Once only to be sniffed out in the grubby crevices of Prohibition America, speakeasies have now taken on an altogether more deluxe guise. Walk through fridges, prison doors and Turkish baths to find the fashionable speakeasies of 21st century London. The snazzy surroundings and drinks at any of these would knock Al Capone for six.
Evans & Peel Detective Agency
Of all the gin joints in all the boroughs in all of London, Evans & Peel is one of the most playful. Press the buzzer, and head down the stairs into a private dick's office, to present your case (you really have to present a case). Your reward: a bookshelf swings open (classic), and you're in a drinking den straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel — dim lighting, stiff cocktails and, er, beer poured from a radiator. We recommend the Aviation Rhubarb Remix. Whatever your tipple, stick with it. As the great Bogart said on his deathbed, "I should never have switched from scotch to martinis."
Evans & Peel Detective Agency, 310c, SW5 9BA
What do you get when you cross a 1970s tiki lounge with Del Boy's living room? Something a bit like Trailer Happiness — a no-nonsense Notting Hill dive bar, where they somehow turn 50 shades of brown into the kind of place you'd actually like to hang out for an evening. The rum cocktails certainly help; they make them well and they make them strong. Order a Zombie sharer with your mates, and gradually morph into the living dead.
Trailer Happiness, 177 Portobello Road, W11 2DY
See also: Rum not your bag? Pay a visit to The Distillery — a 'gin hotel 'just down the road. The minibars are better than your average.
Only in London would you pay to take your own booze into a bar, spirit it past a prison warden, then neck it from a tin cup... while sat behind bars. While inmates of the infamous Alcatraz braved shark-infested waters to get the hell out, people practically fight to get into its liquory Brick Lane namesake. If that sounds too gimmicky for you, instead order a drink at The Courthouse Hotel off Oxford Street — formerly Marlborough Street Magistrates Court. Mick Jagger, Oscar Wilde and John Lennon were all tried here (not at the same time). So was Christine Keeler: order a Russian vodka in her honour.
Alcotraz, 212 Brick Lane, E1 6SA
See also: Moonshine Saloon — a Wild West-themed hoedown, from the same people.
The Victorian Bath House
Surely no speakeasy entrance can trump that of the Victorian Bath House. The turquoise-tiled Moorish gem looks like it's been plucked from Istanbul — taking you aback the first time you find it, dwarfed by the high rises of Bishopsgate. Even more surprising — this is a bona fide bathhouse, dating back to 1817. You won't find heavily-paunched men steaming themselves down here now, although you will discover bottles of wine in a bathtub of ice — a nice nod to its history. This place is exclusive — book ahead.
The Victorian Bathhouse, 7-8 Bishopsgate, EC2M 3TJ
See also: The Luggage Room — another properly decadent speakeasy, dishing up punches, nogs, cobblers, flips, juleps — you name it.
Someone tried to hypnotise us in CellarDoor once. It didn't work, although later in the night we ended up buying them a Rob Roy, so maybe it did. Speakeasies in former public toilets are ten a penny these days, but CellarDoor did it early, and remains one of the finest. Descend the covered steps by the Lyceum Theatre, to enter a mirrored microcosm of burlesque, drag, and classic cocktails shaken and stirred by on-the-ball tenders. Don't be alarmed by the glass toilet cubicle doors; they frost over when you lock them... hopefully.
CellarDoor, Wellington Street, WC2E 7DN
See also: The Candlelight Club — a pop-up 1920s-style jamboree, with live jazz. Completely lit by candles.
Once upon a time, there was a pub called The Cock. It was an odd pub — not because of its name and not because it was inside Smithfield Meat Market, but because of its 'reverse' drinking hours, which meant it served pints of Guinness to thirsty blood-stained porters at six in the morning. The late great Anthony Bourdain was even filmed demolishing a fry-up here. The Cock has since regenerated into another bird — Oriole. We'd describe it as a hybrid of upmarket tiki bar, mid century jazz lounge and the British Museum. The drinks menu is a boozy fruit salad of showiness; whatever you order you'll end up with a bit of exotic foliage jammed up your nostrils.
Oriole, East Poultry Avenue, EC1A 9LH
See also: Nightjar, a pint-sized sister bar in Old Street. Reserve a table by the band and pore over the menu, categorised into pre-prohibition, prohibition, post-war and signatures.
First Aid Box
'Health, nutrition and doctors' orders' are the theme of this Herne Hill restaurant, but don't worry — there's plenty of alcohol to help it work. Get stuck into a couple of Who Framed Roger Rabbits? — a reviving elixir of carrot & celery juice, ginger, vermouth and gin — and see what it does for your eyesight. First Aid Box also has a speakeasy within a speakeasy — a Peaky Blinders-inspired barn, which opens weekends. Flat caps optional.
First Aid Box, 119 Dulwich Road, Herne Hill, SE24 0NG
See also: The Beast of Brixton, a dark, skull-addled place close by, should you want to turn this into a cocktail crawl.
The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town
The internet practically broke when Londoners first discovered a restaurant with a Smeg fridge you could walk through, leading into a subterranean cocktail lair. The whole white-goods-novelty-factor may have worn off, but The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town stands the test of time, thanks to a coterie of genned-up bartenders, mixing derring-do concoctions like the creamy/peachy/winy Peachy Keen.
The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town, 12-16 Artillery Lane, E1 7LS
We presume that Opium takes its name from the infamous (and often fictional) smoking dens from Sherlock Holmes, Fu Manchu et al. This is a far classier affair: slink off the hustle and bustle of Chinatown's Gerrard Street, and ascend the narrow stairs to multiple flights of lantern lit bars, serving cherry blossom vespers, sesame old fashioneds and — if you're feeling virtuous — steaming pots of green tea. You can also fill your belly at the dim sum parlour.
Opium, 15-16, Gerrard Street, W1D 6JE
See also: Mark's Bar Soho — a nearby offering from the Hix Empire, where you can slump in a deep Chesterfield, with a happy hour whisky smash, or pretend you know how to play bar billiards.
Below and Hidden
What do you mean you've never had a cocktail inside a 3D tapestry?! Below and Hidden — secreted away in the depths of Clerkenwell's Bourne & Hollingsworth Buildings — appears, at first, to be floor-to-wall faux medieval tapestry. And it's good fun to share an overflowing 'crystal' skull Behemoth cocktail with your mates, while admiring the fair maidens and their obedient pets. As the night wears on, the DJ pipes up and it transpires the tapestry is laced with LED lights... this could turn into a messy one.
Below and Hidden, 42 Northampton Road, Clerkenwell, EC1R 0HU
See also: The Brig, which bills itself as 'London's smallest bar'. True or not, you can only fit yourself and three mates in here. The bartender is all yours.
'Great cocktails, no wallies' is the motto at Happiness Forgets. While plenty of speakeasies — including, let's face it, a few of the above — are a tad precious, this basement bar off Hoxton Square welcomes you to wander in off the street, pull up a chair and order one of the best darn sazeracs you can find in London. So long as you're not a wally.
Happiness Forgets, 8-9 Hoxton Square, N1 6NU
See also: Discount Suit Company — another unpretentious bar, this one doing forgotten classics in an erstwhile tailor's stockroom in the East End.