In the late 1700s, the shops of west London were terrorised by an all-female crime gang known as the 40 Elephants.
No, this is not a post-Me Too play on gender roles, nor a BBC crime series starring Maxine Peake (although it should be and I would watch that). It’s a true story. Formed around south London’s Elephant and Castle, and allied with the notorious McDonald brothers, the gang had a penchant for dressing well and living the high life – funded, in most part, by organised shoplifting, plundering thousands of pounds worth of goods.
The gang were known for disguising themselves as maids from wealthy homes, before ransacking the houses of everything of worth.
But it was the inter-war period and the 1920s when the gang reached its zenith, led by Alice Diamond. They started branching out of London and forcing smaller gangs to pay tribute to them, or else face violent retribution – Mafia-style.
According to Brian McDonald, author of Gangs of London, the 40 Elephants threw lavish parties and spent their plunder in pubs and clubs and restaurants. They sought to emulate the glamorous flapper style of the time. They sought decadence.
Which brings me to the 40 Elephants Bar in Scotland Yard, which the gang surely would have frequented. Why? Because it is so very flapperesque. The perfect place to sit quietly in the corner with a cocktail, plotting your next heist. That it would have been on the same road as their enemies in the Met would have made it all the sweeter.
Stepping through the foyer of the Great Scotland Yard Hotel into the darkened bar is like stepping back in time to the 1920s. The restaurant is built around the “broken” chandelier, meant to represent the gang’s conquests. Watching over everything is a portrait of Julie Diamond, the getaway driver – she was never caught by the police.
Themed bars aren’t usualy my thing, but this one strikes a good balance. If you are drawn to the “golden age” of the 1920s and pine for the Gatsby experience, you will love it.
The cocktails have a unique twist. The Negroni uses Sicilian blood orange, with a heart etched into the ice cube. Their answer to an Old Fashioned – a Black Diamond – is finished with a square of Lindt chocolate. Both are delicious.
When bartenders talk of “layers” to a drink, I don’t usually taste what they mean. But with the Black Diamond, first I sense whiskey, then fruitiness, then pomegranate. It’s refreshing on a day of 30C and worth the £15 I paid for it.
Our olives and crisps are constantly replenished and the attentive, friendly staff are always on hand for a recommendation. The head bartender, Daniel, asks us what we usually like to drink. When I tell him I usually go for something whiskey-based, he goes straight for the Black Diamond. When every new place is trying to reinvent The Cocktail, it’s sometimes hard to know what you’re ordering. His guidance was more than welcome and his recommendation spot on.
The bar menu also keeps us fed as well as watered, with the likes of steak croquettes and truffle arancini. Both are delicious little bites that I could easy eat platefuls of.
Perhaps we’ve peaked, as the main courses seem underwhelming. You might call it “pub food”. Burgers, sandwiches and hotdogs seem somehow at odds with the theme and the inventiveness of the drinks menu. The burger is by no means remarkabale enough to live up to its £24 price tag. The only vegetarian option for my friend was pasta alla norma, which, while perfectly satisfactory, still doesn’t quite match our surroundings. Were the main courses an afterthought?
The dessert of the day is a strawberry cheesecake, which is very easy and sweet and served beautifully. Afterwards, Daniel brings out a strawberry cordial mixed with champagne, a sweet end to a mostly delicious meal that leaves us even more baffled by the main courses.
It’s the whiskey lounge hidden behind the main bar, though, that’s the biggest surprise of the night.
In what they call their speakeasy, you can choose from more than 35 different whiskeys from all over the world – some of which are very rare. Daniel again asks for our preferences, then recommends a Japanese whiskey, The Haskushu, which is almost scotch-like in how easy it is to drink. We finish off the night with a Danish rye whiskey called Stauning Kaos, which is smoky, peaty and has a little kick.
Between the 40 Elephants’ art deco bar and the hidden speakeasy, this is a wonderful place to drink. The service is excellent, the cocktails perfect, the whiskeys sophisticated, (the main courses a little drab). I very much felt like I was back in the roaring Twenties, rubbing shoulders with one of the classiest crime syndicates of the time. Now, for my next heist…