Layer upon layer, snug upon snug, floor below floor.
If McSorley’s is the American king of the dive bar, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is its European ancestor, a building and pub steeped in so much history that the bar’s Wikipedia page casually throws around the term “the Great Fire of 1666” as part of the pub’s lore. Indeed 1666 isn’t even the start of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese’s history, with a pub on the grounds tracing back to 1538. The place is old, you see, but it is glorious in its ripened age.
And before we go too far, there is a wholly different pub named Cheshire Cheese, also in London and only about a 5 to 10 minute walk away. By all accounts, it looks lovely too, but if you haven’t entered the pub below a glowing white sign inscribed with Ye Olde, then you’re in the wrong place. The entrance can be a challenge to find on a dark night, nestled in an alley off of Fleet Street, but naturally that only adds to the allure of the building.
Though it looks like a fairly standard space from the outside, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is a labyrinth, a maze of rooms and snugs warmed by open fireplaces on the first floor. And if this bar stopped at the ground floor, it would still be noteworthy, but it is the catacombs beneath the floorboards that give the pub legendary status.
History would suggest that a monastery once stood where the pub stands today, remarkable given that a building that dates back to 1538 apparently had a prior tenant. But that history comes to life as the vaulted ceilings below deck open up into again, a winding set of snugs and seating areas built into recessed portions of the wall alongside a twisting set of stairs that seems to plunge ever deeper into the London bedrock. The stairs ultimately land at the feet of a moderately-sized bar and an open seating area that may be a few feet above the center of the Earth.
As with all things in London, the history of the place runs deeper than the roots of the building itself, stretching to a roll call of past guests that includes Dickens and Twain. No word on whether they frequented the brothel purported to inhabit the top floor of the building at one point. That kind of backstory brings life and wonder to even the most mundane of nooks and crannies within Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.
Admittedly, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese cannot rightfully be referred to as a dive bar. The bathrooms are modern. The food is delicious and served on real plates. Prices are lower than you might find throughout much of cripplingly-expensive London, thought they’re certainly not dirt cheap. But the pub can be forgiven its cleanliness and modern amenities as fair tradeoff for the atmosphere and wonder that pours out of the 19th century wood that rings the interior.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is an exercise in exploration, the kind of place that can reveal something new with every subsequent trip. So best make a few of them.