Move aside neon signs and sandwich boards, there’s nothing cooler in London at the moment than a bar you just can’t find. Here’s our pick of ten of the best and hardest to find cocktail hotspots that are worth the search, be they upstairs, downstairs, through the fridge or in the loo.
Belle & Co
Paying homage to the Belle Epoque era of arts, expect elaborate fabric wallpaper, oversized lampshades and burgundy curtains at this downstairs spot on Hampstead Road near Euston. There’s some of the obligatory cocktails-in-teacups action, too. To boot, there’s a number of events here throughout the week, including movie nights on Mondays and open mic on Tuesdays.
Slap-bang in the middle of town, you’ve probably walked past the purple-lit stairs which lead down to this bar in what used to be a public toilet at Aldwych. Glamorous, vintage-themed cocktails and snuff are order of the bar, and regular live entertainment matches the theme: cabaret, drag and soulful crooners all feature. Given it’s open until 1am nightly and has free entry, it’s a good spot to know. Oh, and as for the quirky loos, well you’ll have to find that out for yourself…
The Chelsea Prayer Room
Recently refurbished Kensington gastropub Goat has a boozier approach to religion than most with this secret upstairs bar. You’ll have to woo one of the staff in the pub to get led up to this special spot, but a whisper of needing to repent should do the trick. And, hey, even if it doesn’t then when else would you get to confess your sins to a barmaid without being barred for life? Once upstairs, simply choose your drink from the hymn book and snuggle into one of the comfy sofas to enjoy it by candlelight while feeling smug that you got there. All the spirits are unlabelled so there’s no brands but we’re assured it’s good stuff – it certainly tastes it.
Experimental Cocktail Club
Set atop the restaurants of Chinatown, this London outpost of the French original comes complete with bijou Parisian charm. Sitting up here feels like being a guest in a rather posh person’s elegant apartment, just with a full bar. Where the cocktails are concerned, it’s the more weird wonderful and wacky the better – but the clue’s sort of in the name. Be aware that you’ll be hard pushed to get a drink under a tenner here, but what you do get will be crafted with love and be one to remember. Clue: look out for the bouncer to find the doorway, and if you haven’t already done so, pretend you made a booking.
This candlelit cocktail cellar is squirrelled away on a corner of Hoxton Square down some stairs you won’t look forward to negotiating after a tipple or three. The bar and owners here are New York-inspired and the seriously punchy cocktails take inspiration from around the world; just be prepared to try something new. The best bit about it is that it remains (virtually) hipster free despite its location.
The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town
It’s not new, but it’s still cool. Which you’d expect given you enter through a Smeg fridge. Hidden away through the back of The Breakfast Club near Liverpool Street, this place is fun personified from the quirky cocktails to loud music and comic-book-clad loo walls. Get in early or expect to have to wait on busy nights.
This 1920s-styled dim-lit speakeasy was among the first in its genre in London and remains one of the best. It’s popular enough to be less secret than it was, but you’ll still easily miss its unassuming entrance nestled between newsagents and takeaways on the really scruffy part of City Road by the Old Street roundabout. Living up to its name, it’s open until 1am Monday to Wednesday, and 3am Thursday to Saturday.
Just down the road from Experimental Cocktail Club, this is another high-up Chinatown secret that’s just starting to get out. Cocktails inspired by Chinese medicine are sometimes too gimmicky for their own good, but we’ve found if you stick to the more sensible sounding options you’ll do well. Excellent dim sum is on hand for stomach-lining. For more tucked-away oriental cocktails, check out Vietnamese bar Little Red Staircase which we recently reviewed.
If rum is your thing, then it’s worth seeking out this subterranean East London hideout that stocks more than 50 of the world’s best rums for drinking straight up, or presenting in creative cocktails. How to find it? Well, seek out Bar off Broadway (Broadway Market), head to the loos and give the chain a pull. Unfortunately you’ll have to spend more than a penny when inside.
Not one hard-to-find bar, but two, these dens serving cocktails and oysters can be found upstairs at The Exmouth Arms in Exmouth Market and downstairs at the Well & Bucket in Bethnal Green Road. Decadence is the overriding theme at these calm retreats that contrast the busy boozers they flank, but cocktails from £8 aren’t too hard on the wallet. The classics are all covered and there’s a few interesting twists as well; we heartily recommend a dry martini. Bivalves of different species and with varying toppings are the only food you’ll find.
Found somewhere we haven't? That’s what the comments are for.
This article is part of our Best of London Food and Drink series. Visit the page for more recommendations of where to enjoy the capital's top food and drink, categorised by cuisine, food type and more.
Main image by Simon Kimber from the Londonist Flickr pool