If hotel bars are the sexiest bars, then London, an age-old mecca for grand hotels and historic watering holes, might just have the sexiest bar scene on the planet.
It was at a London hotel bar — DUKES Bar in the tony Mayfair district — that Ian Fleming created his “shaken, not stirred,” Martini-sipping secret agent. The American Bar at the Savoy not only gave mixology foreparents Ada “Coley” Coleman and Harry Craddock their start, it also served astronaut Neil Armstrong his very first drink after returning from the moon (imagine that thirst).
According to British-born Simon Ford, founder of Fords Gin and a longtime fixture of London’s cocktail culture, the city’s love affair with these in-house hideaways is rooted in its status as a cross-cultural hub.
“London is one of the most diverse cities in the world. It also happens to be one of the most connected — Heathrow has flights serving more international destinations than any other airport in the world,” Ford says. “All of this makes London a melting pot for what is happening in food and drink and the hotels have always been at that forefront.”
The Savoy Hotel, founded by Cesar Ritz and Auguste Escoffier in 1889, was influential. “That opening set the stage for hotels around the world, not just as a destination for accommodation but also for fine food and drink and for high society to mingle,” Ford says.
While iconic institutions can all-too-often rest on their highly decorated laurels, sinking into overstuffed oblivion, such is not the case at the Savoy. It, like all of London nightlife, is continually reinventing itself. The Covent Garden institution went so far as to undergo a three-year, £220 million renovation in 2010, painstakingly restoring its groundbreaking American Bar and even installing a snazzy new cabaret bar called The Beaufort.
“I first started surveying the scene in the late ’90s when bars at The Savoy, The Lanesborough, The Dukes, The Berkeley, The Sanderson, and so on were already among the world’s most celebrated,” Ford says. “A world-class cocktail bar has been a required element… And every time a hot new hotel bar opens, existing spots upgrade their offerings to ensure that the newcomers do not outshine.
“The momentum doesn’t seem to be slowing down.”
In 2007, the Langham Hotel celebrated its 142nd birthday by debuting Artesian bar. Outfitted with stately Victorian chandeliers and a crisp, royal-blue-and-white color scheme, it had one of the most forward-thinking cocktail programs the U.K. had ever seen. Drinks International named it the World’s Best Bar from 2011 to 2015, and it received a bounty of nods from Tales of the Cocktail’s Spirited Awards, including World’s Best Hotel Bar, Best International Cocktail Bar, and multiple International Bartender of the Year awards.
Less than a year later, the 1897 Connaught Hotel gave its treasured eponymous bar a sleek Art Deco-inspired facelift. It soon began accumulating its own arsenal of awards, thanks, at least in part, to its completely irresistible Martini trolley.
In the decade that followed, properties citywide followed suit, creating its now-flourishing hotel bar landscape. New openings and renovations continue to inspire this constantly evolving city by combining contemporary design, boundary-pushing drinks, and decadent hospitality and attention to detail.
These five standouts prove there’s never been a better time to sip and stay in Londontown.
Scarfes Bar at the Rosewood Hotel
This plush, handsome Holborn staple has paid homage to political cartoonist Gerald Scarfe since its inception in 2014. The illustrator’s quirky caricatures hang on the walls and dot the pages of the novel-like menu, bringing a dash of levity to the library-esque atmosphere (read: massive fireplace, built-in dark wood bookshelves, slick marble, tufted leather armchairs). Look for celebrity-inspired cocktails like the Zingy Stardust, made with Absolut Elyx, lemongrass, and kaffir lime; and Booyakasha, a fiery Sasha Baron Cohen tribute featuring Patron Silver, Martini Rubino, habanero, verjus, pink grapefruit, and gusano.
“Scarfes is far from your typical 5-star hotel bar, with nothing stuffy about it,” bar manager Martin Siska says. “Between 60 and 70 percent of our guests visit from outside the hotel property.” Siska has also noticed several travelers book a stay at the hotel because of its bar.
