The Camberwell Arms

Sometimes you need to go back and try again.

The Camberwell Arms has become the Blewer family (Camberwell branch) HQ for birthday food and drink for about 2 years now. We’ve enjoyed probably five or more great afternoons there, but this story starts with me swearing I’d never go back.

Over the years, we did a bit of circling around, with numerous visits to the Anchor & Hope on the Cut, Pizarro in Bermondsey and Franklins in East Dulwich. All have their significant charms and have been reviewed here. However due in part to logistics (most of us live in Sutton), cost and the need to find a child friendly option, we tried the Camberwell Arms.

The first time we went, on the longish (if you have a toddler and a baby with you) walk back to Denmark Hill station I was pretty much set that I wasn’t going back, or if I did it would be adults only. Aidan & Hannah had both decided that day that they didn’t want to stay seated, didn’t really want any of the food and didn’t want to be there. The numerous adults took turns in distracting them so we could all eat but it remains my most stressful restaurant experience (apart from a night in Moscow that is best not mentioned in polite company).

We were in the secondary room with a very large party adjacent and there was a lot of coming and going, which meant the kids had to stay at the table. The large party meant the the waitress upstairs was hard to get hold of and the kitchen was under pressure and our food took a long time. Neither Kirsty or I had had much sleep for months, what with Hannah being so young and our patience was as thin as a spider’s thread. It snapped on the walk and then quite long journey home.

This has been pretty much the issue for all of the restaurants mentioned, due to where my part of the family lives (Sutton), a civilised lunch in SE1 or SE5 is pretty much in the middle of nap time. Driving sort of managed this but it meant no drink for one of us, which we’d agreed to knock on the head. Kirsty and I knew this, and knew what happened if the kids didn’t nap. No sleep for us that night.

I know all of this sounds like a spoiled middle class #firstworldproblem, but sleep deprivation is used as an interrogation. Any parents reading this will understand the challenge. You want to spend time with your family and have a nice time, but you’re so effing tired and stressed that the smallest things set you off.

Anyway, I wasn’t going back. Then it was booked again and Dad and my Uncle Mark were both really looking forward to it and I couldn’t suggest somewhere else. The best I could do was ask for as late a start as possible so that Hannah could sleep.

You’ve probably guessed now that it worked. Hannah fell asleep on the walk down from the Station. They serve passable Guinness and always have a local pale ale in hand pump. We all looked at the menus and as I now feel every time I walk in, I thought “yum”.

For many years the CA was part of the Anchor & Hope stable which had an an effective formula. Find a grotty boozer in a previously rough but now up and coming part of S London. Add a lick of paint & mismatching furniture. Decent if slightly odd wine list. The kitchen serves rustic, trencherman type food that is WAY above usual pub standards as what looks simple requires very high level sourcing and serious technique in the kitchen. All of the group were sort of hybrid pubs where you could just go for a beer but the reality is they made their names as places to eat in the shell of a former pub that retained the ambience of a London boozer without really being one.

Service is friendly and professional. These guys know their job, put you at ease and serve the food with no fuss whatsoever. They’re enthusiastic about the product without trying to be evangelists or your best mate. They’re very understanding of our needs with two small kids, for which we are always grateful.

The Camberwell Arms has recently exited the group but at the moment the style remains and I really hope this continues. Exceptional silky, porky home made charcuterie, including really lovely rich rillettes and home pickled cornichons is a statement of intent matched by the scotch bonnet and pork fat on sourdough toast. Big meaty flavour served by a kitchen at knows what it’s doing.

Starters tend to be rustically presented but actually are quite delicate at least compared to the mains. The house cured smoked salmon and crisp bead is sweet, salty, fatty and serious, with thick¬†slices, noseclearing horseraddish and again house pickles complementing it well. Babaganouj that is the equal of anywhere I’ve had in Levant, Gulf or Maghreb is served with griddled bread that’s like a bbqued pillow. I could eat about two kilos of this stuff.

Main courses tend to be big lumps of protein cooked perfectly with a sauce that demands good staff in the kitchen. Take my most recent main. A massive roast pork chop that had a big strip of crackling. Served on wilted greens with he best roast potato / chip type spuds you can find in London and a sauce based that was romanescoish that I want to buy in pots. I’ve had a similar but lighter dish with whole roast quail.

They do bigger dishes to share; a rabbit pie sticks in my mind from the first visit as a reason to come back. Spit roasted roast chicken and trimmings to be shared by groups of 2-4 depending on the size of bird. The fish always looks perfectly cooked, because this is an excellent kitchen that wouldn’t dream of serving anything other. Pearly flakes of white meaty fish, often with a buttery accompaniment are a staple of the menu. I’m a carnivore so tend to avoid but my mum regularly leaves a Top Cat style skeleton on an empty plate.

By the time you get to desert, you’re full, but they don’t let the side down. A short list of puds that are all made on site are always tempting and tasty. Home made ice creams normally do for me, often a tart and refreshing flavour, last time it was cherry and was great. They have calvados behind the bar that is young and apple-ey and pretty fiery. It’s calva not Somerset cider brandy so there’s enough velvet to dampen the fire but it delivers the big boozy hit that you want at the end of a great meal.

That’s what we’ve had every time. A great meal. Our kids have got older and we box clever on timings which has made the whole experience easier but at the heart of things this is a brilliant local restaurant that is more gastro than pub. I’d say I wished I lived closer but actually I quite like the fact we only go a few times a year as it gives the place a sense of occasion and makes it feel special.

The Camberwell Arms deserves this because that’s what it is, special.

I’m pleased we went back.

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