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London Cocktail Bar Reviews

London is one of the most prestigious cocktail locations in the world and you are sure to find a cocktail bar that is perfect for any occasion . Emma from Gin Monkey has provided us with an insight to a few of its cocktail bars.

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Barrio Central

Address:
6 Poland Street
Soho
London
W1F 8PS

Telephone:
020 3230 1002

Website:
www.barriocentral.com

Overall Rating:


Review

Barrio Central is the new kid on the block in Soho. The sister bar of Barrio North in Islington, Barrio brings a little bit of east end cool to central London. Drawing on the idea of community spirit, they aim to create a friendly environment in the middle of the city and become your ‘neighbourhood bar’.

My first experience of Barrio came soon after it opened, when I dragged some work colleagues to Poland Street for after work drinks. We were lucky enough to get the deckchair area at the back of the bar, which comes complete with artificial grass and a huge rubix cube table – happy days! As you may have gathered from the pictures, the venue is a eclectic mix of reclaimed materials that mash together to create the laid back and cheerful atmosphere that seems to ooze from every inch of the place.

The cocktail menus are also really well designed, like individual works of art. Made from old record cases (still containing the records) they are designed to take you on a journey around the world one drink at a time. Click here to see a pdf of one of the menus to see just how awesome they are. The idea is that there are 5 main sections to the menus, each relating to an area of the world. The sections are therefore indicative of the area e.g. Caipirinhas in South America and Sangria in Europe. Running along the bottom of each double page is an aeroplane which contains three different cocktails from the area, available for £20 for all three, which is a really nice touch and a total bargain!

Initially we each chose different cocktails from the menu. This was great, as I managed to try a significant number of the cocktails in a single visit. The drinks were well made and I was particularly impressed with the balance of flavors in the Paloma, American Pie, and Cape Fizz. That being said, getting to taste these drinks involved a long, long wait – as I’m concerned it shouldn’t take nearly half an hour to make 6 cocktails, even if they are all different. Whilst the drinks arrived well made, the long wait was disappointing.

As the first round took so long we decided to order a pitcher of Caipirinhas, and a beer for my boss. 5 minutes passed… 10 minutes passed… and no pitcher… finally it arrived, but the beer was nowhere to be seen.

Had it not been for the slow service I would have given Barrio 5 stars, as the venue is really cool, the atmosphere was fantastic, and the cocktails were great. It managed to cater for all of us, even though some of my work colleagues had never had a cocktail before and were more accustomed to pub drinking. I should also say that although they were frustratingly slow, the staff were really friendly, which made it difficult to get too cross with them!

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Bourne & Hollingsworth

Address:
28 Rathborne Place
London
W1T 1JF

Telephone:
020 7434 8231

Website:
www.bourneandhollingsworth.com

Overall Rating:


Review

The Bourne & Hollingsworth can be found down one of the side streets that lead off from Oxford Street. Another basement bar, it’s quite difficult to find so listen up – look out for an old style photo of a shop on the wall on the corner of Rathborne Place and Percy Street, then you’re looking for the rickety stairs that lead down into the bar.

I would describe the B&H as a concept bar because as soon as you set foot in the bar you get the distinct impression that you’ve walked into your Granny’s living room! The green glowing bar soon reassures you that you’re definitely in a bar, but what with the floral wallpapers and tables covered in table cloths it’s a bit like stepping back in time. Overall the B&H is a really quirky looking place though, and the team there have definitely decided to go all out with the concept – tea cups and champagne coupés are the order of the day as far as glassware is concerned.

Unfortunately there’s no space at the bar for sitting and drinking as it was fairly busy when we got there. We felt a bit awkward as the place is tiny, and it didn’t really feel like there was room to stand without encroaching on another table, or getting in the way of the bar. However, a table soon cleared and we settled into one corner of the room to have a flick through the menu.

A beautifully designed menu awaited us at the table (see left). The copies in the bar are immediately impressive design-wise, as you have to unfold the various parts to see the different sections (there are about 20 cocktails on the list which are split up into 5 sections). Whilst not an extensive list I’m sure everyone will be able to find something to their tastes as it’s a really well thought out menu with loads of personal touches such as home made syrups. We chose the Chimp’s Tea and Gardener’s Tea Break to start off with. While I was waiting for the drinks at the bar I did feel a little sorry for the bartenders at the B&H as the bar itself is tiny and they seemed to fall over each other a little, especially when making cocktails. But the drinks arrived promptly and were well made, so it can’t be that much of a problem for them.

Both of our choices arrived in teacups, each accompanied with a treat on the side. The whisky based Chimp’s Tea arrived with a shortbread biscuit on the side and the Gardener’s Tea Break with a cucumber sandwich! This was a great surprise and made the whole experience much more pleasurable for all concerned. In fact I was so impressed with the Chimp’s Tea that I created a whole new section to the website called Cocktail of the Month where one drink each month is championed for being awesome. April 2010 therefore became the month of the Chimp’s Tea (click here to read more).

The greenish glow to the bar was a point of much debate between me and my mate as we tried to work out why they’d chosen to light the bar in such a bizarre way. The only conclusion we could come to was that it was to in a way separate the bar from the rest of the space so the bar itself didn’t detract from, or encroach on, the living room feel. Oh and the toilets are again hidden (I’m still struggling to see the benefit of hiding the toilets in bars where people are drinking alcohol) to the left of the bar.

