Secret Bars Offer Whimsy Galore

Friday night in London’s Chinatown, and its heart, Gerrard Street, is abuzz with the usual post-pub and theater crowds perusing menus and seeking quick bowls of noodles to soak up their excesses.

A bartender at Purl concocts a 'Mr Hyde's Fixer Upper'

Nestling between two of the street’s gaudily fronted restaurants, Far East and the unassumingly named Chinese Restaurant, is a door, spattered with paint, weather-worn and anonymous. But push it back and climb the stairs, and you enter another world; a plush bar, kitted out with hints of Chinoiserie—a nod to its location—a bar made out of a piano, and lampshades made from teapots.

This is the Experimental Cocktail Club, one of the growing number of secret, speakeasy-style bars opening around Europe (13 Gerrard Street).

What sets these bars apart is their discretion, often with no sign on the door and zero PR, relying on word of mouth instead. What unites them is a desire to bring back the craftsmanship of the cocktail and serve premium drinks to customers who care more about an excellent bartender and what he has to offer than being seen in the right place. Rather than the ubiquitous mojito, expect to see plenty of homemade bitters, infusions and dark spirits.

The bars tend toward eccentricity, with whimsical decor or interesting locations, such as club owner Nick House’s new project opening this spring, which will be at the back of a fully functioning flower shop next to Selfridges in London, and called simply No Name. Many also have a strict table/no-standing policy, so they aren’t crammed with the after-work crowd rubbing shoulders at the bar.

Back Lounge at Callooh Callay

The inspiration for the Experimental Cocktail Club, the brainchild of a group of young Frenchmen, came from the speakeasies of New York, such as La Esquina, a taco restaurant with a secret underground bar and restaurant, and PDT (Please Don’t Tell), a hot dog restaurant, from which a telephone booth grants entry to a tiny, taxidermy-filled bar.
The friends opened their first bar in 2007, the Experimental Cocktail Club in Paris’s 2nd arrondissement (27 rue Saint Sauveur). This was followed by Curio Parlor in 2008, complete with vegetables in glass cabinets, more stuffed animals, a fish skeleton on the wall and black curtains across the windows (16 rue des Bernardins). They opened their third in Paris, the Prescription Cocktail Club, last year (23 rue Mazarine). There is no list or table booking, and entry is at the doorman’s discretion.
“We always say we are not trying to do better but different,” says founder Romee de Goriainoff. “I think people are bored of members’ clubs—ours are unofficial members’ clubs; if we think you are cool, or you will have a good time, you will get in. It’s for people who just want to go out and have a good drink. We provide a place where social links happen.”
Another such place is Door 74. Located on a historic street in the center of Amsterdam (actual address secret, one must call the reservation number, + 31-634-04-5122, to get the whereabouts and book a table), the only indicator that the bar is open is that a green light is on outside. Ring the bell and enter and you will find bar manager Timo Janse rustling up creations such as Night Alchemy, which includes blended Creole bitters, eau de vie, rum and passion fruit syrup set alight and cooled down with Ben & Jerry’s ice cream:

Cocktails (from left to right)—Jamaican Pogo, Autumn in Normandy, Renaissance—at the Experimental Cocktail Club in London

“We only reserve to the number of seats we have, then we close the list,” says Mr. Janse. “I think it works because we dedicate a lot to quality and there is a constant level of service but we also keep it fun. It is not a cut-and-paste bar.”

Also lying low is Purl, which opened in London’s Marylebone this year ( In a basement below a corner shop, it harks back to a golden age of cocktails, and with Prohibition posters, upturned crates and a bashed piano makes many nods to the speakeasies of 1920s America. Drinks include Mr Hyde’s Fixer Upper, a mixture of rum, homemade cola and orange bitters, served in a smoke-injected, wax-sealed potion bottle surrounded by a fog of Lapsang Souchong.

With this serious approach to cocktail artistry in mind, the owners’ new project, opening in March in another hard-to-find location in Central London, will have a cocktail tasting room in which flights of historic cocktails will be served “Our thing is all about experiential drinking,” says Tristan Stephenson, one of the owners . “I want people to walk down the steps, and for a second, believe they could be in a different era.”

Also reliving the past, in terms of the cocktails, at least, is Nightjar (+ 44-20-7253-4101). Hidden between two sandwich shops on City Road in London’s Shoreditch, it used to be a “dodgy Russian club,” according to owner Edmund Weil, who started it after pursuing his dream of opening a bar with fiancée Roisin Stimpson. The only indication of a club is the doorman. Once in, there are live music, discreet booths and the moody atmosphere of a secret drinking club.

“A speakeasy gives people a feeling of privacy and discretion, I think it is a symptom of what people want,” says Mr. Weil.

With a drinks menu spanning decades and printed on playing cards, it targets the serious cocktail connoisseur. Drinks from the Prohibition list include Between the Sheets, combining Cognac, rum, Cointreau, sugar and lemon, and Remember the Maine, a lethal concoction of Bourbon, sweet vermouth, cherry brandy and absinthe.

At bar Callooh Callay ( around the corner, another young couple, Richard Wynne and Kate Crutchley, last month opened a secret bar called Jub Jub (both names are taken from Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem “Jabberwocky”). Membership is granted to people they “think are cool, and share our attitude” and comes in the form of a door key.

NinetyEight is a secret world of cocktails and candy

Here, the visitor must first find their way through a wardrobe, through two velvet curtains and up some stairs before using the door key to enter a room adorned with stuffed flamingos. Emphasis is on playfulness, secrecy and great drinks.

Last month, instead of a cocktail list, they had a chart of flavors, moods and types of spirit, and tick boxes next to them, and the perfect drink was made to order for each guest. “However we are a bit like the ‘Fight Club,'” says Mr. Wynne of the club. “The first rule is: don’t talk about it.”

If many are about a serious and studious approach to cocktails and reinventing the bar as we know it, some are just about having fun.

At NinetyEight, near Old Street in East London, an unassuming blink-and-you’ll-miss-it staircase leads to a basement ( Yet rather than being dark and moody, this one is a riot of bohemia, a sort of Louis XIV meets Alice in Wonderland. Here, shots are served along the bar on a tortoise on wheels with a tray on top. Bowls of sweets jostle for bar space with plastic toys and apothecary bottles of home-made infusions (including one made with bulls-eye sweets, mint and Bacardi).

“When I used to go into sweet shops as a kid, I’d be transported into another world and forget all my problems,” says owner Kath Morrell. “Here I want to provide a snug wonderland break, where people are transported to another place. I call it my bar duvet.”

by Jemima Sissons for, photos by  Jean Cazals


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