We all know it’s true: you can’t call yourself a real Londoner until you’ve visited one of our fine city’s ‘quirky’ bars or restaurants. Initially the privilege of the Shoreditch crowd, speakeasies are now found on practically every other street corner, but there’s a themed venue to suit pretty much everyone’s tastes these days. Leave your self-consciousness at home and put on your best dickie bow, deerstalker or overalls, because we’ve listed some of the best places for a truly unique evening out.
Whether you love or loathe them, Prohibition-themed bars are all the rage at the moment, so we couldn’t possibly get through this post without mentioning two of the coolest. Probably the most committed to sticking to their shtick, don’t expect to just walk into Evans and Peel Detective Agency without a proper cover story. If you manage to impress The Detective, you’ll be allowed to enter the bar through a secret door hidden in a bookcase. Inside, it’s all off-white tile, American-style cocktails and drinking your beer from a brown paper bag.
Another popular speakeasy is Cahoots, a tube-themed bar that takes you back to the time of the Blitz. Located in an actual air raid shelter that’s been stuffed full of weird and wonderful tube, WWII and London paraphernalia, it’s a bit of an assault on the senses. Brush up on your Cockney as well before you go, because you don’t want to look stupid when the doorman directs you down ‘the apples and pears’.
If you’re quite over the Prohibition trend by now, have a crack at one of London’s ‘fictional’ bars. Breaking Bad-style popup ABQ is back in town for just a few months after last year’s summer of success. An evening with Mr White and JP involves cooking your own cocktails while wearing the familiar yellow overalls, in an actual RV. Also, lots of dry ice and nitrogen. Yeah, science!
An entirely different cup of tea is Mr Fogg’s Residence, the home of the explorer of Around the World in Eighty Days-fame. Interior design features are penny farthings dangling from the ceiling, stuffed animals and over-stuffed armchairs, and of course the famous hot air balloon makes an appearance as well. The cocktails are at least as spectacular as the decoration, and Phineas has recently expanded with a gin parlour as well.
It’s not just your booze that you can get with a theme in this great city. Sarastro, a Turkish-Mediterranean restaurant on Drury Lane, is not a venue for the faint of heart. It has been kitted out with the most eye-wateringly kitsch décor (crushed velvet napkins! gold painted everything!), all in the name of opera. Most tables are in their own private box, each in a different historical style. On Sundays and Mondays the experience is further enhanced by live performances, so expect proper dinner entertainment here.
Equally dazzling, albeit for slightly different reasons, is Bunga Bunga. Named after Silvio Berlusconi’s infamous sex parties, this pizzeria-cum-karaoke-bar features depictions of Italy’s favourite crook than anyone could wish for. Want to see Silvio’s face on a whale? They have a picture of it! The theme is, inevitably, complemented by a range of ‘typically Italian’ decorations such as Sistine Chapel wallpaper.
If these places are rather impulse-heavy for you, Dans le Noir? could be just the ticket. Run almost entirely by visually impaired staff, the pitch black dining room gives customers the unique opportunity to go an entire evening without relying on their eyes. In the darkness, guests become more attuned to other senses like touch and smell, which makes eating quite a different experience. If you manage to get your food into your mouth, that is.
Of course, this being London, there’s plenty more to choose from. We haven’t even talked about the range of circus-themed venues. Or about all the places where you have to crawl through a fridge or phone booth to get inside. Or about the ones that you only get into with a special password. Or… well, you get the point. Time to go out and explore!