What Became of London’s Victorian Toilets?

Nick Nomi

Senior Contributor

In London, speakeasies, bars and cafés are cropping up in the unlikeliest of places: some are highly theatrical with entrances to themed bars hidden in mirrors and behind the doors of Smeg fridges, while others are crammed into the oddest of places, like former bomb shelters… and Victorian toilets. These are the latter. Quirky cafés and bars crafted from the shells of former Victorian lavatories, perched underground with cool suburban interiors, creative cocktails and fine wines, and they are often marked only by the iron railings that lead crowds down into atmospherically lit interiors where it’s common to hear whispers of “but didn’t it used to be a lav?”, as one descends underground for the evening.

Ladies & Gents, Kentish Town

Located at the end of Highgate Road in Kentish Town, Ladies and Gents has been coaxing folk inside with its witty, old-school cinema style signage and an intriguing menu of traditionally inspired libations for years now. The menu, though quite small experiments with lesser-known spirits and additives such as CBD, and the bar even boasts its own copper still for making their in-house gin blends. The bijou interiors are surprisingly elegant, with well-placed hints of the former porcelain occupants — such as stray cisterns still clinging to the wall and tiled columns in the middle of the room, all mingling with soft lighting, a heavy wooden bar and copper piping shelves filled with various spirit bottles.

And it clearly works, as Ladies & Gent’s have just opened their second bar in a Victorian lavatory over in Camden, offering those same creative cocktails with an inviting and modern DIY atmosphere.

Bermondsey Arts Cocktail Club, Bermondsey

Bermondsey has blossomed into one of London’s most exciting food and drink hotspots. With Michelin-starred efforts such as the much-loved Story (also a former toilet… ) rubbing shoulders with Japanese noodle bars and speakeasies along Bermondsey Street, and American-style BBQ houses, busy outdoor food markets and wine bars all the way down into London Bridge. And just off the back of lively Bermondsey Square, the Bermondsey Arts Club, with its tiled checkerboard floors, surprisingly large, 20’s art-deco inspired interiors and expertly crafted cocktail list is one of the most popular bars in the borough. The interiors here feel cavernous and open when compared to others on this list, and very little remains from its lavatory days, apart from the big network of iron railings and various entrances at street level.

Avoid it on the weekends when the queues can be overwhelming and the crowds somehow manage to overcrowd even this relatively large space and visit instead on a Wednesday when the jazz is played live and the crowd and bar are a touch more relaxed.

WC (Wine & Charcuterie), Clapham Common

This former WC makes excellent use of its credentials with a homograph that pays respects to its lavatory past and its fabulous culinary present. They serve a delicious selection of wine and charcuterie (and cheese) alongside seasonal specials such as melted camembert stuffed with salami and delicious plates of gooey Tartiflette — all snuggled up in a charming former lavatory. The wine list is good too, and while it isn’t the longest or most eclectic of lists, there’s a nice drinkable mix of new and old-world bottles that complement the cured meats and cheeses perfectly. The cocktails, on the other hand, are quite basic — sticking mostly to the classics, and the service while cordial, isn’t the most attentive — often leaving one to guess at what’s on the mixed platters.

What’s perhaps most surprising is that the interiors feel quite romantic, with a mixture of tiling and broken brick leftover from the bar’s toilet days, as well as comfortable, indulgent dark leather banquettes concealed in snug booths finished with wooden marquetry. At the other end of the bar, there’s a huge vintage mirror that lends the room a feeling of space, and a small selection of two-tier tables, perfect to perch charcuterie platters atop. And it’s all quite strikingly lit by natural light from the original glass skylights built into the ceiling, or in the evenings, flickering white candles placed atop the tables, together with industrial-chic light fittings fashioned from old piping.

Attendant, Fitzrovia

Located in a former gents lavatory on pretty Foley Street in chic Fitzrovia, Attendant is most recognisable for its raised bar-style tables built into the shiny white porcelain of the lavatory’s 120-year-old urinals. But at the street level, look out for the elegant iron arch that covers the stairwell and leads directly down into the cafe. Unlike the others on this list, Attendant is a cafe — not a bar — and serves beautiful single-origin coffees, decadent cakes, pastries and small lunch plates that are perfect for a mid-day refuel.

The ambiance is laidback and jovial, and the decor is surprisingly ornate and just a little bit pretty — with plenty of historic touches paying respect to Attendant’s past — from the tiled walls and the aforementioned urinals to the Victorian cisterns still attached to the wall. 

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