This 70-Year-Old Pub Landlady Has Served Nuns, Dock Workers, and Pete Doherty

Welcome back to Last Call, where we visit watering holes to collect life advice from their trusty barkeepers. In a special MUNCHIES Guide to British Food edition, we meet 70-year-old Sandra Esquilant at London's Golden Heart pub.

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10 May 2016, 3:52pm

Welcome to Last Call, where we visit watering holes around the world to collect life advice from their trusty barkeepers, learning everything from how to get over a broken heart to what drink orders will get you laughed out of their bar.

In a special edition for the MUNCHIES Guide to British Food, we speak to legendary London landlady Sandra Esquilant.

For more than three decades, Sandra Esquilant has commandeered The Golden Heart, a 1900s boozer that stands across the road from Spitalfields Market in East London.

In this iconic East End location, The Golden Heart has long attracted an eclectic clientele, from dock workers and nuns to Kate Moss and Pete Doherty, Gilbert and George, and Fergus Hendersonwhose St. John Bread and Wine restaurant stands a few doors down on Commercial Street. Lee Tiernan counts it as one of the best places to get a pint of Guinness in the city.

READ MORE: The MUNCHIES Guide to British Food

In the 1990s, The Golden Heart became the favoured watering hole of the Brit Art crowd, with Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin propping up the bar after stints at their studio-cum-shop on nearby Brick Lane. A picture of the My Bed artist still hangs on the pub wall.

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Inside The Golden Heart in Spitalfields, East London. All photos by the author.

But to 70-year-old Sandra, "every customer is the same, each is special," regardless of how many Turner prizes or Vogue front covers they hold. It's this kind of old-school hospitality, along with the unusual decor (watch out for the "Stand Still and Rot" sign) that makes The Golden Heart such a unique place to drink. That and Sandra's penchant for hula-hooping on the tables.

To prise some wisdom from 30-odd years spent behind the bar, we headed down to The Golden Heart to speak with the Queen of Spitalfields herself.

MUNCHIES: Hello Sandra, you've been a landlady here for nearly 40 years now. How did you first acquire The Golden Heart? Sandra Esquilant: My husband, Dennis, came home one day and said to me, "Sandra, I really want to get a pub." I was frightened, to be honest. I said, "Dennis darling, I don't want a pub."

But he asked me to come and see it. He said, "Just come and have a look," so I did. And do you know what? When I walked into the place, I fell in love. Every day I walk in at 6 AM and I'm in love.

That's what a pub should be: the heart of the community. The East End has very special pubs and they're at the centre of everything.

These days, they give any old Tom, Dick, and Harry a pub. Anyone can get one. In those days, it was much harder. It wasn't easy to become a publican, but we did it. Dennis was such a good man. I miss him every day. He died seven years ago, but he's still here with me.

What was Spitalfields like when you first got The Golden Heart? It must've been very different to today. Oh, it was just magical. Really it was. The market was buzzing, fresh flowers and fruit and vegetables—it was all going on. Spitalfields has changed so much. Before, we had the Truman Brewery, and they [the brewery workers] would all come in first thing after their shift. So did the policemen coming off night duty. They'd all be in, every one of them was so polite, so well-mannered. Everyone was friendly. There was never any aggression. We had gentleman—men would always doff their cap to me.

Spitalfields was such a vibrant place. We had a Jewish tailors and a newspaper office down the road. One newspaper man called Jim, he'd come in and tell me and Dennis his stories. Dennis was a great scholar, he did his 11-plus and went to grammar school. Jim would ask Dennis to read his stories for him at the bar, while he had a pint.

Sounds idyllic. You must have some amazing memories from the past four decades. Oh yes—too many. We always had a lot of dancing, we'd all get up on the tables. And lots of wonderful singing. I like hula-hooping—that's my thing. It's my speciality. If I told you some of these stories, though, I think I'd get into a bit of trouble. I might lose my licence!

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The Golden Heart landlady Sandra Esquilant.

I've got to ask about the Brit Art crowd, Sandra … I won't talk about individuals. Everyone's the same. But yes, they're all amazing—all of them, and I love them dearly. We used to have good times, you know, plenty to drink and all that.

It was the parties, they were brilliant. And that's what a pub should be: the heart of the community. The East End has very special pubs and they're at the centre of everything. I was born just down the road. This is my home and the people make it home.

Are there any colourful characters we should know about? Oh, I should tell you about Big Keith! He was a good old boy, Big Keith. He was rather large, as his name suggests. We once had a pie and mash competition. Big Keith ate 19 pies. This was back in the glory days.

I'm a Catholic, so I have a real love for the Sisters of Mercy. They're all saints, the nuns. One of my favourites was Sister Lauren, she'd come in occasionally and have a cup of tea. She was such a gentle, loving person.

And the Catholics and Jews all lived together, you see, happily. One wonderful Jewish lady who used to come in was Old Rose. She'd come in all the time and sit at that table over there—she'd nick everyone's fags. It was quite annoying. A very dear friend of mine—Phil Maxwell—he was leaving for Liverpool. And he wanted a photo of Old Rose but she'd never let him take one. So he placed his camera on the table, sneakily, and managed to. It's hanging up there, you see?

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Very sneaky. You mentioned pie and mash, but the pub doesn't do food anymore. Yes, I used to love my wine bar, we'd do food in there. We had lovely stuff, all local: salt beef, ham off the bone, smoked salmon, prawns. On Beaujolais Nouveau Day (the uncorking day for the wine), I used to do breakfast for free. We'd play French music. In the morning I'd give away 140 big breakfasts. It was nice.

And what's your drink? I don't drink any more, not since Dennis died. I haven't had a cigarette since, either. I used to smoke 80 a day. But it was always Champagne. I love it.

Any particular producer? Any Champagne. It's all Champagne, isn't it?

In a way, yes. But things at The Golden Heart haven't always been Champagne, have they? No. We've had some struggles, we really have. Spitalfields Market (as it was) closing was awful. So terrible. I've never forget those times. We had no trade for six years.

For the past seven years, I've run this place on my own. When the brewery sold the pub from underneath me, I had no idea what was happening. I don't want to get in trouble saying this but, yes, they sold it without telling me—it hurt me a lot. I didn't know whether I was staying or going. Things moved onto paying beer up front, which I'd never done. Things like that.

Things are getting back on track, I hope? I'm still here, aren't I? The Golden Heart is still here. I still get up at 6 AM every day, always busy. I don't really go out if it's not for the pub. I love it.

And we've got the Queen's 90th coming up, of course, so I'm sorting out a display. She's an incredible lady—I want to do something for her to mark the occasion. She's an inspiration to the world.

Reminds me of someone else. Thank you for talking with me, Sandra!

Fancy another round? Check out the MUNCHIES Guide to British Food, running every day this week on MUNCHIES.