Zoe Strimpel

The capital’s finest cocktail bars

The capital's finest cocktail bars
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We have finally arrived in the roaring 20s and the urge to drink ­­– after the year and a half we’ve been through – is strong. Lockdown provided ample opportunity to neck wine in the monotonous comfort of one’s own home, so the mood now is firmly for tipples in luxurious, and crucially, public indoor settings. What is required, of course, are cocktails. London is packed full of ebullient options, but as a cocktail snob – they need to be good, or one might as well drink wine – I set out to find the very best. I looked for interesting, creative concoctions that weren’t so zany they ended up being horrible, served in the kind of glamorous, buzzy settings we so sorely missed during lockdown. The results of my investigation are skewed towards hotels, since London specializes in destination hotel bars, and is having a moment with the opening of new bars at Claridges and the Connaught. Here are my five picks for the best places to swill away the taste of Covid, once and for all.

Claridges: The Painter’s Room

Claridges now has three excellent, contrasting options: the dark and sexy Fumoir; Claridges Bar, famous for Champagne cocktails and luxurious snacks (pastry cones full of smoked salmon mousse exert gravitational pull) and now the freshly opened Painter’s Bar, an extraordinary pastel-hued, art-deco rectangle gleaming with pale pink onyx with a bar made of pink stone. A skylight in peach and cream coloured glass, a fabulous Deco light hanging from the ceiling and murals and stained glass piece by British artist Annie Morris give the bar a compact dazzle. The drinks more than meet my metric for interesting but not horrible: in fact, they’re delicious and subtle and, crucially, never too sweet. The list is divided into categories modelled on ‘the culture, art and design of Europe’ : Light, Interpretations, Complex and Clean. We were particularly taken with Margarita and Old Fashioned: the former with ocho blanco, apple, citrus and herbs; the latter with brown butter, tonka and quince, giving a nutty, toasty warmth to the whisky. Herbs and flowers recur, structuring the ‘complex’ list too, where the Saint Remy (vodka, almond blossom and quince) and Honey & Camomile with rye, a dash of whey, blossom honey and chamomile, delighted. There are good snacks too: try the cheese and ham croquettes or, if indulgent, the caviar and waffle crisps.

Claridges, Brook St, London W1K 4HR

The Connaught: The Red Room

Hot on the heels of the Painter's Room comes the Connaught’s new bar, the exceptionally beautiful, sleek Red Room. It’s a fine wine bar (a 1994 Chateau Petrus is available by the glass) that offers strange and wonderful cocktails inspired by… wine, in a sumptuous pink-red room of Latin American notes decorated with art by four women: Louise Bourgeois, Jenny Holzer, Trina McKillen and the Vietnemese artist, Tia-Thuy Nguyen. We tore through the Red, a surprisingly light and fruity blend of Armagnac with Beajolais and bergamot sherbet (and cordial of vine leaves); the Orange, made of white rum, orange wine, cocoa nibs clarified with milk punch (milk, brandy, spice), and electrified with lemon and lavender kombucha. My favourite was the Perlage: a relatively simple but uplifting mix of quince and tonka cordial, cardamom bitters and champagne. The food offerings are sophisticated, intended to go with good wine, and we found the salmon sashimi with jalapeno emulsion with corn butter and salted spicy corn, as well as the chicken ‘oysters’ (fried balls of chicken, Chinese style, with pickled ginger and chives) delicious.

The Connaught, Carlos Place, London W1K 2AL

Abajo

One of the most interesting cocktail bars in London, this is a minimalist homage to 1980s Buenos Aires – visible, or rather audible, mostly in the soundtrack. It’s a dark, chic room in the basement of Sucre, the swish counterpart to the iconic Buenos Aires outpost, with Tato Giovanonni – formerly chief drinks-guru at the Argentine Sucre – overseeing the booze operation. The cocktails are extraordinary as works of visual theatre. This is a place to bring not your parents, but your youngest, most artistic cronies who will pounce on the neon effect of the drinks when placed on special uplit coasters, destined for many, many Instagram likes. The subtle, slightly corn-flavoured ‘Something Yellow’ (tequila, banana, turmeric, pollen, lemon lime soda) and ‘Something Blue’ (gin, mezcal, blue spirulina, tonic) were the most extraordinary to look at, appearing truly electric on their coasters. We had some lovely food too: burnt aubergine with lemon and herb salad and an exceptionally delicious Dulce de Leche fondant with whisky and hazlenuts. Come hungry, thirsty and in the mood for colour.

