DECOR *** (festive) DRINK *** (Guinness, lager and lots of special winter tipples) PRICE *** (easy on the wallet) ATMOSPHERE *** (tis the season to be jolly) STAFF ***** (outstanding) FOOD **** (hearty and delicious)

THE last time I visited O’Neill’s in Beckenham High Street I was greeted with a smorgasbord of inadequacies. From the miserable staff to the disappointing booze and food, I found a pub which excelled at being universally crap.

Understandably, I vowed never to darken its faux Irish doors again.

More than three years later, however, here I am again, but this time I’m itching for a fight after last week’s frosty welcome from the barmaid at The Marquis of Granby.

However, unlike the New Cross boozer, the Gaelic charm of O’Neill’s is very much of the pre-packaged and mass-produced, cynical chain variety.

It was, therefore, a surprise to find my fears were entirely unfounded.

While it’s true the L-shaped pub looks like a giant blue Lego brick from the outside, what it lacked in character, it made up for in Christmas spirit.

The festive decorations help of course and carefully conceal the rather tatty and contrived Irish decor which punters usually have to endure.

At least O’Neill’s is trying to channel something of the Emerald Isle, unlike Patrick’s next door which, with multiple TVs screening horse racing or any sport which you can place a bet on, is more like a bookies than a boozer.

Camouflage or not, the wreaths, garlands and various trimmings seemed to lift the mood of everyone in the pub that evening.

Still feeling the chill from outside, I ordered a mulled wine (£3.50).

The friendly barmaid was almost as warming as the spicy winter tipple, making polite conversation and letting me try the drink before I committed to buying it.

Its alluring smell soon won over other punters who quickly changed their minds about asking for a chilled pint of lager and chose the same delicious hot brew as me.

Gazing at the menu of hearty meals, each with Irish ingredients thrown in for authenticity, my shamrock quivered in anticipation of tucking into a piping hot steak and Guinness pie with colcannon and peas (£8.49).

A ravenous 15 minutes later and it arrived in all its artery-clogging glory, the pie bursting at the seams with juicy pieces of meat in a rich gravy.

But the highlight of this boozer is not the warming food, the great wine list or even the choice of lagers and Guinness.

It is the exceptionally helpful, friendly and charming staff which make a visit to this chain pub so worthwhile.

From happily making small talk to kindly bringing my Jack Daniel’s and coke (£3.25) to my table, instead of making me wait at the bar, there’s no area in which the bar staff failed to impress.

Maybe it was the respite from the cold or weeks of disappointing spying, but O’Neill’s in Beckenham is a precious jewel in a treasure trove of drab, uninspiring dives. Hurrah.

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