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la cabina, london's best secret bars

The best secret bars in London

Unmarked doors, hidden passages and loads of delicious alcohol. These are the city's most mysterious drinking spots

Joe Mackertich
Written by
Laura Richards
Contributor
Joe Mackertich
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At Time Out, we know a lot about bars. We know about the best bars. We know about rooftop bars. We know about cocktail bars. And yes, we even know about (whisper it) secret bars. There‘s a chance you don‘t even know what secret bars are. That‘s how damn secret they are. But be in no doubt: London has its fair share of mysterious, hard-to-find drinking establishments. If you promise to be discreet about it, we'll let you in on them. Just don‘t go blabbing your mouth off about it.

London’s best secret bars

The Vault of Soho
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Bars and pubs
  • Cocktail bars
  • Soho
  • price 3 of 4

Psst! Over here! The Vault of Soho is a bar hidden behind an unsuspecting bookcase at the rear of Soho whisky specialist Milroy’s. Once you find your way through and then down the stairs, find a dark, delectable little basement where cocktails are made from potent spirits – whisky included, naturally. Keep an eye out for the bar’s resident Jack Russell.

By Appointment Only
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Bars and pubs
  • Cocktail bars
  • Liverpool Street
  • price 3 of 4

By Appointment Only is housed in a stunningly opulent space beneath a tiny wedge of a building with Turkish embellishments that are incongruent with the slick City surroundings. The bijou exterior belies the scale of the bar: once below ground, the ceramic walls glisten gold, the tiled floor beams brightly and drapes hang exotically in this Victorian era Turkish bathhouse. 

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  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Bars and pubs
  • Cocktail bars
  • Hackney Road
  • price 2 of 4

Hackney Road’s The Natural Philosopher takes residence in the converted storeroom of a Mac repair shop, and nothing much gives its presence away. An ageing rug on the floor, a grandfather clock and deep red walls give a retro feel that contrasts with the computer workshop upstairs. The bar is found lowered into a well in the ground, while a small room behind and below the bar makes for an intimate cubbyhole. 

Blind Pig
  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Bars and pubs
  • Cocktail bars
  • Soho
  • price 2 of 4

As a nod to its Prohibition-flavoured nickname (‘blind pig’ being US underworld slang for a good old-fashioned den of iniquity), look under the vintage ‘Optician’ sign for the blindfolded hog doorknocker. The decor is authentically retro but never schmaltzy with a mirrored ceiling, and copper-topped bar making you feel like a wide-lapelled Capone when out for cocktails. 

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  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Bars and pubs
  • Cocktail bars
  • Soho
  • price 3 of 4

Disrepute’s Kingly Court entrance is pretty discreet, and getting into this member’s club makes you feel like you’re letting your date in on some sort of secret. The cocktail list at this Soho ‘speakeasy’ is equally enigmatic. It comes with a separate coded sheet in case you actually want to know what’s in your beverage. Otherwise, take a gamble and pick a tipple from the lyrical, lusty tales used to describe each drink. 

Discount Suit Company
  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Bars and pubs
  • Cocktail bars
  • Spitalfields
  • price 2 of 4

It may look like an old, run-down tailors, but this is a place for very serious drinking in the dark. After finding the DSC (not easy for first-timers), descend the steep stairs and watch your head so you don’t bump it on the incredibly low ceilings. This wood-heavy, dimly atmospheric London ‘speakeasy’ does tailor-made cocktails to a tee. 

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Experimental Cocktail Club
  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Bars and pubs
  • Cocktail bars
  • Chinatown
  • price 3 of 4

Experimental Cocktail Club isn’t the kind of place you’d expect to find in Chinatown. In fact, it’s not the kind of place you can expect to find very easily at all: don’t be surprised if you walk past the bar’s unassuming battered door several times before realising it leads to this buzzing three-floor joint filled with trendy groups and dating couples absorbed in lively chatter.

La Cabina
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Restaurants
  • Spanish
  • Haggerston
  • price 1 of 4

Forget a password or knocking three times. At La Cabina, you’ll be granted access through a phone booth. ‘From Sevilla to Shoreditch’ is the tagline, and the tiny underground space is half shabby-chic Barcelona bodega, half hip London dive bar. If the faff of a phone booth puts you off, know this: La Cabina is worth a visit for its (very) late licence. NB: at the time of writing La Cabina was temporarily closed, but promised to reopen soon. Do phone venue ahead of time.

