Though it's not hard to find a decent drink in London, there's no such thing as the perfect bar. What makes a place work one evening might be its downfall the next, and besides, fun things wear thin when they're done too much.
It was hard enough to name 50 of our favourites, and getting to 10 has been almost impossible. The list below is in no particular order.
Scarfe’s bar – The Naturalist
Scarfe’s always packs out for good reason. From early difficult days, when it was a den of garishness, it’s become something magnificent, elegant, revered. This seemed to go to their head at the last list change, when they were charging £10 for a beer – a tenner! – but things have just been changed again and they’ve wiped a little smugness off the prices. While there are still elements of the wrong crowd coming through the doors (lawyers are very hard to shake), mostly it is now a low-lit library of charm. The new menu is a marvel, Gerald Scarfe’s work still sharp and gorgeous to look at (and now for sale, after all the old lists got nicked). The mixes inspired by the drawings are even better to drink. Serious talent behind the bar has been experimenting, fermenting, growing, distilling. See for yourself with the Naturalist, inspired by Sir David Attenborough: the back story is in the book, but a spirit made from soil – we’re not mucking around – burns cold in this twist on a Martini that is ice-white intense and blindingly strong in a way that puts Duke’s Bar to shame. Oh, and because 'tis the season, follow it with a Prince Harry (scotch, saffron, figs, ginger). Music is reliably good, with regular sessions from Nick Shankland, who is surely the hardest working pianist in town.
Rosewood London, 252 High Holborn, WC1V 7EN, rosewoodhotels.com
Dandelyan – Paperclip
Any of Ryan Chetiyawardana’s excellent bars could have made this list and probably they all deserve to. Super Lyan is a grungy Hoxton basement, built for beers and trying spirits you’ll never remember the names of. Cub is one of London’s most exciting restaurants, and one of the most sustainable, too. Dandelyan, though, arguably serves the best drinks in its if-Sweden-did-Vegas surrounds, which look out over the Thames. The menu has a helpful flavour map that signals what to have and when; sadly, there’s too much to fit into one night, so have a couple a time and come back when you can. There’s lots to like: the Nitrate Manhattan is hoppy and spicy, full of red hot chilli flavour blended with a pleasing herbiness, while the Concrete Sazerac is as strong as its name suggests. Still, the best of the bunch is the Paperclip (rye, gunpowder, herbal beurre blanc, paper fibre). It is odd, distinct, minty but slightly creamy and slightly oily, though much tastier than any of those words suggest. In fact, they’ve done such a good job that it can be served without booze in it.
20 Upper Ground, South Bank, SE1 9PD, morganshotelgroup.com
Coupette – Champagne Piña Colada
Though it only opened last year, this Bethnal Green bar has quickly established itself as a new favourite. It’s French feeling (though, thankfully not where the music’s concerned), and big on Calvados, which is a criminally underrated drink over her (just ask Gerald at Bistro Mirey). Chris Moore, once of the Beautfort Bar (see below), has done wonders with stuff – try Apples, which tastes just like them, if apples could leave you all happy and buzzing. The star drink is the Champagne Piña Colada, though, which deservedly is an award-winner. It feels wonderfully over the top: who puts champagne with such a silly little holiday drink? Nevertheless, it works beautifully. And if the song gets stuck in your head, then that can only be a good thing.
423 Bethnal Green Rd, E2 0AN, coupette.co.uk
Coral Room – Espresso Martini
This newly opened bar has things right. It’s entirely gorgeous – and not in that "built for the ‘Gram" way of things – while the menu does its own thing without either going to into the realm of impressive-but-undrinkable, or easing back to be just-another-clone-of-the-classics. It is all very grand but all very playful too, and for a hotel bar, downright reasonable. There is a lot to drink here (including a hefty selection of English fizz), and they’re a dab hand with mezcal, but we’ve picked the espresso martini here for a reason: our experience sums up their attitude to their guests. They make one exactly to order, not too sweet, not too frothy, and if it isn’t right, they do it again with no fuzz and a garland of apologies. That’s how the place is run, and it’s a reason to come back. Their sister, the terrific Bloomsbury Club Bar downstairs, is also a must – ask for Brian.
The Coral Room, 16-22 Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, WC1B 3NN, thecoralroom.co.uk
Bar Américain – The Black Pearl
There will be those who don’t think Bar Americain deserves a spot on this list, perhaps because it's not all about change or innovation. They’re right; it isn’t, but to criticise the place on such grounds is like wondering when Cartier are going to branch out into dating apps. For those who don’t miss the point, it is an art deco den of decadent charm, all twinkling bottles and waiters who gave up walking long ago in favour of gliding. Classics are their strong suit; their Aviation (gin, maraschino cherry, lemon juice) is nicely bracing, while the Old Fashioned is exactly that, with no modern messing about. After a few of whatever, see out the night with a Black Pearl (scotch, vermouth, chocolate liquer, punt-e-mes). It is perfect for the last drink of the night.
