The open arms of the London Underground

The London Underground, a pub in East Ames, is inspired by British public meeting houses. The London Underground goes as far as to not have televisions in the establishment in order to provide a more communicative, open environment.

Gabby Lucas

Nestled among other local, small businesses is a British-inspired oasis, seemingly detached from the rest of East Ames. Dimly-lit, rustic and filled to the brim with cozy, distant chatter due to the lack of televisions hanging on the walls, the London Underground describes themselves as “an unpretentious British pub” with the modest goal of creating “a comfortable space for good drinks and great conversation.” 

Owner Jess Clyde founded the London Underground in 2006 with the goal of creating a safe, niche space within his community for people to come together.

“I didn’t necessarily know if I was going to run it as a bar, but I definitely wanted to create a space,” Clyde said. “I unlocked the door and was standing behind the bar, like, ‘This is amazing, I’m so proud, I’m so happy,’ and I was like, ‘Ah crap, I’ve never made a drink in my entire life.’”

Despite this oversight, the London Underground has allowed Clyde to experiment with a wide variety of odd business models and entertainment pieces that strengthen the special bond between the clientele.

“Ever since we opened, we’ve always tried to do things a little bit differently,” Clyde said. “We’re smaller, so being a smaller establishment, we can take more chances.”

Clyde didn’t expect the London Underground to be a bar, and he certainly didn’t expect it to double as a music venue either. One day, Clyde was approached by a founder of Maximum Ames Music Festival, who proposed the idea of hosting concerts at the London Underground. 

“I was like, ‘Oh, we’re too small to have music,’” Clyde said. “I was very hesitant to start embracing having performances and music because I thought we were too small, but what we found is it creates a certain amount of intimacy that is sometimes lacking in bigger venues.” 

Having a consistent musical rotation can be expensive for a small business in a small town like Ames, but Clyde said he finds himself lucky enough to have musicians and performers agree to lower compensation because they want to perform at the London Underground. 

“I’m like, ‘This is what we have,’ and [the performers] say, ‘Well, we want to come here,’” Clyde said. “We find that musicians want to come here because it is an intimate space, and the people that they’re playing to are attentive and interactive and right there.”

Both Clyde and London Underground’s promotions director Bryon Dudley said they love the music because the patrons respond well to it and they believe it helps strengthen the community. 

Previously a loyal patron, Dudley took over as promotions director of the London Underground around the pub’s 10th anniversary. As promotions director, Dudley predominantly handles booking and managing the London Underground’s music events. 

Dudley said his job is trouble-free because he gets to promote something he’s always loved.

“It was already my favorite bar,” Dudley said. “I don’t have to lie to anybody or anything; I don’t have to tell any fibs. I really do like it here, and I really do think it’s the best bar in Ames.”

When it comes to booking performers for the London Underground, Dudley says it’s difficult to pick a favorite but that notable musicians who have performed include Lavender Country, who are nationally known for being the first openly gay country band, and Vicki Price, an Iowa Blues Hall of Fame inductee, among other Iowan icons.

“It’s kinda nice to have people who are, like, staples of the Iowa music culture wanting to play here,” Dudley said.

Clyde said trying to do things that are slightly different has allowed him and Dudley to explore avenues they otherwise wouldn’t have.

One of the London Underground’s most popular regular events is Bartop Burlesque, which occurs on the last Monday of every month. Mike Gude, a regular of over eight years, said he enjoys the burlesque nights simply because it’s not something one would typically see in a town the size of Ames. 

“It’s actually kind of hard to get here on Mondays sometimes,” Gude said. “This place is packed, and it’s a high-energy, awesome show.”

Gude, like many regulars, found the London Underground by happenstance and has remained loyal ever since.

“I was drawn down here by a friend. I met some people, and they’re really some of the best people I’ve ever met in my life,” Gude said. “This bar is very accepting, whatever kind of people are welcome here.” 

Gude said besides the performances, the thing he appreciates the most about the London Underground is its nonjudgmental nature.

“I always feel welcome here; I feel comfortable here,” Gude said. “It’s nice to be able to go to a place where you can meet people that are different than you. It’s nice to have a variety of people in your life.”

The London Underground building has housed many businesses since it was built in 1882. When Clyde got around to buying it, he said he chose the “pub” feel to try and bring something a little “Brit” different to East Ames.

“We want to entertain people, but we wanted something that was kind of a public meeting house, something that had a community engagement piece,” Clyde said. “We went with a European slant, so we decided to go British, take away the TVs and encourage conversation and an expression of music, art and culture.”

Clyde said the name “London Underground” itself is a double-entendre. 

“London Underground is obviously a reference to the tube system, so we were trying to transport people metaphorically to a British-style pub,” Clyde said. “Then the term ‘underground’ is also the fact that we cater a little bit to the counterculture of the tattoo artists, the LGBTQIA+ community, the musicians and the people who don’t always feel like if they go into other types of bars, they feel like, ‘Oh, this is the place I can be’.”

Inclusivity is the most important thing at the London Underground, and Clyde said it’s a place where they want everybody to feel like they’re comfortable.

Clyde said his favorite thing about the London Underground is that they’ve been able to stick to the integrity of their character and support so many non-profit charities. 

The pub has hosted a plethora of events intended to encourage charity and political awareness, including an LGBTQIA+ happy hour in partnership with Ames Pride, a Harry Potter themed party where proceeds went to the Ames Public Library and a “baby shower” for the Royal Family where proceeds went to ACCESS Women’s Shelter.

“That’s the thing I’m most proud of,” Clyde said. “We’re small enough that it’s like, we can do this.”

The London Underground may be just another bar in a small college town, but it’s magic and charm come from the tight-knit, open-armed community of performers and patrons powering the place’s engine.

“The pub culture is very interesting in that people go out for every reason under the sun,” Clyde said. “It’s different than any other business model. If you’re sad and you don’t know anyone in a community, you go to a bar because maybe someone will talk to you. If you want to go out and celebrate with your friends, you’re going to a place like a bar. You see the full scope of human emotion here, good and bad, but the fact that we’ve been able to do something good beyond our walls has made me very happy.”