The best gay bars in central London
Soho’s world-famous G-A-Y has everything you’d expect: cheap drink offers on weekdays, a young crowd and plenty of Britney. It’s spread over three floors, with a dedicated girls’ room downstairs, and never seems to empty out. Most Londoners over the age of 25 profess to hate it, but they’ll still end up here a few times a year, drinking a WKD-based ‘cocktail’ and dancing to Little Mix. And fear not, because when this door closes, another opens at G-A-Y Late. Located around the corner at 5 Goslett Yard, it offers a similar experience, but with a later licence and even louder pop songs.
A courtyard and loft bar on a popular Soho street that attracts a mixed LGBT crowd. The downstairs alfresco area boasts sedate lighting, wooden banquettes and a fair bit of flora, giving things an almost bucolic feel. The upstairs loft bar has smart leather sofas and a balcony that’s popular with smokers. There’s a pretty simple food menu but, realistically, most people come here to drink and mingle. The Yard gets especially busy during warm summer evenings, when its airy ambience makes it a queer space you could even bring your mum to.
Shockingly, this cave-like Soho basement bar is now London’s only exclusively lesbian venue, and it takes this responsibility seriously. Unless you identify as a queer female or arrive with plenty of queer female mates, you’re probably not going to get in. Run by the team behind Ku Bar, SHE has a similar flair for laying on entertainment: as well as club nights, it regularly offers comedy, cabaret, karaoke and quiz evenings. BOi BOX, a monthly drag king talent contest hosted by scene heroes Adam All and Apple, is definitely worth popping in your calendar.
Friendly Society benefits from the power of surprise: after entering through a bland back-alley doorway, you’re greeted at the bottom of the stairs by Soho’s most idiosyncratic drinking den. Barbie dolls hang from the ceiling, there’s a big fishbowl in the middle and old movies are projected on to a back wall. Although the short cocktail menu has been the same for ever, the staff always seem perplexed when you order one, though that’s definitely part of the charm. The crowd here is LGBT in the broadest sense - anyone with a sense of fun will feel at home, whatever their gender and sexuality. If you fancy dancing to Donna Summer while sipping (relatively) inexpensive prosecco, this place is an essential pitstop.
Tucked away down an alley off the Strand, The Retro Bar is one of LGBT London’s secret gems. It’s a small, gloriously old-fashioned indie bar where anyone on the LGBT spectrum will feel welcome as they drink and listen to Blondie and Bowie blaring out of the jukebox. If the nostalgic tunes don’t give you a warm glow, the cosy decor surely will: the walls are filled with iconic photos of everyone from Grace Jones to Beth Ditto. The quieter upstairs bar is a good date spot, though it’s not open every night.
Occupying a prominent spot on Soho's Chinatown fringes, this large LGBT venue is regularly voted London’s best. Ku is a little classier than local rival G-A-Y, but it attracts a broadly similar crowd and the young, up-for-it vibe is just as much fun. The ground floor offers a bright and modern bar space with video screens playing chart hits; downstairs is a clubbier room where fresh-faced types of all genders cut a rug to pop and dance remixes. A second Ku Bar on nearby Frith Street offers a more sedate spin on the same experience.
Because it's a brisk 15-minute walk from Soho’s gay village, this small but charming basement bar often gets forgotten about. That’s a shame because New Bloomsbury Set has smart decor that nods to the literary clique it’s named after and a fabulous happy hour where you can get two cocktails or a bottle of wine for a tenner. As befits its Bloomsbury surroundings, NBS is a little more distinguished than most London LGBT bars and operates an over-21s-only door policy. It’s open from 4pm daily, so it makes sense to pair it with a visit to Gay’s the Word, London’s legendary LGBT bookshop, which is located right around the corner. If you're after a quieter, secluded experience, grab a drink and make yourself comfy in the venue's cave-like alcoves.
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A visit to this King's Cross gay-friendly pub does feel a little like you've stepped into a time warp, but that's part of its iridescent charm. There are regular drag shows and a surprisingly popular karaoke night on a Friday, which brings together a surprising (but often quite talented) group of punters. There's also a food available, and upstairs you'll find a B&B offering more-than-affordable rates for cosy, warmly decorated rooms.