The music was pretty mainstream with modern tracks mixed with retro Billy Idol tracks and a bit of Brit-pop thrown in for good measure. I really like this though, they’ve not taken the concept so far as to alienate people with dated music choices (music that fitted in with the decor would be WWII era like Vera Lynn, which would get tiring after a while). The music is also at a good level – I hate bars where the music is so loud you can’t hear yourself think never mind hold a conversation with the person sat next to you!

All in all I love the casual unpretentiousness of the Bourne and Hollingsworth. From the décor, to the eclectic music and the teacups your drinks arrive in, everything is a little bit quirky which makes your experience there really interesting and anything but predictable. The cocktails are well made and the bartenders really know their stuff. However, whilst I was wowed by the Chimp’s Tea and love the place (hence the 5 star rating), there are a couple of downsides that should be pointed out: the toilets could do with some attention and there’s not much room to stand if all the tables are taken (you can book tables though).

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Callooh Callay

Address:
65 Rivington Street
Shoreditch
EC2A 3AY

Telephone:
020 7739 4781

Website:
www.calloohcallaybar.com

Overall Rating:


Review

Callooh Callay must have done pretty well for itself recently. What with the release of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and their corresponding month of Hendricks tea-pot cocktials on offer, all of a sudden they became very ‘of the moment’. I therefore decided to venture down on week night after work to see what all the fuss was about.

Even if you’ve read or heard about Callooh Callay before, it’s difficult not to be immediately impressed as soon as you step through the door. There’s so much to initially take in that I hardly noticed the waitress who greeted us and led us to a table. Luckily my friend had visited before and took charge of the situation. Once we had settled at the table he excitedly pointed out a huge wardrobe in the corner as if it were magical. I couldn’t for the life of me work out why this was causing him so much excitement until the doors opened and a girl emerged – where the hell had she been! Turns out that’s the way to the toilets, smoking room and (secret) Jub Jub bar…you know…because a bar without a secret wardrobe door isn’t fit to call itself a Shoreditch bar at all…!

I was still taking in my surroundings when a tube map was thrust into my hands. I almost didn’t notice that there was something strange about it, indeed it wasn’t until my friend started opening up and pointing towards parts of it that I realised that it was the cocktail menu! However at that moment I became distracted again – were that couple in the corner drinking out of a gramophone?!? Thankfully my first drink arrived fairly quickly. Settling into my chair with cocktail in hand I started to just let the quirkiness of the place wash over me. The couple in the corner were of course drinking out of a gramophone, and who was I to criticise having never done so myself..!

What I’m trying to say is that Callooh Callay is pretty bizarre! Based on the poem the Jabberwocky which features in Lewis Carol’s Through the Looking Glass it’s all the quirky you’d want and expect from a bar which is associated with a poem of nonsense verse. However, whilst everything’s mismatched in that typical Shoreditch way, you can tell that a lot of thought has gone into planning every single aspect to achieve the full effect, and it really works.

When I finally managed to get a good look at the cocktail menu I noticed that each of the main sections had been assigned a tube line and relevant style – Picadilly (Sour), Victoria (Sweet), Northern (Aromatic) and Metropolitan (Confused). Whilst I’m not sure the average punter would find these sections particularly helpful in navigating the menu, I quite like them – I’m pretty sure my constant ‘changing lines’ analogies when ordering drinks got pretty annoying after a while! The cocktails themselves were well made and really well balanced. I particularly enjoyed the Rockin all Clover and the Afternoon Twee, and whilst the Old Pendennis wasn’t to my taste it went down a treat with my friend.

All in all we had a great night at Callooh Callay. The atmosphere wasn’t the best as there were a lot of really loud ’suits’ in there for most of the time, but looking past that the venue is really special. Oh and if your friend disappears for a while when they pay a visit to the toilets don’t worry – they’ve just been distracted by the old cassette tapes lining the walls!!

The only thing that would have made my experience better would have been if we’d been sat at the bar – but sadly the place was pretty full – we had been lucky to get a seat as it was. I’ve heard some really great things about the bartenders, and it would have been nice to hand over some of the control to them as far as the drinks were concerned. But this just means that I’ll definitely be back! At this point it should also be noted that this review focusses on the main bar at Callooh Callay and doesn’t include the newly opened Jub Jub bar (hidden away within the venue) – that’s for another day (hopefully soon), and when I’ve been I promise to add the review to the bottom of this one!

We finally emerged from Callooh Callay having been completely immersed in their world for far longer than expected. Unfortunately for us time had not stood still as it had for Alice, so we hot footed it across to catch our last tube home. Thankfully we were suitably lubricated by their fine drinks as we attempted the ‘funderwhacking’ dance on the way – “O frabjious day! Callooh Callay!”

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Circus

Address:
27-29 Endell Street
London
WC2H 8BA

Telephone:
020 7420 933

Website:
www.circus-london.co.uk (Prepare yourself for some crazy music)

Overall Rating:


Review

Circus isn’t hidden as such (hurrah) but its entrance is quite easy to miss – we nearly walked past it twice! So you know, it’s next to the Cross Keys pub which has loads of flowers adorning its windows. Once you’ve found it, the entrance way gives nothing away as to the crazy world you’re about to enter…but as soon as you open the doors you’re immersed in the world of Circus.

