The Grand Dame of the UK and Europe’s most international city, London’s diversity and endless sprawl feel akin to a major American city. But it’s oh-so-London, from the world’s richest literary history to superb theater and architecture. The city has birthed movements of thought and art for centuries, even as it was long disparaged for its bland food heritage.
However, the London of the last couple decades has become Europe’s dining mecca, first and foremost for its forward-thinking Indian food, but increasingly for its range of influences from London’s dense international communities. Innovative modern African/Nigerian food at Ikoyi (https://ikoyilondon.com) or authentic Israeli food at the casual, high-energy counter of The Palomar (https://thepalomar.co.uk) are but two shining current examples. Intimate natural wine bars, like the (sadly) recently closed Legs in Hackney, push fresher and more vegetable-forward than London historically goes — especially given the region’s often weak local produce. Spots like Legs feel more like a typical neighborhood restaurant in San Francisco than typical London… all further signs of the city’s ever-growing palate and diversity.
London was an early cocktail renaissance pioneer of the last 20 plus years, certainly the leader outside the US. Bartenders like Dick Bradsell and publications like Simon Difford’s Diffords Guide (initially published in beautiful book-like magazines) were pushing London toward quality cocktails in the 1990s, mirroring movements happening in NYC and SF.
As with those American cities, London’s historic bars have been drink beacons for decades, especially the great American Bar at the Savoy (listed in my top 10 bars below) or Scarfes Bar’s beautiful space and illustrated menus (despite their mediocre, expensive drinks). London’s hotel bars have won countless bar awards locally and internationally, like the Artesian at the Langham (https://www.artesian-bar.co.uk) and the Connaught (https://www.the-connaught.co.uk), even if both were serving disappointing, overpriced cocktails during my visits years ago.
Similarly disappointing even years ago were my experiences and the bland drinks (despite all the esoteric ingredients and presentations) at hyped bars like Nightjar (https://barnightjar.com) or Dandelyan (https://www.dandelyanbar.com). Favorites like Calooh Callay (https://www.caloohcallaybar.com) and Happiness Forgets (www.happinessforgets.com) have long been fine bars in which to while away a drink hour, if not overly notable on the cocktail front. Alternately, slick hot spots like Sexy Fish (https://www.sexyfish.com) are (again) overpriced and off-putting in clientele and vibe (unless you dig Vegas glitz and millionaires as your drinking companions), but at least Sexy Fish serves some innovative, delicious drinks. Cozy neighborhood bars like Coupette (https://coupette.co.uk) in Bethnal Green or Swift (www.barswift.com) in Soho serve quality drinks but don’t always shine with warm service.
While London’s historic significance in distilling is well-established with historic greats like Beefeater Gin, small-batch distillers didn’t really hit the city until 2009 when pioneering Sipsmith (https://sipsmith.com) and Sacred Spirits Company (https://sacredgin.com, our distiller interview this issue) blazed that trail. Since they launched, the door opened for small distilleries in London and the UK at-large. In London, gin dominates but there are also small whiskey distillers like The London Distillery Company (https://londondistillery.com).
Out of more than 100 bars I have visited in London over the years — and many more restaurants with solid cocktail menus — here are 10 of the best, both classic and newer. Here, a great drink can be found in most neighborhoods across London’s ever-sprawling metropolis.
American Bar at The Savoy, Covent Garden
It’s definitely not about the drinks here. You’re going to get overpriced, oversized cocktails that disappoint true cocktail aficionados. But… for its history, The Savoy is one of the most important bars in London and in cocktail history. The Savoy’s American Bar is the longest-surviving cocktail bar in London where legendary classic cocktails (like Harry Craddock’s White Lady and Ada Coleman’s great Hanky Panky) were created. Live piano jazz daily and a space haunted by the ghosts of regulars from its heyday — like Sinatra, Chaplin, Noel Coward, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn and countless others — live on.
Drink This: Hanky Panky or White Lady, naturally. Savor the spirit of legendary bartenders and stars who made this place through the ages and wish for days when the cocktail quality was not tourist-driven. www.fairmont.com/savoy-london/dining/americanbar
Every Cloud, Hackney
Every Cloud — and its tiny next door restaurant sister, Silver Lining (get it?) — is another one of London’s true bar gems. This closet-sized cocktail bar balances humility, quality and fun with the right price. Cozy and cheery, the tiny bar immediately welcomes, thanks to talented, chill bartenders and owner Felix Cohen (our bar manager interview this issue). The bar’s motto is “strong drinks, low lights and good times.” You’d be hard-pressed to find a London bar where this is more true.
