There are more spies in London than you can shake a poison-tipped umbrella at, with a recent report suggesting that Russia, alone, has over 200 intelligence officers handling an estimated 500 agents here. In the words of Watergate’s ‘Deep Throat’, “Follow the money”, and as the centre of global commerce and banking, together with our favourable legal system, time zone, climate (ish), transport links and, most importantly, shopping, the capital brings together a heady cocktail of the powerful, the wealthy and the unsavoury from across the globe. And, as ever, an army of spooks and shadowy forces are always just half a block behind, making the capital one giant melting pot of diplomacy, spies, covert actions and counter measures. We’ll leave it to serious journalists to ponder the ramifications for our democracy or to warn of the dangers posed when this intercine intelligence infighting spills into real life (the Skripals being the obvious case-in-point) . Instead we’re going to focus on what’s important to our readers: where do they all eat?
London has a rich history of feeding and watering spies of all shades and shadinesses, so with a wink, wink and a nod, here are some of the best known spots where you may or may not find the intelligence community at play.
MI6 may now occupy one of the world’s most conspicuous buildings in their Vauxhall Cross architectural masterpiece (or carbuncle, depending on your architectural stance), but it seems that impressive Thames-side offices are in the organisation’s blood. The first incarnation of MI6, the Secret Intelligence Bureau, occupied what is now the Royal Horseguards Hotel and One Whitehall Place under the leadership of Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the very first MI6 Chief. Clearly no great commuter, Sir Mansfield lived in a house that now also forms part of the hotel as well. The intelligence agency was apparently based on the 8th floor, so if you can bag a room up in the eaves, you might well be staying in the very offices used by some of the first members of MI6.
Where: 2 Whitehall Court, London, SW1A 2EJ, United Kingdom
Nearest station: London Charing Cross (0.2 miles)
Spies have never been too far from St James’s. and the St Ermin’s Hotel was the epicentre of the British intelligence world for the decades around the middle of the twentieth century. Because it was close to the then-headquarters of MI6, this is where potential recruits would be interviewed, where plans were hatched and where notorious Cambridge Five (yes, them again) worked. The top two floors of the hotel were the official headquarters of MI6 during the second world war, and infamous double agents such as Kim Philby had their offices. After the war the hotel continued to be used as a regular spooky haunt and given its position so close to power, it seems unlikely that spies aren’t still quietly buzzing around its precincts.
Where: 2 Caxton Street, St James, SW1H 0QW
It’s a wonder that the GRU, one of Russia’s main spy agencies, are allowed to carry round scissors, let alone highly toxic nerve agents. But while their officers blundered across around sleepy Salisbury in their botched attempt to murder turncoat Russian spy Sergei Skripal, they were treading in the footsteps of a rather more successful FSB, the KGB’s successor, operation to kill journalist Alexander Litvinenko. The journalist was murdered after Polonium was slipped into his tea at the Millennium Hotel, apparently by dodgy duo Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun at the orders of Vladimir Putin. The hotel occupies the South side of Grosvenor Square, until recently adjacent to the US Embassy and in the midst of embassyland and it remains a favourite of diplomats seeking somewhere quiet.
Where: Grosvenor Square, Mayfair, W1K 6JP
The South Place Hotel takes a different angle on the spy story. While perhaps not the stuff of spy novels, the hotel nevertheless takes inspiration from the thrillers that we love. So the laid back salon, perfect for an informal meeting with a megalomaniac city financier intent on world domination, is named Le Chiffre, after the Bond villain. The two largest meeting rooms at the hotel are called Purdey & Steed, honouring John Steed and his sidekick, Purdey from The Avengers. Continuing the theme, a further room is called Peel, after Avengers character Emma Peel, while private dining rooms Kuryakin and Solo take their inspiration from The Man From U.N.C.L.E characters Illya Kuryakin, the Russian agent (it’s painted red) and American Napoleon Solo.
Where: 3 South Place, London, EC2M 2AF, United Kingdom
Nearest station: Moorgate (Great Northern) (0.2 miles)
The Stafford is a magical hotel, and never more so than in the American Bar. It may have been revamped and corporate’d of late, keeping it in step with the times, but it’s the past where the The Stafford excels. The Americans bar buzzed with intrigue and spies during the Second World War, arguably it still does. Among the most famous was the so-called White Mouse, the code name of Nancy Wake, famously a Stafford guest and The Gestapo’s most wanted spy. The heroine spy, one of the most decorated servicewomen in British history, has been immortalised in the form of a signature cocktail at the bar.
Where: 16-18 St James's Place, Mayfair, London, SW1A 1NJ, United Kingdom
Nearest station: Green Park (0.2 miles)
It was one of the biggest scandals of the Cold War, when the Cambridge Five spy ring collapsed revealing some of Britain’s top spooks were, in fact, Russian agents. And The Langham is one of the places that Russian double-agent Guy Burgess made history. While he was feeding official secrets to the Soviets, he’d often stay over the way from the BBC, at the Langham. Indeed, according to a BBC internal memo he once attempted to break down his hotel room door with a fire extinguisher. Of course, it’s not just high-profile traitors who’ve stayed at the hotel; the likes of Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle, royalty and high society, in fact pretty much anyone who’s anyone.
Where: 1c Portland Place, Regent Street, London, W1B 1JA, United Kingdom
Nearest station: Oxford Circus (0.3 miles)
“Shaken, not stirred”, along with Molotov’s, this has to be the most iconic cocktail order in history. Uttered in pretty much every James Bond film, the discrete hotel was Ian Fleming’s regular haunt when he devised the character who has, more than any, defined his profession. And, indeed, his creator’s as Fleming was himself an intelligence officer. The bar in this brilliant St James’s boutique hotel still serve some of the best vodka Martinis in London, best served, shaken, but not stirred.
Where: Dukes Hotel, 35 St James's Place, St. James's, SW1A 1NY
How well can you keep a secret? Okay, but how would you manage with three bottles of gin down you? A rather brutal spy debriefing session occurred at Mayfair hotel Browns between spy-catcher Peter Wright along with Cambridge spy and MI6 mole Anthony Blunt and suspected double-agent Alister Watson. Allegedly during the 24-hour session, each of these men consumed several bottles of gin before the whole thing ended in a massive fight. If you don’t have the stomach for that, the restaurant on the ground floor is jolly nice instead.
Where: Albemarle Street, Mayfair, London, W1S 4BP, United Kingdom
Nearest station: Green Park (0.2 miles)
There’s normally a way to get into most restaurants, strings you can pull or favours you can call in. You can sit on a wait-list for six months or take a grim 6 o’clock or 10pm slot, promising to give the table back within half an hour. Not this one. We don’t even know the name of the terrace restaurant (or bar) at MI6. Even if we did, we’d be breaking the Official Secrets Act if we told you. The cuisine is a mystery and the Head Chef isn’t a household name.
Where: 85 Albert Embankment, Vauxhall, SE1 7TP