City Guide to London

Drinks International's World's 50 Best Bars brings you the first of a series of guides chronicling world cities’ best bars. Academy member Lucy Britner sets her sights on the UK capital.

London is blessed on the bar front. There is a constant stream of openings and to mention just 10 is really tough. The city has always been well represented on the World’s 50 Best Bars list and, according to cocktail historian Jared Brown, it is central to the history of mixed drinks. 

In his Telegraph article The Surprising History of the Cocktail, he writes: “Until recently, the earliest-known use of the word ‘cocktail’ in print that referenced drink was from 1806 in an upstate New York newspaper. Then, in 2005, it was discovered in a Vermont newspaper from 1803. In 2010 we found the word used in the March 20, 1798, edition of The Morning Post and Gazetteer, a long-defunct London newspaper…”

Today London serves as a centre for inspiration and a sort of apprenticeship hub for bartenders from all over the world. You can learn from some of the best in this city. That’s not to say it’s all good. London has its share of terrible bars where even a clean glass is a big ask. But we’re here to celebrate the best…

When I can afford it – or when someone else is paying – London’s hotel bars really offer an amazing experience. Unlike some try-hard venues, stepping into many 5-star hotels doesn’t mean you face a frosty ‘you don’t belong here’ door person. 

Service is king and, although your bartender will want to give you a perfect drink, he won’t be a self-absorbed dick about it. 

A lot of the romance around hotel bars comes with the history and the decor. The Deco dollies floating around 1920s Mayfair are almost visible in the mirrors of the Connaught and Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories echo in the walls at the Artesian’s Langham Hotel. To be a bartender at one of these places is to seal a place in drinks history. Just look at the Savoy and its list of bar alumni. 

Of course that’s not to say service isn’t king at other bars – and when a venue gets it right, it really is terrific. 

So, here’s a selection of noteworthy London bars. 


Carlos Place, London,

This place oozes luxury and it sits in one of London’s most exclusive neighbourhoods. Mayfair is home of the Bentley and the designer handbag and you can definitely feel the embrace of tradition in the bar. The Martini Trolley is a delight to behold and you can sit back and relax while a white-gloved aficionado knocks up the perfect Martini, made to your liking. But remember, this is a classy joint so Martinis will be quietly stirred – and not shaken. That’s not to say this place doesn’t innovate – it does – and it counts top bar talents Ago Perrone and Rusty Cervan among its ’tenders. Ago is director of mixology and you’re more likely to see him judging competitions than entering them. Cervan, on the other han,d has been making waves and winning a fair few gongs – he’s currently on tour as the Bols Around the World champ, with January dates in Japan. 


129 City road, London,

The Nightjar is a nocturnal bird that makes the most of the dark. No surprise, then, that this is a basement bar, open late. It’s in the popular Old Street area of the city and, although on first view the region looks like a giant roundabout with a mishmash of high buildings, its nooks and crannies reveal a plethora of back street bars, restaurants and vintage shops. 

Nightjar is not only famous for its drinks – often created by top ’tender Marian Beke – but also its 1920s vibe and live jazz music. The music is so popular that live nights book up quickly and punters who get in are sure to lose themselves in that little basement. 

There are lots of quiet corners in this bar and you get the feeling that clandestine meetings over Prohibition-era drinks are taking place. 

The bar has just celebrated its third birthday and it was recently named the second best bar in the world. Not bad for a three year old. 

Portobello Star

171 Portobello road, 

Like all of these places, it’s hard to talk about a venue without thinking of the person who makes it great. In this case, we’re talking about Jake Burger. This Leeds lad has added his own magic to the London bar scene and the Portobello Star is more than just a bar. You can make your own gin there, too. The Ginstitute opened in 2012 and, as well as a small museum to amuse yourself with, you can get creative with botanicals. After education comes distillation and the chaps at the Ginstitute will keep your personal recipe on file so you can reorder it. A slightly arrogant Christmas present, perhaps? 

If you don’t want to make your own gin, Burger et al have already made one and it’s rolling out all over the place. Portobello Road is a London Dry with juniper berries, lemon peel, bitter orange peel, coriander seeds, orris root, angelica root, cassia bark, liquorice and nutmeg. It is made by the capable Charles Maxwell of Thames Distillers. 

White Lyan

153 Hoxton street, London,

Yes, yes, we know the White Lyan’s USP: no fruit, no ice. Well, no problem for maestros Ryan Chetiyawardana and Iain Griffiths. The drinks are premixed and chilled in various fridges and freezers. They also include all kinds of weird and wonderful ingredients – the Bone Martini contains a tincture made from chicken bones – and the guys spend pretty much all day pre-making the drinks so that service is quick and easy. 