20 Sherwood St, Soho, W1F 7ED, brasseriezedel.com
American Bar – Negroni
The American Bar seems to warrant a place on these sorts of a lists as if by law. Given it’s routinely declared the best bar in London, there is something of the ‘must-see’ about it and in all fairness, they do step up to the challenge. Bar manager Declan McGurk and his only-completely-intimidating head barman Erik Lorincz have an ever changing menu; updates are regular and always theatrical, usually drawing on the Savoy’s endless stories, whether it’s Fred Astaire and his sister tap-dancing on the roof or Marilyn Monroe and Lawrence Olivier bickering through a press tour. Though their innovations tend to be tremendous, the classics (which are off menu) are always done expertly. Early evening, have a Negroni – it’s the favourite of bartender Pippa Guy, who says: “It epitomises beauty in simplicity. Three ingredients in equal parts , a perfect bitter harmony.” Can’t argue with that. Afterwards, slip away to the Beaufort Bar, which is under new management but as wonderful and cosy as ever.
The Savoy, Strand, WC2R 0EZ, fairmont.com
Swift – Bazaar
Now we have it, how Soho survived without Swift for so long is a mystery. There have always been drinking dens and battered pubs and good restaurants, but a smart, straight up-and-down cocktail bar was missing. Making up for lost time, Swift effectively put two in: upstairs is light, airy, somewhere for sharp drinks (try the Piccolina), downstairs is cosier, darker, sexier. Who wouldn’t want to ask for a Silver Pistol (montelobos, dry vermouth, kummel, celery bitters, absinthe)? Cool name, cool drink. Better still is the Bazaar (silver tequila, saffron, mandarin sherbet, Suze, tonic). It’s refreshing and bright and crisp and full of zip. It’s easy enough to have one too many, so be careful. Not a bad price, either, at £10.
12 Old Compton St, Soho, W1D 4TQ, barswift.com
Nuala – Punch #3
London does well with Guinness – we were the first place outside of Ireland to get the stuff, at the Tipperary on Fleet Street – and we’ve got plenty of decent Irish pubs, but Irish bars are harder to come by. Underneath the excellent Nuala restaurant is this (fully wheelchair accessible) Celtic hangout, which does its theme gently; there are no shamrocks or clovers about, instead it’s all dark wood and fiddles on the sound system. The Guinness is excellent and the natural wine selection is among the best in the capital, but come here for a punch. Not the most sophisticated of cocktails, perhaps, but good fun. These aren’t American style-party-juice mixes: Punch Number 3 is a mix of sherry, rum and cognac. One to be savoured. If you’re just after the one drink, have the Manhattan Serve (Irish single malt, armagnac, sherry, squash seed oil, honey).
70-74 City Rd, Old Street, EC1Y 2BJ, nualalondon.com
Untitled Bar – Violin
Tony Conigliaro’s Dalston spot is similar to Matt Whiley’s Scout in Shoreditch, in that both are technical; drinks aren’t the comforting kind made up of familiar flavours, they're potions. This can be odd, disconcerting and occasionally unpleasant, but when they get things right, it’s a revelation. Scout is the more experimental of the two but Untitled gets the nod here as the place is more versatile, and is presently refurbishing its garden for the summer – from late May, expect to find a Japanese inspired stretch of calm. Food is terrific (try it all for about £26 a head between two) and even if it’s altogether a bit too pleased with itself, there’s lots to like. Try the Violin: though the description (dark oak, pine, beeswax, benzoin, black pepper vodka infusion) reads like something you’d find on the back of Pledge bottle, and the flavour is one of old wooden cases, workshops, libraries. It's delicious: drinking it feels like reading a murder mystery under the blankets.
538 Kingsland Rd, Dalston, E8 4AH, untitled-bar.com
Nola – Sazerac
Lists like these can be imperfect in many ways; they’re subjective in many different directions. There’s a basic sense of taste, for both flavour and decor, then there’s considerations of budget (itself a slightly different concern to value for money). Then come the other things; are you on a date, out with friends, on your own? What’s the weather like? (The greatest speakeasy in the world has nothing on the world’s worst pub garden when the sun’s out). Are you celebrating or commiserating? You get the idea. Does the new Nola serve technically better drinks than, say, the excellent Connaught Bar? Probably not but then, it’s a different place. It’s not pricey, is proudly quirky and overflows with New Orleans’ inspired charm. It’s very relaxed but gets lively and their Sazerac is world class; I’m not sure there’s a better one in town (though Soho’s Cafe Boheme rarely disappoints if your order is precise enough). Nola is very easy to love. What else matters?
107 Roman Rd, Bethnal Green, E2 0QN, nola-group.com