Travel Time & Space In These London Cocktail Bars

Nick Nomi

Senior Contributor

London’s ever-changing personality has a little bit of everything to cater to every type of taste, with skyscrapers hiding cocktail bars amongst the clouds in the City, and south-London warehouses concealing speakeasies with live bands in their basements. And while these streets can undoubtedly sustain even the most demanding of aesthetes, taste-makers and food-fluencers, sometimes all one wants in London is something different. Fantasy, theatre, art…. another time entirely. These are the bars that can take you there, wherever or whenever there happens to be. From Belle Epoque pubs with glassware disguised as golden monkeys to luxurious West-End hotels hiding 19th-century secrets behind their reception desks, these London bars transcend time and space.

Belle Epoque Meets Prohibition at The Gibson Bar

Ask any cocktail-loving Londoner about a bar for cocktails with a flare for theatre and a passion for uniqueness and The Gibson Bar undoubtedly always gets a mention. The entrance, a darkened mish-mash of an emerald-tiled east-end pub and seductive Edwardian glamour stands out amongst the grim traffic and glassy expanse of Old Street. And this theatrical clash of time and space continues inside, where the owner and drink magician Marian Beke has created a sanctuary that is as elegant as it is experimental. Think of it not as a simple bar, but as a Belle Epoque time machine disguised as a New York speakeasy, magicked to life in 1920’s London and its mixed-up East London authenticity will all make some sense. 

The menu reads a little like a calendar, with drinks separated into months, and crafted from seasonal flavours and the mind-boggling tinctures, syrups and tonics created at the bar. Classic martini glasses mingle with vast sculpture-like glassware: some are lamps with lightbulbs masquerading as glasses, teapots shaped like cats, and wooden bowls accentuated by a waterfall of smoke, while others are skulls filled with tequila offering up crowns of edible worms, huge golden monkeys, upside down top-hats stuffed with mushrooms, and intricate metal sculptures of snakes wrapped around glass bowls filled with a punch the colour of blue topaz. The flavours are indescribable: pickled banana daiquiris mingle with coffee cocktails enhanced with Azuki custard and kumquat jam. Everything is phenomenally good.

19th Century Luxe at The Punch Room

On a busy weekend in Soho, look for the grand doors of the London Edition Hotel in Fitzrovia and skip past the reception to the back of the room and into the heavy-set doors on the left and you’ll find a sanctuary of fumed oak panelled walls, open fires and understated vintage luxury. The theme (think 19th-century private members club and manor houses) is effortless in its execution, conjuring a cosy back room club, or a private bar in an old country home, dedicated to the subtle brilliance of 19th-century punch. Each visitor is presented with a starting tipple from the day’s special punch to sip while perusing the ’Inception’ menu (new for 2022), which takes inspiration from four influential figures from the history of punch. The menu is divided into chapters containing five reiterations of punch focusing on one key flavour. Guests are invited to travel by taste through each of the eras, to explore modern and classic recreations of signature drinks, concluding in a futuristic interpretation dreamed into existence by the Punch Room’s meticulously presented bar-folk. 

Fiction Comes to Life at Mrs Fogg’s Dockside Drinkery

With ideas plucked straight from the pages of Jules Verne, Mr Fogg’s numerous bars are now a common sight on the streets of London, with everything from after-midnight subterranean bars in Covent Garden to Botanical Houses scented by wildflowers and Gin in Fitzrovia. But for seafaring cocktail aficionados sailing to Liverpool Street, Mrs Fogg’s Dockside Drinkery offers a slightly more raucous option spilling out into the less than attractive Broadgate Circle. But ignore the ruckus outside and book a table inside the playful and intimate space of the Rangoon Steamer for an immersive recreation of the Steam Ship from the final chapters of Around the World in 80 Days. The decor is almost delightful with curtained windows and chandeliers, contrasting with candelabras, vintage spinning globes, and playfully dark faux-period paintings of naval scenes all adding up to a recreation of first-class steamer travel. Drinks are nautical-themed with a focus on aphrodisiacs and aromatics. 

1920’s Chic at Nightjar Carnaby

Nightjar has earned its reputation as one of London’s best cocktail bars, but the new opening just off Carnaby takes the theme and perfects it within a sensual 1920s jazz bar, with glossy wooden tables arranged around an intimate stage set below busy Central London streets. The venue was once the ‘The Blue Lagoon Club’ (amongst a myriad of others), London’s first black-owned nightclub, and a venue that hosted legends from the Russ Henderson Steel Band to Bob Marley and the Beatles. Live music is a permanent fixture with recent, stunning performances from The Florence Joelle Trio, evoking a smoky confluence of Parisian blues and jazz time elegance that somehow manages to steal the show from the drinks. Speaking of drinks, the menu travels through the classic eras of cocktails from pre-prohibition, to prohibition and post-war, with a firm favourite drink appearing on the prohibition menu as a medley of Woodford Reserve Bourbon whiskey, orange blossom smoke, coffee & roasted pecan maple syrup with Fernet Branca and a big distracting chunk of candy-floss sitting atop the glass.

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