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.
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.
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.
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.