Walk down the shiny mirrored corridor to be greeted at a second set of doors. You’ll be asked whether you’ve booked of course, but that’s because Circus is the new kid on the block and is pretty busy all week long. From what I’ve heard it’s not too bad through the week though, especially if you’re just going for a drink or two. After leaving your coat with the lovely girls in the cloakroom you’ll (hopefully) be led through the doors and across restaurant into the bar area.

The venue is pretty much just one huge room but it’s split up by pillars and a couple of walls so it doesn’t feel too overwhelming. The bar area at the back consists of a few tables, with no seating available at the bar itself. A quick nosy around the corner revealed some squishy sofa type seating but I guess they weren’t using it as the bar was reasonably quiet (we went on a Tuesday).

The venue design is fairly quirky, with a huge communal table when you first walk, in. The steps at either side soon show that this isn’t just a table though, as it doubles up as a catwalk/performance areas for the performers who put on shows throughout the night – it is called Circus after all.

Once we’d finished gawking at all the different bits and pieces around the room we finally sat down and were brought bar menus by a lovely bartender. These are really well designed with mirrored insides and consequently quirky backwards text and hidden faces that only became whole with the use of the mirror – loads of fun! The cocktail selection to the menu is fairly short, but there are also non-alcoholic cocktails towards the back.

I’d heard really good things about the drinks and the menu at Circus as it was designed by the renowned Worldwide Cocktail Club, and the bar team is being headed up by the legendary Dick Bradsell. Indeed as soon as I looked at the menu I realised I wanted to try all of their cocktails, and I was definitely glad that I’d convinced three friends to come with me so I could try all of their choices too! One slight issue was that when I was trying to decided between the Pomegranate & Kaffir Fizz and the Hibiscus Margarita the bartender advised me that the Margarita would probably be a bit too strong for me…this left me feeling a little patronised. But I always go with what the bartender recommends (it’s a test of a good one), so I went with the Kaffir Fizz.

Whilst the cocktails at Circus aren’t extortionately priced, they’re not the cheapest you’ll find at around £9. When our choices arrived (Pomegranate & Kaffir Fizz, Strawberry Jam Martinez, Mandarin & Passion Fruit Mojito and the Citron Presse) they were nicely garnished and presented. However I was pretty disappointed with the Kaffir Fizz as it was pretty watery, and my friend’s Strawberry Jam Martinez was far far far too sweet. The Mandarin & Passion Fruit Mojito was also a little watery, indeed the nicest one of the lot was the Citron Presse and that didn’t have any booze in it!!!

As we sat with our drinks shutters suddenly came down over the kitchen windows and the lights dimmed as a leotard clad guy made his way onto the catwalk table. He made his way to the hoop trapeze suspended from the ceiling and began to do the most amazing gymnastic routine. The control and strength that that man had was insane, the entire table (of girls I may add) were completely mesmerised by the whole affair. It was FAB!

Unfortunately we couldn’t stay to try out more of the menu, which was a shame because I was pretty keen to try the Hibiscus Margarita. However, as the first round hadn’t been fantastic it may have been a good thing that we couldn’t stay for more. Whether the reason for the less than perfect drinks was down to the bartender that night, or the menu itself I’m not completely sure, but my gut tells me the former considering who has been involved in the project.

All in all Circus is great. It manages to do concept bar in a classy and stylish way with it’s tongue in cheek entertainment and impressive design. The staff are attentive and really friendly and the whole place has a fantastic atmosphere to it. It was just a shame about the drinks, but please let me know if you’ve been and this has not been the case (leave a comment below). Comparing it with some of the other bars I’ve been to it doesn’t quite rate as highly for me as places like Tigerlilly and LAB, and so Circus gets a Gin Monkey rating of 3 stars.

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Crazy Bear (London)

Address:
26-28 Whitfield Street
London
W1T 2RG

Telephone:
020 731 0088

Website:
www.crazybeargroup.co.uk

Overall Rating:


Review

I have recently developed quite the talent for visiting bars that are difficult to find. I’m not sure whether this is really my fault, or whether it’s the London bar owners who are to blame, but in any case Crazy Bar is one of those bars. It was the first of three bars I visited last week all of which were underground, and all of which were pretty difficult to find. However, despite feeling a bit like a mole, i’ve decided that this is a good thing, because it means I can help you all to find them!

So, Crazy Bear has no easily visible signs that I could see outside it, but it’s next to the Spaghetti House on Whitfield Street. Once you’ve located the Spaghetti House look for the place next door with frosted windows that looks a bit like a pub (granted a very nice pub), and then look for the door with the red rope across it – bingo, that’s your way in.

I’m never sure how I feel about red ropes, I never know what to do with them to be honest. This wasn’t helped by the fact that there was nobody stood at the door to help, so we had to catch the attention of a glass collector to help us. Now I know you’re probably thinking I should have just walked in, but the problem was that i’d heard it was kind of a members bar, so I wanted to check it was ok for us to have a drink. So, after finally making it down the stairs we took up a couple of stools by the bar and immediately felt like giants! This was due to the sunken bar and meant that we towered over the bar tenders. This may be intentional as the ceilings are a little low, or a feature of the original building itself, but we decided it was definitely more odd from the bartenders perspective than from ours.

