Five London drinking dens that’ll transport you to another place

With several thousand pubs and bars in the English capital, choosing a spot to raise a glass with friends is no simple feat. So, for the travel-lovers out there, we’ve lined up a selection that’ll momentarily whisk you away from the Big Smoke.

Tucked on Fitzrovia’s Cleveland Street, Passyunk Avenue is a disco ball of neon Budweiser signs, endless sports paraphernalia and iconic US tunes ringing from the speakers. 

Photograph by Nathan Cohron, Tremont Photography
By Nora Wallaya
Published 8 Sept 2021, 06:13 BST, Updated 2 Dec 2021, 12:03 GMT

1. Sabor, Piccadilly

For an authentic taste of Spain

For a welcome break from its more haughty neighbours on Heddon Street slip into Sabor, where a feast for the senses awaits with diners mingling, seafood sizzling and wine glasses clinking. Awarded a Michelin star in 2018, the restaurant founded by Nieves Barragán-Mohacho and José Etura has quickly become one of London’s top-rated Spanish eateries. Inside, a large open kitchen is decorated with blue-and-white Moorish tiles, with the fishmonger’s choice of the day displayed on ice. Directly opposite is the bar, a hive of chattering after-work drinkers and diners eagerly anticipating those gold-dust tables over glasses of fizz. Observe as frenetic chefs chop and flip food while bartenders schmooze the patrons – it’s just as if you’ve walked into a tapas restaurant on the Andalucian coast. 

And what do I order?
From La Rioja to Cadiz, the bottles at the bar hail from Spain’s best-known wine regions. Choose from an extensive wine list and take the time to ask the bartenders about their favourite vermouths, gins, sherries and txakolis (a traditional sparkling dry white wine from the Basque region) — they’ll be more than happy to share their expertise. On the cocktail menu are new spins on old favourites — take the sangria or negroni, both laced with Fino sherry. There’s real mixologist mastery here, too. Order the fragrant, gin-based Agua de Valencia: a heady, botanical mix of orange blossom, blood orange and cava. Or the fruity, gin-based Mango Rebujito with Fino sherry, mint and Spanish mango. Meanwhile, on the tapas menu, order a plateful of jamón ibérico from Dehesa de los Monteros served with toasts and garlicky salsa. Order a plateful of payoyo croquetas too — each a heavenly mouthful of melted goat’s cheese and fluffy potato. 

2. The Winemakers Club, Farringdon

For a little je ne sais quoi

You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped into a 19th-century French wine cellar, but this is in fact the underbelly of the Holborn Viaduct — a ‘for-those-in-the-know’ sort of place tucked beneath bare-brick Victorian arches. The musty smell of old rainwater will creep up your nostrils as you walk through the cavernous entrance. Inside, scattered around the space are time-worn wooden tables and chairs, oak barrels topped with candle-stuffed wine bottles, seemingly genuine antique plaques on the walls (the site has served as a wine cellar for more than 150 years, so they very well could be) and even a huge stained glass window looming over it all. Make no mistake, though, this is a wine bar showcasing the best of modern viticulture. It’s a shop by day, a wine bar and charcuterie by night, has an online wine-selling business, plus a sister property south of the river in Deptford. 

And what do I order?
The staff proudly proclaim that the wine list is ever-changing. Working with a range of small producers internationally, the list champions bottles that defy modern production conventions and use indigenous ingredients — expect almost exclusively biodynamic and organic wines. Right now, oenophiles are loving the club’s Tom Shobbrook biodynamic Australian wines produced with low intervention in the Barossa Valley, and its new selection of Jousset organic wines produced in France’s Loire Valley. The bar snacks are well worth a try, too — choose from oily, lemon-drenched boquerones (marinated anchovy fillets) served with sourdough toast, duck rillettes or a decadent raclette toastie.

At Sabor, the drinks list features wines that hail from Spain most famous wine regions, plus ...

At Sabor, the drinks list features wines that hail from Spain most famous wine regions, plus a small but impactful cocktail menu.

