Londoners tend to belong to private clubs or to have favorite bars where they meet friends.
Where should visitors go if they can’t get into the Groucho or the Arts Club? How to avoid tourist joints or the tedium of venues whose business is built on passing trade and whose service reflects the fact that you probably won’t be back?
Here are 25 establishments, from pubs to hotel bars, with great drinks, good service, an interesting ambience and the kind of customers you’d be happy to be seen drinking with.
28-50: This is an exciting, great-value wine bar with a fine selection of food. It’s the offshoot of Texture restaurant, whose co-owner Xavier Rousset is a master sommelier, formerly of Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. Chef Paul Walsh previously worked at the three-Michelin-star Gordon Ramsay. There’s now a second outlet in Marylebone as well as the original on Fetter Lane. Signature drink: Jacques Picard Champagne (7.95 pounds/$12.34). http://www.2850.co.uk/
69 Colebrooke Row: This corner bar on a backstreet in Islington is so low key, you may miss it. It’s home to Tony Conigliaro, one of the U.K.’s foremost barmen. He creates the cocktails in a laboratory a few blocks away and you’d have to scour London to find a list to compare. If you want amazing concoctions served without attitude, this is the place. 69 Colebrooke Row and the Connaught Bar are finalists for World’s Best Cocktail Bar at Tales of the Cocktail awards in New Orleans on July 28. Signature drink: Prairie Oyster (8.50 pounds). http://69colebrookerow.com/
Bar Boulud: This casual restaurant of New York chef Daniel Boulud, at ground level in the Mandarin Oriental hotel, is known for its great burgers. It’s also a convivial venue for a drink. If you can grab a seat at the bar, you’ll probably end up chatting with staffers and fellow customers. There’s no pressure to order food, though I rarely resist. Signature drink: White Cosmopolitan (13.25 pounds). http://bit.ly/Nj25gL
Bobby’s Bar: This beautiful venue is in the basement of Bob Bob Ricard, an extravagantly decorated restaurant. It looks a million dollars and cost a lot more to create. Bobby’s ramps up the glamour. Small booths give the impression of a luxury train, not so much the Orient Express as something suited for a tsar. Drinks prices are surprisingly modest. Signature drink: Pink Rhubarb Gin and Tonic (8.50 pounds). http://www.bobbobricard.com/bar.html
Boundary: This hotel’s rooftop bar in East London is popular in the summer. There’s seating around an open fireplace and there are blankets if it gets chilly. The views are panoramic and the youngish crowd is friendly. There’s also a 48-seat grill restaurant. Signature drink: Rooftop Garden (23 pounds for a pitcher). http://www.theboundary.co.uk/rooftop/
Callooh Callay: This quirky Hoxton cocktail bar has a secret. Most of the establishment is reached via a wardrobe in the front room. Nothing dates as quickly as fashion and it’s to the owners’ credit that Callooh Callay hasn’t lost its cool. This is one for our younger readers. Callooh Callay is a finalist in New Orleans for Best Cocktail Menu. Signature drink: If You Don’t Gnome Me by Now, punch bowl, (55 pounds). http://www.calloohcallaybar.com/welcome/
Connaught Bar: The Martini cart carries seven home-made bitters: cardamom, coriander seeds, ginger, grapefruit, lavender, licorice and vanilla. The famed barman, Agostino Perrone from Lake Como, constructs your drink while embracing you with charm, which is clever as he only has two (white gloved) hands. This elegant venue, designed by David Collins, is at the back of the hotel. Signature drink: Martini (16 pounds). http://www.the-connaught.co.uk/
The Dispensary: This East London pub and dining room was built in 1858 to house the Eastern Dispensary, founded by the Duke of Wellington to provide medical care for the poor. The current owner, David Cambridge, was once a chef to Conrad Black and the British Royal Family. Cambridge and his wife Annie bought the place in 2006 and have restored it -- but not much. It’s pleasingly rough around the edges. Signature drink: Florence NightingAle (3.30 pounds). http://www.thedispensarylondon.co.uk/
Dukes Bar: This hotel bar is the home of the Martini. Ian Fleming used to be a regular and Dukes can claim to be the inspiration for the line, “Shaken not stirred.” The hotel recently celebrated its centenary and this is a very grown-up bar: Sneakers are banned and guests who loudly hum the “James Bond Theme” while waiting for their drink might not feel welcome. Signature drink: Vespa Martini (16.95 pounds). http://www.dukeshotel.com/foodanddrink-dukesbar.php
Experimental Cocktail Club: This upstairs Chinatown bar opens at 6 p.m. I arrived one minute later to be told, “We’re full.” If you don’t have the right look -- or, failing that, a card showing you are a journalist -- you might not get in. It’s safer to book online. The place was near-empty once I made it past the door staff, whose efficiency meant the punters were quite attractive. (There’s a New York branch on the Lower East Side.) Signature drink: Saint Germain des Pres (11.50 pounds.) http://experimentalcocktailclublondon.com/
Galvin at Windows: This 28th-floor bar reopened in May after a 500,000 pound facelift. You may go here for the 360-degree views across London, including the back garden of Buckingham Palace and as far away as Wembley Stadium and Hampstead Heath. Or you may go for chef Andre Garrett’s bar snacks or for the service of restaurant manager Fred Sirieix, one of the stars of the U.K. hospitality world. Signature drink: Galvin’s Garden (15 pounds). http://bit.ly/O9zU4X
Happiness Forgets: This basement cocktail bar opened below a Thai restaurant in 2010. It’s in Hoxton Square, the artistic home of East London chic, which can feel cliquey if you are above a certain age or below a certain threshold of attractiveness. To its credit, Happiness Forgets has a reputation for creative cocktails and an ever-changing list. The door policy? “No wallies.” Signature drink: Mikey Rivers (8 pounds). http://www.happinessforgets.com/