Having gotten used to towering over the poor bar staff, our attention moved to the bar itself which is really beautiful, with copper clad columns and fireplaces along the back bar holding some of the spirits they have on offer. The rest of the place is a little over the top for me, with lots of red and black which contrasts with some pretty crazy white pvc type furniture. However it has to be said that the chairs, although interesting, were really comfy, and we soon settled down to leaf through the drinks menu. The menu is fairly long as it lists their extensive spirit collection, inlcuding lots of great rums. The cocktail section of the menu is separated well into small groups and there is a good mix of original and classic cocktails on the list. However, I stuggled to find anything that were particularly unusual or exciting (I think i’ve recently been a bit spoilt in that department though!).

Our cocktails arrived fairly swiftly after we ordered them and were lovely. The pisco sour was particularly good – it’s amazing what a little egg white can do to a drink! However, another friend soon arrived and was rather more indecisive about what she wanted. She therefore put her faith in the bartender who was pretty slow and didn’t seem overly confident about recommending something for her. However he eventually worked out what he was going to make her, and in all fairness to him the resulting drink went down a treat and was impressively garnished with a mobius strip of cucumber (click here to see what I mean by a mobius strip!).

As the night went on we moved onto sampling some of the rums, which were great, especially my rum old fashioned. However we began to tire of the constant lounge music which became irritating. I have since been back on a weekend and things were a little more upbeat, however it just added to the feeling that the whole place was trying just that little bit too hard – I think my friend summed it up perfectly:

“It reminds me of somewhere that was very cool in the 80’s and if it was in Shoreditch it would be funny because it would be shoulderpadded retro and the bartenders would probably have ridiculous moustaches to match, but round here it just seems a bit dated.”

I couldn’t agree more, although it’s undoubtedly an impressive place and is definitely striking when you first walk in, it became a little oppressive after a while, not to mention the toilets…

So, whilst i’m not usually one to get caught up in the nitty gritty design details of bars, especially when there are good cocktails on offer, I can’t review this place without mentioning their toilets – indeed i’m giving them their own paragraph! After just one drink I attempted to make my way to the ladies, however this is no where near as easy as it sounds. The doors to the gents and ladies are on the same wall, but they’re hidden (what’s the obsession with hiding everything these days!?!). I was warned of this and initally thought i’d manage with no problem considering i’d been told where the door was. However as I pushed open the door and looked up I saw a startled looking male friend and realised I was in the gents…which, just to make things extra embarrassing, is covered in mirrors – great! After swiftly leaving I spent a good couple of minutes completely confused until a waitress showed me where the door to the ladies was. I quickly nipped inside, only to be greeted by another room of mirrors and couldn’t find the cubicle door. Luckily there was nobody there to see me randomly pushing walls until something gave way. Suitably relieved I left the cubicle thankful that i’d finally managed to get through the whole ordeal, but just when i’d thought I had contended with all the curve balls the interior designers could throw at me, there were the taps to contend with. Now I say taps, but they’re not really taps at all, instead a cascading waterfall type feature greets you – kinda cool right? Well it did look nice and started running when I walked through the door, but I couldn’t for the life of me get the damn thing to work very well when I actually wanted to use it…! So, as i’m sure you’ve realised by now, I wasn’t particularly impressed, had to return to a rather embarrassed looking friend, and swiftly order another rum to calm back down again!

I ultimately struggled with rating Crazy Bear, and wasn’t sure whether to award it 3 or 4 stars. The bartenders know what they’re doing and make some lovely drinks, and they have a great spirit selection on offer. My problem is that there’s nothing amazingly original about the drinks and the bartenders don’t strike me as amazingly knowledgeable outside the menu. On the other hand the venue itself couldn’t be more original, but it’s original to the point of ridiculousness, especially when it comes to the crazy toilets. In the end I settled on 3 stars, as I would go back for cocktails, but maybe just one so I didn’t have to use the loos again!!!

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Dirty Martini

Address:
11-12 Russell Street
London
WC2B 5HZ

Telephone:
020 7257 8622

Website:
www.dirtymartini.uk.com

Overall Rating:


Review

It was one of those Sundays when we ventured into Dirty Martini in Covent Garden. You know the type, when you wake up on Monday morning and your head’s thumping, your wallet’s empty and you realise you’re still fully dressed and your front door’s wide open…!

On this particular Sunday we started off at Dirty Martini, and the good news was that it was happy hour – happy days! However, even the joy of half price cocktails couldn’t distract us from the fact that it took forever to be acknowledged at the bar. Whilst I’m not the most forward of people I don’t expect to have to have to catch the bartender’s eye and ask for a drink at what was a fairly quiet bar, I mean even an acknowledgement that we were there would have been nice!

Anyway, after that small glitch the bartender got to work making our various Martinis – Breakfast Martini, Espresso Martini and a Lychee Martini. These were pretty good, however there was no bite at all to my Breakfast Martini, which just tasted like a gin and orange juice…plus the menu said it was made with Plymouth gin but the bartender used Bombay Sapphire. Whilst this might sound like nit-picking I really don’t like Bombay, so for me this was a bit disappointing. However, not one to make a fuss I still managed to drink it, and it wasn’t terrible, it’s just that it tasted absolutely nothing like a Breakfast Martini should!

Dirty Martini is a fairly small bar comprising of one single space. It was only when we were stood with our drinks that we realised how badly laid out this place is for standing with your drinks (all the seats were taken). Wherever we stood we felt like we were encroaching on somebody else’s table, like those annoying people that hover by your table until you leave. The problem was that we honestly didn’t mind standing, it’s just there seemed to be no sensible place to do so. However, luckily we didn’t have to stand in limbo for long, as one of the booths because available at the back of the bar.

