Traditionally, speakeasies were places for illegal boozing that came to prominence during the Prohibition era in 1920s America. But ever since, they have taken on a mythical status: teacups brimming with gin, suave jazz musicians and a glitzy, retro dress code. Here's our pick of the new wave of London's speakeasy-inspired bars.
London's best speakeasy bars
‘The bar with no name’, it styles itself – try telling that to a taxi driver. In reality, everyone knows this place by its address, hidden away from the Upper Street hordes on an Islington backstreet. It’s the tiny flagship of bar supremo Tony Conigliaro, noted worldwide for his dedication to the art of the mixed drink: as such, it’s not easy to get a seat here without booking. Punters come for the cocktails, all of which are outstanding.
In spite of the futuristic, purple-lit stairs leading down from pavement level, it can be tricky to find this diminutive club in a converted Victorian loo; make the effort though and you’ll be rewarded. Some staggeringly clever design means that although there’s room for just 60, CellarDoor never feels claustrophobic, though the toilets require a bit of courage: the glass doors only cloud over when locked.
"Winner of the 'world's best high volume bar' at the 2016 Spirited Awards. Open seven days a week 6pm-1am. Cocktail classes also available."
This area of town isn’t as hip as it used to be, but Callooh Callay is still as much a destination in its own right as it is a hidey-hole to avoid the drink offer-seeking masses. Since opening in 2008, it’s consistently served some of the most innovative cocktails in London, even if the decor has been left behind: the Lewis Carroll/Victoriana theme is partially enforced, but too much noughties Shoreditch irony (a wall of analogue cassettes, for instance) feels somewhat incongruous.
The speakeasy trend reaches its apogee/nadir, depending on your taste, with this new basement bar accessed off Earl’s Court Road. ‘At all times do not draw unwanted attention to our venue,’ beseeches the menu. Oh, sorry. It makes a big noise about being secretive – I evaded an intercom interrogation by sneaking in behind a group of fellow drinkers. A dapper chap behind a desk then kept the schtick going: ‘Under what name did you book your appointment?’ And, ‘Can you tell me something about your case?’
As bar after bar opens using the rather tired ‘Brooklyn Prohibition’ template, Experimental Cocktail Club seems ever more original – it’s hard to find, sure, perhaps more so than any other ‘speakeasy’ in London, but inside remains opulent and elegantly aloof to trends. It’s arranged over three floors of an old Chinatown townhouse, flatteringly lit and expensively decorated. Booking isn’t essential (half of the capacity is kept back for walk-ins), but it is recommended and worth the hassle (email booking only, between noon and 5pm).
On a Friday night, when this tiny basement bar was rammed, our waitress said all the tables were booked. But she added that a table for four at the back had just two ‘really nice people’ sitting there and she’d ask if we could share with them. They said yes, and we were in. This warm welcome is typical of one of the best bars in Shoreditch – in all London, in fact. From the moment you walk in, they know how to make you happy.
We’ve long been fans of Purl, one of London’s first speakeasy-type bars and begetter of both VOC and the Worship Street Whistling Shop. It’s become extremely popular, which means that booking is advisable – though walk-ins will be seated if there’s space. The layout of the bar, over a number of smallish spaces in a vaulted basement, gives the opportunity for genuine seclusion if that’s what you’re looking for. And if you’re interested in cutting-edge cocktail making, you’re also in luck.
This, the urban myth has it, has long been one the best bars for cocktails in London. It might well be, but it’s hard to tell unless you have night vision like a owl – the lighting is turned down so low you’ll need to borrow a candle to read the drink list, let alone see your drink, and you may not even recognise your drinking companions across the table. And then there’s the difficulty of getting in.
Nightjar has become a huge success, busy even midweek; we visited on a Monday and were lucky to get in. Clear message: book a table. The cocktail list, divided into historical eras (pre-Prohibition, post-war and so on), makes for enthralling reading with all its unexpected ingredients. Just to give an idea: the Kenko-Teki Swizzle includes green coffee bean infusion, saké, green tea, buckwheat rice syrup and alfalfa.
From the same group as Purl and VOC, this cellar bar is decked out in what seems to be a speakeasy/Victorian mash-up (dark wood and lots of eccentric decorative touches). It makes much of its experimental techniques; if your curiosity is tickled by the sound of ‘enzymes, acids, proteins and hydrocolloids’, you’re all set. The list is mercifully short, and classics are well handled. When we asked for a drink made with the delicious Chase Marmalade vodka, we got their take on it: tall lemonade on the rocks, vodka served separately for either sipping or mixing in.
Using the same naming convention as Dream Bags Jaguar Shoes in Shoreditch or Printers & Stationers off Columbia Road – ie open a bar but keep the old premises’ name – is this new spot hidden away under one of the many clothiers and couturiers around Petticoat Lane. The area between Bishopsgate and Whitechapel is mainly deserted in the evening apart from the ghoulish Jack the Ripper groups, which makes a visit to Discount Suit Company feel even more clandestine.
For a so-called ‘secret’ speakeasy, there’s been an awful lot of publicity about this new basement bar beneath the new Breakfast Club in Spitalfields. According to the booze bloggers, in order to gain exclusive entry, you need to embark on clandestine correspondence with a chap called Henri who gives it the big hush-hush and may, if you’re lucky and tap the side of your nose, reveal the covert entrance to a cloak-and-dagger drinking den. Don’t believe the hype. The entrance is the one that looks like a big SMEG fridge door.