The best secret bars in London

I’ve trawled across London in search of the capital’s best clandestine drinking dens, from Shoreditch and Soho to Kensal Rise. I’ve discovered whisky joints hidden behind bookcases , password-only speakeasies, and even a cocktail club in unassuming art dealer’s shop. Plus, don’t miss my insider’s tips, from what to order to the best tables to nab.

Old Mary’s Cocktail Bar, Bayswater

old-marys-london-bar-alcoveFew hipsters have clocked the speakeasy in the basement of this Mitre pub. That’s probably down to the neighbourhood it’s located in, Bayswater. It’s better known for its  budget b&bs and the grubby shopping street Queensway, and about as trendy as AOL messenger. But it’s worth making the pilgrimage over to W2 to enjoy some craft beer or cocktails in this converted Victorian servant quarters, which still has its original brick walling and giant fire grate. Weathered communal tables and Gothic candles the size of car cylinders complete the look.

Insider tip: I prefer Thursday evenings when there’s live jazz. I recommend the Weeping Willow cocktail with gin, tarragon and sugar snap peas. Hot Dogs are good too. The Notting Hill Arts Club is just around the corner if you’re looking for somewhere to move on to.

24 Craven Terrace, Lancaster Gate, W2 3QH; 020 7262 5240; open 5pm-11.30pm Wednesday and Thursday, until 12am Friday and Saturday, and until 10.30pm Sunday;

Portside Parlour, Shoreditch


I have walked past this place on Rivington Street countless times thinking it was just a  nautical-themed antiques shop – what with wooden helm, castanets frayed like split spaghetti, and vintage naval uniforms in the window. But, turns out that inside is a small bar with more than 80 choices of rum, one of the widest selections in the capital. Candles glow in crystal tumblers, the tables are made from old trunks stuffed with seafaring gear, and murals depicting raucous dock tavern scenes are smattered on the walls. There are stools if you like to be at the bar, but the generous number of leather sofas give the place a cosy, convivial atmosphere too.

Insider’s tip: Try the 21-year El Dorado from Guyana if you’re drinking straight. This rare, word-class rum is the best I’ve ever tasted in London – full-bodied, rich, slightly caramel, and smooth as a baby’s cheek. If you prefer cocktails, then I really enjoyed the  Long Fall with Panamanium rum and maple syrup. It’s sweet but not too cloying, with a thick, commanding smokiness that pleasantly fills the the back of your throat.

14 Rivington Street, Shoreditch EC2A 3DU; 0203 6626 38; 5.30pm-1am Friday and Saturday. 5.30pm-12am Tuesday to Thursday, 4pm-10.30pm Sundays, closed Mondays;

Chelsea Prayer Room, Royal Borough


You’ll need the daily changing password to enter this tiny cocktail den located in the basement of an Italian restaurant. Expect drinks menus presented in prayer books that smell of church and are slightly stained; deep, leather chesterfield sofas redolent of Sherlock Holmes, and mock tiled antique ceiling, deliberately chipped. 

Insider’s tip: Call the restaurant (number below) for the bar entry password. If you’re coming with friends, try and book the banquette at the far end of the room that can be closed off with curtains. Cocktails have an English flavour – I like the refreshing rhubarb bellinis and adorably twee earl grey martinis to share served in teapots. 

333 Fulham Road SW10 9QL; 020 7352 1384; open until 1am Friday and Saturday, until 12am Sunday to Thursday; 

Below @ Pelicans and Parrotts, Stoke Newington


You must sign up to the mailing list to be alerted of the set nights when this retro rum bar with fluorescent pineapples in bird cages and random displays of stuffed birds is open to the public (they do a lot of private events). It’s accessed through a secret door in an art dealer’s shop at 81 Stoke Newington Road, which specialises in Banksy prints. You’ll soon be sipping on Passion Coladas and bobbing to throwback hip hop floating from the DJ decks. 

Insider’s tip: Email or call a few days in advance for the password; the management is quite laid back so a response can take a while. There’s a vintage store directly above that is strong on Italian designer brands and also belongs to Pelicans and Parrots – so come a bit earlier and you can rummage through the Ungaro dresses and Versace t-shirts before navigating to the secret bar below ground.

81 Stoke Newington Road N16 8AD; 020 7249 9177; open 8pm-12am Wednesday to Saturday, closed Sunday to Tuesday;

Evans and Peel, Earls Court


The rigmarole around getting into this place is probably the most elaborate of the lot. You need to make an ‘appointment’ with the resident detective before rocking up at his agency office in Earls Court – an unremarkable redbrick terrace building with the words ‘Evans & Peel Detective Agency’ in Art Deco font on its pane of frosted glass. You’ll also have to charm the detective and produce a password to get through to the illicit bar behind another door. Once inside, you’ll find a bar carved from old church pews, a wall of white tiles all sodden and cracked. Bottles are stacked precariously on antique index cabinets. The liquor is unlabelled and cocktails are served in brown paper bags. 

