London has an enviable collection of cocktail bars. It also has a rather unique collection of atmospheric hotel bars in its classic big city hotels. The best of them combine fine cocktails, glamorous surroundings and old fashioned hospitality. I’ve seen young couples out on a “treat” night enter nervously, only to be treated with generous courtesy and style, putting them instantly at ease. Hotel bars also tend to rather generous with their free bar snacks!
The quintessential martini bar is of course at the Savoy Hotel; the American Bar here is one of the original bars to introduce the American concept of the cocktail to Britain. The cocktail, invented sometime in the early part of the 19th century was a term used to describe an alcoholic concoction of spirits, sugar, water and bitters. During the Prohibition Era cocktails became a palatable way to disguise the poor quality of ersatz bootleg spirits. They still make excellent cocktails at the American Bar and the resident jazz pianist adds a Golden Age quality to the experience. However, I prefer the newer Beaufort Bar at the Savoy for a more sophisticated drinking experience (see the Tale of Two Bars) and live cabaret. Be nice to the maitre d’ and you might get an invitation to their rather fabulous monthly burlesque performances.
The classic Golden Age bar however has to be the Rivoli Bar at the Ritz with its original over the top art deco fixtures, gilt trimmings, rare wood veneers and leopard skin chairs. It’s compact dimensions and dress code adds to a discreet air of exclusivity. The said dress code (jackets and ties for men, no jeans or sneakers on women) is a mild annoyance but does have the benefit of keeping the tourists out. The martinis here are excellent, although I do find their classic champagne cocktails to be amongst the best I’ve ever had.
Over at the Connaught Hotel seek out the Connaught Bar which has taken the hotel martini to an art form. This is probably the finest martini one can find in a major hotel bar. The experience starts with a classic cocktail cart (a la the Dukes Hotel, see Sacred Spirits). A selection of home made bitters is the party piece here – excellent aromatics with classic flavours of lavender, coriander, cinnamon and the like. The aromatics work best in a gin martini where the bitters bring out the subtle complexities of the botanicals in the gin. My last visit here was with my secret agent friend who had an unfortunate incident with gin in his youth, making him incapable of enjoying its flavours. We drank vodka martinis. The bitters still work with vodka – lavender aromatics making the best combination.
For old school drinkers who pine for a fine Cubano to go with their cocktail the Garden Room at the Lanesborough Hotel is the best bet. Here you have a rather masculine subterranean lair, with three walls nominally open to the elements to meet the requirements of the Health and Safety Nazis. Within its cosy confines one may enjoy a cigar from the Lanesborough’s ample cigar vaults, although the hotel has no objection to customer’s bringing their own. For those who find Castro too detestable (and who doesn’t) they have a unique collection of pre Castro smokes – at a price. To be fair, Castro’s predecessor Batista was pretty detestable himself. He too was a son of a bitch, but as they say, he was our son of a bitch. More to the point, it is not clear whether Batista made superior cigars. However, one hears that pre Castro era cigars may still be imported into the US without hassle from custom’s agents. A dictator is a dictator, but a cigar is a good smoke.
Jewel of Russia is the vodka of choice at the Lanesborough – remarkably smooth in a classic martini. In fact this is one of the smoothest vodkas I’ve tasted. The bottles are hand painted – one has a sneaking suspicion that the steep price of this vodka may have more to do with its packaging than the ingredients within. It is highly rated however, and makes a fine companion to a smooth drawing cigar.
I wrote about the Artesian Bar at the Langham Hotel in Popping Up With the Pope and the Perils of Gifting Your Girlfriend a Boob Job. Voted the best bar in the world it combines old school glamour with modern mixology and a puff of magic. Unfortunately the bar gets over run by men wearing name badges whenever a conference takes place at the hotel. Pick a night when the suits are absent and enjoy a perfectly made cocktail.
A piece on hotel bars in London can’t be complete without a mention of the bar at the Dukes Hotel. Afficianados will argue that it is home to the best classic martini in London. Ian Fleming penned the words “shaken not stirred” while writing his first James Bond novel while perched at the bar here. Hemingway drank here. Churchill would escape his suite at the Ritz for a quiet drink here. For a tiny bar in an old fashioned, rather twee hotel, this place has pedigree.
A wise man once told me that a drinking man must have at least two bars at which he is a regular. You’ll find me at the Dukes Hotel or at the Beaufort Bar at the Savoy. Cheers!