Sophisticated cocktails and a sense of the illicit were trademarks of 1920s Prohibition Era-drinking. Even though decades have passed since, speakeasies are still alive and well in London, with the West End now a mecca of hidden bars. Echoing the tucked away glamour of the Roaring Twenties, these elusive watering-holes are the perfect place to escape the tourist hordes.
A black door tucked away on bustling Gerrard Street marks the London branch of Experimental Cocktail Club. The winding staircase behind the entrance opens up to an impressive Chinatown townhouse, with three floors of opulent colonial décor, leather sofas and polished dark wood. Cocktails are innovative without being alienating and, for a price, you can order one of the vintage spirits behind the bar and sample a martini straight from the 1950s. Half the capacity is reserved for walk-ins, so booking isn’t essential. After 11pm, a £5 cover charge applies, when the ECC turns from sophisticated bar to swingin’ after-hours hotspot, in true 1920s style.
B.Y.O.C. (Bring Your Own Cocktail) is a bar without the alcohol. Don’t be disheartened – there’s method to the madness. Visitors to this candlelit speakeasy pay £25 a head, bring a bottle of their favourite tipple, and for the rest of the night the drinks are free. An expert mixologist blends guests’ spirit of choice with a range of bespoke syrups, spices, juices, bitters and more, to craft cocktails perfectly suited to individual taste. Expect five to six cocktails each across a two-hour booking.
Known to those who love it as The Blind Pig, the man behind this hidden Soho gem is golden boy of the London culinary scene, chef Jason Atherton. This upstairs bar to his much-lauded restaurant, Social Eating House, boasts macaroni cheese and chorizo hot dog bar snacks straight out of a Michelin-starred kitchen. Marked by an ‘Opticians’ sign, and a blindfolded pig for a doorknocker, the Blind Pig’s pervading sense of humour translates to drinks that don’t take themselves too seriously. Try the recently returned Silver Screen, an old fashioned done with Coca-Cola bitters and popcorn-strained bourbon.
Located in a former Chinatown gambling den, Opium bar lies sprawled across two floors, behind an inconspicuous jade door guarded by a seemingly scary, but truly lovely doorman. Thanks to dry ice, the Eastern-inspired cocktails smoke as much as the incense burning in every corner, and steaming platters of dim sum are served alongside them until 2:30 a.m. Rife with hidden nooks, Peony bar opened in 2015 in one of Opium’s secret rooms – a speakeasy within a speakeasy. The Emperor’s Garden cocktail, a heady mix of gin, rice wine, cardamom, and ginger syrup, is a fitting reward for any who seek it out.
Hidden down a flight of stairs in Fitzrovia, Bourne & Hollingsworth bar does teatime with a difference. The décor is the kind of post-war chintz found in the house of any granny worth her salt, complete with china cups and floral wallpaper. Only a cocktail menu and DJ booth reveal the Prohibition-style joke: This is a speakeasy masquerading as a tearoom, with a high-caliber range of whiskies and gins hiding in the teacups, blended with a range of tea-based syrups, and served alongside delicate finger sandwiches. A hit with in-the-know Londoners, booking is recommended to avoid disappointment.
One of London’s original speakeasies, Purl sets itself apart with a cocktail menu that aims for the extraordinary, and delivers it. The drinks have a definite foodie slant – the current flavour of the month sees woodford reserve and martini bitters served with a ‘takeaway and set alongside a Purl slider’ – and all manner of cutting edge culinary techniques are used to bedazzle drinkers, from infused airs and foams to liquid nitrogen. Look out for the black railings and easy-to-miss sign to find this Willy Wonka-esque cocktail bar.
Created by the Bourne & Hollingsworth group, the Reverend JW Simpson bar is an homage to the ramshackle charm of proper vintage. Chipped paint and faded pastel wallpaper are relics from the previous occupant of the space – a certain Rev. Simpson, the man of the cloth who lived in the small apartment the bar now inhabits. The surrounds aren’t much changed since then, aside from the addition of a few plush sofas and banquettes, and the effect is a speakeasy that feels like an intimate house party, with its own personal mixologists to whip up sours and slings at the table.
Legendary Freud bar has been serving drinks in a high ceilinged basement beneath Shaftesbury Avenue since 1986. A Soho institution, it buzzes on weekends, but is relatively peaceful on week nights, thanks to an entrance that hides it from those not in the know. Head down the inconspicuously signed steps and you’ll find a laid-back antidote to London’s high-style clubs, with a resident crowd of cool kids, art exhibitions on the walls, and a subtly industrial feel. The drinks match up to any West End cocktail-lover’s standards, but are fantastically well priced, starting at £5.50 and never going above £8.60.
Neon purple lights mark the steps descending from Aldwych’s pavement to Cellar Door, an intimate bar described as, ‘1930s Berlin meets New York basement dive.’ Converted from a Victorian public loo reputed to have been frequented by Oscar Wilde in his Theatreland heyday, Cellar Door now hosts live Cabaret and Burlesque acts every night in a venue that seats 60 but is somehow never cramped. Promising oodles of vintage debauchery, the champagne cocktails are odes to French icons, the toilet doors only cloud over when locked, and you can order snuff behind the bar.
Reputedly the best cocktail bar in London, getting into Milk & Honey is no easy feat. A highly mysterious members-only club, non-members can book a table for a maximum of two hours before 11 p.m. The jumping through hoops is worth it however, as once found, Milk & Honey is the promised land for cocktail lovers, with flawlessly executed classics and effervescent champagne tipples. A speakeasy of sophisticated tastes, remember to stick to the rules if you make it in: no name dropping, no shouting, and gentlemen must always remove their hats.
Andy Mill, Elliot Ball and Olly Brading, three talents of the London bartending world, are behind Cocktail Trading Company, the experimental bar under Soho’s Central & Co. Already tipped to become one of London’s top bars, the adventurous menu features the likes of lavender-and-chamomile-infused Bols Genever and smoked marshmallow syrup. Cocktails come served in ‘Wellies’ boots, Chinese takeout boxes, and custom-made bells among other things, but behind the fun lies a commitment to quality that makes the Cocktail Trading Company so worth visiting. Best get to this Soho gem before word gets out.