47b Great Marlborough St, London W1F 7JP

Hawksmoor, Air Street

Amid all the newfangled cocktailery in London, this luxe chain of beloved steak restaurants promised an oasis of calm and dependability. I repaired to the original Piccadilly outpost, a favourite of several friends, and, perched atop a barstool, tested this assumption. I am pleased to report that it is fair. A pleasing mix of retro and classic, from an Appletini that took me back to the 1990s, to a selection of ‘the perfect martini and Manhattan’ should satisfy anyone. The martini was indeed just right; dirty, tart, freezing, while the latter was appetizing but too strong to try. My friend, who used to live nearby, used to come with her husband to guzzle Shaky Pete’s Ginger Brew which, served in beer mugs, is hardly the most elegant but is the most delicious. A mixture of gin, ginger, lemon, something thick and frothy and London Pride, it was so lovely that I had several. The cocktails are relatively simple: usually just three or four ingredients, and are priced right to match. Coming in at around £10 a pop, this is a perfect place to let your hair down – and if the spirits get too strong, order a plate of meat. We each had an enormous juicy sirloin with bone marrow and two types of Béarnaise, and felt great the next day.

5A Air St, London W1J 0AD

Blue Bar at the Berkeley

In my 20s (about 15 years ago) the Blue Bar was synonymous with sultry, delicious luxury. A very wealthy friend had her engagement party in its dusky periwinkle surrounds, and we coiffed Champagne and ate only white foods (scallops; mousse with truffles). It was magical. With memories like that, the Blue Bar was a mandatory port of call on my trawl for the best cocktails. What it loses in convenience (Knightsbridge is certainly not on my doorsteps), it makes up for in the sheer glamour of the Berkeley with its Michelin-starred Marcus Wareing restaurant and suites cost that around £3000 per night. And the cocktails are great, presented pictorially with an illustration of the main ingredient, followed by attractive little hexagons denoting the balance of flavours. Thus the Hand in Hand was explained with a pretty drawing of olive leaves, a description (martini, olive, aquavit, Aecorn Dry [non-alcoholic spritz], Laurent Perrier Champagne) and visual information about the predominance of flavours, and a scale of savoury, bitter and herbal. The ABV is also listed which is handy when you’re putting a few back. We also loved an espresso martini dusted with Champagne, and the Golden Hour, a mix of rum, oat, calvados, sherry and “Kensington” bitters that is high on the nutty and sweet quotient, at least according to the natty hexagons.

The Berkeley, Wilton Place, London SW1X 7RL

And elsewhere...

Three Sheets, 510b Kingsland Rd, London E8 4AB

Compact, rectangular space with a cooly industrial, Brooklynish feel and fine cocktails on tap. Menu is divided into One Sheets, Two Sheets and Three Sheets depending on ABV.

Golden Gai, 16A D'Arblay St, London W1F 8EA

Sister venue to the sumptuous restaurant Angelina, Golden Gai is based on the dive bars of Tokyo’s West Shinjuku district – but posher and filled with luxurious greenery. 

Jikoni, 19-21 Blandford St, London W1U 3DHA 

Cross-Asiatic restaurant rather than a bar perse, but possibly the best cocktail in London is the mango and curry leaf margarita. 

Termini, 7 Old Compton Street, W1D 5JE

Named after Rome's Termini station, this playfully Italianate Soho bar serves a mean spritz with rhubarb cordial and a bellini with almond blossom.