Slip down a side alley off Tower Hamlet’s Bishopgate and you’ll find yourself outside a brightly lit, ’80s themed brunch cafe. Enter, casually, and approach the counter. When asked for your order simply state: “I’m here to see the Mayor.” If all goes to plan, you will be directed to the door of a white SMEG fridge. You’re in.
Through the appliance and down some stairs is a dimly-lit bar. Dark woods cling to some walls, while plaster flakes from others. Vintage posters and trinkets rendezvous with candles and hanging lamps, giving a fleeting feeling that SMEG fridges may be exempt from the conventions of the space-time continuum.
Henri, the mastermind behind the secret bar, “The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town”, explains: “The bar came from a variety of ideas. I have a couple of friends who live in New York, and there are a lot of good cocktail bars.”
He mentions one place in particular, La Esquina Corner Deli in New York’s SoHo. Customers enter the eatery, tell the waitress they have reservations, and are led through the ‘employees only’ door, via a kitchen, and into an underground bar.
“There was nothing like this in London,” says Henri.
And so, in May last year, The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town opened to the public. Well, to the members of the public in the know.
Eight months on, similarly quirky bars proliferate in east London. “There are definitely more, and also more cocktail bars,” says Henri, “cocktail bars lend themselves well to this type of scenario.”
“This type of scenario” is a modern renovation of the speakeasy. These venues – immortalised in Scarface, The Great Gatsby, and countless other films and novels – experienced a revival in their country of origin in the last decade but are only now infiltrating the backstreets of London.
In 1919, the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution outlawed the sale and manufacture of alcohol. Yet the following decade is ubiquitously known as ‘the roaring twenties’. Androgynous women, drink in hand, passing through the smoky haze of a covert, jazz-filled basement present themselves when the phrase is uttered. The multiplicity of social upheaval in the prohibition era is encapsulated by the speakeasy.
Cocktails are a most diverse genre of drink, allowing modern speakeasies to create innovative menus invoking their chosen era and atmosphere. This microcosm of rebellion against ‘normal’ drinks is completely in sync with our imagined ‘roaring twenties’.
Henri recommends the Rosie and Gin at his establishment: “It tends to be the one that sells most, maybe because it has unusual flavours. It’s harking back to that desire for cocktail bars doing different things, and not relying too much on classic drinks.”
Yet, speakeasy has almost become a carry-all term for any bar deviating from the standard formula.
Lounge Bohemia has occupied the same Shoreditch premises since 2007, but regularly finds itself alongside fledgling bars in the ‘speakeasy’ section of London review sites. Proprietor, Paul Tvaroh, refuses to label his bar in this way: “I don’t care what other bars are offering or not offering – it’s up to the customer to decide whether they like what we offer.
“Basically I wanted to create a bar where you could be confident you could take your mate who had just got back from a three month trip around the world and you could discuss it without shouting over a DJ, without going to the bar and having to fight for a drink and then losing the space where you’re sitting.”
For Paul, the unique drinks are the framework on which his bar is built. He says: “We are known as a cocktail lounge and we do special molecular mixology, which means things aren’t always what they seem.”
Then again, the ethos of the bar and its strict appointment-only policy has created an air of mystery in line with our mythologized conception of the speakeasy.
These bars provide an escape, some excitement, a realistic venue for clandestine liaisons. For those who have ever spent an entire evening drinking in Wetherspoons, or forked out three hours wages for a mediocre-at-best cocktail in a slick, ‘city’ establishment, the new wave of alternative drinking holes is thoroughly refreshing.
Mind you, it’s not cheap. But, if you’re going to drink an £8 cocktail, you may as well do it in a genuinely interesting place.
Why not try:
The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town – Breakfast Club, 12-16 Artillery Lane, E1 7LS
Lounge Bohemia – 1 Great Eastern Street, EC2A 3EJ
Callooh Callay Bar – 65 Rivington Street, EC2A 3AY
Danger of Death – 202 Brick Lane, E1 6SA
The Dead Dolls Club – 145 Well Street, E9 7LJ
The NightJar – 129 City Road, EC1V 1JB
Worship Street Whistling Shop – 63 Worship Street, EC2A 2DU