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 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.
The Blind Pig takes its name from the US codename used for bars during the Prohibition era, and a blindfolded little piggie doubles as a doorknocker at this otherwise nondescript entrance on Poland Street. The interior is charmingly antiquey, with dark wood, ageing brown leather and a mirrored ceiling. But the drinks are anything but low key, with pun-heavy names on the menu and a specials list of drinks based on childhood tales – from Winnie the Pooh to Harry Potter. A million miles from illegal hooch.
Proof that the Prohibition theme is far from a ’90s-only trend, The Bootlegger brought speakeasy chic to Leadenhall Market in 2015. And in true covert style, this one is hidden between a Nando’s and a dry cleaners. Low lighting, an old-fashioned till, a gramophone and even a hooch distiller seal the speakeasy deal. In fact, this bar ticks all the trademark boxes, with staff wearing braces and bow ties and misty-eyed jazz music on a loop.
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.
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 drinks-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 ’90s Shoreditch irony (a wall of analogue cassettes, for instance) feels somewhat incongruous.
Using the same naming convention as Dream Bags Jaguar Shoes in Shoreditch – ie open a bar but keep the old premises’ name – is this 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.
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, 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 – the doorman is known for being a little snooty (email booking only, between noon and 5pm).
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. 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.
For a so-called ‘secret’ speakeasy, there was an awful lot of publicity when this basement bar opened beneath the 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.
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 an owl – the lighting is turned down so low you’ll need to borrow a candle to read the drinks 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. Uhuh, it screams ‘speakeasy’.
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 a green coffee bean infusion, sake, green tea, buckwheat rice syrup and alfalfa.
Some serious speakeasy hallmarks are present at Oriole, with a strict reservation policy, a barely marked entrance, a curtain at the bottom of the stairs covering any view inside and a live jazz band setting the mood. But otherwise, this showy bar throws out the speakeasy rulebook by introducing ostentatious décor complete with a jungle print wall and flashes of gold and jade. Speakeasy meets House of Holland, basically.
This basement bar is practically masquerading as a rundown cinema on the outside, with a cine-style lightbox up above that has a regularly changing tongue-in-cheek message. Enter down the rickety staircase to discover a twee bar where you can drink in among off-kilter lampshades and the hue of red lamps and candlelight. The space is so cool and small, you’ll want to keep it a secret. Killer cocktails are Prohibition-strong.
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