Drinking in… London

by Jay Hepburn on August 27, 2009

Ask for a Martini in most pubs in Britain you’ll likely end up with a glass of vermouth and an odd look from the bartender, and ask about their selection of bitters and you’ll likely be given a list of ales. Despite lagging behind the US in the cultural ubiquity of the cocktail though, the UK does have a burgeoning cocktail scene that is centred around my home town – London. Like any big city London has lots of great bars, and lots of really terrible ones, so in a bid to help you successfully drink your way through the Big Smoke I offer my top three bars in three areas of London – Mayfair, Soho and Notting Hill. The list is by no means comprehensive, and entirely subjective, but certainly makes for a decent starting point.


Mayfair

One of the richest areas of London, Mayfair sits on the edge of Hyde Park and is home to designer shops, Russian oligarchs and five star hotels. Perhaps unsurprisingly the later is where you will find most of the cocktail bars, a hang over from the “American Bars” that sprang up during the start of the 20th century to cater for American tourists and flourished as bartenders fled US prohibition in the 1920s.

Unfortunately the surroundings mean Mayfair isn’t the cheapest place to find a cocktail in London, so expect to spend upwards of £15 per drink – though you do usually get some excellent bar snacks thrown in. Sadly many of the hotel bars seem happy to serve woefully poor quality drinks relying more on their name, prestige and patronage from guests than quality that befits a five star hotel. However, the following bars provide the kind of quality drinks and service that befits Mayfair’s reputation.

Connaught Bar

The Connaught Bar

Formerly known as the American Bar, the Connaught Bar is reopened last year as part of multimillion pound renovation of the historic Connaught Hotel with Ago Perrone, previously of Montgomery Place in Notting Hill, at the helm. An elegant, luxurious space the Connaught offers a menu of mainly modern cocktail creations often using unusual infusions and bitters, though a great many have their roots in classic drinks. Combining beautiful surroundings, excellent service and superlative drinks, The Connaught Bar is the best hotel bar in London, and one of the best cockail bars full stop.

Connaught Bar, 16 Carlos Place, Mayfair (direct entrance on Mount Street).
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7499 7070

The Dorchester Bar

The Dorchester Bar boasts a lofty reputation with Harry Craddock, of Savoy Cocktail Book fame, acting as head bartender from 1938 until his retirement in 1947. Their menu concentrates on classics, with drinks like the Brooklyn, Mary Pickford and Leap Year, as well as an entire page dedicated to the Gin and Tonic and half a page for vermouths. The bar even has their own gin, Dorchester Old Tom, an Old Tom gin created specially for the hotel based on a traditional eighteenth century recipe. Their Martinez made using a barrel-aged Bokers bitters recreation is highly recommended, and it’s worth asking their highly inventive bar team what other drinks they have been working on lately.

The Dorchester Bar, 53 Park Lane, Mayfair
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7629 8888

Dukes Bar

The Dukes Bar oozes understated sophistication, with a small, simple and elegant bar that wouldn’t seem out of place in a stately home. Dukes prides itself on serving “the best Martinis in the world”, and upon ordering one a small trolley is wheeled over to your table so the drink may be made in front of you. Purists may decry the tiny amount of vermouth used, or the fact that frozen gin in poured directly in to the cocktail glass rather than being mixed and diluted, and to be honest in most other circumstances so might I. However, the surroundings and the service somehow cause me to forget any misgivings I might have and thoroughly enjoy the Martini. If nothing else, it’s worth visiting to say you’ve had a Martini at Dukes.

Dukes Bar, 35-36 St. James’s Place, Mayfair
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7491 4840


Soho

Soho is a world of contrasts. An area where a girls Catholic school can sit next to gay bars and strip clubs. A place where an American diner, an adult cinema and a liquor store can all be found within 100 meters of each other. Despite (or perhaps because of) what picture this may paint, and the reputation that precedes Soho, over the past twenty years it has transformed from seedy to fashionable making it a popular tourist destination and a key location for great cocktail bars.

Purple bar

The Purple Bar at The Sanderson

An opulent mix of rich purple fabrics, chic cut-glass mirrored tiles and raw stone, The Purple Bar is a tiny oasis of quite amazing interior design. The menu is split between a selection of “Modern Martinis”, a variety of new creations using a lot of different fruits, herbs, infusions and juices and served in large cocktail glasses, and a selection of classic drinks ranging from the Vesper to the Brooklyn called “The Martini Collection”. Worth visiting purely to see what the bar looks like, the drinks thankfully match the surroundings making the Purple Bar highly worth a visit.

The Purple Bar, The Sanderson Hotel, 50 Berners Street, Fitzrovia
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7300 1496

Milk and Honey

The London branch of Milk and Honey couldn’t be more different to Sasha Petraske’s famous New York speakeasy. Like it’s New York sibling the bar sits behind an unmarked entrance, and requires reservations for non-members, but here the similarities end. While M&H NY is a small, narrow bar consisting of a handful of booths and a few seats at the bar, M&H London sits across mutiple floors with a main bar, basement area and the exclusive Red Room for members. It does have one other similarity with New York though – the superb drinks. From the classic cocktail driven menu to the drinks bartenders make on request it’s hard to fault Milk and Honey. Reserve ahead and enjoy.