Because it was happy hour we decided to order some food with our next round of drinks. Without a doubt this turned into the most disastrous ordering I’ve ever encountered at a bar! We think some of this had to do with the fact that the waitress was pretty new, but after a while even her newbie status couldn’t explain the circus which followed and involved her going back and forth between us, the computer and the bar as she realised pretty much everything on the happy hour food menu, and some of the drinks ingredients were unavailable. After the third or fourth time she came to let us know something had run out it had become pretty ridiculous, I mean surely the waitresses should know when things run out? It’s definitely been the case in the bars and restaurants I’ve worked at before – it’s just common sense right?

As 75% of the happy hour menu was unavailable I enquired whether we could have a couple of the normal menu options at happy hour prices to which we got a simple and non-negotiable no. Then she was informed that one of the ingredients for my drink was out of stock – no problem – I chose another, only to find they couldn’t make that one either! This meant I was back to a Breakfast Martini, but this time I asked if it could be made with Plymouth and not Bombay. Unfortunately we then we waited and waited and waited. When the food finally arrived – hurrah – we also spotted our drinks waiting at the side of the bar for the waitress – things were looking up. However the drinks then sat for at least 10 minutes before a friend had to point out to the waitress that they were there.

After all of this fiasco the drinks were understandably terrible. The Dirty Martini had become far too warm and the Espresso Martini was also worse for wear after sitting waiting at the bar. The real disappointment was that my Breakfast Martini had once again been made with Bombay, so we necked them and headed off into the night in the hope of finding a semi-competent bunch of staff.

I honestly don’t want to sound harsh in my review, it’s just that it’s difficult to be anything but considering our experience at Dirty Martini. The plus points were that the drinks were generally good, as long as they didn’t sit on the bar for ages, and the venue itself is nicely put together with warm lighting to soften the New York industrial feel. But considering the shambolic service and the fact that they had run out of pretty much everything, I think that a two star rating is pretty fair. All in all I was expecting better and am therefore considering going back (in Happy Hour) to give the place another go.

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Graphic

Address:
Graphic
4 Golden Square
London
W1F 9HT

Telephone:
0207 287 9241

Website:
www.graphicbar.com

Overall Rating:


Review

Art meets bar at Graphic, a Gin bar in Soho. Order the quirky paint tin cocktails, but be prepared to stand up as it’s always busy. Average cocktails, poor service.

Average Cocktail Price: £7-8

Graphic is a Gin bar with a difference on Golden Square in Soho. Every 6 months a graphic artist is invited to decorate the venue in whatever style they choose. Currently (May 2010) Ben Allen from Brighton is in the driving seat (click here to visit his website). He says:

“My work is representative of taking layers of time, recreating something that you can’t have control over, but in a controlled manner. I take all the pieces and make my own world.”

I stopped by one evening after work, mainly because I was trying to hunt down some Bloom gin. I’d been trying to track down this new arrival for a couple of weeks, and heard that Graphic would be the place to go. Luckily my sources were spot on and I can tell you that Bloom is rather lovely, especially when paired with fever tree tonic…but anyway enough about gin – on to the review!

My first impressions of Graphic were that it is a destination for the arty Soho crowd and designer types looking for an after work drink. Most of the tables were taken up with groups of work colleagues, and the place was pretty full. As there is table service the bar itself was pretty quiet (note there were no stools as shown in the picture) so we managed to get hold of a menu as soon as we arrived. However we then had plenty of time to decide what we wanted, as we seemed to be invisible to the girl behind the bar!

The cocktail menu reflects the fact that Graphic considers itself to be a Gin bar – there is an entire section of the menu dedicated to gin cocktails. The back bar is equally impressive, with one of the best gin selections I’ve seen since Bramble in Edinburgh. For those who aren’t big gin fans, Graphic also has a cocktail list devoted to some of the classics, however I would say if you’re only going once it’d be a shame not to try one of their house cocktails.

Each of these house gin cocktails is served in a small paint tin, with a different gin as it’s ‘base spirit’ and represented by a different colour. The choices are:

  • Red – Beefeater
  • Light Blue – Bombay Sapphire
  • Green – Hendricks
  • White – Miller’s
  • Dark Blue – Plymouth

This list immediately caused me problems, as I love Hendrick’s, Miller’s and Plymouth gins, and so was completely torn between which one to choose when it came to (finally) ordering. In the end it was the Orange Liqueur, Celery Bitters and white wine combo in the ‘White’ Miller’s tin that finally caught my eye.

Whilst the paint tin presentation is pretty damn quirky, I wasn’t overly confident as to the quality of the cocktails to come out of such a vessel…but despite this initial apprehension they were really quite lovely. The ‘White’ Miller’s tin was really well balanced and not too sweet despite the addition of peach purée, and my friend’s ‘Green’ Hendrick’s tin was also top notch (although it’s difficult to go wrong with the predictable combination of cucumber and mint). After some further exploration of the menu the ‘Dark Blue’ Plymouth tin turned out to be too sweet for both of us, and by the time we left we were in agreement that the ‘White’ tin was our favourite!

If you decide on sharing one of the large tins (recommended for 4-6 people), it will arrive in it’s own paint tray. This is definitely a good thing as you’ll have to pour the contents of the big tin into each of the smaller tins, which is especially difficult when standing up! Thankfully there’s a lot of standing room (or room for crouching on the floor in an attempt to spill less of the drinks all over your shoes!). Whilst these tins are good value, you don’t get the same level of care and attention as you do with the smaller tins when they’re being made. It’s not surprising that this is the case considering the large quantities of alcohol that go into them, but I think in future I’ll stick to the smaller ones!