The best gay bars in east London
After beloved east London gay pub The George and Dragon was forced to close down in 2015, The Queen Adelaide rose from its ashes a couple of weeks later. Opened by the same owner around a mile up the same road, it has similarly kitsch decor – look out for the famous horse’s head – and the capital’s queer hipsters have flocked back. Yet in a way, The Queen Adelaide is also a bit of an upgrade: this time, the merriment spreads out over two floors and there’s a 3am licence at the weekends. Let the polysexual party rage on!
Since opening a little over two years ago, this east London pub, club and performance space has rapidly established itself as a jewel in London’s LGBT crown. On the one hand, it’s a place you can nip into for a quick after-work drink: the bar staff offer proper cocktails as well as the usual beers, wines and spirits. But on the other, it’s a platform for forward-thinking queer entertainment: previous offerings have included Butt Mitzvah, the UK’s first ever gay Jewish night, and Björk Scratchings, a tribute to the eccentric Icelandic chanteuse. It’s also a genuinely mixed space where the vibe is less ‘anything goes’, more ‘everything encouraged’.
Located in once-grimy Limehouse, the White Swan is surely the East End’s most famous gay boozer. The comedian Michael Barrymore famously came out on stage here, and Sir Ian McKellen used to swing by regularly. After some ill-advised refurbs, it now has a disappointing modern-yet-dated interior, but some great cabaret shows and cheap drink offers help to make amends. On Friday and Saturday nights, gay boys from the local area and nearby Essex dance to house classics and chart bangers in the basement club until 5am. If you like your nights out fun and unpretentious, give it a go.
The little sister of nearby Dalston Superstore, The Karaoke Hole is the UK's first drag queen karaoke bar, and a place where you can let your inner diva out. Between 7-10pm, things are pretty formal: you can pre-book tables, sip on cocktails and sing to your heart's content. From 11pm, however, it all gets a little raucous: the karaoke becomes a free-for-all, as drag queens and 'X Factor' wannabes all sing like mad while backed by disco balls and wind machines.
Venue says Book a table for groups of 2-8 people to join in on the karaoke chaos and cocktails!
A more traditional pub, The Old Ship attracts an older clientele than other East End spots, but it can still get pretty busy. Boasting a pool table, cabaret every weekend and a regular quiz, this is one friendly spot.
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Reclaiming the spot that for 15 years was Kennington's South London Pacific, The Cock Tavern is the creation of former Nelson's Head landlady Farika Holden. And like that former bastion of kitsch, The Cock is as camp as they come. Rather than rip out the tiki aesthetic of South London Pacific, The Cock has merged it with the Georgian sensibilities of the building, albeit with a modern twist. Drinks are cheap-ish, and during the week things can be fairly low key, making it the perfect opportunity to take advantage of the free jukebox. On weekends, however, things heat up, as a (mainly gay) crowd seek out alternatives to Soho, Clapham and Vauxhall.
Describing itself as a gay wine bar, The Bridge Bar is probably more akin to a sleek cocktail lounge, but don't let that put you off. This neighbourhood joint has a great outside space and is the perfect place to catch up with friends and grab a drink, especially now that Kazbar has closed its doors. Gay Claphamites can be found here all week long, but during the weekend the long low venue can get busy, despite being tucked away from Clapham High Street.
The best gay bars in west London
Now sadly one of west London’s last remaining LGBT venues, West 5 celebrates its twentieth birthday in 2018. And deservedly so: it’s a proper, old-fashioned gay pub with a pool table, a grand piano and loads of loyal punters. Though it’s located in South Ealing, a relatively sleepy suburb, it regularly attracts PAs from top ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ stars like Courtney Act and Morgan McMichaels. If West 5 is your local, think yourself very lucky indeed. If you’ve never been before, it’s well worth seeking out next time you don’t fancy a night out in Soho or Vauxhall.
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