I remember discovering the London bar scene around 1997. It was a really exciting time when Dick Bradsell’s (the UK’s Dale DeGroff) first generation of students were opening up amazing cocktail joints.
I was drinking at Oliver Peyton’s infamous Atlantic Bar and the acclaimed Met Bar, where you could find Ben Reed and Ben Pundole mixing fresh-fruit Martinis. Before long, I was spending hours at Che, where Nick Strangeway was behind the stick, and enjoying big nights at Jonathan Downey’s pioneering Match Bar. That’s not to mention meeting legends Peter Dorelli at the American Bar and Salvatore Calabrese at the Lanesborough Hotel.
While there are plenty of new watering holes (which I will be writing about soon), I suggest you go on my tour of classic London bars when you’re next in Old Blighty. Cheers!
The American Bar, The Savoy Hotel, Strand, 44 020 7836 4343:
No trip to London is complete without a visit to The American Bar. It’s boasted some truly famous bartenders, including Ada Coleman, creator of the Hanky Panky, and Harry Craddock, author of The Savoy Cocktail Book. And today, the award-winning barman Erik Lorincz is shaking up drinks and running the institution.
What to Drink: White Lady (Bombay Sapphire Gin, Cointreau, fresh lemon juice, egg white)
Cafe Pacifico, 5 Langley Street, 44 020 7379 7728:
This spot launched in 1982, making it the oldest tequila bar and Mexican restaurant that I know of in the city. Founded by renowned agave expert Tomas Estes, it is a place that represents the liquor perfectly and features quality drinks and food.
What to Drink: Estes (Olmeca Altos Reposado Tequila, Chambord, fresh lime juice, raspberries, cranberry juice, agave nectar)
Callooh Callay, 65 Rivington Street, 44 020 7739 4781:
Though this East London bar doesn’t take itself too seriously (may I add that the drinks list looks like a cassette tape?), its tipples are top-notch. It won the Spirited Award for World’s Best Cocktail Menu at this past summer’s Tales of the Cocktail conference.
What to Drink: French Bank (Banks 5-Island Rum, lime juice, lemon juice, pomegranate molasses, egg white, pink peppercorns)
Dukes Bar, 35-36 St. James’s Place, 44 020 7491 4840:
The Dukes Bar is a real gem hidden on a small street in St. James, just steps from Savile Row. It’s also home of the Vesper, where James Bond creator Ian Fleming often ordered the vodka-and-gin concoction. It’s worth going there just for the tableside Martini service.
What to Drink: Vesper (No. 3 London Dry Gin, Potocki Vodka, Dukes Amber Vermouth, Angostura Bitters)
El Camion, 25-27 Brewer Street, 44 020 7734 7711:
Even though he’ll hate me for telling people where to find him, I must reveal that Dick Bradsell is working at the raucous El Camion Bar in Soho. He is blending Piña Coladas and Daiquiris, and happily mixing Brambles. (His Sangrita is also to die for.) But best of all, this bar is fun—lots of fun—and you’ll likely bump into half of the city’s bartenders.
What to Drink: Bramble (gin, crème de mure, lemon juice, simple syrup)
The Lonsdale, 48 Lonsdale Road, 44 020 7727 4080:
Inside this beautiful Notting Hill townhouse is a very slick bar and restaurant (pictured above) where West London’s high-society types sip on delicious libations and munch on traditional British fare. The Lonsdale was the first bar to showcase Britain’s cocktail culture and offers a range of old-school classics like punches and cups, as well as contemporary classics.
What to Drink: Badmington Cup (cucumber, orange Curaçao, Lillet Rouge, club soda)
Milk & Honey, 61 Poland Street, 44 020 7065 6840:
Arguably the most celebrated bar of the past decade, London’s Milk & Honey location is an extremely different experience than the tiny one in New York. It has four floors, plus a roof terrace for members and guests to use. It is an example of how wonderful a cocktail bar can be, no matter which side of the Atlantic you’re on.
What to Drink: Georgia Julep (cognac, peach, mint, sugar)
The Player, 8 Broadwick Street, 44 020 7065 6841:
The Player has stood the test of time. Dick Bradsell opened the joint for Jonathan Downey in 1998, and when Bradsell moved on, New York bar star and Liquor.com advisory board member Dale DeGroff stepped in as a consultant. He made sure that the drinks remained tasty, and it’s no surprise that this little bar in the heart of Soho is still going strong.
What to Drink: Mexican Breakfast (Cazadores Blanco Tequila, Bénédictine, apricot jam, peach, lime, egg white)
Portobello Star, 171 Portobello Road, 44 020 7229 8016:
Part pub landlord, part mixology guru and 100-percent nice guy Jake Burger runs the Portobello Star in Notting Hill, a venue that has been in operation since 1740. Whether you’re having a beer or a cocktail, make sure you’re there on a quiz night.
What to Drink: Guinness Punch (Wray & Nephew Overproof Rum, Guinness, Madagascar vanilla liqueur, condensed milk, winter spices)
Trailer Happiness, 177 Portobello Road, 44 020 7313 4644:
This is the city’s original cool tiki joint, devoted to highlighting great drinks while having as much fun as possible. Described as a “retro-sexy haven of cosmopolitan kitsch and faded trailer park glamour” on its website, the establishment still remains one of West London’s best bars.
What to Drink: The Alpaca Boomerang (Bacardi Superior Rum, pisco, pinapple syrup, lemon, Champagne)
Salvatore at Playboy is probably the most extravagant bar in the world: You can buy a Sazerac with cognac from 1805 that is mixed with Angostura Bitters from the early 1900s and served in an authentic 19th-century glass. (It does cost £2,500.) Salvatore’s collection is impressive, but if you don’t have a black Amex charge card, you can still have a more reasonably priced drink and check out the marvelous display of books, tools, glassware and booze.
What to Drink: White Lady (Gordon’s Gin from the 1930s, Cointreau from the 1930s, fresh lemon juice, made in Harry Cradock’s shaker)
Find more great establishments in Simon Ford’s modern London bar guide.
Looking for more great watering holes? Check out our bar guide for the best bars in the world.