop owned by Sweeney Todd, the "demon barber of Fleet Street", and the pie shop owned by his mistress, Mrs Lovett. It was in the tunnels below the building that Todd's victims were butchered before being cooked and sold in pies to Mrs Lovett's unsuspecting customers. 

Situated in the former Law Courts Branch of the Bank of England, this grandiose building is now one of the finest pubs in London. While the pie menu isn't huge, all pies are hand-crafted and come with mash, buttered greens and a jug of gravy on the side.

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The order: Chicken and chorizo pie ($24.60), matched with London Pride.

Tip: Try the pie and pint tasting board - three mini pies matched with three real ales.

194 Fleet Street, London; see oldbankofengland.co.uk.

THE WINDMILL, MAYFAIR

Sister to the Guinea, this pub has two pie rooms, a pie club (with several thousand members) and a YouTube channel dedicated to all things pie related. Yes, they are serious about pies. While the three-time national champion steak, kidney and mushroom pie is the hero of the menu, there's also a good selection of old-school favourites, such as fish pie made with salmon, haddock and crayfish. I settled on the chicken, bacon, leek and tarragon pie, which delivered the ideal combination of creaminess, taste and texture.

The order: Chicken, bacon, leek and tarragon pie ($21.65), matched with Young's special.

Tip: Head up the stairs to the roof terrace

6-8 Mill Street, Mayfair, London; see windmillmayfair.co.uk.

YE OLDE CHESHIRE CHEESE, FLEET STREET

With a pub on this site since 1538, the Cheese is one of the few establishments that can justify "Ye Old" in its name. Rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1667, this particular building has a long history of feeding and watering literary greats such as Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Alfred Tennyson. Located down a narrow lane off Fleet Street, the entrance is marked by a board listing all the monarchs (15) who have ruled England during the pub's history, while inside, a tangle of narrow corridors and steep staircases lead to numerous bars and alcoves. Delightfully dark and dingy, it's easy to imagine Charles Dickens dreaming up some of his characters here, in fact, the Cheese was famously alluded to in A Tale of Two Cities.

The order: Steak and onion shepherd's pie ($15), matched with Sam Smith's bitter.

Tip: Enjoy a pint in the original stone cellar.

145 Fleet Street, London; see visitlondon.com

OLD CUSTOMS HOUSE, PORTSMOUTH

If there's one thing better than a pie and a pint, it's a pie and a pint by the ocean. Home to the world's oldest dry dock still in use and also home to some famous ships including the HMS Warrior, Mary Rose and Lord Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory, Portsmouth is the ideal short break from London (two hours by car).

The Old Customs House, which is housed in an original naval building, features a seasonal menu based on foods sourced locally from Hampshire, with the meat coming from Owton's Chalcroft Farm - a family supplier and butcher for 600 years.  With a "fresh for spring" promotion, I ordered the goat's cheese pie with sweet potato, carrot, spinach, red onion and garlic.

The order: Higgledy Goat's cheese pie ($24.60), matched with Seafarers Ale.

Tip: Head to the top of the Spinnaker Tower for the best views of Portsmouth.

Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth; see theoldcustomshouse.com.

THE EAGLE, CAMBRIDGE

Long popular with scientists, due to its proximity to the laboratories of Cavendish Hall, the Eagle is one of the oldest and most popular pubs in Cambridge. It is here, in 1953, that Francis Crick and James Watson first announced to the world their discovery of DNA, the "secret of life". All science geeks should make the pilgrimage (90-minutes' drive from London) and raise a glass to these two superheroes of the test tube world. 

The best glass in the house is the pub's own Eagles DNA, a bitter ale which goes well with rich, gamey pies.

The order: Pheasant and partridge ($18.60), matched with Eagles DNA.

Tip: Look for the English Heritage Blue Plaque, which recognises Watson and Crick's achievement.

8 Benet St, Cambridge; see visitcambridge.org.

FARMERS BOY INN, GLOUCESTERSHIRE

Farmers Boy Inn has 21 pies on its menu, but you'll only need one - the gourmet 2-in-1 monster-on-a-plate. Half steak and Guinness and half cauliflower and cheese, this combination is as impressive as Watson and Crick's double helix. Served in a ceramic dish, the steak side is covered in a dome of golden pastry, while the cauliflower portion is open, the cheese bubbling and spewing like a volcano. 

Located in a 17th-century inn, the Farmer's Boy Inn is a worthwhile diversion on a driving trip through the Cotswolds (two-hours' drive from London). 

The order: 2-in-1, half steak and Guinness and half cauliflower cheese ($24.50), matched with Ruddles Best.

Tip: Visit the inn's Purple Cow deli for wines, pies, cheese and ice cream.

Ross Rd, A40, Longhope Gloucestershire; see farmersboyinn.co.uk

OF PUBS, PIES AND PINTS

British Pub Week: Held in late October, Pub Week celebrates everything great about the British pub. britishpubweek.org.uk

British Pie Week: Organised by pastry company Jus-Rol, this annual event is held each March and has been running since 2007. britishpieweek.co.uk

Cask Ale Week: A celebration of great British beer, helping to support Britain's farmers, maltsters,  brewers and pubs. caskaleweek.co.uk

British Pie Awards: These annual awards aim to celebrate the heritage of the British pie, and to protect regional varieties. britishpieawards.co.uk

Great British Pub awards: With 17 categories (including best pub loos and best wine pub), this national award is the pub industry's night of nights. greatbritishpubawards.co.uk

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

visitengland.com

STAYING THERE

Accor hotels has accommodation in London and throughout England from budget to five star. Double rooms at the Novotel London Wembley start from $160. See accorhotels.com.

GETTING THERE

Cathay Pacific operates regular flights from Sydney and Melbourne, via Hong Kong, to more than 30 European destinations including London. See cathaypacific.com.au

GETTING AROUND

DriveAway Holidays offers worldwide car hire at locations in 130 countries, including more than 40  in Britain, with London airport or downtown pickups. Vehicles range from economy and compacts to wagons, SUVs and motorhomes. See driveaway.com.au.

The writer, who won the bet, putting on three kilograms in the process, travelled with the assistance of VisitEngland and DriveAway Holidays.

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