Overall I enjoyed Graphic, even though the music was so loud at times it was difficult to talk. The service was pretty poor, although that probably had a lot to do with how busy it was, and the cocktails were pretty good, but were nothing special. I was impressed with the range of spirits behind the bar, especially the choice of gins, and will probably go back – although I will almost definitely be ringing ahead to book a table!

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L.A.B

Address:
12 Old Compton Street
Soho
London
W1D 4TQ

Telephone:
0870 242 1428

Website:
www.lab-townhouse.com

Overall Rating:


Review

L.A.B, which stands for the London Academy of Bartenders can be found at the end of Old Compton Street in Soho. For those that know about it, it’s a great little bar that makes fantastic cocktails.

*Disclaimer* Whilst I have to admit that i’ve been to L.A.B more than a few times, for the purposes of this review I took a couple of L.A.B ‘virgins’ along with me in an attempt to remember my first impressions…

When we arrived at the door, getting into the bar wasn’t the simplest of tasks, as we had to prove we weren’t wearing ties in the middle of winter! This meant removing layers as quickly as possible to avoid getting too cold…however, once we saw the ‘book’ of cocktails we had to choose from we left our troubles at the door. Excitingly they had launched a brand new menu since the last time I had stopped by, and whilst I recognised a few old favourites, there were plenty of new options on the menu to grab my attention.

A mix of classics and originals, we found the list extensive and fairly well balanced. At around £7-£8 each, the cocktails are reasonably priced, especially for Soho, and the quality of the drinks makes them more than worth it. The only downside with the menu is it’s sheer length, it’s like reading a book! Whilst this means there’s a lot to choose from it also means it can take a fair while to choose what you want, and lead to a LOT of indecision. However, we finally each chose a different one, trying to get a mix of different styles and tastes, and placed our order with a friendly waitress. Unfortunately we then had a long wait for our drinks, even though the place wasn’t especially busy. This was by no means ideal, however when they arrived it has to be said they were fantastic drinks. The flavors were well balanced and they were nicely garnished, especially the gravity defying pear wheel which was balanced on top of my choice – a Ching (a relic from the old menu but a complete favorite of mine that comes highly recommended!).

As the first round took so long to both decide on and arrive, we decided to venture to the bar for the next round. However our drinks still took a unnecessarily long time to make as the guys behind the bar were a bit more interested in entertaining a group of good looking girls than making actual drinks… but their banter was fairly amusing and we didn’t mind too much. When the drinks finally arrived, one sip and the long wait for them seemed to melt away. I would recommend spending time talking to the bartenders behind the bar though (if you can get a word in edgeways), as they really know what they’re talking about and can direct you to those cocktails on the list that you may like.

In terms of drinks you can’t really go wrong, they are without a doubt LAB’s saving grace. The bartenders really know their stuff which isn’t surprising considering some of the faces that have worked behind the bar over the years – you know they choose and train their staff well.

A downside to L.A.B is that it’s looking a bit tired and dated. I can see how once upon a time it was a real destination for as much as the decor as the drinks, but as design trends have moved along the lack of a refurb have left it straggling behind in the style department. However, it definitely serves up some of the best cocktails on Old Compton Street, and to some extent in Soho.

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London Cocktail Club

Address:
6-7 Great Newport Street
London
WC2H 7JB

Telephone:
020 7836 8537

Website:
www.londoncocktailclub.co.uk

Overall Rating:


Review

A very friendly speakeasy type bar in the heart of touristy Leicester Square. Sitting at the bar and chatting to the bartenders is recommended. Great drinks and atmosphere. Good music too!

Average cocktail price: £7

Many people will already be familiar with JJ Goodman and James Hopkins, from their stint on BBC2’s The Restaurant in December 2009. During the series most worked out that JJ isn’t your typical food show type contestant. For one he wasn’t that great a chef, as he is first and foremost a Bartender. Having worked at many venues across London including The Livingroom and Roadhouse he brought a strong drinks based history to the show. Despite not being a fantastic cook, JJ and James managed to win the show as they brought the interesting concept of food and drink pairing to the table. Currently he is training with Raymond Blanc, in preparation for the first Goodman and Hopkins restaurant concept.

In 2008, well before appearing on The Restaurant, JJ opened London Cocktail Club. Personally I hadn’t heard of the place until a friend saw it mentioned on the show and thought I might like it. However, I was quite slow off the mark and only managed to get there this month (over two years after it opened!).

Located just by Leicester Square tube, this is not the kind of area I expect to find a great cocktail bar. However, upon descending the stairs into the basement I was pleasantly surprised. Dimly lit and fairly small, there are comfy leather chesterfields in which to relax in. It’s definitely got a Victorian Gentleman’s Club/Speakeasy vibe to it, but as soon as you walk in the place has a great, and very friendly atmosphere. It is technically a members bar, but it’s free to join and all are welcome.

This review spans three visits over a two week period which speaks volumes about my opinion of it (and the fact it’s a 10 minute walk from my office). My first experience was on a week night with some fellow cocktail enthusiasts, followed by a re-visit to check out happy hour and a late night visit after the theatre.

