First things first: there are actually no speakeasies in London unless we’re all breaking the law in illegal establishments, knocking back moonshine and generally having a jolly good hedonistic time. Particulars aside, we are a city obsessed with the speakeasy thanks to a swathe of ‘secret’ bars popping up in basements, behind fridge doors and through floor to ceiling velvet curtains.
And while we’re not living through a prohibition era (thank god), 2020 sees 100 years since America’s famous constitutional ban on booze. Tenuous as it may be that’s reason enough for us to list all our favourite London ‘speakeasies’ to slosh back A-grade cocktails in, dance the night away and get merry right into the small hours. Guess they’re not so secret anymore…
Sandwiched between an off licence and a kebab shop just off Old Street roundabout you’ll find a big wooden door and inside, Nightjar. One of London’s best-loved secret bars, potent cocktails and live jazz every evening is their bag.
The menu itself is a nod to bygone times with sections labelled Pre-Prohibition, Prohibition and Post-War.
Warning: it’s always busy and there’s a strict if-your-name’s-not-down-you’re-not-coming-in policy so book ahead.
The team behind Nightjar knew they were on to a good thing so launched Oriole. In an equally inconspicuous location – this time Smithfield’s Market – Oriole takes inspiration from all corners of the world, with first-rate cocktails and Instagrammable décor. The menu is split into Old World, Orient and New World – it would be rude not to sample all three.
If you like your drinks served with a side of role play, head to the Evans & Peel Detective Agency where you’ll find a group of easy-on-the-eye, out-of-work actors-cum-barmen pretending to be detectives.
The idea is that you’re there to ‘solve a crime’ (actually, the idea is that you’re there to get sloshed), but it’s all very entertaining and the interiors/set and charming actors do make it fun.
The concept is based around a kind of Raymond Chandler-esque crime novel, so expect hidden bookcase entrances, trilbies and questionable Noo Yoik accents.
Who doesn’t want to enter a bar through a retro Smeg fridge? Well everyone can at the Bishopsgate outpost of The Breakfast Club. You just need to know the password* and the staff will lead you through the fridge to a basement bar of low lighting, hidden corners and heady drinks. You can exit through a secret door in the loos too so no one will even know you’ve been.
*just ask to see the Mayor
This new restaurant is one of Paddington’s secret gems and we suggest getting your visit in before everyone wants to go. The interiors and menu are inspired by the Ayllu community of the Inca Empire – a group of families that lived together, worked the land together and shared their belongings and mealtimes – in short, what food is all about.
On the menu, there’s a creative selection of small plates, inspired by traditional Peruvian flavours and a few Japanese influences, from croquetas de pescados with white miso paste, chives, red chillies and ginger to hamachi tiradito with green chillies, orange tobiko and daikon.
Before we get too carried away with the food (we know you’re here for the speakeasies), we must mention Ayllu’s bar, where you can sink into emerald booths and sip on cocktails destined for your Instagram feed – we’re feeling the classic Pisco Sour.
Speakeasies are really all about nostalgia, but it doesn’t always have to be Gatsby Glamour and faux roaring twenties. At Rooms By The Hour, it’s all about the wonderfully sordid scene of 1970’s sex cinema.
Don’t worry, while it is based in Soho, it’s all above board (although it’s geographically actually underneath the very tame Pix tapas bar) and allows customers to drop in for an hour to one of London’s most fun and mischievous secret bars.
There are five private ‘viewing cabins’ big enough to fit up to eight people, black lacquered walls and red neon signage, all playing to the adult cinema vibe. Book in for a quick drink before dinner or the theatre – we promise it isn’t as nasty as we’re making it sound.
Behind the thick velvety curtains you’ll find a drinking den that transports you back to an era of elegance, serves up near-perfect cocktails and leaves you wishing you’d kept it your little secret. Go early or expect to wait as they have a strict no standing policy.
On the sleepy, pedestrianised part of Mare Street you’d be forgiven for walking straight past Behind the Wall, one of the most inconspicuous bars in the city. Head down the rickety stairs to find a hub of design, music and drinking. Like all good speakeasies, they have a list of house rules which include:
- Happy Hour’ — 6pm to 8pm daily
- We don’t sell coke, we do have some great alternatives
- Be nice to Barry
Make of those what you will…
Oh, and you can order Yard Sale Pizza through them if you get peckish.
Hidden entrances don’t come much cooler than this. By Appointment Only sits inside a real Victorian Bath House (thankfully no longer in use) and if you frequent Liverpool Street you’ve probably wondered what the out of keeping, Moorish-looking building actually is.
Well, it was built in 1895 as a Turkish bath house and to this day is steeped in original features and ornate tiling. Now it can be hired out exclusively on Friday evenings for two to 50 guests – perfect if you want to bag serious date night points or organise your most memorable birthday yet.
You may have been to the bright, airy foliage filled restaurant that is Bourne & Hollingsworth, but you might not have noticed its darker, cooler alter ego Below & Hidden. Its name somewhat gives the game away – it’s underneath the restaurant – and is probably no bigger than your living room. While the drinks are good, it’s the interiors that really have the wow factor – the tapestry-covered walls give it a Middle Eastern souk vibe, but as the night descends and the cocktails flow they change to reveal floor to ceiling LED light panels, illuminating to the beat of the music. Without a doubt one of London’s best kept secrets.
If drama and secrecy isn’t your thing, 69 Colebrook Row – a bar so unpretentious it doesn’t even have a name (or does that make it MORE pretentious?) – is the one for you.
The focus is on the drinks with world-class mixologists rustling up a seasonal menu of cocktails and it’s no wonder as one of London’s most talented cocktail creators, Tony Conigliaro is at its helm.
There aren’t really any bells and whistles here when it comes to interiors, it’s all about the menu, so pull up a pew and make your way through the list. Just remember to book in advance.
There’s something creepy about the location of this next one – down a dark, ghost town like road somewhere between Bishopsgate and Whitechapel, it feels like Jack the Ripper might join you for a drink. If you can brave it, The Discount Suit Company, a former tailor’s stockroom-turned-bare-brick bar (hence the name) serves up fine cocktails and tasty cheeses.
They say candy is dandy but liquor is quicker but you can order both at Soho’s Basement Sate. Created by two friends who love well-made drinks, decadent desserts and meaningful music in equal parts, they opened this basement bar to satiate the sweet toothed of Soho. Head there after dinner, or better still, skip it altogether and have peaches and cream for supper. Speakeasies are all about breaking the rules, after all.
If there was ever a more suited name for a secret bar it has to be Opium. Nestled right in the middle of Chinatown, this 1920’s Shanghai-themed cocktail bar and dim sum den will not disappoint, in fact, there are three bars to choose from; the Apothecary, serving up tipples in medicine bottles. The Academy Bar: a lounge style bar focusing on Asian cooking and flavours; and Peony, the smallest of the three which will make you feel like you’ve been transported to 1920s China.
Where: Opium Cocktail bar and Dim Sum Parlour, Gerrard Street, London, UK
Nearest station: Leicester Square (0.2 miles)