Behind Closed Doors

A new movement of discreet 'speakeasy' styled bars have started to take our capital by storm. Neil Ridley knocks three times and finds out what all the fuss is about
By Neil Ridley
It’s a little after 7pm on a fairly warm Friday evening in mid-June. London’s bustling Soho is especially busy tonight, with hordes of noisy, pre-weekend revellers spilling out onto the crowded pavements, holding every kind of drink; Champagne, in plastic flutes, pints of Guinness and a multitude of cocktails. But stop for a second amongst the commotion and you’ll find a nondescript doorway, where no one is standing. It’s almost like it doesn’t really belong in Soho at all, adjacent to the seedy strip joints and sex shops, but behind it lies one of London’s drinking gems.

Spuntino, like Shoreditch’s Lounge Bohemia is one of the growing number of ‘Speakeasy’ styled joints, where covert is most definitely cool.

One could argue that in an age of austerity, owners should be doing everything they can to champion the convenient locations of their bars. But with so much competition for your palates, it seems that doing just the opposite can have the desired effect. There is an undoubted benefit, when the reputation of a bar spreads purely through word-of-mouth and where entry is often carefully controlled.

Spuntino is the brainchild of restaurateur Russell Norman and the concept is ludicrously straightforward. Build something super-cool in an un-signposted, obscure location and then wait for people to discover it. “We don’t fantasise about who we are,” explains bar manager Ajax, as I arrive to sample a Sazerac, served from a pewter teapot, accompanied by a pulled pork & apple roll, with a side order of wonderfully oily chilli popcorn. “It’s all about making really good drinks and simple finger food,” he continues. And he’s right, as the other drinkers either side of my bar top seat will no doubt testify, as they thumb the brown paper drinks menu with fingers still stained from the salted ‘squid ‘n ink’ snack they’ve just devoured.

Spuntino’s website has a street address, but nothing else, let alone a phone number, so you have to get off your arse and actually ‘discover’ it…the old fashioned way. The cocktail list offers simple classics, painstakingly researched by Ajax back to prohibition time and the whisky list runs to an impressive 30 different (and obscure) American bourbons and ryes. On paper, it sounds like the sort of place that would feel unwelcoming to all but the most achingly cool of London’s tattooed hipsters, but it’s really not- if you can actually find it that is.

Over in East London’s Shoreditch, Lounge Bohemia has an equally enigmatic 1-page website, with just a mobile number to make a reservation, so you can’t just rock up unannounced.

Daring to be different is likely to gain you acclaim and also an equal share of criticism - and the bar’s owner, Czech mixologist Paul Tvaroh is no stranger to both. The door policy seems relatively draconian, (‘appointment only- no suits, no office wear’), but this ensures only those truly in-the-know get to sample the bar’s high level of sophistication and above all, their incredible drinks. “I’m glad I stuck to my guns,” points out Paul “because I have a bar that is full of really interesting, friendly people who are there because they genuinely like the place.” Those who do make it through its subterranean doors won’t be disappointed. Paul has created a totally intimate, yet creative environment with sensational molecular cocktail creations bursting with fresh ideas and flavours, such as the Old Castro; a take on a rum Old Fashioned, but where the sugar is replaced with vanilla candy floss and served on a silver tray, with the rum poured from a chilled cigar tube.

The growing trend for vintage, speakeasy hangouts has had a profound effect on the landscape of London’s current bar culture, offering a window into prohibition styled drinking, but it will have to go some way to accurately recreate the sheer scale of New York in the 1920s.

Today, like London, New York is also witnessing a renaissance for these often hard-to-find establishments, albeit now on the right side of the law, but equally elaborate in their attempts to remain hidden. Please Don’t Tell
(or PDT) as known to the locals in-the-know is actually accessed through an old style wooden telephone booth in the corner of neighbouring hot dog joint, Crif Dogs. Pick up the phone and if your reservation is good, you can pass through another discreet door into a low ceiling, 45-seat bar and enjoy a range of classics mixed up by the bar’s creator, Jim Meehan. The whole experience makes you feel part of something slightly illicit and edgy, but at its heart is a masterclass in promotion… If you build it (then hide it)… they will come.

London's newest and, probably best hidden speakeasy bar has only been open a few weeks, but in that time become the buzz of the drinks community. The Mayor Of Scaredy Cat Town, based in a basement in East London has its entrance hidden behind a Smeg fridge freezer in the Breakfast Club cafe/diner nearby Spitalfields Market.



61 Rupert Street, London W1D7PW
Open: Mon-Sat 11am – Midnight
Sun – Noon-11pm
No Phone, no reservations

Lounge Bohemia

1 Great Eastern Street City of London EC2A 3EJ
Tel: 07720 707 000
Open: Mon-Sat – 6pm-12am
Reservation only


113 Saint Marks Place, New York, NY 10009, United States
Tel: (212) 614-0386
Open: Fri-Sat – 6pm – 4am
Reservation only