Davy's wine bars of London

This article was also published in the Financial Times.

It seemed appropriate at a time of the year when London seeks to emphasise every connection with its Dickensian past to catch up with someone whose working life revolves around places such as Bung Hole Cellars, Skinkers, The Tappit Hen and Crusting Pipe. Especially as all of these have only seen the light of day since The Boot & Flogger opened its doors in Southwark, south east London, in 1964 and changed the way wine was consumed and enjoyed in the UK.

James Davy, 39, is the fifth generation of the Davy family which since 1870 has been wine merchants and shippers, innkeepers and cigar merchants but today concentrates on shipping wine from around the world to their cellars in Greenwich. From there it goes on to either their private customers or their 37 wine bars and restaurants, which now stretch across London from Canary Wharf in the east to White City in the west.

Sitting on a wooden captain’s chair at a bare wooden table in a wooden alcove surrounded by empty bottles of vintage port in the basement of one of their wine bars in the City, Davy began by explaining quite how important that first wine bar had been 43 years ago but added, “Please don’t get your readers to look up Boot & Flogger on the internet – it really does generate the most unpleasant sites.”

The tale of the original Boot & Flogger is one of bloody-minded determination on the part of James’s father, John, a debt his son is only too quick to recognise. “Back then there were only three kinds of places to get a drink close to the City, the tea houses, pubs, which were strictly controlled by the brewers, and The Savoy. That was it. My father applied for a licence to open a wine bar but he was turned down on several occasions by the licensing magistrates on the grounds that as no wine bar then existed there was obviously no need for one.”

Davy Senior then got savvy and by taking advantage of his membership of The Vintners’s Company he applied for a ‘free vintner’s licence’, which allowed him to sell wine, but only wine, as a sole trader within the City of London and along the routes to the ports from which wine is imported. Davy does not claim the title of the founder of the wine bar movement – El Vino’s on Fleet Street and the Ebury Wine Bar in Victoria were also going at that time – but there is no doubt that this was a seminal moment in the British enjoyment of what Davy’s wine bars still advertise as ‘foreign wine’.

That era was to determine the wine bars’ design or, more precisely, the simplicity of it. Most of the early wine bars were in basements and wine was their design motif. Their entrances are taken up with wine barrels and barrel ends, cases of empty bottles from good vintages and as much wine paraphernalia as would fit along the walls. The interiors are simple, with spit and sawdust floors and empty bottles, of every possible size, on any available ledge and shelf. It is the quintessential low-maintenance approach. Wine also provided many of the names and, despite any other allusions via the internet, in this instance the boot and flogger are terms once associated with bottling wine when this was done by hand, the boot being the shoe that held the empty bottle and the flogger, a mallet-like contraption, was what drove the cork into the bottle.

Davy’s had obviously hit on a winning formula particularly during the 1970s and 1980s in London. “There’s no doubt that wine appreciation has expanded enormously today and is no longer a male prerogative," Davy explained, “but in those days our customers’ consumption was far higher than it is today. Those days of the four hour lunches are long gone.” But while they concentrated on basement sites, with limited kitchens, their food seems to have got left behind.

Davy’s menus have always been straight forward and well-priced. For what continues to be a predominantly male audience in the older wine bars in the basement, but whose newer ground floor sites are attracting more women, it came as no surprise to hear that there are four items which have been on the menu ever since the beginning: the chicken liver pâté; plates of Alderton ham from Suffolk and rare beef, both of which come with salad and hot buttered potatoes – a combination that in itself seems rather dated; and treacle tart with clotted cream.

There can be no denying the consistency of what Davy’s offers – my meal seemed an exact replica of those lunches I had eaten at the Boot & Flogger when it was a favourite haunt of my then FT editor over a decade ago. All the ingredients on my main course were copious, with the exception remarkably of the condiments, and the potted crab, ham, and treacle tart were certainly good enough for the price (three courses are around £25).

But the details were disappointing. The bread, and the baskets it is served in, don’t seem to have changed any more recently than the décor. The rather pappy sliced baguette that I was offered initially and the cold toast with the crab didn’t enhance the food or bring back anything other than unhappy memories of just how poor British restaurants once were. The black rim on the lettuce leaves wasn’t too encouraging, either. And Davy’s assertion that their food policy is to follow the seasons such as, he cited, serving asparagus when British is at its best in the late spring seemed to be at odds with our smiling Brazilian’s waitress’s comment that asparagus was the soup of the day in late November.

These caveats have, however, to be set against the breadth and generosity of their wine list. While still keeping a candle burning for what built the British wine trade with several sherries and Madeiras, well chosen German wines and, above all, red Bordeaux at prices that are still somewhat reminiscent of yesteryear, their list now encompasses the popular Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2006 at a lower price than I have ever seen it on a restaurant list and exceptionally user-friendly prices for burgundy and champagne lovers. The £98 currently being charged for a bottle of the 1963 Cockburn vintage port is no more than a tenner above what is being charged by the few wine merchants who still have it.

Davy seems only too aware that maintaining these prices is key to his company’s continued success, particularly as the City seems to be bracing itself for the most difficult trading conditions since he joined in the early 1990s. However, more expertise on the food side is definitely called for to match the level of hospitality (Davy’s run a well respected training scheme) and the wine they offer. This would make their Victorian settings even more distinctive.   

See www.davy.co.uk for full details of all Davy’s Wine Bars and the wine merchant business

The Boot & Flogger, owned independently by John Davy, still thrives at 10–20 Redcross Way, London SE1, 020 7407 1184.