My three favourite places to drink cocktails in London

Apologies for the abject grumpiness in my last post.

I had a temporary fall out with the very concept of food blogs after visiting the jam-packed and ultra-trendy Pitt Cue Co. It would’ve been amazing if it were a one-off, special find. But the overwhelming experience was one of queuing and overcrowding (two things I experience enough of in my day to day London existence). Sure, I had found it. But so had everyone else.

I decided that the problem with an ever-expanding network of food information is that it’s killing the unique side-street discoveries. A beautiful little hovel of a café down an alleyway, an unsung hero of a bar, a delicious family restaurant that’s happy to just be.

Perhaps we’re the last generation that will ever experience that feeling of triumph when casting aside the Lonely Planet and stumbling across a super a bar or restaurant that’s off the beaten track. Everything’s written about, everything’s photographed, everything’s critiqued.

People used to wear the latest trainers. Now they’re seen at the latest restaurant opening. Food is a fashion statement, and spontaneity is out of the window. Menus are scoured online, reviews are pawed over and restaurants can be catapulted to cult status off the back of a good day on Twitter.

The romantic notion of a beautiful little joint where ‘everybody knows your name’ is near-extinct. If you happen to stumble across a gem of a local restaurant, then the likelihood is that it’ll be all over Twitter before the bar staff have time to learn your name. You won’t be able to get a table anymore. Your killer find is scuppered.

But let’s look at things from another angle, seeing as I’m actually quite fond of my food blog, and am not quite ready to kill it just yet.
I’m a big fan of meritocracy. And London’s food scene is the twenty-first century ‘American Dream’ brought to the burger vans of Peckham.

Largely thanks to social media, you no longer need a Cordon Bleu course and a whacking great deposit on a W1 restaurant to make it as a London chef. You just have to be great. People will find you. Take Yianni Papoutsis (of MEATliquor fame) or Jamie Berger & Tom Adams (of Pitt Cue Co fame) —both started out flipping (damned good) burgers in catering vans before their online fame thrust them northwards to the bricks and mortar of Soho.

If I visit somewhere good, I want it to succeed. I’m reading Boyd’s Any Human Heart at the moment, and am reminded how the success of most artists is down to speculation from the art market: dealer buys painting, dealer creates hype, artist’s stock goes up, painting increases in value. Food bloggers are the modern equivalent—only without shares in the restaurants. Having had a great meal there, I feel an odd loyalty to places like Dishoom, Corner Room, Trullo and The Modern Pantry, and I want other people to go enjoy an evening there too, so the restaurants do well as they deserve to.

What I’m trying to say is that, having given it a great deal of thought, I am pretty sure that food blogs are in fact a good thing. I shouldn’t whine about queues. They’re the start of a positive, self-perpetuating cycle—a rare thing in these gloomy economic times. Queues mean good business, which means more money in the food industry, which means that London’s food scene will keep thriving—and everybody’s a winner.

So, on that note, let me share with you my three favourite places to drink in London.

Aside from all my philosophical nonsense, I think it’s plain mean to find a little beauty of a bar and then hog it. I have had superb cocktails in these bars, and I’m not going to keep it a secret. If you want superb cocktails, then you should go too. I won’t even kick you if you’re ahead of me in the queue.

The Zetter Townhouse
49-50 St John’s Square
London
EC1V 4JJ

Don’t get distracted by the big ‘Zetter’ sign on Clerkenwell Road (that’s the bistro and bar). It’s the cocktail lounge you’re heading for, which is in St John’s Square on the ground floor of a Georgian townhouse which looks disconcertingly like a residential building. Don’t be disconcerted though.
Aim for the blue door with the gas lamps either side, and as you get closer you’ll see the dim light and hear the familiar babble of a cocktail lounge inside. (If you don’t then you might have got a family home by mistake, in which case don’t bang on the door for too long).

The interior is designed by Russell Sage (who also sorted The Goring’s Royal Suite for Kate’s last night as Miss Middleton). Imagine a cross between Uncle Monty’s drawing room in Withnail & I and the shunken headed curiosities of the Pitt Rivers museum, with a Noel Coward-type elegance, and and you’re not far off.

“Oh my boys, my boys – forgive me…” Uncle Monty’s drawing room – Withnail & I

The décor is based on the drawing room of a fictional Great Aunt (Wilhelmina), who was well-travelled, gin-soaked antique hoarder. A pair of porcelain Staffordshire dogs beneath gold gilt-framed oil paintings, Persian rugs, strings of crystals and a crinoline-wearing cat with a light blue parasol.