As soon as we walked in on the first night we were greeted by a couple of guys behind the bar, who enquired how we were. It helps that the bar’s right by the door I guess, but should you visit this bar you’ll realise that these bartenders are the type that love to chat – it’s certainly a venue where you could go for a drink by yourself and never feel lonely! We therefore pulled up a couple of stools at the bar whilst we decided what we wanted to drink. There are menus here, but they’re not that exciting, listing classics that we’ve all heard a thousand times before. However, the more I talked to the bartenders, the more I realised that London Cocktail Club doesn’t want to be an order from the menu kind of place – much better to let the bartenders know what you like, and benefit from their encyclopaedic cocktail knowledge to come up with something you’ll love.

Through the night we tried Clover Clubs, White Ladies, Old Fashioneds, Negronis and loads of others in-between. All were made well, and tasted just how you expect them to. Later on in the night I was recommended their W’egroni which is a white negroni made with their home distilled Martini Bitters (like campari) which is clear rather than deep red. I was sold. I could have drunk them all week and never have gotten bored – super impressive!

We also got the chance to have a taste of the more unusual spirits behind the bar. London Cocktail Club is technically a gin bar, so it therefore has a huge selection on offer (which means some other genres of spirits are limited in choice). The gin range included a home distilled version, made in their own still in the back room – very impressive! There was also a very old bottle of millers sat on the bar that I was dying to taste. However they can’t sell or let people taste more than a couple of drops of the contents, as they don’t know what’s in it because it’s so old! Then JJ turned up and the Jager appeared and things got a bit messy. Before long my poor monkey was being abused by Andy behind the bar, who decided to jump up on the bar, put the monkey down his trousers, and try to feed him gin (you can see the photographic evidence!).

Happy Hour reduces the price of the cocktails to just £3.50 a pop which is a complete and utter steal for the quality of drinks you get at LCC. They also have a number of food platters that you can order to accompany your drinks, although the emphasis is most definitely on the drinks.

Over the visits I’ve come to realise that whilst the guys know what they’re doing they sometimes get it wrong. There was a Gin Fizz served in Champagne glasses on one occasion. But, to be honest…I don’t care! What you can be sure of is that even if it’s not technically right, the drink put in-front of you will always be to your tastes and will be yummy. That’s kind of why I like it – it’s not a pretentious bar that claims to get everything right, they’re just trying to make good drinks and ensure everyone has a good time – and who can argue with that?

As you’ve probably realised by now, I love London Cocktail Club. The guys on a whole know their stuff; they’re also super friendly, and the cocktails are great. Even if you’re not a big cocktail fan they don’t mind, and will endeavour to come up with something you’ll like, even if you’re not sure what that is to begin with!

If you go through the week the bar will be reasonably quiet, with background music which tends to be popular, without being charty, with a bit of old school thrown in. If you go on a weekend there’ll be the same kind of music but it’ll be a hell of a lot louder, and there’ll be loads of people having a great time, and loads of jager flowing! To be honest, it’s probably the kind of bar I would open if I ever got the chance.

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Match Bar

Address:
37-38 Margaret Street
W1

Telephone:
020 7499 3443

Website:
www.matchbar.com

Overall Rating:


Review

Great bar for after work cocktails in the city. Very well known bartenders have worked behind the bar here and their influence can still be felt on the menus!

Average cocktail price: £7

Match Bar on Margaret Street is one of a small chain of bars in London (with branches also in Ibiza and Australia). It’s very close to Oxford Circus tube station which places it right at the center of one of London’s busiest hubs, however it’s down one of the back streets so doesn’t get overly busy with passing tourist trade.

There’s outside seating at the front of the bar, with seating running all the way through to the bar at the back. Whilst at times it can feel like a bit of a corridoor to the bar there are also loads of seating areas towards the back of the venue (they’re available for hire and apparently they can accomodate up to 60 people – not bad going!!). The décor is quite dark, with dark wood tables, squishy leather sofas and some awesome patterned wallpaper. It’s pretty comfy and designed to put you at ease and help you to relax and unwind after a day at work. If you do head there after work though be prepared for the after work crowd of suits and the atmosphere they inevitably bring to a venue. The good thing about Match though is that there are so many little nooks you can easily hide away if you want.

You’ve therefore got a couple of choices of where to sit at Match depending on how busy it is. On quiet nights it’s possible to linger and even sit at the bar, but at other times you’re probably best of getting a table if you can. Pre-booking is a good idea for Fridays which tend to be very busy. If you’re seated then there is table service most of the time. The waitresses here are ok, however the bartenders have such an extensive knowledge of cocktails that if possible I like to go and order at the bar.

The cocktail menus are easy to read and navigate. They contain all the classic cocktails you expect plus a few pages of Match bar originals. Don’t be surprised if you recognise some of these though, the chain has had some famous faces work behind its bars, so why not drink a Bramble at the bar chain it was invened at by Yul Brynner? They also usually have a cocktail at the bar which changes on a monthly basis. It’s usally made by one of the bartenders so can be variable depending on what you like to drink…

The bar is really well stocked with spirits which is great for drinks geeks as there’ll be a few things you may not have seen before. They hhe decor to the glassware and the fact that they have free wifi. They also have free water (is it just me though or should this be a given?!).

They also have a great food menu with good drinking grub such as burgers, fish and chips, and mac and cheese! I thoroughly recommend the sharing blocks as they give you bits of meat and bred to nibble on – perfect with cocktails (their calamari is also GREAT!).

