It’s neatly defined, St. James’s, bordered as it is by Piccadilly in the north, Haymarket in the east, the Mall in the south and Green Park in the west, and this almost perfect rectangle has been a highly desirable place in which to live, work, shop, gossip and play since the 17th century.And St. James’s has form on the food and drink front too.
It was here that the sandwich was supposedly invented by the 4th Earl of Sandwich in the 1760s, as a way of eating without having to leave the cribbage table; where the Scotch egg, that quintessential traveller’s snack, was created by Fortnum & Mason in 1738, and where Richard Wall, forebear of the Wall’s sausage and Wall’s ice cream, opened his first butcher’s stall in 1786. Oh, and it was here, too, that the Black Velvet – that delectable mix of champagne and stout – was conceived by the barman of Brooks’s in 1861 as an appropriately-hued way for members to commemorate the death of Prince Albert.
I’ve knocked about St. James’s for over 40 years, living, working and studying here, and still regard it as my ‘manor’. My all-time favourite watering hole, Jules Bar, might be long gone but there are still plenty of fine places in which to wet one’s whistle. These are my current top five.
The Red Lion
23 Crown Passage, SW1Y 6PP
020 7930 4141
There are only a handful of pubs in St. James’s, the best known being the dreary Blue Posts near the Ritz and the Red Lion next to Trumper’s barbers in Duke of York Street. My favourite, though, is the other Red Lion, that unreconstructed old boozer tucked away in Crown Passage which runs from King Street to Pall Mall. This is where the denizens of Berry Bros & Rudd and Christie’s come to discuss cru classé claret and Klimts and where the porters and doormen of the local hotels and gents’ clubs swap gossip over a pint. It’s warm, friendly, busy and chaotic and a world away from the swanky swirl of St. James’s outside.
St James Bar
Sofitel London St James, 6 Waterloo Place, SW1Y 4AN, 020 7747 2200
The Sofitel in Waterloo Place, opposite the Guards’ Crimean War Memorial, has recently had a bit of revamp. The Balcon restaurant has been replaced by Wild Honey, and the St James bar has had a makeover and is darkly, decadently inviting. The beautifully lit, apothecary-like back bar never fails to provoke a thirst in me and the stupendous cocktails never fail to satisfy said dehydration. Grab the bar’s ‘Passport’ and enjoy slickly made libations from around the globe such as 1st Step, a crazy but ingenious mix of bourbon, sherry, orange curacao and Campari served with gusts of smoke in a rocket shaped jug or the stunning Victory Martini (Plymouth gin, pine honey cordial and cognac).
Fortnum & Mason, The Wine Bar
181 Piccadilly, W1A 1ER, 020 7734 8040
This is not just one of my favourite bars in St. James’s, it’s one of my favourite bars anywhere. It’s not much to look at, hidden away as it is in Fortnum’s basement with dull, Spartan wooden furniture, but what it offers wine lovers is sublime. There are over 150 wines on the list – from 2018 Pierre Luneau Muscadet at £29 a bottle to 2016 Yves Gangloff Côte Rôtie at £190 – and every single one is available by the glass. If you’re peckish there are oysters to be had or plates of charcuterie or pasta and, best of all, any bottle in the F&M wine dept is yours for the RRP plus £15 corkage. What an absolute blooming steal!
American Bar at the Stafford Hotel
16-18 St. James’s Place, SW1A 1NJ, 020 7493 0111
The bar at neighbouring Dukes Hotel might get all the column inches and the plaudits but, for my money, the Stafford’s American Bar knocks it into a cocked hat. Adorned with flags, pennants, caps, ties and other American ephemera, the bar is never less than packed but never noisy. Cocktails are American-themed, natch, and spectacularly served. The Edgar Allan Poe-inspired Raven (whisky infused with peanut butter, maple syrup and chocolate bitters) comes complete with inkwell and quill and Man on the Moon (ginger-infused whisky, fennel soda, honey and lemon) comes in a smoke-engulfed bell jar. There are other less flamboyant drinks too, of course, as befits this most discreet and elegant of hideaways.
London Beer House
17 Royal Opera Arcade, SW1Y 4UY, 07944 252028
If beer, rather than fine wine or cocktails, is your thing, then head to the Royal Opera Arcade in the bottom right hand corner of St. James’s and to one of the area’s newest and most engaging watering holes. The London Beer House is nothing if not miniscule, with just one tiny room downstairs and one upstairs and a minute patch of pavement outside. But who cares when the beer offering is so fine? Grab a sandwich from next door at the London Sandwich Centre and get outside a pint or so of Boxcar’s Velvette Porter, Weird Beard’s Knight in Sour Armour Black IPA or Siren Craft Brew’s Suspended in Chinook and watch the world go by.