North London whiskey evangelist with the teeniest-tiniest Irish pub in the whole of London
If you’ve ever wondered what Islington’s Upper Street was like 30 years ago, it’s simple: just walk across to Essex Road. It’s one of London’s great under-rated thoroughfares, a mile-long arrow pointing straight to Essex and originally known as Lower Street. Not nearly as smart as Upper, of course – if you were on your uppers, you’d probably be on Lower – but full of characters. Some of whom will be found in Homeboy. It’s an Irish bar, though not in the way you’re probably thinking. This is a little Lower East Side. Bowery-black signage, green leather and two-tone bar; Guinness but no foam shamrocks; arm ink and French bulldogs; Nineties hip-hop instead of fiddles and The Dubliners.
Although there are Dubliners here: Aaron Wall and Ciarán Smith, who run the joint, bringing a deft hand learnt from Callooh Callay in Shoreditch and The Dorchester. The two are keen to share their sense of Irish hospitality – the same urge that made Father Ted’s Mrs Doyle ask ‘Would you like a nice cup of tea? Go on, go on, go on…’ – and which goes back to historic civil laws that insisted on providing for strangers. At the back, through a small door, is the smallest Irish pub in London, opened for the Six Nations championship and decorated with uncovered punk-era posters and Guinness ads, with its own snug – that traditional VIP room of the Irish boozer.
Plenty of Irish whiskeys that can be approached in plenty of ways – or avoided altogether. A Boilermaker pairing such as Jameson Caskmates with a Chieftain IPA, perhaps, rolling the spirit around in your mouth to appreciate its profile – or a Hemingway-style Set Menu of Roe & Co with 1936 lager and a Daiquiri. The team have a playful approach with cocktails, many of which are nods to classic-era serves, but there’s nothing that feels too gimmicky – even the Teaandabiccie, which stirs whiskey with Benedictine, Barry’s Irish Tea, clarified milk and a Hobnob syrup. Go on, go on, go on…
There’s also the summery Emerald Collins, with Slane whiskey instead of gin or vodka, plus Cynar added to the mix, and the fruity-but-not-sweet take on the Manhattan, titled the Wogan (whiskey, apricot brandy, lime and sugar). If you can pronounce it, the Taoiseach is the bar’s lovely version of El Presidente, swapping rum for Redbreast Potstill. ‘We’re the dog snapping at the heels of the Dead Rabbit boys,’ says Smith.
The kitchen is currently being upgraded, so the menu’s a little limited right now, but the team will fix you a toastie or Tayto sandwich, made with the famous Irish crisps. Irish stew and soda bread are made to family recipes.
A warmly welcoming, no-bother bar, where Tuesday night may very well feel like a Friday. If you get too pickled, you might be allowed to sit in the window of Get Stuffed, the taxidermist’s opposite. Rick Jordan
Address: Homeboy, 108 Essex Road, London N1 8LX