In terms of cocktails on the menu, I really enjouyed the Anniversary Fizz. It was a complete winner for me, and became my cocktail of the month back in May 2010. The combination of gin, aperol, lemon juice, passion fruit syrup and soda just sounds yummy from the moment you read it, especially if you’re an aperol fiend like me! Other great concoctions are the Sosho cooler (beware contains wine AND vodka!), The Perfect Werthmann, and the Americano Arancio. All of the drinks during our evening were well made, including a fantasic amaretto sour, which was one of the best I’ve had in a long time.

For me Match is a great bar to come to after work, however I’m not sure I would trek across London just to come here. Yes the cocktails are great, yes the staff are skilled, yes the place is pretty friendly, but it’s just not quite special enough to warrant a trip for it’s sake alone.

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Marks Bar @ HIX London

Address:
66-70 Brewer Street
London
W1F 9UP

Telephone:
020 7292 3518

Website:
www.hixsoho.com

Overall Rating:


Review

When Mark Hix opened up a new restaurant in Soho it didn’t really register on my radar, as unfortunately my meagre wage cannot stretch to such fine dining. However in my endless search for great cocktails I have been known to dip into the ‘Gin Monkey kitty’ (which is completely imaginary but makes the expenditure feel more justified)…so when I heard that Mark was opening a bar downstairs I went to have a look.

The aptly named Mark’s Bar sits in the basement of HIX, so before you can get there you have to find the restaurant itself. I say that because despite working in Soho myself and knowing exactly where it should be, I still found it difficult to locate! So, listen up people – once you get to Brewer Street look out for a huge solid wooden door – it does have a plaque next to it that says HIX but this isn’t immediately visible when it’s dark. As the windows in the restaurant are frosted I’ve found this to be by far the best way to guide people there.

When you get there (hopefully without too much trouble), just let the lovely people at the reception desk know that you’re wanting a drink in the bar. If you’re not planning to eat in the restaurant they’ll normally let you know that you will need to order some bar snacks with your drinks (due to their licence) but they’re yummy so don’t worry. Then just follow the fluorescent finger down the stairs…

The first thing you notice when you walk into the basement is the long zinc bar that runs the length of the room. We took up a two chairs by the bar and were immediately handed a couple of cocktail menus, a bar menu, and poured a glass of water each. I was surprised at how low the bar was, even once seated, however I was informed by the bartender that this is because it was inherited from the basements past life as a sushi bar.

The drinks menus themselves are really well designed with soft leather covers Marks Hix Billiardsembossed with the Mark’s bar logo (the fluorescent finger thingy from earlier). However, if I’ve got one criticism, it’s that the cocktail section is pretty difficult to navigate. Although it is split into sections these don’t make it easy to narrow down what you want. Plus the drink titles are followed by a short history/description of influences of each one, and only after that are the ingredients listed. Whilst this makes for an interesting read, we ended up spending a significant amount of time trying to choose what to drink…hardly ideal in some social situations (although we did have the advantage that since it was my birthday we were treated to a couple of glasses of mulled wine on the house when we first arrived, and so weren’t in too much of a rush).

The drinks themselves include seasonal ingredients and are really innovative whilst at the same time simple, although i’d expect no less from Nick Strangeway (formerly of the Hawksmoor). When I managed to find and read the ingredients I was therefore excited about sampling the drinks on offer, however deciding what to choose was somewhat difficult! When we’d finally made our choices the bartender soon got to work, but even this distracted our attention from normal social interaction (i.e talking) as the first thing he did was to take a huge block of ice out of the freezer and started to chisel away at it!

When our drinks arrived I wasn’t disappointed with my choice – a Bittersweet Symphony – as it was AMAZING, and the Lambs Wool was lovely too. There was no elaborate garnishing of the drinks, but they were so well made and tasted so good that i’m actually glad they weren’t added for the sake of it (like the guy that sticks straws on the outside of a Martini glass because it looks fancy…). Oh and I have to mention the glassware, which is really cool and quirky, from huge metal tankards to teacups mounted on Martini stems and the odd vintage babysham glass or two.

We also ordered some chips and queen scallops which were great (remember the licencing thing), and it was nice to have something to munch on with our cocktails, especially as we were going to stay for a few. However, the drinks themselves disappeared fairly quickly…and after the mammoth task choosing last time, we decided to put ourselves in the hands of the bartenders. They soon worked out what drinks, spirits and flavours we liked and got to work whipping us up what my grandad would call ‘bobby dazzlers’. Don’t be afraid to do this at Mark’s – the staff are complete professionals who really know their stuff and will make sure they make you something you will like. And to be honest it’s a hell of a lot quicker than trying to navigate the vast and confusing menu by yourself!

Despite my issues with the menu, Mark’s bar gets a well deserved 5 star rating from me. It’s a great venue, with a lovely atmosphere, full of old school charm (including a bar billiards table), with attentive staff serving fantastic cocktails. I was surprised to find a place like this in Soho, where bars can often be too loud, crowded and overpriced for my liking, especially on a weekend. And although HIX is no exception and is also busy on a Friday and Saturday, they’ll try to accommodate you if they can. If you are planning to have a meal in the restaurant do take the time to also sample the delights of Mark’s, otherwise you’d be missing out on what I think is going to be come a destination for cocktail lovers in the coming months (as much as I love this place i’m slightly loathed to review it because I don’t want to give away the secret…i’ll be upset if it gets so busy that I can’t get in any more!).

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