Insider tip: the bourbon-based cocktails, which are richly flavoured and have some welly, are the best drinks served here as far as I’m concerned. I found it quite hot – so wear something with short sleeves. Beware the hefty service charge.

310c Earls Court Road SW5 9BA; 020 7373 3573; open 5pm-12.30am Friday and Saturday, 5pm-12am Tuesday to Thursday, closed Sunday and Monday;

The Shop, Kensal Rise


To passing trade, this place seems like nothing more than a frowzy curiosity shop stuffed with old pianos, oil paintings and etchings of the Queen. A second glance through the window and you’ll notice a bar jutting out at the far end of the room. I found the cocktails served in jam jars are suitably sweet – sprayed with passion fruit syrups, black cherry compotes and apricot brandy coco. Make a beeline for one of the comfy Sherlock-buttoned leather sofas.

Insider’s tip: For stimulation of the visual senses as well as the taste buds, attend during one of the regular art exhibition evenings.  

75 Chamberlayne Road NW10 3ND; 020 8969 9399; 10am-12am Friday and Saturday, 4pm-12am Sunday to Thursday;

The Vault, Soho


You pass through a bookcase tucked away in Milroy’s of Soho, an upscale off license that specialises in single and rare malt whiskies and champagnes. You’re suddenly in a bar with wood-clad alcoves; shelves topped with books and vintage bourbons; and exposed brick walls so rough if you come too near you might graze your skin. You can taste whiskies from around the world, and there’s a huge range of top-shelf whisky cocktails – go for the Japanese Garden with Nikka By the Barrel and rose vermouth.

Insider’s tip: Whisky lockers are actually available here – so that when regular patrons visit, they can have their favourite bottle to hand.

3 Greek Street W1D 4NX; open 6pm-12pm Wednesday to Saturday; closed Sunday to Tuesday,

Lounge Bohemia, Shoreditch


Entrance to this kitsch-tastic speakeasy at 1E Eastern Street is by appointment only – ring 07720707000. Think Art Deco easy chairs, paper lanterns and walls decorated with psychedelic tiles. The drinks are hidden in novels strewn across the room. Cocktails are bizarre – lavender creme-brulee with vodka and condensed milk, or purple brain with beetroot and cardamom anyone?

Insider’s tip: This is a good option for a date as it rarely gets very busy. Pay heed to the ‘no suits no shirts’ dress code. The staff can be a bit snooty; just take no notice and enjoy the wacky drinks.

1e Great Eastern Street London EC2A 3EJ; 07720 707000; 0pen 6pm-12am Monday to Saturday and 6pm-11 on Sunday;

Asylum Speakeasy Dalston


A Tuesdays-only secret den on the Kingsland Road as dedicated to dancing as it is to the partaking of alcoholic drink. You’ll see performing waltzers and burlseque dancers in all their sequinned plumage and finery – and regular attendees putting down their cocktails intermittently to engage in a spot of Charleston, foxtrot or Lindy Hop. It’s seasonal and not on all year – so check in advance.

Insider’s tip: No walk-ups are admitted; you have to pay the £5 ticket fee on the website in advance, and you’ll subsequently receive the venue address.

Tuesdays at a secret E2 location;

Drawing room at BFI, Southbank


A Twenties-inspired speakeasy hidden behind a bookshelf (yes another one) in the main restaurant at the British Film Institute cinema on the Southbank. The drinks menu focuses on martinis and champagne cocktails. The surroundings are cerebral with a sense of theatre: red velvet drapes, leather poufs and shelves laden with Shakespeare plays, antique clocks and globes.

Insider tip: I loved the classic martini, so definitely come here if that’s your tipple. They do cocktail masterclasses too.

BFI Southbank Belvedere Road London SE1 8XT; 020 7401 9000; open until 11pm Monday to Saturday and until 10.30pm on Sunday;

Shochu Lounge, Soho


No secret entrance or password gimmicks. Just a really good basement shochu bar attached to a Japanese restaurant that few have discovered. The decor is fabulously garish – manga murals and a ceiling crowned with fake cherry blossom. High shelves heave with rows of Japanese dolls. It would be rude to come here and not try one of the shochu cocktails – the shochu on the beach with cherry shochu and peach liqueur is my favourite.

Insider’s tip: Don’t eat before you come. The restaurant above supplies the fantastic bar food. Go for the scallop skewers and baby back ribs with cashew nuts on the side.

37 Charlotte Sreet London W1T 1RR; 020 7580 6464; open until 11.30pm Monday to Saturday, and until 10.30pm on Sunday;

Phoenix Artist Club, Strand


A private members bar attached to the Phoenix theatre that is open to everyone – as long as you arrive before 8pm. The cocktails are perfectly acceptable but it’s more about the atmosphere of this drinking den converted from the theatre’s old Art Deco dressing rooms, and plastered in signed posters from theatre productions passed.

Insider’s tip: If you’re lucky you might catch a cabaret session or impromptu numbers by West End stars performing up the road. 

1 Phoenix Street London WC2H 8BU; 020 7836 1077; open 10am-2.30am Monday to Saturday and 12pm-1.30am on Sunday;

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