What’s it named after? The 1,687-capacity Capitol cinema opened here in 1932, becoming the ABC in 1968. It closed in 1973, reopening as a bingo hall five years later. After the bingo hall shut down in 1996, JD Wetherspoon converted the building into a pub, which opened in 2001.
What’s the carpet like?
Want to see somebody’s jaw drop with amazement? Take them to the Capitol in Forest Hill. This is a gem of a pub – and not just because it is stunning inside, a rare example of a surviving 1920s cinema building.
We could write about how the service is great, the staff are lovely and on the Saturday night we visit, it’s got a mixed, convivial crowd. We could write about the lovely beer too.
But that’s not the most important thing right now. The urgent message is that the Capitol isn’t likely to be with us for much longer. It’s on a list of pubs that JD Wetherspoon wants to sell. The company’s tried to get rid of it before, yet maybe this really is the end. Some locals want this returned to use as a cinema, but we hear an offer’s been put in by a church – that’d effectively mean the end of this as a venue for the community.
Do the people of Forest Hill care enough to try to stop this? They’re not showing it yet – even though this place should be as cherished as some of the other bars local campaigners have acted to protect. Maybe they’re too snobby to save a Spoons. But they’ll miss it when it’s gone.
It’s 8pm on a Saturday when we visit, and a really friendly barman helps us and a couple of younger men sample some ales. We settle on Todd The Axeman, a deceptively strong 5.5% for for just £2.39. We’ll certainly miss this place when it goes…
This is a huge, spacious pub. Of course, this being a Spoons, the tables are crammed in as tightly as possible. Slightly-dated looking local history signs are dotted around the place, but it’s hard to read them without interrupting people.
There’s loads of space not being used too – the sale brochure refers to a disused basement, while the cinema/bingo hall seats are apparently still in place on the upper floor. The signs for the toilets look like they’ve saved from the bingo hall days. (There are also some huge spiders, apparently…)
The acoustics in here mean it isn’t a good place for eavesdropping. There’s a gentle hubbub rather than a big racket. The unusual shape of the pub means that when the bar staff chuck out empty bottles, the clatter is heard right across the bar. The manager’s leading from the front and collecting the glasses.
There’s a wide variety of people in here – from big mixed groups of 20-somethings through to the ubiquitous Blokes On Their Own; one next to us spending a quiet Saturday leafing through The Guardian (not a sight you see often these days). At a Queen fruit machine (what would Freddie Mercury have thought?), a man in top reading “Galway” in the Carlsberg typeface is feeding it notes.
There’s even a queue for the bar at one point. We hear the pop of bubbly at nine o’clock, a chorus of Happy Birthday at twenty past. The pub thins out a little by 10 – the younger drinkers have headed off elsewhere, and the older men are in the majority now. But the pub doesn’t feel any less welcoming for it.
You’d think this place was in rude health. The only signs of decline are in the cavernous toilets – broken seats in the ladies, a huge hole punched in the wall of the gents.
So what’s gone wrong at Forest Hill? Maybe nothing – perhaps JDW is simply cashing in on rocketing property prices. Is the area becoming too upmarket? After all, the scruffy Hob over the road, which hosted music and comedy for years, shut in 2015 to be replaced by the offensively dull Signal. Thankfully, Ferfect Fried Chicken [sic] brings the place back down to earth.
Around the corner, The Dartmouth Arms feels like it should be an Antic pub, but that’s actually the Sylvan Post, a little further down Dartmouth Road. Opposite is The Bird in Hand, which JD Wetherspoon used to run before The Capitol opened.
A huge amount of effort went into restoring this old cinema. And these conversions are one of the company’s trademarks – perhaps the loss of The Coronet on the Holloway Road wouldn’t be met with such silence.
It would be a real shame for SE23 to lose The Capitol as a venue. But do the people of Forest Hill care enough to act?
Address: 11-21 London Road SE23 3TW
Buses: 122, 176, 185, 197, 356
Train: Forest Hill (Zone 3 – Overground, Southern)
Social media: The Capitol is on Twitter.
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