Drink This: Their signature Champagne Daiquiri is a shining star… without Champagne. Cohen mixes it with rum, fruit syrup and his own acid base mimicking the bubbly. The drink is vibrant, acidic, delightful. Look for changing house drinks like the popular Tomato Cosmopolitan or Phuket Martini, a sort of Thai iced Irish coffee with Mr. Black coffee liqueur, condensed milk and Thai whiskey. https://everycloudbar.com
Mint Gun Club, Stoke Newington
Rich Hunt opened Mint Gun Club in 2017 as a spot for afternoon tea, aperitifs and cocktails in Stoke Newington (aka Stokie). It’s worth going out of your way for this intimate gem of a bar, one of the best in London. In a city of hundreds of overhyped bars — some of the most expensive watering holes in the world — Mint Gun Club is affordable, welcoming and high quality. It’s a bar that could easily fit in San Francisco or Chicago, showcasing Hunt’s impressive background in notable London bars. The subtly tropical vibe with bright blue walls and greenery make it feel like a sunny escape even on chilly London nights.
Drink This: The menu is divided into sections of gimlets, aperitifs, tonics and sodas, cocktails and nightcaps. Hunt and team perfect the gimlet so it’s well worth choosing one. The signature Mint Gun Club gimlet delights with a house kaffir lime cordial, London Dry gin, coconut and caraway-rich kümmel. Aperitifs include classics like the Adonis or Bamboo cocktails, while drinks like White Tiger’s Milk intrigue with Brazilian arak, Calvados, almond kefir, peach “milk” and chai spices. Many cocktails are on the smaller side so you can comfortably try more. www.mintgunclub.com
At first glance, Oriole may appear to be another fussy, overwrought London cocktail menu. But though not all cocktails work, the subterranean Clerkenwell destination is a prime example of one of those only-in-London bars — without the attitude and bad drinks common in many such overrated cocktail bars (including, I hate to say it, Oriole’s sister bar, Nightjar). Friendly, mostly Italian bartenders keep Oriole from feeling pretentious while live music on a stage surrounded by palm tree murals, candles and teal banquettes imparts a magical, vintage, explorer theme that is romantic and transporting.
Drink This: Extravagant glassware and garnishes can feel like too much at times but keep the experience interesting and playful. The detailed, changing menu encompasses travel and history, exploring flavors of the Old World (Europe, Africa), the Orient (Asia, sub-Pacific and subcontinent) and the Americas. Expect wide-ranging drinks like Mare Nostrum (gin, pistachio-leaf-infused gin, Roots Mastiha liqueur, Greek jasmine syrup, spirulina, lemon) or Acadia (bourbon, Roots Tentura liqueur, maple syrup, peanut butter, rowan berry, grapefruit juice). www.oriolebar.com
Satan’s Whiskers, Bethnal Green
Satan’s Whiskers is less about the cocktails (though those are good, too) and more about the vibe. With an elevated dive bar vibe, this east London institution is an industry favorite, relaxed, festive and packed with drink industry till midnight every night. Taxidermy mingles with French posters seamlessly while friendly bartenders mix up any classic.
Drink This: In changing menus of classics, pick a less common drink like the Pendennis (gin, apricot, lime, bitters), a Negroni Sbagliato (sparkling Negroni) or the house Satan’s Manhattan. They have fun with a Piña Colada, long drinks like a Japanese Fizz or sparkling drinks listed under “Fizzy.” www.facebook.com/satanswhiskers
While struggling with the bland drinks (despite esoteric ingredients) and obnoxious “see and be seen” vibe at the famed Dandelyan (which just closed late 2018 only to reopen in 2019 as Lyaness), its Lyan group sister Cub is far more interesting. Cub’s basement bar Super Lyan is pleasant but forgettable on the drink front, but Cub is destination-worthy. Cub is actually a restaurant, but one with a fresh-tasting menu centered around mini-cocktail pairings. Despite my disappointment with other Lyan bars, I have long followed Ryan Chetiyawardana’s creative drinks, from his formative Edinburgh years to early London days at bars like Worship Street Whistling Shop. But Cub is the shining star of his group. The zero-waste restaurant reminds me of the Bay Area, walking its own hipster path without attitude.
