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.
Venue says: “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 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.
Find more amazing bars in London
So many cocktails, so little time. So just stick to the best cocktail bars in London by using our ranked list below. You'll find everything from dark and dirty speakeasy joints and secret bars to bold and brash party spots meant for a night out on the tiles. What they all have in common is mixed drinks that will blow your mind – and hopefully not your budget.
With the Swedish Church across the road and the embassy around the corner, Marylebone watering hole The Harcourt Arms was always popular with our friends from the north. So much so that they’ve gone and bought it. The new Swede owners have dropped the ‘Arms’ from the name and turned it into more of a high-class ‘dining room in a former pub’ style set-up, but not much else has changed. The wood-panelled walls, bar and bustling atmosphere (heavy with Scandinavian voices) are still evident; but now the customers are here for cross-Nordic fine-dining rather than just öl (that’s beer in Swedish, Scandophiles). Tempting starters include sliced heritage beetroot, burratina and walnuts, glazed ox cheek and house gravadlax. Mains feature the inevitable reindeer, potato and sage dumplings, and Swedish meatballs, pink in the middle and flounced on a bed of homemade pasta. Private dining areas are also available and, if you still hanker for a beer at the old ‘Arms’, the smokers’ area at the back has been transformed into a swish, enclosed bar area. We’ll cheers – or rather, skål – to that.
Venue says: “Join us for a Scandanavian 'fika' selection. £12.50 for a choice of sandwich, cake or bun, and tea/coffee.”