If you ask Ford, that kind of following is a one-way ticket to greatness. “A good hotel bar has the challenge of not only staying ahead of drinking and bar trends around the whole world but it also needs to cater to an international audience,” he says. “If a bar is the reason that people are choosing to stay at the hotel then you have yourself a great hotel bar, and if that bar manages to mingle an international crowd with locals, then even better.”
The Green Room at The Curtain
Shoreditch’s boutique Curtain Hotel threw a big ol’ splash of color onto London’s hotel bar scene when it opened its Green Room in June 2018. Polished concrete floors and giant steel-trimmed windows play off the area’s industrial past, while blue velvet bar stools, glossy emerald tiling, hanging ferns, and a meandering snake of a plush green banquette speak to its youthful, street-savvy present. The drinks list is also tailor-made for the neighborhood’s brunch-craving crowd, with playful numbers like Holiest Harlot (Braemble gin, Martini Riserva Bitter, lemon sorbet, rosé) and Sunday Service (Tapatio Blanco tequila, eucalyptus, pear, lemon, floral bitters) leading the pack.
The Punch Room at The EDITION
Nestled deep inside Ian Schrager’s chic London EDITION hotel lurks this intimate haunt, opened in 2013 with floor-to-ceiling wainscotting, soft blue banquettes, and tobacco-hued club chairs. Beautiful as it is, what really makes this place pop is its central theme: punch, the communal English drink first invented by British East India Company sailors.
“I like the versatility of punch, but it’s the drink’s history that really fascinates me,” EDITION’s director of beverages, Davide Segat, says. “It was the first mixed drink that would touch all parts of society, from any social class or position. For hundreds of years, it would reflect society in a bowl — it’s beautiful.”
Punches here are expertly concocted using traditional and offbeat ingredients. Seasonal menus range from tart refreshers (the Enotria features Banks 7 rum, lavender and thyme cordial, Vermentino, and lemon juice) to hearty stalwarts like an English Milk Punch made with Havana Club 3 Year, Somerset Cider brandy, fermented red rice liqueur, milk, and a whole host of belly-warming juices and spices.
Fitz’s at The Kimpton Fitzroy London
In operation since April 2018, Ford deems this newly minted Russell Square addition as “a perfect juxtaposition between classic hotel bar and a modern-day disco vibe.” And trust us, from the velvet clamshell sofas, to the illuminated Art Deco-style back bar, to the massive disco ball hanging amid a thick halo of real ostrich feathers, it lives up to the description. Fitz’s opened in April 2018 and is helmed by Sean Fennelly of Milk & Honey fame, and Carey Hanlon from the trendsetting Callooh Callay. The list includes jazzed-up twists like the silky, bittersweet Vesca Negroni, served atop a bright pink hunk of strawberry- and rosehip-flavored ice. It’s art in a glass, with a sidecar of smirk. Elsewhere on the menu, complicated originals like the pleasantly nutty Golden Echo (St. George Pear Brandy, Noix de la Saint Jean, Smith & Cross rum, lime, toasted sesame, pimento bitters, ginger beer) exhibit skillfully composed balance.
Dandelyan at the Mondrian (For Now)
Celebrated barkeep Ryan Chetiyawardan’s Dandelyan at the Mondrian quickly rose to the top of the ranks after opening in 2014. And though he recently announced its imminent closure via Instagram, Mr. Lyan, as he’s known, and his swanky, multi-award-winning Southbank digs remain, at least for now, a titan within the scene. The cocktail program is famous for incorporating foraged ingredients, bizarre housemade tinctures and syrups, and other one-of-a-kind finds. All are presented in a menu that resembles a coffee table book of mad scientist creations.
When and if it goes, it will undoubtedly be hard for any bar to fill the Dandelyan’s shoes. But London imbibers should rest assured that the city’s inevitable next class of hotel bars will be primed and poised to try.