The trend that started in the East End, as these things tend to do, has now swept across the city, with an ever-growing pool of speakeasy-style bars popping up behind nondescript doors, toilet walls and decoy fridges everywhere. Get ready to experience the prohibition years in suitable style, with our guide to the best of London’s American-inspired illicit drinking dens.
Order world-class cocktails at Callooh Callay
Bar, Cocktail Bar, European, Northern European, Seafood, Cajun, $$$
A cool spot even by Shoreditch standards, Callooh Callay once won Best Cocktail Menu in the World at the Tales of the Cocktail awards. There are three separate bars inside this Lewis Carroll-inspired venue, kept under wraps of varying tightness. Head to the back of the front bar, and you’ll find a wardrobe straight out of Narnia. Through there, and it’s into the Back Lounge. At the back of the Back Lounge, behind a curtain and up a flight of stairs, you’ll find the Jubjub bar. However, to crack your way inside the last Russian Doll, you’ll need a four-digit door code, and a membership to boot. Even if you don’t make it into the final bar, there should be plenty to satisfy you in the other two rooms, which are filled with cutesy, colourful furniture, plenty of mood lighting and an eclectic choice of killer cocktails.
The Mickey Mouse wallpaper is the giveaway in this otherwise unassuming block of flats on Chelsea’s exclusive Sloane Avenue. This place really goes full pelt for the speakeasy vibe, with a sliding peephole, a treasure trove box full of fancy dress and menus hidden inside of books, which are stacked away in a ‘secret’ bookcase. Housekeeping rules include “act like a leading lady, drink like a chorus girl”, “if the cops come, bootleg it”, and “if you let anyone in, you’re out”, but it’s best to take the exclusivity with a pinch of salt as Barts is really best suited to large groups. How else do you expect to take advantage of the humongous sharing cocktails served in gramophones and top hats and still have enough spring left in your step in case of raids?
A basement bar in Earl’s Court, Evans & Peel is accessed via a unique, if a little inscrutable, charade. Customers are greeted by an intercom system before a secret entrance opens up (if you have made an appointment), leading to the office of a detective who probes you on the nature of your ‘case’. If your interview is successful, out swings the bookcase and in you go. No doubt ‘Evans’ and ‘Peel’ knew this was more than enough quirk factor to draw crowds to their West End drinking den, and the charade ends abruptly. Once inside, Evans & Peel is a dark and sultry bar, crafted from old church pews, serving London Pale Ale through an antique radiator and bottles enclosed in brown paper bags – in case of cops, obviously.
The degree of secrecy at work in this kitschy cocktail club beneath the Shoreditch branch of The Breakfast Club is up for debate. Officially, potential punters are required to announce to a member of staff that they would like to ‘see the mayor’ to get ushered into the secret bar in the basement. However, it seems that on some nights, the bar’s existence is advertised willy-nilly to passers-by, somewhat defeating the purpose of the whole charade. The entrance, in any case, is disguised as a fridge, so you’re always guaranteed at least a taste of the speakeasy spirit. Inside, America-style diner food and fabulous cocktails are served in a snug, laid-back, just-the-right-side-of-hipster space, packed with oddities such as mooseheads, mirrorballs, and ‘no heavy petting’ signs hung on bare wooden and brick walls.
Bringing a touch of glam to the ‘illicit’ proceedings, this Old Street speakeasy has enjoyed an incongruous degree of renown since it opened in 2010 – so much so that it has now resorted to taking online bookings and charging for no-shows. The surroundings are a New York breed of sophistication, with live jazz and blues music. However, the stars of the show are 100 percent the bar staff, who dream up a ridiculously good mix of unique cocktails that are subdivided into historical eras, using some of the strangest ingredients we’re ever heard of, including tree bark, peanut butter ice cubes, sea plankton, mozzarella and even creepy crawlies — yes, real ones. Seriously, their Instagram page will knock your socks off.
Just off the King’s Road, you’ll find Goat, an upscale American-Italian restaurant and bar inside what was a 350-year-old pub – but it’s what’s upstairs that interests us. Call to reserve a table, and check in at reception upon arrival. You will then be escorted to the door and given the passcode for that evening. The cocktail list inside the Chelsea Prayer Room is basically the same as Goat’s bar (with gimmicky names that include ‘The Goatfather’, ‘Huckleberry Gin’, ‘Paddington Pear’ and ‘Jamaican Me Crazy’) but with unbranded bottles in keeping with the speakeasy theme. The decor inside this tiny drinking den is smoulderingly cool, a homage to George Moorland, former Goat & Boots regular and famed painter of rustic scenes. Comfy Chesterfields are crammed into the dimly lit space, one wall of which is taken up by a Moorland-esque mural. Pick your poison from a hymn book-menu, and hunker down with the rest of the congregation in what must be one of God’s best gifts to faux speakeasy culture.
An unusual find in Chinatown, the Experimental Cocktail Club is the offshoot of the Parisian original, and its French vibe works equally well across the channel. Set in a three-storey townhouse, the ECC is a hard one to find, hidden behind a nondescript, shabby chic door – black, scruffed up with a splash of red. Inside, it’s easy to see how the clandestine atmosphere has charmed the Soho crowd, with its romantic lighting, snug booths, plush furnishings, exposed brickwork, attractive decorative pieces and a small piano tucked away in the upstairs bar. The cocktails regularly get rave responses, and there are even some super pricey vintage drinks on offer, using a selection of spirits from the ’40s and ’50s.