You wouldn’t typically associate London with Al Capone or Charleston dancing but our British capital has indeed become the vanguard of the latest craze in nightlife – the return of the SPEAKEASY. Despite the fact that historically there never was a prohibition on alcohol in the United Kingdom, London has been leading the rest of the world in giving speakeasies their rightful place back in entertainment.
Speakeasies became known in the 1920s as bars and saloons, which would illegally sell alcohol (often brewed within their own premises). They were particularly symptomatic of the popular culture in United States during the infamous Prohibition Era. Although these establishments were equally associated with the widespread surge of organised crime gangs of their days, they remained as steadfast venues for social gatherings for well over a decade. Thus the term “speakeasy” also became synonymous with other fashions of its time, such as flappers, cigarette holders, art deco design and other such unique features of the “Roaring Twenties”.
Speakeasies are now back in style in the 21st century, even though there are no bans or limitations on alcohol anywhere in the Western world. In fact, it is hard to discern why people are turning to this blast from the past and celebrating its revival; perhaps it’s all down to a new appreciation of home-made liquors or perhaps it’s a grown-up manner of playing ‘fancy dress’ or perhaps it’s just a way of reminiscing about days long gone by. But speakeasies are certainly having a moment, which is taken rather seriously by their aficionados – and it looks like they might be here to stay. Ironically, the momentum of the original speakeasies had begun to cease in the 1930s with the onset of the Great Depression, while the current restoration trend of speakeasies -in contrast- happened to coincide with the present-day credit crunch of recent years. Maybe there’s a correlation between “bootlegging” and financial woes. The only way to find out is to tour some of London’s greatest haunts from the Prohibition Era.
We begin our expedition of current day speakeasies in the East End, just outside Liverpool Street Station. The WORSHIP STREET WHISTLING STOP has recently become a staple of London’s bar and pub scene, providing its patrons with some exciting concoctions from days gone by. A full-blown distillery is on display as well as liquor ageing in barrels at the top shelves of the bar. The menu even features some enticing hot cocktails. Be careful not to miss the entrance, as there’s only a small, understated door leading to this basement venue.
Not far from there you will find NIGHTJAR – another top-notch basement locale featuring speakeasy brews with occasional entertainment nights as well. You must ask for their teapot cocktails, which are a sensation both to your taste buds as well as your eyes. The entrance is literally located a few feet away from Old Street station (north exit), but again you have to pry open your eyes to find it. There are even some themed nights propelling you back to the petticoats and polka dots of wartime days, with Vera Lynn records on repeat.
Also in the same area you will find LOUNGE BOHEMIA – by appointment only. You have to call in advance to book a table, but once you enter this basement you’ll find yourself cast into a parallel universe. With inventive cocktails and sassy wait staff, Lounge Bohemia is a Hungarian answer to the speakeasy craze that has been captivating London.
The West End also features some choice speakeasy bars, though the main difference between East and West seems to be that the West End locations tend to take themselves less seriously while trying to reinvent (rather than recreate) the speakeasy style. Take CELLAR DOOR for instance. With it’s address being number “zero” on the Strand and the location previously serving as a public toilet, Cellar Door attracts a mixed crowd of professionals and music lovers, with different entertainment acts on offer each night. The drinks are more classic and less bootlegged but the contemporary atmosphere still manages to be truthful to the spirit of the speakeasy style. Cellar Door has long earned its equal place and footing in London’s speakeasy scene, leading the way long before some of the other venues were even opened.
Even predating the Cellar Door, we have the ARTS THEATRE CLUB in Soho. This is where the speakeasy movement was celebrated long before it had gained any momentum. A long-going favorite with West End performers and music buffs, the Arts Theatre Club features some original drinks from the 1920s and a general vibe from yesteryears while it also doubles up as a nightclub, especially on weekends. The drinks tend to be inexpensive and the atmosphere easygoing and unpretentious.