Milk and Honey, 61 Poland Street, Soho
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7292 9949

LAB

Located right in the heart of Soho on Old Compton Street, LAB is one of the bars that kickstarted the cocktail renaissance in London back at the turn of the century. Located over two floors the bar is fairly small and does get very busy, but even when rammed they manage to turn out decent cocktails quickly and consistently. The menu is huge and ranges from classics to modern creations, and the party atmosphere and strong history ensure LAB is something of a pilgrimage for many bartenders visiting London.

LAB, 12 Old Compton Street, Soho
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7437 7820


Notting Hill

Fashionable Notting Hill is home to some of the most expensive houses in London, and the stomping ground for many a celebrity. Inevitably then it features a vibrant restaurant and bar scene, including some of the best cocktail bars in the city. Handily all three bars below are within a few hundred meters of each other, putting them in easy stumbling distance if you’re making an evening of it.

Portobello Star

Portobello Star

Once a rough pub, Jake Burger has transformed the Portobello Star in to a charming bar that is heavy on cocktail credentials – including a Jerry Thomas inspired bar menu, genuine vintage Bokers bitters on the back bar and an incredible selection of spirits – but light on pretension or pomp. The mixture of local regulars, curious tourists and off-duty bartenders provide a wonderful atmosphere.

Portabello Star, 171 Portobello Road, Notting Hill
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7229 8016

Montgomery Place

From the amazing selection of spirits and the incredible food served, to the beautiful variety of glassware, julep cups and other drinking vessels they serve their cocktails in and the vintage soda siphons adorning the walls, it’s hard to find fault with Montgomery Place. If you’re lucky you might find Marian Beke behind the bar – a kind of cocktail ninja who makes drinks with such deft precision if you blink you’d miss it. Sort of like flair bartending, only for people who care about drinks.

Montgomery Place, 31 Kensington Park Road, Notting Hill
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7792 3921

Trailer Happiness

London’s Tiki Mecca Trailer Happiness is a shrine to all things 70s and kitsch, including a giant print Tretchikoff’s ‘Chinese Girl’ that is strangely unnerving. As you might expect from the bar that hosts London’s Rum Club, Trailer Happiness has a massive selection of rums and a menu that splits between classic tiki and more traditional cocktails. Between the kitsch and the rum, it’s hard not to have fun at Trailer Happiness.

Trailer Happiness, 177 Portobello Road, Nottling Hill
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7727 2700


Elsewhere

While that may seem an extensive roundup, I’ve left out a great many bars that could have easily been included. Hawksmoor, Quo Vadis, Green & Red, Salvatore’s, Saf, Callooh Callay… the list goes on. Britain may not be a cocktail drinking country, but London sure is a cocktail drinking city.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Tiare August 27, 2009 at 4:36 pm

I trust you a 1000000% when it comes to which bars to visit.

T

Pomidor August 29, 2009 at 9:13 pm

I just got back from a night out and it is pretty late, so please excuse any spelling mistakes and mishaps, I noticed your article however and needed to give it at least a quick skim. Having done so, overall I agree with your choices and I would add two or three other bars to the list. On the quick I do need to comment on two bars you mention:
1. Dukes Bar – between 1997 and 2002 I would stay at Dukes at least once a month, sometimes more. There was a very old school, and very old, bartender there, from Italy (I want to say Giuseppe, but I might be mistaken), who was serving cocktails for ages and ages there (and worked as a bartender all his life), and he did indeed to the best martini. I believe he won several awards for it in the late 90’s. And although his personal martini was not for purists, being very dry indeed, it was not as savaged as what you described above, and he could do a very classic martini if you wished, and he did it also very well (I loved them before dinner… and then one, or quite a few more, of his own after dinner). He was also the one to introduce the cart. Sadly he quit several years ago (last I saw him was in 2002), and the drinks at Dukes have never been the same since. And I feel that after the hotel renovation the bar lost a lot of its charm, if not all of it. Overall, for those prices there are better hotel bars to go to in central london.
2. Milk & Honey – Superb drinks, really superb. Certainly not a hotel bar or club bar atmosphere, but thats not really why you go there. You do for the drinks. What gets really under my skin, and really destracts, if not destroys, the whole drinking experiance is their “memberships” and “members hours” etc etc. Its just pompous, elitist and stuck up, and constitutes all the worst qualities of the cocktail world. I do have a 5 year membership, so I dont suffer, but its just blows my mind that you cant go into a bar normally at certain times because of some bogus membership scheme. And the bartenders there, although excellent, make no real attempt at connecting with customers. Its perhaps not their fault, as they have such a high turn over, but I find that if I dont go there for say two months, no-one will really recognise me. Whereas if I go to some of the bars I do frequent in London (like the Dorchester Bar) after even half a year, the bartenders will recognise me and remember my name, and favourite drink, will let me stay until 1 or 2 am, even though I am not a hotel guest. Overall, I reccomend everyone goes to Milk&Honey at least once just to see and taste the drinks, it does get big minus points from me when it comes to it being a regular watering hole however.

Will post my additional bars tomorrow morning when I can actually read my address book. Great article.

Goodnight.

Pomidor

Lewis November 14, 2009 at 6:08 am

Excellent article mate, though am shocked at lack of mention for The Hawksmoor and the bar at L’Atelier du Joel Robouchon… Aside from the ones you mentioned, easily my favourite bars in London.

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