It would be a lovely-enough experience just to sit in The Zetter Townhouse cocktail lounge, but pair it with Tony Conigliaro’s award-winning cocktails and you’ve got a night to remember. Drink such as The Richmond (Chivas Regal 12 year, apple honey & Lillet blanc) and (most memorably) The Somerset Sour (Somerset cider brandy, lemon juice, sugar & Breton cider) are beautifully balanced, and served in an assortment of cut-class crystal. Old school.

All the house cocktails are £8.50 (other requests are £9.50). Sure, it’s not cheap—but trust me, it’s worth the visit. If you’re feeling particularly flushed with cash then you can stay in one of the townhouse’s thirteen boutique rooms. Also pop by for brunch (£9.50 for a Full English), lunch (£4.50 for soup of the day in a mug), afternoon tea (£4 for fruit toast with artisan marmalade and whipped butter) or dinner (£7.50 for wild rabbit casserole with herb dumplings).

Contact the cocktail lounge on 020 7324 4545
For room reservations phone 020 7324 4567

Bar Nightjar

129 City Road
London
EC1V 1JB

If you’re visiting Bar Nightjar on a live music night (which you should), then book in advance. There’s a threatening-looking fellow on the street-level door with ear mic radio who won’t let you pass if there’s no room at the inn (—and the likelihood is that there won’t be).

There’s a no-standing policy, which, (as I think I mentioned in reference to Pitt Cue Co!) is a welcome relief, as I spend forty minutes per day too long on a crammed tube as it is. The insistence on everyone having a chair helps create the modern speakeasy vibe. Once you’re in, you’re in—and you’re encouraged to sit down and stay—no Wagamama-style conveyer belt. Think tin-ceiling, low lights, and the gentle parping of a bluesy trumpet.

The menu is an epic journey through the history of cocktails, starting with heady, eighteenth-century fruit punches and hot toddies through to the prohibition era sours and Singapore sling. Next, the post-war Negroni and Daiquiris, and finally a selection of signature cocktails, and sharing cocktails.

The staff are exceptionally friendly—perhaps because the bar is run like a big family headed up by young couple Rosie and Edmund who met at university and have been pursuing their dream of running a live-jazz and cocktail joint ever since. And I for one, am very glad that they did.

Drinks are round the £10-mark. Bar Nightjar has also started doing food—think along the line of manchego with quince paste (£8), rosemary with payoyo cheese, fig mustard and artisan bread (£10) or marinated queen scallops (£8). I can’t comment on the food, because I’ve not eaten there. Yet.

Click HERE for reservations.

Mayor of Scardey Cat Town
The Breakfast Club (through the fridge door)
12-16 Artillery Lane
Nr Spitalfields Market
London
E1 7LS

The one problem with this bar is the wait before you actually infiltrate the underground, secret drinking den. You go into the Breakfast Club, tell a flustered waitress that you want to ‘See the Mayor’, and then perch in the upstairs bar until she beckons you through the door of a Smeg fridge into the underground room.

The thing is that the cocktails in the upstairs bar are pretty average—and it’s hard to know whether to eke out a mojito in case of a 45-minute wait, or whether to order a quick beer in case the downstairs bar suddenly empties.

Despite being a little grumpy about the ambigious-waiting-situation upstairs, the downstairs bar is very cool and makes it worth the hassle. Open brick walls, low-hanging air ducts, high wooden benches, and a few armchairs near a little antique fireplace.

The cocktails are double the price of the upstairs mojitos, but they’re at least three-times as good. The menu is a classic list of clover clubs and daiquiris, but they’re well-made and particularly fun drunk in this little underground bunker.
The exit isn’t through the Smeg door which adds to the mystery of people going in, and never coming out. Possibly a little gimmicky, but the good cocktails make it worth it.

Call 020 707 89639 or email henri@themayorofscardeycattown.com

Comments

  1. OneForTheRoad says

    Nightjar is quite simply the best bar in London. The love that has gone into this incomparably unique bar and its cocktails make it a tour de force that I just can’t recommend enough.

    In my mind, cocktail = overpriced fruit juice. This is certainly not the case here. I stumbled out whistling ’20s jazz numbers with a massive smile on my face and a belly full of top quality spirits.

    Pure class.

  2. says

    I think the greatest advance regarding cooking has been the inclusion of photos of the recipes in the cookbook. In my mother’s old cookbooks all you got was the recipe. Things are much better now! These bars look great so when I’m next in London…

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