Since it opened its doors last year, White Lyan has attracted the attention of Time Out and London’s Evening Standard newspaper. Time Out shot straight in with five stars, setting this bar up as a serious addition to the London bar scene. The reviewer asks: “Does all this sound a bit pretentious? Think about it like this: comparing White Lyan to your local boozer is like comparing Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck to a greasy spoon...” The customer reviews, however, are mixed. All the more reason to go along and judge for yourself. 

Milk & Honey 

61 Poland Street, London,

It’s impossible to write about the London bar landscape without mentioning this place. It is almost 12 years old now and it’s a Soho institution. It’s a members’ bar but access to non-members is allowed as long as you make a reservation and it’s before 11pm. On first visit you might think the ground level bar is Milk & Honey. But explore a little further and you’ll find more levels. There are plenty of cosy corners but if you want to get more involved, go on the first Tuesday of the month for the Soho Cocktail Club or hire out the basement for 50 of your nearest and dearest. 

Milk & Honey London is the sister venue to its New York namesake, which opened in 2000 and relocated to larger premises in January 2013. 

Many bartenders pass through the ‘school’ of Milk & Honey and the exacting standards learned at the venue have set many a ’tender up in their own bar. 

The house rules are famous and fairly funny. My favourite is “no name-dropping, no star-f**king”. 

Happiness Forgets

8-9 Hoxton Square, London, 

This bar is testament to the phrase ‘less is more’. It’s a bare-brick basement affair in Hoxton with well-trained bar staff. Its motto reads: High End Cocktails, Low Rent Basement. The website also states “no wallies”, which is what everyone strives for in a great bar, really.

You can only sit and it’s the kind of place you can go to have a long chat with friends – or a date – without feeling like the music’s too loud or the venue is too crowded. Think wooden stools, candlelight and, for a good show and gentle banter, sit up at the bar. It was founded by Alastair Burgess, who created the place because he wanted a bar where people could sit and talk to friends and not have to fight their way to be served. It worked. 


1C PortLand PLaCe, London,

It had to be on this list, really. It has been voted the best bar in the world not once but twice. And with good reason. Gaga is a regular at the Langham but you don’t need to be a celebrity to receive top service. Drinks are lovingly prepared by dynamic duo Alex Kratena and Simone Caporale, along with their team. Their latest cocktail menu is daring and progressive – demonstrating that you really don’t need to be as buttoned down as your uniform when it comes to hotel cocktails.

They shunned the traditional menu approach and introduced an interactive Butterfly Wheel, which allows guests to “choose progressive cocktails and unusual flavour combinations”.

Cocktails are listed on a flavour wheel that is colour-coded according to the descriptive style and flavours of each cocktail.

Slushy machines and goat skins have also been a feature at this bar and who knows what will appear in the future? The greatest thing about this place is that it does not rest on its laurels. And, if it had laurels, they would no doubt find their way into a cocktail.

Calooh Callay

65 Rivington Street, LONDON

This is a fun place to go for a date and the cocktails are great. The bar is known for its adventurous streak and you can venture through the wardrobe door on the website as well as in the actual bar. Of course the name is a reference to Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, but what I like most is the cocktail menus. During one visit they were in cassette tapes and billed like greatest hits.

More recently they were in London transport Oyster card-style wallets. According to the bar’s Facebook, 1,000 of them were ‘stolen’ in the first three weeks of the new menu. But all is forgiven since the team at CC want you to take the menu away with you.

Upstairs, the bar changes every six weeks to a new ‘pop-up’. Recent incarnations include a Candy Store with rows of jars of sweets and old-fashioned scales. Of course, cocktails were on the menu, too.


35 St James Place, London,

Yes, *another* hotel bar. But this
one is smaller than the others and not so easy to find. It has five stars and the bar is famous for its former ’tender Salvatore Calabrese’s perfect Martini creation - according to a respected travel writer who sipped it during his stay. 

It is now headed up by the affable and all-round delightful Alessandro Palazzi. He is a warm and generous host who mixes a mean Martini. He’s so generous, he’ll even show you how to create the perfect Martini at his Martini Masterclass - though you’ll have to cross his palm with £95.  

Beaufort Bar, Savoy

Strand, London,

Although I do love the American Bar at the Savoy, it does attract a lot of headlines. Rightly so as it’s famous and its bartenders are famous. No doubt it’s also frequented by the famous. But I feel the Beaufort Bar sometimes gets lost in the shadow of its more famous sibling. A bit like all the Kardashians who aren’t Kim. Champagne, cocktails and cabaret are the aim of the place and it also holds a special place in history – though perhaps more with the theatre crowd than the bartender scene.

The bar’s blurb reads: “The bar itself stands on the hotel’s former cabaret stage, which was graced by such luminaries as Carol Gibbons, the Savoy Orpheans and George Gershwin.”

This tradition is continued with nightly live entertainment, as well as monthly evenings of cabaret and burlesque.

It’s an Art Deco affair and the Champagne selection is note- worthy. The list is divided into the The Classics, The Unique, The Giants and The Glorious. You’ll have to go along to find out which is which.