In my (admittedly colourful) imagination, Ledbury Road is Portobello Road’s uncrowded, lesser known counterpart; the portal that connects Westbourne Grove’s radiant white splendour with Westbourne Park’s gigantic brown brick estates. Every day, I watch it wake up slowly, marvelling at how different its early morning people are from the characters that populate it later in the day. I pass by the same packs of labourers, stepping out of the same construction vans in front of the same houses. Groups of twenty-something guys and girls gather outside The Ledbury’s Michelin-starred door, chattering in broken English and foreign languages; I wonder if they’re waiters in training, summoned there before customers begin to come in. Well hidden in a row of freshly painted facades, a few homes covered in grey smog carry the signs of an intriguing life: posters inviting to vote Green and save the NHS, an eviction notice on a front door, an exotic African flag sticking out of a balcony railing.
Nine hours and one working day later, I return, to find Ledbury Road live a rather different life. Its high-end fashion shops seem to remind me that I’m allowed to look and crave, but don’t touch. Ottolenghi’s little shop of wonders belts out a compelling siren’s call, but I know better than to join the happy snackers inside: if I did, I’d get out with an armload of cakes, and no money left to live until next month’s payday. Even so, dear old Ledbury is not as snooty as you might think; if it makes you feel like the Ugly Duckling in a pond of uppity white swans, just step inside The Walmer Castle, and make yourself at home again.
The Walmer Castle is the kind of pub where I could sit for hours, slowly sipping on one drink and chatting with a friend, reluctant to ever leave. I could, and in fact, I have. Even at the busiest of nights, nestling on one of its big armchairs makes me feel sheltered, at peace. Tens of colourful blackboards, hanging from every wall, set the mood with lighthearted jokes about grub and booze: the type of banter I’d expect from a friend if I went a little too wild after having one pint too many. The atmosphere alone would be enough to keep me coming back; add the fact that the Walmer Castle serves excellent food, and you’ll quickly understand why I’m so fond of it.
If you’re expecting the praises of a selection of British classics, you’re in for a surprise: the Walmer Castle’s speciality is Thai food, while standard pub fare is banished to the very last half page in the menu. My visits are usually driven by a mad craving for Pad Thai or red curry: I can’t help but marvel at their perfect balance of flavours, and wish the Thai dishes I dabble in at home were half as good. As of last week, there’s a new entry in my list of favourites: the Paenang curry, rather mild in spice, but pleasantly rich in sweet coconut milk and Thai basil. The coconut rice I ordered on the side was so sticky and sweet, it could have been a brilliant pudding; it took as little as half a bowl to fill me up, but I still couldn’t get myself to put the fork down until the last grain was gone.
I usually visit at lunchtime, when the ground floor bar is quiet enough to enjoy a leisurely sit-down meal, and finding a table is no hard task; on the other hand, the upstairs restaurant can get very busy in the evening. The two floors are as different as Ledbury Road before and after nine in the morning: the pub’s look and feel is as classic as can be, while the dining room is a full-on Thai restaurant with a life of its own. Everything harks back to to the South-East of Asia: the furniture, the crockery, and even the Asian waiters, whom I never saw hanging about downstairs. Even so, the setting is far from formal, and attracts a more varied clientele than you’d expect to see on the plush side of Notting Hill; the friendly, unobtrusive service suits special occasions, business dinners and relaxed everyday meals alike.
Prices suit all pockets, just like the atmosphere suits all tastes. Most mains cost less than £10, and price differences between the lunch and dinner menu are minimal, the main one being that curries don’t come with complimentary rice at the restaurant. Even factoring in an additional £3.20 for a bowl of rice, you can expect to spend less than £20 per head for a generous, fulfilling meal – and throw in a drink too. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better bargain in the area: the Walmer Castle makes the best Thai food I had in Notting Hill, if not in the whole of London. Mark my words, for this isn’t the last time you’ll hear me say them.
The Walmer Castle
58 Ledbury Road
London, W11 2AJ
(nearest tube station: Notting Hill Gate)
Open 12 noon – 11pm Monday to Thursday, 12 noon – midnight Friday and Saturday, 12 noon – 10.30pm Sundays
0207 229 4620