Whether your office is near one or your mum has come to visit, it’s inevitable you sometimes end up in London’s tourist hot spots seething at why people aren’t told about the left-hand side rule at port of entry to the city.
Just walking (read: crawling) down Oxford Street is enough to drive even the most patient of people to drink, and the last place you want to go is somewhere all of our welcomed visitors end up.
These are the watering holes you need to know about if you’re going to survive the throngs of puffer jackets and backpacks in each beacon area for tourists:
If you were to do a bar crawl through Soho you’d end up drowning yourself standing, there are that many establishments. Almost everywhere is busy all the time, but Swift (opened late last year) offers some respite from the chaos in the form of a basement whisky bar by the same people who opened the brilliant Nightjar and Oriole . The dark lounge below the ground level smart casual bar will make you forget the footfall on the street above. And the creative cocktails expertly mixed by legendary Milk & Honey and Callooh Callay alumni will help you forget everything else.
12 Old Compton Street, W1D 4TQ; barswift.com
Area: Shaftesbury Avenue
Directly opposite Palace Theatre (and McDonald’s), The Ape and Bird isn’t hidden and it isn’t a secret. But it is bloody good. It’s been described as “a pub for those who don’t much like pubs” so… a bar. A bar of which there are three floors pouring craft ales, copious amounts of reasonably priced wine served in glass cups rather than wine glasses (meaning you will accidentally drink more than you thought) and Polpo’s infamous Venetian small plates. Whether you’re looking for a quick pre-theatre drink or just some respite, they’ve got you.
142 Shaftesbury Ave, WC2H 8HJ; apeandbird.com
Area: Covent Garden
Mr Fogg’s Tavern is the sister establishment to its Mayfair counterpart, which you enter through a through a subtle door down flanked by doormen down a side street. The Covent Garden is less of a ‘residence’ and very much a tavern, as the name suggests. The Phileas Fogg theme is still strong though with random bric-a-brac hanging from the ceiling – bird cages, instruments, vintage prams – and beer sourced from London and the South East in actual casks. The best bit about it though is the secret gin parlour upstairs with more than 88 gins and sofas aplenty that don’t get too crowded.
58 St Martin's Ln, WC2N 4EA; mr-foggs.com
St Stephens is the closest pub (public one anyway) to the Houses of Parliament, directly opposite Big Ben. But that shouldn’t put you off, it’s a proper boozer and you can sometimes get lucky to catch a reasonably quiet time in-between crowds. It’s still worth going because a) It was good enough for Winston Churchill and b) There’s still a division bell which rings giving a warning sign to MPs and Lords that there are just a few minutes to cast their vote in parliamentary debates, meaning you might be able to find a politician to shout at.
10 Bridge St, Westminster, SW1A 2JR; ststephenstavern.co.uk
Area: Buckingham Palace
OK, so it’s a bit wanky to go to a hotel for a drink but in the interest of getting away from the crowds enthralled by the Queen’s Guard, Dukes Bar offers a calm environment and a stiff drink. Which is all you want, really. The hotel is/was apparently a favourite of the Queen herself, and also Ian Fleming who is said to have got the inspiration for Bond’s iconic ‘shaken, not stirred’ line in the bar. We’ll forgive you for ordering one just to say that (though the barman may not), but would recommend trying some of their more creative twists like the white truffle martini.
St. James’s Place, SW1A 1NY; dukeshotel.com
Area: British Museum
Charlotte Street, with it’s numerous feasting and drinking options, is about 10 minutes walk from the British Museum. Sure, you could go anywhere on the street, but none of them would be as good Shochu Lounge. Underneath stellar Japanese restaurant Roka, it’s a cooler version of its upstairs neighbour but of the same standard in food and particularly drink. Think tree-lined ceilings, chilled house beats and an ice block bigger than your torso that the expert barmen chip off throughout the night as they pour modern Japanese cocktails and shochu infused drinks from an extensive menu. Worth every penny.
37 Charlotte St, Fitzrovia, W1T 1RR; rokarestaurant.com
Area: Natural History Museum/Victoria and Albert Museum/South Kensington
London’s worst-kept secret is a prohibition, speakeasy styled bar on Sloane Avenue, disguised as an apartment block. The exterior facade is what looks like a shitty hotel that somehow managed to avoid a rent hike in the last ten years, but wander into the foyer and ring the buzzer by the black door and you’re into Uncle Barts’ cosy place, where killer cocktails are king. On Wednesdays at 8pm a cracking pianist plays live and people actually get so into it they sing along, which after two or three you definitely will be too, the children in the Natural History Museum a distant memory.
Chelsea Cloisters, 87 Sloane Ave, SW3 3DW; barts-london.com
Area: Hyde Park (Lancaster Gate)
Another speakeasy, but one you’ll welcome after trudging your way through Hyde Park. Set underneath The Mitre (its sister regular old pub from the 1850s, so there’s something for everyone if the speakeasy is too dark for your dad to read the menu), Old Marys is in what used to be the servants quarters of the townhouse. They serve up craft beers from the cask, an extensive cocktail list and a whole load of whisky perfect for sipping in exposed brick concaves. Plus there’s a jazz night every Thursday.