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  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Bars and pubs
  • Spitalfields

This dimly-lit basement bar beneath the Breakfast Club in Spitalfields is reminiscent of a Twin Peaks cabin with moose heads, mirror balls and retro wallpaper. How do you find it? Through the café’s Smeg fridge, of course. Cocktails, consisting of classics and house specials, are well-crafted on the whole.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Bars and pubs
  • Cocktail bars
  • Soho
  • price 2 of 4

Officially it is a members’ bar, and so discreet that the only outward evidence of its existence is a tiny sign next to a buzzer on Poland Street. But non-members can go – by booking the ground floor or basement bar only – up to 11pm. A list of rules states that the house doesn’t like noise, it doesn’t like rowdy, it doesn’t like poseurs or pickups. The restrictions are worth it for unfailing excellence.

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  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Bars and pubs
  • Cocktail bars
  • Goodge Street
  • price 2 of 4

Confession time: cocktails are a bit good at the Rev’s place in Fitzrovia. This bar is hidden in the former site of a rectory, although once you get down the stained glass stairwell, there’s not much more holy about the place. It’s a cosy bar with lengthy – not to mention comfy – sofas set in semi circles ideal for group outings. Say a little prayer for a clear head after. NB: at the time of writing, this bar was temporarily closed, but was promising to reopen soon. Do phone the venue ahead of time to make sure.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Bars and pubs
  • Cocktail bars
  • Hoxton
  • price 2 of 4

Happiness Forgets may be known the world over for its impeccable cocktails and classy service, but you’ll need to be in the know to locate this hidden-away basement dive. Once you’re in, staff go out of their way to make sure you’re happy. Decor is minimal, table lighting is from candles, no standing is allowed. One of the best bars in east London – or in all of London, for that matter. 

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Phoenix Artist Club
  • Bars and pubs
  • Charing Cross Road

Kitsch, louche and very late-night, the Phoenix attracts a regular crowd of debauched luvvies and miscreants to its basement den. Decked out in publicity shots and gaudy art, this is a reliably upbeat and lively space. Membership is required to gain entry after 9pm, so it remains a bit of an inside secret (wink wink, don’t tell them we told you). 

Opium
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Bars and pubs
  • Cocktail bars
  • Chinatown
  • price 2 of 4

Once you find this hidden hangout, gawp at jaw-dropping design that creates a look of Eastern smoking den meets Western hipster hangout. Find Chinese vases and burning incense mixed with deep funky beats and retro armchairs. Much like neighbouring bar ECC, the entrance is concealed – just look out for a jade door on Gerrard Street. 

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  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Bars and pubs
  • Cocktail bars
  • Earl’s Court

Evans & Peel sure does make a big noise about being secretive, taking bookings for ‘cases’ on its website, introducing you to the venue by intercom interrogation. You’re then subjected to a meeting with a detective in their private office. How far you take the pantomime is up to you. The big reveal is worth it though, a supernaturally dark speakeasy revealed by a trap door. 

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Bars and pubs
  • Cocktail bars
  • Soho
  • price 3 of 4

Okay, okay, this is one of London’s worst-kept secrets. But go along with it for a bonafide ride. Cahoots is a vintage tube-themed bar and you’re met at the door by an awkward ‘train guard’ actor in Mockney character. He’ll escort you to the platform (you know, the bar) in time for cocktail hour – just so long as you’ve booked far enough in advance.

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Oriole
  • Bars and pubs
  • Cocktail bars
  • Smithfield
  • price 3 of 4

Oriole bears some of the same ‘speakeasy’ hallmarks as Nightjaw in the City. There is a certain theatricality to entering this beauty of a basement bar. Flashes of on-theme jade and gold in leather and fur furnishings punctuate the room, while a stunning print of a tropical, palm-tree-covered landscape adorns one of the walls. Drinks here comes at quite a cost but the cocktails are as creative as any you’ll find in London.

  • Bars and pubs
  • Cocktail bars
  • London Bridge
  • price 2 of 4

A Victorian basement bar opposite some railway arches in London Bridge, Nine Lives is a hidden (tropically themed) gem well worth your time. The cocktails are delicious, fruity and balanced but the hand-picked soundtrack deserves a mention too. These guys love their music, as evinced by their incredibly high definition quadraphonic audio sound system.

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