London’s Soho was once famous for unmarked doors that led to private drinking clubs and semi-legal clip joints, but a new generation of bars and restaurants means that hidden venues are no longer the preserve of furtive businessman or guileless tourists. Instead, they have become the destination of the capital’s gastronomic cognoscenti.
With its rusty signage and frosted windows, Spuntino looks unremarkable against a vista of neon shopfronts and window displays of fluorescent lingerie in this seedy corner of the capital. If you weren’t looking for it you would walk straight past. But for those in the know, Spuntino (“snack” in Italian) is the latest addition to a growing list of chic under-the-radar venues that provide a vintage aesthetic and, most importantly, quality cocktails. Unadvertised, rarely marketed and with websites that furnish the barest of details, these bars and restaurants rely on word of mouth recommendations. Their sudden profusion suggests that their unorthodox methods are succeeding, and that a slight aura of mystery is an excellent way to attract a loyal following.
The appeal could lie in a post-recession need for understated entertainment and a renewed focus on quality ingredients: “It would be exaggerating to say we are in an austerity era but I think people have tapped into that feeling,” says Russell Norman, owner of Spuntino. “We are conscious that things are fragile compared to boom times and are a little bit more modest.” The renewed emphasis on discretion means that these venues owe much to their speakeasy forbears. A few hundred metres away from Spuntino is the Experimental Cocktail Club. In the heart of China Town, visitors enter through an unmarked grey door between two greasy-looking all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants. The unpromising exterior belies the ornate 1920s inspired interior and stunning drinks list, which features a series of classic cocktails and modern creations. French-owned, the bar has never advertised but relies on a growing network of enthusiasts to spread the word. Similarly, the entrance to Nightjar, a basement level music and cocktail bar in Old Street, is simply marked by a small image of a nightjar bird on the front door.
The appeal seems to be the excitement of finding a hidden gem, especially in London’s less salubrious areas and, in doing so, joining a community of connoisseurs. “If you open a bar and advertise heavily then there is a risk that you’ll burn out quickly,” says Edmund Weil, owner of Nightjar. “With this kind of venue people can still be discovering it months and years later.”
Despite their popularity, there has been some criticism from those who feel that these bars are trading off the reputation of their illicit speakeasy forbears without running the risk of actually operating illegally. They cite other bars in London’s East End that operate without licences as the true heirs of the prohibition era bar.
However, speakeasies in the 1920s were never famous for great cocktails. They were more likely to be spit and sawdust venues that served low quality moonshine served with corn liquor to hide the foul taste. Instead, it is what the speakeasy has come to represent that is really important: bars that are discreet but not exclusive, barred to no-one but not broadcast either. As Edmund Weil says, “The appeal is that you know about this place and you can choose who else knows about it.”