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Keith Barker-Main drinks his way round the best of the capital’s new watering holes – all in the name of research, of course
Champagne from £8 a glass
Wine bar mini-chain Dion has given City boys somewhere new to blow their bonuses, with this, their splashy flagship at Canary Wharf. Kitted out with a sweeping staircase, dramatic suspended gold sculptures and matching table tops, there’s also an outdoor terrace with individual gazebos sponsored by Veuve Clicquot, whose entry level fizz, along with the other usual suspects, will set you back around £55. The owners claim to have the longest Champagne list of any London bar. Certainly, few competitors offer wallet-bothering Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill (£59 per bottle) and Armand de Brignac Ace Of Spades (£695), though, for fizzophobes, there’s also an all-price points wine list. Oysters and seafood platters boost the glam factor and a selection of canapés, as well as Sunday roasts, is also available.
Wine from £4.80 a glass
Billing yourself as a ‘pub/restaurant deluxe’ is setting yourself up for a fall, especially in a ’hood where one Gordon Ramsay is soon to be the competition. Nevertheless, Idlewild avoids any real pratfalls, with a quirky look that’s two parts Parisian bistro, one part 60s hipster pad, and a wine list with a good range of grapes and styles. Simple, seasonal English food from another age – mutton with laver bread, Cornish gurnard in a saffron and spring vegetable stock – largely succeeds, but service can tend towards the idle and wildly eccentric. Whether for Sunday brunch at the zinc-topped bar, or late night cocktails in the moody upstairs space, Idlewild is a Maida Vale local just about worth travelling to.
Cocktails from £10.95
While its core clientele were sunning themselves in St Tropez and Puerto Banus this summer, Harvey Nicks’s bar had itself a facelift. Perhaps as a nod to the increasing spending power of Moscow ex-pats, its red, white and black decor references Bolshevic-celebrating constructivist art – an irony perhaps lost on the Ab Fab-esque Patsys absorbed in cocktail guru Nick Strangeway’s well-crafted list. Presented in collaboration with Stolichnaya, the bar’s top call is the vodka brand’s Elit Martini at a staggeringly hubristic £24. There’s a red perspex ‘Toasting Room’ – more of a booth really, and zakuski (Russian amuse-bouches) are available alongside a range of Champagne and wine, as well as spirits. A new 3am licence is worth noting, while cocktail masterclasses add daytime appeal.
Champagne from £8.75 a glass
Deep in the bowels of Liberty’s, a former Edwardian stockroom has been transformed into a handsome space with a white marble-topped horseshoe bar. The decor’s pared down elegance is matched by a smart range of seafood that includes Irish and Colchester oysters, dressed Devon crab, and marinated Scottish herring. Limited edition English sparkling wines, such as the award-winning Kentish Balfour Brut Rosé, join a dozen Champagnes, and the wine list has been thoughtfully put together, including, at the pricier end of the scale, Vignes Chablis, at £42.50 for a bottle or £10 for a glass. Only an insipid prawn cocktail disappointed us on our visit.
Pints from £2.70
The Leccy Showrooms, as mullet-topped locals call it, is back. Having made way for the mass-market, Cuban-themed Cube And Star, the Leccy is once again at the epicentre of Hoxton cool. This time around, utilitarian, shabby-chic has been ditched in favour of Victorian pub pastiche, complete with Wetherspoon’s-style carpet and a Saturday Night Fever, light-up dance floor downstairs. Post modern and ironic, or just a bit ‘whatever’, as folks hereabouts say when lost for words? The jury’s out. But fish finger sarnies, knock’em dead lagers, ciders and a fair wine list are nevertheless avidly downed by a young crowd that just seems grateful to have rescued the old place from Castro’s clutches.
Wine from £3.20 a glass
Selfridges’ Wonder Room, 20,000 sq ft of retail space dedicated to aspirational brands, boasts a smart bar/diner overlooking its irresistible wine shop. Star of the show is the newly installed Enomatic, a ‘wine jukebox’ (the first of its kind in the capital) that dispenses over 40 varieties, the cost of which is deducted from a prepaid swipe card. Initially, small tasters were available, from 75p for a mouthwash-sized Bacchus Chapel Down to a gulp of Pétrus at a sobering £160. That was before the jobsworths at Westminster Council demanded that sizes conform to current weights and measures legislation, a situation the store is currently considering. For now, glasses must be either 125 or 175ml. Bottles are sold at retail cost, plus a flat £10 corkage fee. Charcuterie, cheese and fish boards add to the wonder of it all.
Pints from £3.10
With so many poor examples around, the term ‘gastropub’ is in danger of becoming shorthand for ‘junk shop furniture and supermarket chill cabinet “finest” served within’. Amid the latest crop, Camden’s Prince Albert stands out. A sensibly unfussy menu offers Gloucester Old Spot sausage, mash and onion gravy and Hungry Horace-sized roasts to be eaten in the sober Edwardian-panelled ground-floor bar, an uncluttered upstairs restaurant or the secluded terrace out front. There’s a selection of real ales and strong lagers and a sensibly pared-back but interesting wine list: notables include a Mercurey and a Sangiovese Montepulciano. Mark-ups seem ungreedy, and homemade duck and pork scratchings bear no resemblance to the horrors sold in sticky carpet dives.
Cocktails from £5.50
The latest and boldest London venture from vodka bar chain Revolution is the conversion of architect Sir Edwin Lutyen’s impressive 1930s City branch of the Midland Bank, forerunner of HSBC. A ground-floor bar is named in his honour, but the old man would doubtless be amazed to find the basement turned into a nightclub playing soul, indie and house to junior suits on the piss and pull. There’s a vodka to suit all tastes: from Russia’s mighty Krepkaya at 56% abv, via France’s designer-label friendly Grey Goose, to the frankly rank – a five shot stick of birthday cake flavoured shooters, anyone? With its catering-by-numbers, global grazing menu and party nights such as Sintillate already a hit, this revolution is likely to last.
Cocktails from £8
The Empire Casino’s multimillion-pound refit injects high octane, if spectacularly garish, Vegas pizzazz into the heart of the West End. But even non-gamblers would be well advised to take a punt on the venue’s numerous watering holes, best of which is the 007-themed Shadow bar, a dance bar that beats to funky house and features girls cavorting in silhouette behind light panels, as in a Bond movie opening credits sequence. The wine list is short and the cocktail line-up sticks mainly to the classics. Jackpot winners will order Cristal, for what is a mere £200 when you’re on a winning streak?
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Autumn 2007