Rowena Smith is celebrating 10 years as landlady and owner of the Old China Hand in Tysoe Street.
She discusses darts, ping-pong and backing British wine and beer in her bar…
The pub’s named after a term for expats in Hong Kong because of your upbringing there. How did you end up in EC1?
I came back to the UK in 1998, we had a small B&B in Harrogate, but I got bored. I got sent the details for this pub – I’d never even been to Clerkenwell. It was an Irish pub called Mulligan’s. I sanded the floor and put in a hessian bar. The furniture is all from Thailand. I still think it’s a traditional British pub, but then no pubs look traditional any more do they?
What’s the pub’s all-British policy?
We’ve been doing it for nine months. If anything I think we’re selling more wine since we switched to British wines. That stigma is slowly dying. The English winemakers are nice people, I like dealing directly with them and the breweries.
Why don’t you stock mainstream beers?
Because I wanted a pub that I liked. I just want people to know that we’re totally independent. I love serving the customers.I think having friendly staff is important. My customers come in and tell me how much they love it. Hospitality is making someone happy, so the fact I’ve made people happy makes my day. I’ve got a very good memory for names, I think it’s because I’m interested in people. I really do love this place, I couldn’t sell it. There are loads of regulars.
Unlike most pubs, you also let people bring their own lunch.
We don’t do food. You can order pizzas in. Friday lunchtimes we can be packed full of people who go to the market for food.
What’s your music policy?
We’ve had a few of the younger crowd saying: we want music to pump us up. I tell them you’ve come to the wrong pub, mate’. My music is ancient, it’s just easy listening.
What brings your regulars back?
People come here for something different, they come here to play ping-pong and darts. I’ve had ping-pong for six years, and it became so popular I bought another table for upstairs. Ping-pong is ideal for parties, and a lot of people bring their clients. I don’t think people take it that seriously, although we do have some seriously good ping-pong players. With darts the more I drink, the better I get. You can’t play darts sober, and you can’t play ping-pong after a few drinks.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, who starred in 12 Years a Slave, told the Evening Standard your pub was the best place for a nightcap. He’s so lovely, he comes in to practice his lines. He drinks Cotswold lager.
Is running a pub hard work?
Yes, my longest shift was the Olympics closing ceremony, we were still here at 6.30am. The press made us their HQ for the Olympics. A lot of them from all over the world were staying in Kings Cross. It reminded me of the Hong Kong press club. I wanted to be a journalist like my father but he taught me it was no life for a girl!
What’s the Purple Flag accreditation for the night-time economy you’re involved with?
The idea is to make people aware that – like the Blue Flag beaches – Clerkenwell is a good area and safe to go out. Rarely do you see a hen night or stag night here, it’s not like Upper Street. My job is to form a little committee to improve things, they want to see more communication between publicans, businesses and residents. We want to promote the area so more people come and drink here, because all these restaurants in the market need people to bring business.
Where do you drink or eat in the area?
I go to The Wilmington, the food’s very good there. Quite often I go out and eat at Blackfoot, Bonnie Gull, Moro and Morito. Bourne & Hollingsworth is stunning, it’s beautiful inside. I go to the Sekforde Arms because I know the landlord from the darts league. The Jerusalem Tavern manager’s a very good friend of mine, he drinks in here. When I have problems I ring The Horseshoe in Clerkenwell Close – they help me out a lot.
Are you keeping an eye on the competition?
It’s also because I don’t want to stay in here all night. I even take customers with me, sometimes for a meal. A lot of them become friends. I think people think I’m crazy.
What makes a good landlady?
I probably don’t look like a typical landlady. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink pints or spirits, I drink wine. I think I have the advantage that most of my mates are blokes, I get on very well with guys. I play a lot of sport and I can talk sport. I don’t know of another landlady in the Clerkenwell area. Landladies are getting rare.
The Old China Hand, 8 Tysoe St, EC1R 4RQ.