London rules the roost when it comes to cocktails, yet some of the capital’s most exciting bars are hidden in the most unusual of places…
Cocktail-lovers have much to rejoice over in the capital, for there are enough hidden dens and secret speakeasies to keep you busy every night of the week. But where should you go, how can you find them and what’s that all-important password when you finally reach the door? Hold onto your hats, London’s best secret cocktail bars are about to be revealed…
1. Nightjar, Hoxton
Nestled behind a single, black door on an otherwise uninspiring street just north of Old Street tube station, Nightjar is one of the capital’s best-kept secrets. Although it regularly appears in the World’s Best Bar lists, the only thing to indicate you’ve found it is a single bird-shaped icon next to the door. Well, that and the small queue of excited patrons waiting outside later in the evening.
You have to book. It’s unlikely you’ll make it inside otherwise. But once you’re in and down the stairs, you’ll find cocktails that are more than worthy of their award-winning status. Settle in for an evening of intimate lighting, scattered seating, jazz bands crooning and masterful mixologists ready to make boozy concoctions according to your specifications.
Nightjar, 129 City Road, Hoxton, London, EC1V 1JB.
2. Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town, Spitalfields
Bringing a whole new meaning to the term ‘cool’, Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town (yes, that really is its name) is easily missed. Why? Because this hidden bar is located inside a fridge. An actual fridge. Luckily it’s a relatively spacious fridge, and the entrance can be found inside The Breakfast Club cafe in London’s Spitalfields.
Again, you’ll need to book. But once you arrive you can bypass the (often long) cafe queue, seek out the retro faux-fridge door on the wall, present your password to a staff member, then head on in. A staircase leads down to a quirkily-outfitted underground bar that feels suitably clandestine after the exciting entrance. It’s the perfect way to surprise friends who were silly enough to think you were just heading on a regular night out.
Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town, 12-16 Artillery Lane, Spitalfields. London, E1 7LS.
3. NOLA, Bethnal Green
Award-winning NOLA is one for the cocktail purists, drawing inspiration from 1930s New Orleans culture. That means jazz, blues and a whole lot of old school Southern hospitality – all tucked away behind a tiny entrance on Bethnal Green’s Roman Road. It’s just relocated and this new venue is not yet well-known, so book a slot while you still can.
You’ll be rewarded with shed loads of authentic Louisiana booze, charming bartenders who know their biz and vintage decorations straight out of the French Quarter. Umming and ahhing over the menu? For your own shot of Southern sass, opt for the timeless New Orleans Sazerac.
NOLA, 107 Roman Road, Bethnal Green, London, E2 0QN.
4. Callooh Callay, Shoreditch
Trendy Rivington Street is home to this vibrant Alice in Wonderland-themed cocktail bar – and as you might expect from a venue inspired by a world-famous fantasy story, there are a few surprises in store for those willing to venture down the rabbit hole.
After ducking inside the easily-missed entrance, you’ll find yourself faced with neon colours, mismatched furniture and an elaborate array of furnishings from palm tree light fittings to sewing machine tables. There’s always something new to look at while you’re waiting for the inventive cocktails to arrive – and the flavour combinations are as wacky as the surroundings. Oh, and that innocent looking wooden wardrobe in the back? Open it and see what you find…
Callooh Callay, 65 Rivington Street, Shoreditch, London, EC2A 3AY.
5. Phoenix Artist Club, West End
It’s not easy to find a place to hide out in London’s busy West End, but those in the know head to Phoenix Artist Club. This bar, located off heaving Tottenham Court Road, is technically members only. But if you make a reservation and arrive before 9pm you’ll have no problems descending the tiny staircase hidden next to Phoenix Theatre.
It’s actually the old dressing rooms of the theatre and the bar wears its heritage proudly. Film posters, actors’ headshots and show memorabilia cover almost every inch of the walls. The vibe is effortlessly cool, they make a mean gin and tonic, and you’ll be rubbing shoulders with actors, creatives and West End schmoozers. Look out for the aeroplane-style seats in the back.
Phoenix Artist Club, 1 Phoenix Street, West End, London, WC2H 8BU.
