One of Londonist's many new year's resolutions is to only drink good wine, so we've resumed our London Uncorked series and gone hunting for the capital's best venues for a cheeky glass of grape juice. First on the list was the Cork and Bottle wine bar in -of all places- the heart of Leicester Square.
If you ask anyone to meet for a drink in Leicester square, they’ll probably assume that you want to down several bottles of Lambrini before hitting one of the less salubrious nightclubs in the area and, indeed, it is almost impossible to imagine that you might be able to relax over a glass of wine amidst the chaotic hubbub created by touts and tourists. If you duck into the unassuming cellar bar that lies between two cut-price ticket booths on Cranbourn Street, however, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. With its simple décor, chalk board menus and music from radio Caroline it doesn’t seem to have changed much since it opened in the 1970s but it’s clear that it doesn’t have to - this cellar bar provides an ideal atmosphere for a peaceful drink and conversation. (Yes, it’s actually quiet enough to hear people speak!)
There are 308 wines on the menu and there's a definite ethos behind them: owner Don Hewitson has travelled the world finding small wineries that produce good, often unusual, wines whose quality isn't compromised by a desire to sell to the masses. It's clear that this isn't just a marketing gimmick: his passion for the wine comes out in the frank, informal style of the tasting notes on the wine menu and Don even urges customers who are planning on travelling to a wine growing region to send him an email- he'll put you in touch with nearby vineyards in case you feel like paying them a visit. The wines are from far and wide and the ones we tried were all good quality, although we should warn you that they don’t serve beer or ciders so don’t bring anyone who doesn't want to join you for a glass! They also offer a generous selection of champagnes and we were pleased to see a wide range of sweet wines available, accompanied by a comprehensive guide designed to reassure anyone who breaks out into a cold sweat at the word ‘Leibfraumilch’. In terms of price, the bottles can easily compete with those in other bars around the square: 70% of them are priced between ₤20−₤30 and there’s a discount if you’re buying to take away.
In terms of food, their menu falls just short of gastropub fare, offering a range of smaller options such as salads, terrines and cheeses from the glass display at the bar, as well as more filling dishes and a range of tempting desserts. We tried a perfectly satisfactory cheese selection as well as their raised cheese and ham pie, which has apparently been 'famous for 35 years'. It was, indeed, the school bully of the pie world, a monster that trod the very notion of calorie counting into the ground where it belonged and then went on to steal our lunch money. A thick, warm mountain of pastry that oozed cheese from between its layers of ham, it may not have been sophisticated fare but it hit the spot and fortified us against the effects of the wine. If you're around at lunch the bar also offers a 2 course set menu for ₤11, which we reckon is a pretty good price for lunch in a very central location where you can actually hear yourself think.
If you'd like to learn more about the wines on offer, the bar does regular tastings and is this month showcasing Spanish wines from Miguel Torres on 25th January at 6.30pm. Tickets, which include a plate of tapas, are ₤25 and should be booked at the bar in advance - salud!