Last month I found myself in London for work. My free hours were spent hunting down creative cocktails in dark bars. I wrote about my findings for Food Republic.
The modern revival of classic cocktail culture has inspired countless throwbacks to the illegal drinking dens of the Prohibition era, commonly known as speakeasies. You know the type: low lighting, ramshackle furniture, bartenders in suspenders and perhaps some taxidermy. Oftentimes, you find these popular hangouts in tiny subterranean spaces, or located behind a hidden door or a false storefront. Some places go so far as to serve cocktails in teapots, an old trick designed to conceal boozy libations from the cops.
Perhaps nowhere is this enduring trend more evident than in hip East London, where knowing the right unmarked addresses and code words is the key to accessing a slew of excellent drinking establishments throughout the neighborhoods of Bethnal Green, Dalston, Hackney, Holborn and Shoreditch. Here and now, this sort of merriment is all perfectly legal, of course, but the vibe is decidedly of another time. (Pro tips: Remember that London’s bars and pubs close at midnight unless the venue has a “late license,” so make sure you start early. Also, these cocktail bars tend to be tiny and fill up quickly on weekend nights. Call ahead to reserve table space.)
Here are some of our favorites:
An aged cinema marquee displays the words “Nothing to See Here,” but look to the right and you’ll find the bouncer for Ruby’s. The space is tiny, so you may have to wait a bit. Ladies, leave the heels at home as the descent into Ruby’s is a steep, dilapidated staircase, and once inside you’ll feel overdressed. With its faded paint, mismatched vintage advertisements and decaying lamps, the space feels lived-in, like a subterranean clubhouse. Seven Ruby’s classic cocktails are made with artisanal spirits and house-brewed syrups. Try the Chili Apple Martini, which updates the tired old syrupy “appletini” trend using spicy chili-infused vodka and an apple liqueur that imparts a woody, almost cider-like flavor. Grab one of the seats at the tiny bar to watch the bartenders work. An Instagram-worthy butcher block filled with fresh fruit sits behind the bar, which the bar staff visit frequently to grab a sprig of mint or hack off a slice of pineapple. Cocktails are taken seriously here, but the atmosphere is still quite relaxed. 76 Stoke Newington Road, N16 7XB; rubysdalston.com
This place is all about the sound system. You won’t find an iPod or laptop in the DJ booth. It’s all vinyl played through an impressive analog system and two pairs of massive Klipschorn speakers. Moon-like orbs hang from the low ceiling to illuminate the black walls. Cocktails are simple and tasty, and the unconventional natural wine list is divided into reds, white and “wines which require a willingness to consider beauty as something that isn’t necessarily instantly gratifying.” Maybe go for an instantly gratifying sake instead?There’s a small sushi menu as well (order the excellent the lotus chips, served with avocado wasabi dip). Inspired by Disco Era impresario David Mancuso’s legendary Loft parties and named for jazz pianist Thelonious Monk’s third studio album, Brilliant Corners feels like a jazz café you might find in Tokyo, but updated for the British millennial set. Come early to eat and stay late to dance. 470 Kingsland Road, London E8 4AE; brilliantcornerslondon.co.uk
On a nondescript street in Bethnal Green is East London’s best faux dive bar. The windows are covered with thick blinds so you can peek out onto the street, but not in. There are large, comfortable booths and a bit of taxidermy (remember: this is East London). The subway-tile-lined bar is lit softly from behind, casting a pleasant golden light over the whole room. Old-school hip-hop on the stereo is a constant, which instantly elevates the vibe. Cocktails are generous, and the Salty Dog, made with fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, is a popular and refreshing choice. The bar snacks (try the tiny Scotch eggs) are delicious and affordable. 343 Cambridge Heath Road, London, E2 9RA; satanswhiskerblr.tumblr.com
The brainchild of industry veteran James Triffo, Nola takes spirits very seriously. The cocktail menu is essentially a small novel, so you’ll want to take your time choosing or just let the eager bartenders whip something up for you. Come early to grab one of the coveted few seats on the porch, a very serious nod to the mansions of the Garden District in New Orleans. The Oaxan Village cocktail with mezcal and pineapple is memorable, as is the Nuclear Hurricane, made with overproof rum, green Chartreuse, velvet falernum and lime, which the house limits to two per person. Bartenders run the show here and reserve the right to refuse to serve you another. Enter through the comedy club in the Bedroom Bars building and head up the stairs on your right to Nola’s beautiful woody interior. Open until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. 68 Rivington Street, London, EC2A 3AY; nola-london.com
The Natural Philosopher
Stepping into the Natural Philosopher is like going back in time. Enter at street level into what appears to be a sitting room or the library of a university professor from another century. Walk down two small stairs into a small room carpeted in red with cozy tables and chairs. This is the sort of place where once you sit down, you won’t want to leave, and if you do, well, it’s time to go home. Below the small main seating area is the tiny bar, which barely fits the bartender. The best design detail is a large portrait above the bar split in two to accommodate a tall shelf of booze. Be sure to order the signature house cocktail, the Balthazar, made with muddled lemongrass and raspberries, lemon-infused vodka, fresh lime and lychee juices, which arrives in a deep, blood-orange color and is equal parts tart and sweet. You can just barely taste the vodka and instead feel like you’re drinking the juice of an exotic fruit that you just discovered. 489 Hackney Rd., London E2; maneros-london.com