6. Opium, Chinatown
If you’re after a heady evening of booze and charm, try Opium. Hidden in plain sight in London’s Chinatown, it’s an intimate cocktail den (that also serves dim sum – hell yeah) completely at odds with the daily thrum on the Soho streets outside. A small plaque next to a jade door is the only indication that anything exists here at all, but once you’re past the bouncer a treat awaits.
Inside are two levels of lavishly furnished rooms with an undeniably classy feel. The decor is Chinese throughout and you should definitely explore, trying a cocktail or two along the way – the menu changes depending on where you’re sat, so you can mooch from The Apothecary to The Academy, make a pit stop in the Tea Parlour and finish off in the hidden Opium den – all without ever leaving the building.
Opium, The Jade Door, 15-16 Gerrard Street, Chinatown, London, W1D 6JE.
7. The Luggage Room, Mayfair
Knowledgeable staff and strong cocktails make this tiny bar, nestled on the corner of Grosvenor Square, a must-go. Not only do you have to find the discreet ‘black door’ that marks the entrance (there are quite a few black doors around here, so make sure it’s the right one), you then have to knock and have your booking ‘approved’ by the bouncer before you can enter. As if London’s Mayfair isn’t elite enough!
It’s all in good fun though – and that’s where the gimmicks end. Inside there’s a welcoming atmosphere and a gratifyingly vintage cocktail menu that fits the 1920s art deco furnishings perfectly. It’s a classy joint, with prices to match, but rest assured you’ll receive a damn fine Martini in return.
The Luggage Room, Grosvenor Square, Mayfair, London, W1K 6JP.
8. Chelsea Prayer Room, Fulham
Entry to this unusually-named bar, hidden above a trendy Italian restaurant on Fulham Road, is protected by an ever-changing password that you only receive upon arrival. Needless to say, advance booking is a must, even more so when you realise how small this secret cocktail bar really is.
Just 45 people fit into the dimly lit room, which has wooden cabinets lining the walls and well-worn leather armchairs to sink into. It’s cosy verging on compact, but that means the queues at the private bar are never monstrous. And thank goodness for that, as it gives you even more time to work your way through the extensive A-Z list of cocktails. Faithful returnees are rewarded with every 10th cocktail on the house (kept track via your own personalised stamped menu), but don’t be tempted to sneak back in the next day – you’ll be foiled by that pesky password.
Chelsea Prayer Room, 333 Fulham Road, Fulham, London, SW10 9QL.
9. Worship Street Whistling Shop, Shoreditch
Classic cocktails meet Victorian adventure at this award-winning bar, which lures you in with the promise of around-the-world drinking. And it’s a promise that delivers. The atlas-themed menu carries an array of global options because, as the menu says, ‘spirits and cocktails have always spoken of place as much as they have time’.
Enticingly-named concoctions such as ‘Phileas’ (Bombay gin, black cumin lemonade and chai masala bubbles) and ‘Spanish Connection’ (mescal, spiced agave nectar, tarragon and sweet pepper foam) combine with old-school globes and suitcase furnishings to give the place a real sense of wistful wanderlust. Just don’t wander too far, or you’ll walk right past the entrance – an easily missed narrow door with only a single sign outside.
Worship Street Whistling Shop, 63 Worship Street, Shoreditch, London, EC2A 2DU.
10. Evans and Peel Detective Agency, Earls Court
If you’ve been doggedly following the scent of superior cocktails, the search may well end at Evans and Peel Detective Agency. Find the inconspicuous door, ring the bell and follow your superior down the narrow staircase. In order to gain entry, you must ‘state your case’ to the waiting detective.
It may all sound a bit serious, but the reality is far from it. The opening role play is a fun opportunity to get into character and test the ad-libbing skills of your detective (spoiler alert: as long as you’ve booked you’ll be let in anyway), before enjoying the rest of your evening in peace. Once you’ve stripped away the opening gimmick, you’re left with a genuinely stylish, prohibition-themed bar that serves excellent cocktails.
Evans and Peel Detective Agency, 310c Earls Court Road, Earls Court, London, SW5 9BA.
Get a mighty fine deal on your train tickets – £29 each way
Ready to hunt out those secret cocktail bars? It’s the perfect excuse to head to London and you can get a mighty fine deal on your train tickets too. It won’t cost more than £29 each way when you book a Standard Advance ticket at least a week ahead. Available on all services between Leeds and London, from 10am-3pm, Monday to Friday.