Hawksmoor Spitalfields Bar: This new bar is in the basement of Hawksmoor, an establishment whose owners helped raise the standard of steak in London restaurants. Huw Gott and Will Beckett are hardworking restaurateurs with an eye for detail and that’s on show in this venue, which features excellent bar snacks. Signature drink: Shaky Pete’s Ginger Brew (9 pounds). http://thehawksmoor.com/locations/Spitalfields
London Cocktail Club: This basement bar was created by J.J. Goodman and James Hopkins, winners of “The Restaurant” and backed by that television show’s star, chef Raymond Blanc and its judges David Moore (of Pied a Terre) and Sarah Willingham. It’s cool, in a slightly grungy kind of way -- “Victorian speakeasy” -- and is a club only in the sense that it brings together people who enjoy experimenting with cocktails. No membership is required. Signature drink: Flaming Zombie Volcano (15 pounds). http://www.londoncocktailclub.co.uk/
Mark’s Bar: This basement bar, below Hix restaurant in Soho, is a magnet for celebrities and the artistic set of which Mark Hix is a leading light. While Hix is one of London’s most influential restaurateurs, he’s also a world-class bon vivant. His laid-back sociability is reflected in the mix-and-match furnishings and the exotic cocktails devised by Nick Strangeway, a former world-champion mixologist. Signature drink: Hix Fix (12.75 pounds). http://www.marksbar.co.uk/
Nightjar: The entrance to this glamorous bar is behind a doorway hidden between two cafes on the fringes of Shoreditch, so you’ll need to do your homework even to find the place. You are seated at a table and served cocktails that range from pre-Prohibition to modern. Nightjar is open seven days a week. There’s vintage jazz from Wednesday through Saturday, when there’s a cover charge of 5 to 7 pounds and reservations are recommended. Signature drink: New Orleans Fizz (12 pounds). http://www.barnightjar.com/
The Parlour: This tea room and bar occupies the prime ground-floor space at Sketch, an exotic, beautiful venue in a Mayfair townhouse. There are two restaurants, yet I always return to the Parlour, a quirky room that progresses through the day from breakfast through afternoon tea to cocktails. The decor changes constantly because co-owner Mourad Mazouz never allows his creativity to rest. Signature drink: Lovely Bubbly (15 pounds). http://bit.ly/MXrcae
Polpo: This New York-style Venetian tavern in Soho quickly became popular when it opened in 2009 and it’s still popular. Less well known is the small basement Campari Bar, which was added 18 months ago. It only seats 16 at a zinc-topped bar, with the stools made from steel tubing and ceiling joists. Signature drink: Negroni (7 pounds). http://polpo.co.uk/campari-bar
Pride of Spitalfields: This is an old, unspoiled East End boozer off Brick Lane. It attracts real-ale lovers and workers from the City seeking an escape from the wine bars and modern pubs of the financial district. There has been a pub on the site since the 19th century. Signature drink: London Pride (3 pounds). No website.
Shochu Lounge: This basement bar beneath Roka is Japanese style, with clean lines and dim lighting. The ice is created using purified and filtered water and is slowly frozen. The place is stylish and popular with the advertising and media crowd for which Fitzrovia is known. The area is attracting more restaurants and is a less-manic alternative to neighboring Soho. Signature drink: Hazumi Yuki (8.60 pounds). http://www.shochulounge.com/
Sushisamba: This venue isn’t scheduled to open before Friday, so check before going. It’s a bar-and-restaurant complex on the 38th and 39th floors of the Heron Tower. I’ve already been up for a look, and the views are unmatched. There are two outdoor terraces, while the food will incorporate Brazilian, Peruvian and Japanese cuisines. Signature drink: Shiso Fine (11.50 pounds). http://sushisamba.com/
Upstairs at Rules: Rules restaurant was founded in 1798 and is a favorite with Londoners and tourists alike. The Cocktail Bar … Upstairs at Rules is less well known, and is a bit of an insider secret. It’s tricky to find and, when you get there, a seat at the bar is generally by invitation only. You’ll probably be settled at one of the tables. There’s no music. Signature drink: Rules Cocktail (12.95 pounds). http://www.rules.co.uk/cocktailbar/225
Viajante: Chef Nuno Mendes is known for the creativity of the cooking at his restaurant, and it’s a similar story of experimentation at this bar next door. There’s a seasonal cocktail tasting menu served from Sundays through Wednesdays between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. Signature drink: Ron Burgundy (10 pounds). http://www.viajante.co.uk/
Vinoteca: This cramped wine bar is known for its wide range of bottles from small producers around the world. The food is pretty good too. Vinoteca is inexpensive and unpretentious and there are now branches in Marylebone and Soho, as well as the original at Farringdon. Signature drink: Prosecco on tap (4 pounds). http://www.vinoteca.co.uk/Farringdon/
Zetter Townhouse: This quirky lounge was once destined to be a private club and it has that feel. It’s cluttered with objets d’art and stuffed animals yet nothing is random. The look was created by Russell Sage (best known for his work with Gordon Ramsay), while the cocktails are by Tony Conigliaro and the food is by Bruno Loubet. Zetter Townhouse is a finalist this week in New Orleans for World’s Best Hotel Bar and World’s Best New Cocktail Bar. Signature drink: Borage French 75 (8.50 pounds). http://www.thezettertownhouse.com/
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Ryan Sutton on New York restaurants and James Russell on architecture.