Speakeasy bars first came about in 1920s America, when new laws meant alcohol was banned. But instead of its desired effect, prohibition resulted in the emerging of an illicit, underground drinking culture in the shape of secret bars requiring a password. A hundred years on they’re still around – but less for necessity, and more for fun. These days, speakeasies take on more of an sophisticated guise, with snazzy surroundings, jazz bands and well-crafted cocktails. London is filled with them, if you know where to look…Here’s our pick of the best, from the glamorous to the quirky.
Barts’ giveaway is the Mickey Mouse wallpaper lining the entrance, hidden in the lobby of Sloane Avenue’s Chelsea Cloisters apartment building. Don’t be misled by the fake B&B sign: ring the bell, and before you know it a barman’s eye will appear in the peephole to check you look the part. Once inside, head to the infamous fancy dress box and get into costume, before spending the night drinking tipples from teacups. Decor is eccentric and unusual – a graffiti-laden Mona Lisa, taxidermic stag heads and mismatching signs all feature, with scarlet red walls, styled like the apartment of fictitious gangster, Uncle Barts. Chelsea Cloisters, 87 Sloane Avenue, SW3 3DW
The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town
The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town wins the award for London’s most interesting speakeasy entrance – you get in through a blue Smeg fridge. Yet it also wins the award for the most publicised so-called ‘speakeasy’ bar, with a blackboard directing you straight to it, somewhat defeating the purpose. Nevertheless, it’s a fun concept: head to the Spitalfields branch of The Breakfast Club and tell staff you’re ‘here to see the Mayor’ with a little wink. Before you know it, you’ll be sipping a Peat-Nut-Butter-Cup cocktail in the retro-style dimly-lit surroundings without a care in the world. 12-16 Artillery Ln, London E1 7LS
Lewis Carroll inspired Shoreditch spot Calloh Callay is a rabbit hole of a bar, filled with all sorts of whimsical surprises. Last year it relaunched its secret bar, the JubJub, as a members bar – members are chosen through application or by invitation, and granted with a special key allowing them into the exclusive upstairs room, which is accessed through a Narnia-style wardrobe. Membership comes with a range of perks, including complimentary tastings and cocktail masterclasses and a secret direct Whatsapp number to check immediate availability at the JubJub. 65 Rivington St, London EC2A 3AY
Tucked away behind an unassuming door near Old Street, Nightjar is a speakeasy done right. Low-lit, slick and classy, the bar boasts an eclectic menu of well-crafted cocktails, ranging from the classic to the exotic, served in all sorts of fun creations – drinks here are as much art as they are beverages. There’s also live music every night, with a band playing swing and jazz, bringing a touch of New York glamour to London’s speakeasy scene. Be sure to book ahead, otherwise you’ll struggle to get a table. 129 City Rd, Hoxton, London EC1V 1JB
Hoxton haunt Happiness Forgets marks itself apart from the run of London speakeasies, but it definitely has that vibe – albeit without the gimmicks. A small, unpretentious bar inspired by Burt Bacharach’s song Dionne Warwick, Happiness Forgets is sophisticated, with a focus on exceptional cocktails created by top notch bartenders. It’s pretty hidden, but when you see a staircase and a sign saying Happiness, you know you’re on the money. 8-9 Hoxton Square, London N1 6NU
Below & Hidden
No bigger than your average living room, Below & Hidden is an afterparty-style drinking den, tucked away beneath Bourne & Hollingsworth’s hip restaurant. Unlike it’s bright and airy sister upstairs, the basement bar is dark and cosy, with h seating and tapestry-covered walls which vanish to reveal LED lights that spring into action late at night, along with the DJ. 42 Northampton Rd, Clerkenwell, London EC1R 0HU
69 Colebrooke Row
A tiny cocktail bar self-styled as ‘the bar with no name’, this speakeasy is known by its Islington backstreet address. Being headed up by renowned cocktail wizard Tony Conigliaro, it’s no surprise drinks are exceptional. 69 Colebrooke Row is not the place for weird and wacky ingredients: here you’ll find original, classy cocktails using classic ingredients, mixed to perfection. There are only a few tables, giving it an intimate atmosphere, but also meaning you need to book well in advance. 69 Colebrooke Row, London N1 8AA
Milk & Honey
Although officially a members bar, the London outpost of Manhattan’s Milk & Honey allows non-members – though you’ll have a curfew of 11pm. Despite opening years ago in 2002, it remains one of Soho’s best cocktail bars, perhaps partly because it takes boozing very seriously. There are a set of house rules, which include: no fighting, no hollering, no shouting, no name dropping, no lingering…the list goes on, so watch out. To find it, look for a tiny sign next to a buzzer on Poland Street. 61 Poland St, Soho, London W1F 7NU
Discount Suit Company
Located in a former tailor’s workshop, Discount Suit Company is hidden down an unassuming staircase on Petticoat Lane. With red leather armchairs, candles and low tables, it nails the speakeasy vibe, with a suitably wacky cocktail menu to match. Having recently celebrated their 5th birthday, a number of new drinks have been added to the menu, including A Kick in the Head: gin, Italicus, cocchi americano, velvet falernum, citrus and Umbrella Brewing Sparkling cider, and Bananarama, mixed with dark rum, amontillado sherry, banana du brazil, honey and cardamom bitters.
Sign up to our Newsletter