It’s been a while since I publicly declared that I needed to repent for my sins. But that, plus a degree of chutzpah, a winning smile and a thirst for top-shelf spirits and high-end cocktails, are the most basic of desired elements required to gain admittance to one of London’s ever-growing band of ‘secret’ bars.
The Chelsea Prayer Room, as it’s known, is secreted somewhere in the upstairs of a perfectly ordinary-looking bar. Once you’ve told the hostess that you’ve been bad and need to repent, however, you’ll be taken up the stairs, and, after a code has been punched in to a door, ushered inside to a sepulchral space filled with votive candles, bulging Chesterfields and barmen making cocktails which you order from turning the pages of a Bible.
Chelsea Prayer Room
Exclusive it most certainly is, and certainly not cheap. But according to esteemed New York and London based author and bar critic Mark C. O’Flaherty, the urge Londoners have for these surreptitious drinking spaces doesn’t stem purely from that peculiarly urban lust for something, anything, that has novelty value: “I think the faux-speakeasy trend is a result of the death of the door policy,” he told me. “That whole Studio 54 thing really doesn't wash today as you can't select on the basis of image: too many people look the same now! So the attempt today is to offer a more commercial alternative to the private member’s club. Bars that try to keep their actual entrance low profile aren’t looking for the passer-by – they are styled as destinations. The theory is that you have to be ‘in the know,’ and you are only ‘in the know’ if you are like minded.”
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A result of some transatlantic cultural reappropriation, many of the London ‘secret bars’ ape the ‘speakeasy’ style of the Prohibition era clandestine bars that sprung up behind fake bookcases, down concealed staircases and underneath ‘respectable’ business premises.
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It’s also an opportunity, in a city with some of the most expensive property prices on earth, for creative entrepreneurs to maximise exclusivity and imagination in bijou spaces. The choice right now, for the drinker seeking furtiveness, sexiness and, let’s not forget, some very high calibre drinks, has never been greater.
Through the wardrobe at Callooh Calley © Steph Style
Bart's, also in Chelsea, is located within some austere-looking apartments. Step inside and you’ll find barmaids in top hats serving absinthe based infusions.
Evans and Peel © Social & Cocktail London
Evans and Peel in Earl’s Court is disguised as an atavistic detective agency where you’ll need to disclose the nature of your ‘case’ to the doorman before being allowed entry. The Breakfast Club in Spitalfields requires you to ask a barman if you can visit The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town before climbing through a Smeg fridge to enter a dimly-lit secret bar; and the Cellar Door, located near to The Delaunay restaurant in Aldwych, requires you to simply not mistake the entrance for a public toilet- which was, indeed, its previous use before becoming a beautiful cocktails and cabaret club.
Callooh Callay has a hidden bar entered by climbing through a wardrobe and, as if the movement needed further credentials, the achingly hip Chiltern Firehouse has an even more aspirational secret for those who fancy a waitress-serviced smoke or just ducking out of the spotlight – push the mirrored panel at the back of the toilets to discover the most exclusive secret area of the most exclusive hangout in town.
The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town
With the announcement that London’s disused underground stations and shelters will be turned into events and drinking spaces over the next few years, it seems that this is just the tip of the iceberg for London’s subterranean obsession.
O’Flaherty, with over a decade prowling the secret and not-so-secret bars of London and New York has a definite preference for which city does it best. “New York does have secret bars, but they’re becoming a nonsense. Tourists can wait for two hours or more crowded outside an unmarked door. The secrets get out too quickly. London does the whole secret scene with much more style.”