Explore the city's new wave of speakeasy-inspired bars
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 and events
Tucked away off the Islington Green end of Essex Road, 69 Colebrooke Row has an impressive pedigree. Opened in mid 2009, it's the brainchild of Tony Conigliaro – who has worked on the likes of Isola, Roka and Shochu Lounge – and Camille Hobby-Limon, who runs the nearby Charles Lamb pub.
This 2009 arrival has all the hallmarks of the trendy Shoreditch bar du jour. There's a storefront location, hipster staff, mismatched furniture offset by self-consciously quirky touches (a wall of cassettes by the toilets, modified gramophones on the bar, a page of the drinks list devoted to 'Random Shit')…
A taste for some detective-agency pantomime is required for this basement bar, accessed off Earl's Court Road. Before being allowed in, intercom and front-desk interrogations have to be negotiated. Once that's out the way, against a setting of bare brick walls, cracked white tiles and orange-filamented bulbs, the drinks are brilliant and memorable.
Among the touristy Chinese restaurants in Gerrard Street, ECC is perhaps the closest thing we have in London to a genuine speakeasy. The only indication it’s even there is the presence of a bouncer outside, and a reservations list hidden inside a fruit and veg catalogue. But it’s no mere front: the cocktails created inside are among the best in London, complex yet perfectly balanced blends made with super-premium spirits by ultra-committed bartenders.
This counts as a 'speakeasy' by dint of it being the place on Hoxton Square possessing of a bit of subtlety. Below a Thai restaurant, you'll find a simply decorated basement bar with very friendly, knowledgeable staff, and well-crafted cocktails.
You can't get cooler than entering through a fridge door. In this case, it's a SMEG one, located in the Breakfast Club dining area. Behind is a quirky dimly-lit cocktail bar decorated with moose heads, mirror balls, retro wallpaper and a clock with unnerving, oscillating eyes. The drinks menu makes an amusing mockery of more vain 'underground' venues and the cocktails are well-crafted on the whole - especially the chilli and lemongrass twist on the Tommy's Margarita.
One of the original bars in London that created the ‘speakeasy’ trend, Milk & Honey – behind an unmarked door in Soho – can still count itself among the city’s best cocktail purveyors. While its Manhattan-esque look of leather booths, tin ceiling tiles and permanent twilight has now been replicated all over London, it’s done with real panache here. Note though: it’s a members’ club most of the time, although the rest of us can book a table in the early evening for two hours maximum, as long as you book at least a day in advance, and arrive before 9pm.
Another basement speakeasy broadly themed on the Prohibition era of the US and transported to twenty-first century London – but this one does it better than most. Drinks tend towards both the ‘molecular mixology’ end of the spectrum and the ‘classics revisited’; bar staff really know their stuff. Presentation is often theatrical: see the Absinthe Sazerac, served in a silver egg cup, which blends cognac, sugar and bitters with absinthe bubbled on top.
In a typical east London retail parade (fried chicken, greasy spoon, dry cleaner, booze ’n’ news) is an almost unmarked doorway: behind that doorway is a late-night cocktail and jazz venue of a classier sort than you might expect so close to the Old Street roundabout. Like many other ‘speakeasies’, it’s modelled strongly on the Prohibition era; drinks too are inspired by the early twentieth-century United States and are made by a bunch of bartenders who really know their stuff.
On a Shoreditch back street deserted in the evening, this secretive spot takes the Prohibition idea back to the Victorian era, with a drinks list of wonderfully described cocktails made with all manner of scientific techniques new and old.