Monday, June 20, 2011

Down the rabbit hole and through the secret door: London's newest and niftiest bars

In what can only be good news for those who like an air of adventure to a night on the tiles, we’re pleased to announce that London is catching up to New York in the game of speakeasy-style ‘hidden’ bars. When it comes to old-fashioned pubs and sticky-carpeted venues, obviously London is in a league of its own, but in terms of ‘exclusive’ bars it’s long been a case of West End haunts appealing to Sloane rangers and Chelsea footballers.
Sure, there’s a drinking contingent out there who'll regard members- or reservation-only bars as downright pretentious, but if you call a few days ahead, request an early evening mid-week booking (or suss out the membership options – few actually demand up-front payment), you’ll find they’ll be pretty obliging. These kinds of places go out of their way to avoid attracting douchebags – a policy that generally extends to their staff, too. So whatever you do, don’t go acting like one – banging on the secret door to get a table at 11.30pm on a Saturday night when you’re three sheets to the wind is never a good idea.

The Mayor Scaredy Cat Town
Enter the underground bunker via a Smeg refrigerator in a Spitalfields café/bar, and exit via the premise's My Little Pony-wallpapered toilets in the interests of discretion. Even if they only served cans of Scrumpy Jack and bags of crisps, we’d still be enamored with seven-week-old cocktail bar The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town.
The Breakfast Club’s new Spitalfields operation replicates the winning formula of its Hoxton, Angel and Soho branches – namely, helping diners soak up a hangover somewhere a bit fancier than a greasy spoon – but adds a hidden bar into the mix that’s open til midnight and serves cocktails and snacks that are worth crossing town for. Tommy’s chilli and lemongrass margarita (tequila, red chilli, lemongrass, agave syrup and lime juice, £7.50) looks set to become a signature drink, and a classic cosmopolitan (£7.50) was vintage SATC quality. The mayor’s jalapeno poppers (deep-fried ricotta-stuffed jalapenos, £5 for four) were criminally tasty, and we were particularly impressed with the complimentary cucumber and mint-infused jugs of water. Even more exciting was the bar’s weekend ‘Hair of the Cat’ brunch menu – customised Bloody Marys, anyone? – which suggests we’ll skip the Breakfast Club’s usual fry up and head straight through the fridge for a liquid lunch.

Callooh Callay
There’s good reason why this Hoxton hot spot consistently tops the list of London’s best cocktail bars. Unless you’re hellbent on experiencing exclusivity to the power of ten upstairs in the ‘secret’ Jubjub Bar – membership is invite only, and its bespoke cocktail menu changes weekly – the downstairs bar ticks all the boxes and then some: five-star table service, psychodelic vintage fit out, and a themed cocktail menu you’ll want to take home and frame. Mere mortals can still partake in the ‘Narnia’ experience of slipping through the famous mirrored wardrobe in the back corner of the bar, because it’s the only way to reach the bathrooms (there’s another private room near the toilets, but the Jubjub Bar is up the stairs).
Did we mention the cocktails…? Adventurous drinkers are spoilt for choice – this is not the place for playing safe with a vodka tonic or pinot grigio. The Baby Alligator (a herby martini with chartreuse, gin and velvet falernum, £9) was the smoothest rocket fuel we’d ever imbibed, and Betsy’s Orchard (hennessy cognac, lemon and apple juice, rosehip and raspberry cordial, lavender bitters and prosecco, £9) was a long summer drink with serious balls. We’re plotting a future assault with a crew to take down the Petherton Royale.

The Petherton Royale: Served in a fishbowl on a platter flanked by garden gnomes

Danger of Death
This is the newest offering from the Rushmore group, which has been redefining quality bar service since the early 2000s, and runs Milk & Honey and The Player in Soho, the Starland in Notting Hill, and the East Room which is currently under refurbishment after a fire last year.
The shop front on Brick Lane says it’s an antiques shop, but it’s actually Super Pizza, a café/bar with diner booths and a charity shop fit-out. Through a door near the entrance and downstairs you’ll find Danger of Death; its fit-out is reminiscent of the original Milk and Honey in New York – think low lighting, leather booths and pressed metal ceiling. The ‘death book’ drinks menu helpfully grades cocktail strengths from one (‘no structural damage’) to five (‘ground zero’) and most fall between £8 and £11, but honestly, you’ll struggle to find more personable and telepathic mixologists anywhere, so we suggest telling them your favourite base – tequila, gin, whisky – and letting them do the rest.
For seriously high rollers, an annual membership to the Rushmore Group will guarantee your entry not only here, but to sister bars in London, New York and the French Alps. However, if you apply join the Danger of Death fraternity before June 30, they’ll transfer the £100 annual membership fee to a bar tab. Score! Oh – and make sure you get yourself a salt beef and pickle bagel from the 24-hour beigel shop across the road on your way out (purists prefer the one closest to Bethnal Green, FYI).