Drink This: The ever-evolving menu (prices can change but so far it’s been under £90) offers gratifying courses from Dr. Arielle Johnson (former resident scientist at Noma) in all-seasonal glory. Think red and green strawberries with Vesuvio tomatoes, garlic scapes and pine nuts in Brogdale vinegar. This dish was paired with a mini-cocktail of vodka, strawberry leaf and cherry blossom. Drinks feature interesting infusions and ingredients like bere barley, fresh wormwood or rare Chinese teas. http://lyancub.com
Fitz’s Bar at The Principal, Bloomsbury
This gorgeous 19th-century landmark hotel had a massive makeover in 2018 and with it came Fitz’s Bar, easily the best newer hotel bar in town — one of the few not burdened by mediocre cocktails or attitude. Friendly bartenders turn out creative, pricey drinks (though not as astronomical as they are at bars like the Artesian). The space is chic with velvet couches, striking columns and a striped bar, whimsically contrasted with bright oranges, ostrich feathers and a disco ball. Think Jazz-Age-meets-modern-day-palatial-lounge.
Drink This: The spirits selection showcases depth and range, as do the cocktails, which pay tribute to Bloomsbury’s past and present, named after locals like “Spy Princess” Noor Inayat Khan or novelist Émile Zola. Despite it being the millionth Negroni variation, Fitz’s Vesca Negroni is a winner of gin, Luxardo Bitter Bianco, dry vermouth, woodland strawberries, rose hip, aloe and coconut. https://fitzs.co.uk
69 Colebrooke Row, Islington
Truly ugly controversy around owner Tony Conigliaro, a longtime leading London bar pioneer, certainly puts a damper on visiting any of his bars (like the great-yet-tiny Bar Termini), but the hardworking bartenders at 69 Colebrooke Row have made this tiny bar one of London’s best since 2009. An outdoor lantern marks a doorway leading to a step-back-in-time, romantic, 1950s Italian café feel complete with an upright piano played by talented musicians who add to the magic vibe.
Drink This: House infusions and ingredients are developed upstairs at Conigliaro’s experimental Drink Factory, while drinks run classic (the great Army & Navy cocktail) or simple (Celery Kir, a Kir Royale variation of celery seed liqueur topped with Champagne). Bold drinks might include a Prairie Oyster: tomato yolk, horseradish-infused vodka, oloroso sherry, shallots, pepper sauce, celery salt and oyster leaf. www.69colebrookerow.com
Dukes Bar, St. James’s
Small, elegant and understated in the refined Dukes Hotel, Dukes bar is a London classic for gin lovers and a perfect Martini, made special over the years because of one man: Alessandro Palazzi. This gracious Italian took the bar reins after legendary Salvatore Calabrese put the Dukes Martini on the international map in the 1980s. Savor Martinis served via cart in every iteration, whether you prefer olive or lemon, stirred or shaken (this bar was frequented by James Bond author Ian Fleming and other Martini lovers over the years). Some Dukes’ bartenders can be stiff and unfriendly, so fingers crossed you’ll get Alessandro when you visit — or that other staff will follow his formal yet impeccably humble service.
Drink This: Of course, a Martini. You’ll have your pick of versions, including specials like London–Tokio, featuring local Sacred Gin infused with shiso leaves, Sacred’s special house dry vermouth for Dukes and Dukes’ house yuzu spirit. Then retire to Dukes’ Cognac and cigar garden for round two. www.dukeshotel.com/dukes-bar
Three Sheets, Dalston
The low-key industry favorite Three Sheets is both small and understated with its brick walls and simple mix of white, black and blues. The spare, intimate space often plays hip-hop set to a subtly seductive mood created by flickering candlelight and chill bartenders turning out simple (often 3-5 ingredients) but solid cocktails.
Drink This: The short menu of nine cocktails is broken down into three “sheets,” and being seasonal, changes often. Look for simple goodness like an Almond Flower Sour or an elevated Vodka Soda with wintergreen and fig leaf. There are also straightforward but lusher concoctions like the Shiso Leaf cocktail, combining miso and shiso with Japanese whiskey. http://threesheets-bar.com