With the prospect of a second lockdown beginning on Thursday, there’s no time to waste in sourcing the perfect bar for your last night out. London is brimming with watering holes where the lights are low, the music steady and the shelves glimmering with bottles yearning to be mixed to perfection. If you’re tempted by the promise of a spicy margarita or something short and stiff, here’s how to make the most of your last days of freedom before December.
Tabac, Kentish Town
Kentish Town – Camden’s calmer, more refined older sister – is host to a smattering of quietly brilliant pubs and cafes populated by trendy young families and enviably carefree 20-somethings. It’s also home to a low-key winning cocktail bar within earshot of the tube.
Tabac, an unassuming tobacconist shop-turned-bar, is vaguely French in theme with interiors that tastefully nod to the drinking dens of old Paris – thankfully without a clichéd Moulin Rouge or Paris Metro print in sight. Instead there are candlelit booths for two, corner banquettes for more and a tight team of attentive bartenders who effortlessly come and go.
The small but mighty drinks menu is cocktail-orientated, bolstered with a few beers and a handful of wines. When ordered by the glass, the wine is generously poured to the brim and refilled in the blink of an eye. With the house white only £3.80 a pop, one needn’t worry about footing the bill. Mixed behind a high-rise wooden bar, cocktails range from classics including a stirring Espresso Martini to signature specials like Smoker’s Delight with Lamproaig whisky, chocolate liqueur and bitters or a St Germain des Pres using the elderflower liquor not often seen in the big smoke.
Nibbles come in the form of snacks – it’s the drinks that are the draw here – but platters piled with chunky countryside terrine, smoked duck breast, comté, truffled pecorino and cornichons galore are welcome indeed. They also run occasional guest chef residences worth keeping an eye out for.
The bar is petite (by which I mean tiny) and booking is recommended, especially with their happy hour running from 4-6pm.
The Black Book, Soho
Formerly known to the Soho elite as TRADE – a members-only wine bar for industry faces – this basement haunt has reinvented itself as a spot for all wine lovers. A steep set of stairs on Frith Street leads to this dugout bar that feels as though it’s invitation-only, despite its new open-door policy and relaxed dress code.
Competing for a seat at the high table, The Black Book manages to set itself apart from London’s sea of wine bars. A relaxed, it’s-not-so-stuffy-after-all vibe is achieved by spaced out tables and approachable sommeliers. There’s a soundtrack of gentle conversation, clinking glasses and laughter from couples enjoying good wine in good company.
Unlike many other wine bars, the by the glass list offers plenty of choice and a pocket friendly chance to try a number of different wines. Bottles are drawn up on a blackboard, which your waiter-cum-sommelier will walk you through. There’s also the bar’s pièce de resistance, the black-bound notebook in which end of bin bottles are listed, inked in by hand. Once they’re gone, they’re gone and crossed out of the book.
Classic cocktails are also on offer, and food includes a top-notch selection of smaller dishes. Think burratas with seasonal embellishments, courgette flowers stuffed with ricotta and drizzled with truffled honey, charcuterie and/or cheese and larger dishes like onglet steaks and maybe a plate of homemade pasta.
A little piece of oenophile history in a basement in Soho.
The 10 Cases, Covent Garden
The tourist traps and general overwhelming stress of Seven Dials and Long Acre can make Covent Garden tricky to navigate. But rest assured there are a few gems still to be found there. One of them being 10 Cases – a bistrot and wine bar offering welcome respite from the world outside.
In need of a not overly (but still fairly) fancy date spot or table over which to linger, 10 Cases has you covered. It’s unpretentious and has a rotating short-ish list of wines. As the name suggests, they only ever buy 10 cases of each wine to ensure the menu is regularly refreshed.
A double-fronted setup, its one half relaxed wine bar (Cave a Vins), and one half restaurant (Bistrot a Vins). Dishes are classic brasserie and the clever little cheese menu is perfect for picking over alongside a very affordable bottle. By the glass starts at just over a fiver, and you can purchase any of their more special wines from the in house shop, paying a very palatable £12 corkage for the privilege.
Perfect for a date night in Zone 1.
Coupette, Bethnal Green
It’s hard for East London bars to mark themselves out – there’s more than a few – but Bethnal Green’s darling Coupette is a good place to start. Ideal for those looking for a smart and genuinely innovative cocktail, with no dry ice or circa-2010 treasure chest monstrosities in sight.
It’s easily missed, sandwiched between off licences on a shabby chic stretch of the road which runs into Roman Road to the east and Shoreditch not far to the west. On entering, you’ll find yourself in a slender, deep bar with delicately vintage interiors hinting at the bar’s Gallic theme. Cocktails and calvados are its calling, with what’s probably London’s best display of the French apple brandy liquor.
With a drinks list that’s long enough to entertain without being exhaustive, it’s quality over quantity at Coupette. This spot for tame cocktail-heads combines East London history with a little taste of France. Drinks include the likes of The Bitter Quarter: Bombay Sapphire, Lillet Blanc, Campari and carrot. Creative, but under control. There’s a reason it was voted a World 50 Best Bar in 2019.
Bar Termini, Soho
This Italianate lounge bar is small (just 25 seats) but mighty and serves arguably the best negroni in town. A fancified pit-stop, it’s the ideal place for pre and post-dinner drinks, with Soho’s plethora of restaurants on its doorstep.
From by the brain behind Dalston’s Untilted and Islington’s 69 Colebrook Row, Tony Conigliaro, Bar Termini is inspired by the Italian train station coffee bars of the 1950s. They do two things, and do them well – fine coffee and cocktails. And in true Italian style you’re as welcome to come for one as you are to spend the evening holed up in a corner watching the bustling life of Old Compton Street pass by.
Try one of their seven negroni served by the glass and just nod at the bar staff for a top up – they’ll bring the bottle over and fill your glass tableside. Best enjoyed over a plate of their charcuterie or cheeses, which they serve in the evening. It’s chic and it’ll always impress, just be sure to book ahead.
The perfect pre-dinner warm up act.
Tayer + Elementary, Old Street
Tayer + Elementary has been a hit from the get-go. It’s a bar for people who love bars: opening in 2019 for Londoners thirsty for a joint which might rival New York’s finest tributes.
Housed on Old Street, it’s another exposed bricks and pipework decorated offering, but with drinks that are far less ordinary. A regularly changing cocktail list reminds guests that drinks – as with food at any decent restaurant – should be seasonal. The venue itself is cleverly split into two different areas, with two different vibes. Enter in off the street and you’re in Elementary, an all-day bar with a strong food menu to boot and pre-mixed, more ‘accessible’ cocktails. Carry on through to the back and you’re in Tayer, Elementary’s older, wiser self with a moodier vibe and a more refined taste.
Tayer + Elementary may well be about the cocktails – it’s the brainchild of bar world aficionados Alex Kratena and Monica Berg – but the food is worth more than a look-in too. Dishes on offer include things like beef tongue skewers, lardo fried rice and variations on a theme of mouth-wateringly good proteins sandwiched between finger-sized sweet slices of brioche bread.
Ideal for putting yourself in the hands of the experts. Trust them, it’ll be worth it.