Just beyond Old Street roundabout, between a Chicken Cottage and equally questionable deli, is one of London’s best cocktails bars. But only the hawk-eyed would know it. Swing open the heavy wooden door, navigate a dingy stairwell, and you emerge into the light 80 years earlier. Welcome to the Nightjar.
Styled after New York’s prohibition-era speakeasies, it’s soaked in detail as much as whisky: the walnut bar heaves with premium spirits, booths are actually individual subterranean arches and most nights the mind-cleaving cocktails come with a live jazz soundtrack.
In Shoreditch, you’re never more than six feet from a hard-to-find drinking den, with Callooh Callay and Happiness Forgets also appearing in the last five years. But social lives thrive outside of the East End – as, it turns out, do London’s secret bars.
Freud, Covent Garden
The elder statesmen of basement liquor joints, Freud has been quenching central London’s thirst since 1986. It lurks in the uncool, tourist-soaked intersection of Covent Garden and Shaftesbury Avenue, where you can spot it by searching for a shop which appears to solely sell nautical ropes in varying knot configurations.
Swerve the rigging for the wrought-iron staircase that takes you below the heaving traffic – just ignore the ill-placed men’s loo – and into a concrete den of iniquity. Part modern industrial art gallery, part festival of the senses, the key to Freud’s success is the gargantuan menu chalked behind the bar, and lightning service from the people who staff it.
Make ours a… Long Island Iced Tea – just don’t plan anything taxing for tomorrow.
Ladies & Gentlemen, Kentish Town
Speaking of conveniences, Ladies & Gentlemen takes its name from the former function of its Kentish Town underground home: a Victorian public lavatory. Not the most appetising locale for a drinking and eating establishment, on paper, but fortunately the cisterns and porcelain are long gone. In their place are industrial light fixtures and russet bar stools, which provide a less antiseptic atmosphere.
As befits a bar this intimate, the decor offers little space to sprawl. Think elbow-rubbing drinks in a cosy environment. But it’s not just the digs that makes this new kid on the block noteworthy. An inhouse copper still means you can sip your L&G Highwayman gin without worrying about its air miles, and produce like Kentish Town honey and botanicals from Hampstead Heath’s allotments are just as local. A toast to your eco-credentials.
Make ours a… Lazarus Libation – the bar team’s yuzu and rum-infused take on the corpse reviver.
Evans & Peel Detective Agency, Earl’s Court
If it’s a gloriously immersive drinking experience you’re after, then get thee to Evans & Peel Detective Agency, and don’t spare the horses. Not content with garden-variety secret bar status, Evans & Peel is keen to pull you down the rabbit hole, suspending reality for as long as you’re enveloped in its noirish interior.
So the spiel goes, Evans & Peel are actual detectives and their punters are clients seeking help with cases. Which translates as bar sleuths quizzing your tastes to provide the perfect tonic. If you don’t fancy donning a deer stalker, rest assured that this is a bar, not a secondary school drama assignment, so feel free to drop the charade once you’re through the door. Then you can concentrate on working your way through an impressive cocktail – and nibbles – menu.
Make ours a… Moroccan old-fashioned – the whisky classic, laced with coffee and peppercorns.
Basement Sate, Broadwick Street
What could beat an impeccably balanced and punchy cocktail, enjoyed in the company of close friends and charming strangers? All that, plus pudding. Not one for anyone watching their calorie intake, this below-ground haunt is a shrine to opulence, from the desserts menu to the Chesterfields that litter the room, as overstuffed as you’re liable to end up.
The attention to detail extends to the food, drinks and soundtrack; try to time your drinks with a set by Nick Williams, who regularly swaps the counter at London’s best record store, Phonica, for Basement Sate’s booth.
Make ours a… Jessica Rabbit – a coupling of gin and carrot juice, ideally paired with the Hemispherical Dream’s white chocolate and matcha tea mousse.
Experimental Cocktail Club, Chinatown
A bare door makes the entrance to this Chinatown haunt, which is a regular for Soho creatives seeking a post-work relaxer. Less New York speakeasy and more Parisian absinthe den, Experimental Cocktail Club is a paean to the days of opulence and sophistication.
A tin ceiling scatters light across the ruby interior’s exposed brick and heavy curtains, and the bar is stocked with mid-century spirits – if it’s payday – or a reassuringly left field menu when it’s not. Run by a group of uber successful Parisians barkeeps, expect the utmost in nonchalant cool.
Make ours a… Opium Express – an oriental masterclass of purple shiso-infused Ketel One, goji liqueur and syrup, dragon fruit, lemon juice and poppy seeds.