Inside London's Worst-Kept Secret, Gordon's Wine Bar

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 19 months ago

Last Updated 28 October 2022

Inside London's Worst-Kept Secret, Gordon's Wine Bar

It is London's worst-kept secret. A hidey hole of Bolly bottles frosted with dust, wooden slabs laden with gooey bries and pickles, and jaundiced press cuttings of Royal weddings and coronations. It thrums with Londoners and non-Londoners, the condensation of their grapey sweat trickling down its cave-like walls. Everyone's been here dozens of times. They'll come back for the rest of their wine-drinking lives.

But every night, someone uninitiated will shuffle down the steps into Gordon's Wine Bar's fusty parlour and let out a little gasp. Candles glimmer. Corks pop. Glasses clink. People... talk to one another. A friendly punter passes you a leather-bound menu. A barman hands you a petite glass of Argentinean malbec. Your life will never be the same again. You don't forget your first time at Gordon's.

Who was Gordon?

Surely all cannot be what it seems. Surely Gordon's is a themed bar, hollowed out and knocked up by some enterprising soak of a yuppie in the early 2000s? Surely all those prints of gauche kings, queens, princes and princesses were bought in a job lot off eBay, pasted up to create the illusion of a drunken hermit's lair lost to time, and only crowbarred open decades later?

Wrong. The seed of Gordon's was planted in 1394. The Gordon in question was Arthur 'Staff' Gordon, the owner of a property on this site who was a 'free vintner', permitted to sell wine anywhere he liked by Edward III. (The pissed-up monarch had some wine-quaffing debts to settle.) The place didn't become an actual wine bar until 1890 — the same year Rudyard Kipling was scribbling The Light That Failed in the room above.

It closed again at some point (not before hosting the likes of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh for a swig) but in a corkscrewed twist of fate in 1972, a gravelly-voiced sherry lover by the name of Luis Gordon (unrelated to the previous Gordon family) took the place over.

He turned it into the dank retreat from reality we've come to rely on, whenever in need of a drink or three.

The man who keeps Gordon's lubricated

Gerard Menan with a glass of Gordon's own label wine, and a copy of a book he features in

Gerard Menan keeps Gordon's lubricated today. He's been here almost 19 years, initially working under Luis Gordon, before he passed in 2002.

"When I came to this country in '89, I was visiting my friend in St Albans. I wanted to stay in England for a couple of years to improve my English..." says Menan, "...Which I'm still doing," he adds, jokingly.

The watergate which heralds the Gordon's terrace. Until the Embankment came along, this was on the Thames

It's Menan who purchases the wines, chats to the customers, perhaps pours them a drink on the house. It's him who pushed to grow the terrace outside, so the establishment — cosy at the best of times — was able to grow twofold.

Menan has a thick Loire Valley intonation. Ironically, if it was a wine, it'd be a pedro ximenez. You could listen to it all day, and Menan probably would talk to you for the whole day.

Over a bottle of a Gordon's own label ("I know the lady. She proposed to us that we do our own label. It's a lovely bordeaux superior.") he quickly dispels any preconceptions you might have about a French sommelier.

"I'm a Londoner first, French second," says Menan, a line he's clearly uttered a few times before, and is proud repeating. "At Gordon's we are very international."

He means that about Gordon's' metropolitan drinkers and wide-eyed tourists. But he also means that about the wine list. Yes, you'll find French pinot noirs and Spanish riojas. You'll also find blends from Lebanon, redcurranty numbers from Macedonia, and a cab sav from India.

Menan travels the world picking them out, sloshing them around his mouth — making sure that this shamelessly intransigent bar stocks a menu to keep the keenest of oenophiles on their toes.

"The English are very modest," says Menan. "England, especially London, is very good for wine compared to 50 years ago, it used to be the same wines all the time.

"People are drinking less, but better quality."

"Where bosses bid their secretaries a lingering goodbye"

Famously, Gordon's serves only wine and water. Not so famously though, for first-timers, who try to order a beer or — god help them — a cosmo. What does Menan say to them? "No. No. We don't need to. It's the customers who chip in and say 'It's only wine here'," Menan laughs.

One place in London you can get a decent slab of cheese

He talks about his customers with as much, if not more, passion than he does his wine. He gets exactly why they come. "Nobody disturbs anyone here," he says, "They can chill and relax.

"Lots of women come here. They feel relaxed, secure, no rudeness, no arrogance.

"When you have a financial crisis people say 'OK, let's go to Gordon's'. You have a bottle of wine, you have a lovely bit of cheese — and you say 'oh, this is interesting, we're spending less than a restaurant.'"

The truth is, of course, wine and cheese merchants WANT to be in Gordon's — it's the ultimate shopfront. That's why you can get a very decent wine for just over six quid. That's why the cheese is served up in Flintstones-sized hunks, rather than the paltry shavings you'll get in pretty much any other restaurant and bar in the city.

But let's face it, Gordon's could solely serve tins of Coors Light, and people would still flock here. London's not short on atmospheric wine bars (think Cork & Bottle on Leicester Square, The Arches up in Swiss Cottage) but there is no atmosphere like Gordon's. Here, you are in a different time zone to the rest of London; here you are peacefully at one with the stone and soil you'll one day return to. Or maybe that's just the syrah talking.

The Londoners who've arranged a first date here must be in the tens of thousands. You can winkle out the tables, where nervous couples gradually peel off layers of inhibition as they get pickled on the beakers of sweet olorosso in the manmade gloaming, lulled by the distant rumble of Charing Cross trains.

An atmosphere like this attracts a different breed of lover, too.

In 1987, a newspaper described Gordon's as "a vaulted candlelit retreat, where bosses can bid their secretaries a lingering goodbye." The current website promises "anonymity is guaranteed!"

Menan explains that the bar set a camera up, to catch pickpockets in the act. "I received a phone call from a lady who said 'Can I use your camera? I'm sure my husband is coming here with his girlfriend.' "I said 'have you talked to your husband?'

"She said 'no'."

It is early on a Tuesday afternoon, but the flickering coves, emitting their sweet, musty aroma, are already filling out. Who said the liquid lunch was dead? Maybe in one of the clandestine corners, an affair is already sparking into life, or being snuffed out, over hefty gulps of Hungarian sauvignon blanc.

People talk here, analogue human exchange. There is no phone signal, which helps. But even out on the terrace, you won't see masses of people on their phones. Menan and his team may have made the odd tweak, but 'change' is a word treated with suspicion. This is old school drinking: darkness, friends, a decent vintage.

In 1995, Gordon's closed for six months, for a 'revamp'. Punters must have held their breath, expecting the worst. In fact, Luis Gordon didn't want a single cobweb to be moved. A compromise was eventually settled with the health inspector that the dust should be 'stabilised'.

While a few feet above, the city evolves at a frightening gallop, Gordon's is a time capsule to clamber into whenever you need it most.

Gordon's Wine Bar, 7 Villiers Street, Charing Cross, WC2N 6NE.