Can you keep a secret? London’s hidden bars
It’s a wonderful feeling when you step inside a hidden bar, knowing that you are visiting a hot venue that few people know about. The problem with such places is that as they gain a reputation they become not so hidden anymore. So, which of London’s secret bars live up to the hype, but still maintain that covert vibe, making you and your partner feel like you’ve joined an exclusive club?
The Vault of Soho
Milroy’s whisky shop has been in operation since 1964, selling specialist whiskies to the people of Soho. A more recent addition, however, is a dimly-lit speakeasy-style bar that is accessed through the shop’s bookcase. Continuing with the whisky theme, the cocktail menu is experimental but delicious and you will also find some alternative spirits, all meeting high quality standards.
The Vault prides itself on its unpretentious vibe, so think plenty of stripped back wood and functional fixtures and fittings. This doesn’t detract from the experience, in fact it adds to the authentic feel and welcoming atmosphere.
By Appointment Only
Adding to the exclusive vibe at By Appointment Only is the fact that it’s only open once a week. From 17:00 until midnight each Friday, this former Turkish bath becomes a drinking den right underneath The City of London. As its name suggests, only those who have obtained a reservation in advance will be granted entry to its individual booths and stunning décor.
Many of the bath house’s original features from 1895 can still be seen, including intricate geometric tiles. The drinks menu is extensive, with innovative cocktails made with premium spirits and evocative ingredients that can transport you to anywhere from the sweet shop to the Titanic. Just ring the bell and a butler will come to serve you.
Despite technically being a members’ bar, you can still spend an evening at Disrepute, even if you’re only in London for a short while. It’s worth booking ahead, however, as this will ensure you a spot in one of the sumptuously-decorated booths or at least a cosy corner. The soft furnishings are all rich velvet and deep turquoise or powder pink, with gold touches to complement the luxurious style.
The drinks menu reads more like a story book, with elaborate tales to introduce each cocktail. Fortunately, a code breaking sheet is also supplied, allowing you to cross reference the fairytales with the actual ingredients in the libations. To find Disrepute, you just need to know that it’s across the road from the far less hidden Cahoots.
Experimental Cocktail Club
Chinatown’s Experimental Cocktail Club is hidden in plain sight. The three-storey gem on Gerrard Street is found behind a battered door that gives no clues as to what lies within. This adds to the juxtaposition and charm, with a cosy bar, mirrored walls and a lively atmosphere that would be impossible to contrive. The management only allow a certain number of people in at a time, so be sure to make a reservation if you don’t want to run the risk of having to wait around.
Do not expect to enjoy classic cocktails or a good take on an old favourite here, since, as the name suggests, the drinks are experimental. This doesn’t detract from their quality, however, as each one is expertly made using only the finest ingredients. The menu is also always changing, meaning it stays fresh and interesting no matter when you visit.
Reverend JW Simpson
There is an emphasis on shabby at this shabby chic bar in Fitzrovia, but the peeling wallpaper is an intentional feature that gives Reverend JW Simpson a bizarre 70s vibe. The venue’s name is said to have come from the discovery that a member of the clergy had been living in the basement flat up until 1986. It wasn’t until refurbishment work was undertaken to create the bar that this came to light. Don’t be surprised, therefore, if you feel like you’re sat in the good man’s living room.
You are unlikely to find a cocktail like the ones served at Reverend JW Simpson anywhere else in London. As well as seasonal and foraged produce, the mixologists have turned to some underused spirits to flavour their cocktails. Think mead and sherry, as well as the milky white tiger nut-based drink horchata, which is popular in Hispanic countries.
Opium promises to transport you back to 1920s Shanghai, which is a somewhat beguiling prospect. The venue is located up a set of red stairs behind a jade door on Gerrard Street and is split into three sections, each with its own distinct personality. In The Apothecary, you will be ordering drinks mixed from the medicine bottles lined up along the wall.
The top floor is occupied by what is known as The Academy. As well as recreating a typical lounge in a Chinese family’s house, there is a section where you can sit at a table with your own bartender, who mixes up your drinks alongside you. Behind a red curtain is a hidden bar within this hidden bar. Peony is cosy and secretive, with its own dim sum steamer to cater to those late-night dumpling cravings. Opium is a labyrinthine bar that will activate each of your senses and is perfect for date night.