Photograph by Giulia Verdinelli

3. Passyunk Avenue, Fitzrovia

For a cultural shot of Philly

Go for its Jay Rayner-approved Philly cheesesteak; stay for your unequivocal home run into a Philadelphia backstreet dive bar. Tucked away on Fitzrovia’s otherwise chilled out Cleveland Street, Passyunk Avenue is a disco ball of neon Budweiser signs, televisions beaming out baseball, sports paraphernalia hung on every spare inch of wall and iconic US tunes ringing from the speakers. Though unmistakably American, this is a place that simultaneously swats away notions of the all-American experience. The bar — owned by JP Teti, a Philadelphian descendent of Italian immigrants — pays tribute to a city shaped by years of immigration through its menu of Philly-Italian die-hard favourites. 

And what do I order?
There always seem to be a group sinking Buds over buffalo chicken wings on the seats out front, so it’d make sense to start there. Beyond the Budweiser, the bar serves up Victory Brewing Company Prima Pils straight from Philadelphia, plus USA-brewed Blue Point Toasted Lager. Don’t miss the combo ubiquitous in its home city: the Citywide Special, a shot of whiskey and a beer — served up here as a shot of Jim Beam and a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

For out and out travel whimsy

The eccentric spirit of Phileas Fogg — the archetypal Victorian adventurer and protagonist of Around the World in Eighty Days — is perfectly encapsulated at this drinking den. At the Society of Exploration, the fifth incarnation in the Mr Fogg’s franchise of seven equally flamboyant bars, the overarching concept is one that celebrates intrepid and inventive Victorian travel — think hot air balloons dangling from the ceiling and cabinets filled with curious trinkets. The star of the show is the life-size replica of an Orient Express train carriage — which you can sit and have a drink in — plus, there’s a map room and library.

And what do I order?
Take a whistle-stop tour around the world via the eclectic drinks menu here, with 29 signature cocktails that draw inspiration from the world’s most iconic trips. If you’re craving the wilds of the Amazon Rainforest, try the Welcome to the Jungle cocktail with tropical flavours including coconut cream, falernum liqueur and acai berry tea; or if it’s the drama of the Grand Canyon on your wish list, feel the heat with the Salt River, a heady mix of smoked oak moss-infused vodka and Freya Woodsmoke Birch Spirit.

At Bandra Bhai, in London’s West End, expect plenty of crushed velvet, faux antique mirrors brushed with gold ...

At Bandra Bhai, in London’s West End, expect plenty of crushed velvet, faux antique mirrors brushed with gold and the odd piece of taxidermy. 

Photograph by Jenni Helin

5. Bandra Bhai, Fitzrovia

For a taste of a bygone era in India

While India operated a closed economy (which was liberalised in the early 1990s), the prohibition of many foreign imports lubricated a haven of black-market opportunities for smugglers. Their illicit wares, including alcohol, were bought and sold behind benign shopfronts like bookstores or photo studios. Or, as simulated in the concept of Bandra Bhai, a pharmacy — one belonging to a sexologist. The new opening in London’s West End pays a tongue-in-cheek tribute to this clandestine lost era with its kitsch decor and dimly lit tables. Expect plenty of crushed velvet, faux antique mirrors brushed with gold and the odd piece of taxidermy to complete the picture. 

And what do I order?
Bandra Bhai’s menu of small plates brings some of India’s lesser known, but no less loved street food finds to central London. Try the Amritsari fish for a sticky, spicy kick of fried tomato, garlic and chilli, or the Mangalore buns and crab sukkah, made fragrant with toasted fennel seeds and ginger. To wash them down? The cocktails here are laced with big Eastern flavours. Punchy cardamom, ginger, chilli, kaffir lime leaves and even lapsang souchong tea make appearances on the menu alongside fruity mango and pineapple cocktails. Don’t miss the alcoholic lassis (yes, alcoholic lassis). Try the Champagne lassi with Moët and Glenfiddich mixed into lychee and apricot milk.

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