24 Craven Terrace, Lancaster Gate, W2 3QH; oldmarys.co.uk
Area: Baker Street
Purl is kinda bougie, but let’s see you complaining when there’s chocolate fog spewing from your cocktail. Besides, if you’ve had to spend the afternoon at Madame Tussauds, you need something to breathe a bit of excitement back in your life. The bar specialises in multi-sensory cocktails that feature fogs, foam, air and aromas. There are cocktails attached to balloons, booze in bags, drinks on fire... Think barman gets hold of Heston Blumenthal’s kit and you get the idea.
50/54 Blandford Street, W1U 7HX; purl-london.com
For a long time, the area around Victoria was dry as hell. It still kind of is, but a £2bn investment for redevelopment is slowly doing away with that. While there will be plenty more feeding options, Clarendon Cocktail Cellar is the answer to your drinking woes so you don’t end up in the bloody Shakespeare outside Victoria Station. Down a spiral staircase underneath Cambridge Street Kitchen, the menu (written on coasters) is inspired by famous pieces of art, like “Campbell’s Tomato Soup”, a Bloody Mary made with either bacon bourbon or olive oil vodka based on Andy Warhol’s work. The menu isn’t too long but the cocktails are made with care. And the popcorn with bacon dust that just keeps on coming is a definite plus. You’ll walk out of the cosily lit, coolly serenaded bar to the stark reminder that you’re still in Victoria, which is testament to the Cellar’s vibe.
52 Cambridge Street, SW1V 4QQ; clarendoncocktailcellar.co.uk
Happiness Forgets has had many accolades to its name in its six-year life; consistently listed on top 50 bars in the world, the bar barmen go to, best bar in London. But its greatest achievement has been that it hasn’t gotten too cocky, despite it’s soaring popularity. You can still wander into the tiny basement and feel like you’ve found an absolute gem. If you can get in (they do keep half their tables free for walk-ins so there is hope). But in an area where you pay for trendiness, the drinks and service (and bar snacks) here are definitely worth it – poured by pro mixologists and served so genuinely that you absolutely don’t forget happiness.
8-9 Hoxton Square, N1 6NU; happinessforgets.com
The Drawing Room is the best place to drink on the Southbank, which isn’t saying a huge amount given your other options are the chain restaurants on the riverfront. But it is a welcome escape from the masses within the BFI, with the obligatory gimmick of walking through a bookcase next to the stairs to unearth a bar far superior (and expensive) than most of the other establishments around. Plush armchairs are best for sinking into, while there are plenty of wine and beer options, and a cocktail list with twists.
BFI Southbank, Waterloo, London SE1 8XT; benugo.com
The Refinery is one of those everything venues that tends to cater to the after-work crowd, but without the poncyness of the City. The bar area has plenty of sofas and high tables, and given there’s no chance you’re going to get a seat in the Tate’s cafe, this is the next best thing (though the view may not be) situated just behind the museum. In summer there are deck chairs and a table tennis table, and while it’s obviously quieter during the day, there’s enough space that even at the busiest times you can find a spot to at least stand in a group.
110 Southwark Street, SE1 0TF: therefinerybar.co.uk
Area: Trafalgar Square
Vista may be on a Hilton rooftop but the beauty of that is that you can look down on the crowds and across to some of London’s most iconic landmarks (Nelson’s Column on one side, the London Eye on the other) all from the comfort of your gin-infused spot. Drinks, tapas, and often a theme are presented six swanky floors up. The only downfall about it is that the bar is only open in the summer, but thanks to the long days you’ll be able to make up for the rest of the year in one season.
2 Spring Gardens, St. James', SW1A 2TS; thetrafalgar.com
Area: Leicester Square
Smack bang in the middle of Chinatown (and therefore the crowds) is a nondescript jade coloured door, behind which lies a Far East dream a million miles away from the comedy leaflets and breakdancers of Leicester Square. It manages to pay homage to its location and feel suitably oriental without feeling like a cheap replica. It’s three floors of stellar cocktails accompanied by dim sum nibbles. The drinks are a little pricey but after knocking back a lychee martini (gin, fresh lychee, absinthe) you’ll be skipping down Gerrard Street chatting to the jade fairy, the price tag the least of your worries.
The Jade Door, 15-16 Gerrard St, W1D 6JE; opiumchinatown.com
Area: Oxford Circus
One of the London Cocktail Club’s many, many locations, this one is the answer to your strong desire to go into a dark room and never leave after having to elbow your way through the throngs of people on Oxford Circus. But wouldn’t that dark room be better with a load of alcohol? Always. Sure, this dark room has gang signs and bandana-clad graffiti girls, but it also has a really long cocktail list. A six-page long cocktail menu. And a great happy night rather than hour, all night long on Mondays.
4 Great Portland St, W1W 8QJ; londoncocktailclub.co.uk
Area: Piccadilly Circus
Just on Golden Square behind Piccadilly Station, this place is a gin-lover’s utopia. With over 300 versions of the spirit from all over the world to choose from, the drinks list is hinged primarily on, well, gin, which is no bad thing. The vibe is art meets alcohol, with urban pieces throughout and a projector that screens iconic music videos (hello, Biggie) onto the brick wall. As is custom in Soho, if the bar is too full punters spill out onto the street but that tends to only happen after work. Bar snacks shouldn’t be overlooked in favour of gin though – pulled pork fritters with a bacon mayonnaise, for example, are a welcome addition to your time in Graphic.
4 Golden Square, W1F 9HT; graphicbar.com