When you tell people you’re going to stay above a pub in East London, they think you’re heading to Albert Square. The Culpeper is about as far from the Queen Vic as you could get – instead of trad boozer, think stylish, up-to-the-minute hipster hideaway. But that’s not to say you can’t get a good pint here.
The pub itself is a busy bar on the corner of a buzzy street where punters spill out onto the pavements, leaning up against the old-fashioned tiled walls. Inside it’s all galvanised metal, exposed brick, vintage armchairs and greenery everywhere surrounding the central bar serving seasonal cocktails, real ale and bar food, Spitalfields style. If you didn’t know better you might think the staircase in the corner was staff only. How wrong you’d be.
Head upstairs to the bright first floor restaurant, with its mirrored walls, teal diner-style seating and cast iron radiators, for slightly more formal food. Up another floor and you’ll find five bedrooms, sharing the Culpeper’s pared back aesthetic.
Our room – three – was a grand affair, the walls stripped of paper revealing a polished patchwork of plaster in shapes like continents and in colours from turmeric yellow to trout grey. The bed was vast and comfortable, the furniture minimal, earthy, tactile. Welsh blankets and sheepskins provided texture while light fittings were functional, adding an industrial touch. Local interest books lend a welcome nod to these rooms that exude so much heritage. Through to the bathroom and bright tiles echo the blue that runs throughout the building, tempered by warm, mottled limestone and pale painted wood. Eco toiletries are abundant by the basin and in the pleasingly powerful shower, their minimal packaging reminding guests to conserve water.
Climbing up another floor revealed an unexpected delight – the rooftop garden and bar. Here, city traders drink from the cocktail menu that derives its ingredients from the garden’s bounty. Abundant herbs explode from every corner while beany tendrils inch up vines heading for the Gherkin, that London landmark visible above the rooftops. Scanning the skyline is actively encouraged here, with the Culpeper holding regular evening tours of the night sky in honour of the pub’s namesake, controversial astrologist and herbalist Nicholas Culpeper.
As you’d expect, the rooftop bar is in demand, but guests staying overnight are in the enviable position of being allowed to take breakfast, lunch and dinner on high as well as drinks. Breakfast on the rooftop, high above the bustling Spitalfields streets, was a calm, unhurried affair. The menu is short but delivers on flavour, freshness and innovation – the Full English was declared by my companion to be the best he’s ever had, while I enjoyed baked harissa tomatoes scattered with sourdough croutons, which was a vegan, off-menu treat. (A note for those with special dietary requirements: the Culpeper requests advance notice but I’d recommend another prompt when you check in. But once they know what you can eat, the stops are pulled all the way out.)
Likewise, our evening meal was an exquisitely low-key affair, the casual style of the Culpeper belying extraordinarily sophisticated cooking. Three each of starters, main courses and desserts are available, plus a thoughtful wine list. My fresh Italian tomato salad was sweet and full of flavour, with roasted artichokes and capers to cut a sharp note through. Our table also enjoyed river trout, beetroot and hazelnuts, served with horseradish and rooftop leaves – a charming touch. Main courses were equally moreish – caponata with fennel and pine nuts, and monkfish, mussels, shellfish bisque and samphire. And desserts were simple classics, perfectly prepared – a dark chocolate pot, and poached peaches with pistachios and mint granita.
The Culpeper is a mere minute or two from Aldgate East tube, which gets you into town fast. But there’s plenty to do on the doorstep, too. The Whitechapel Gallery with its blend of beautiful architecture and contemporary art is visible from the tube station, while further up Commercial Street is famous Petticoat Lane – home to a trad East End market – and further still to Spitalfields Market. The latter is a vast, covered trove of small boutiques alongside big names such as Chanel and Alexander McQueen. The vibe is reminiscent of the Marais quarter in Paris: modern hipster with money.
But if it’s authentic, contemporary London you’re searching for then cross the road and head for Brick Lane. Here, you’ll find bagel shops rubbing shoulders with curry houses on a bustling stretch lined with street art and students, tourists and locals. The nearby Old Truman Brewery holds art exhibitions and vintage markets, keeping the area awake by day as well. Victorian street signs, beautifully preserved, remind you where you are, the blend of old and new creating a whole that’s more than the sum of its parts – this is London, authentic and alive. Much like the Culpeper itself.
Images by Lottie Storey