Open all hours: London’s best late night bars

·11-min read
<p>Party on: the Flamingo pink Dona</p> (Dona)

Party on: the Flamingo pink Dona

(Dona)

Lockdown, with its working-from-home and ban on fun, did its bit to set the day in a new cast. Nights no longer were capped with one for the road but herbal teas and yawns, and bedtimes crept forward after evenings spent with nothing but Netflix.

This summer is set to issue a corrective. Curfews are gone and heading indoors is no longer off-limits. It’s time to rediscover London long after the light goes, when waiters shoo the last of the lingerers and the choice narrows: the last Tube or a late night. Choose that next drink; when midnight chimes, a glorious naughtiness transpires.

While London isn’t yet the city that never sleeps — for the most part it’s tucked up safe and sound by about 11pm, when the pubs stop pulling pints — look a little closer and opportunities for mischief begin to pull into focus.

It starts in the restaurant bars — the likes of Maison Francois have Frank’s downstairs, open till midnight but, with a little luck, soon to be pouring till 1am — but the private clubs offer the best of it and, for those committed to settling into the wee small hours, it’s worth finding your fit. The Groucho thrives on a glamorous set of faintly celeb-y types wondering where the time went; 5 Hertford Street is the place to discover frightfully well-to-do sorts talking nonsense about frightfully well-to-do things; Soho House invented those Soho House types (in advertising, but not usually as awful as that sounds); the Arts Club has its occasional minor royal of indeterminate descent. On the other end of things there’s the likes of lethal actor’s haunt Gerry’s, where people commit minor war crimes and drink in the deep end, but the only real requirement is to avoid being boring at all costs. Slightly better behaved, although thankfully not by much, is Trisha’s – still pretending, on Google at least, to actually be called the New Evaristo Club – which is sort-of a member’s spot, although actually being a member rarely seems to be a precursor to entry. What ties this disparate bunch is their commitment to life lived in the blurry hours.

Still, for those without the wherewithal, inclination or organisational skills to sort membership before barreling headfirst into the dark, late night life ticks on. Dancing on the tables may still be a dream held for June 21, but for now it’s time to prop the bar up long after you’d normally call “time” on a day. Welcome to London’s best late night operators — second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning.

Doña

Stoke Newington’s Doña opened as a pop-up in late 2019, and never really got going the way it should have before the world descended into the clutches of madness. To see it survive, regroup and rally is a joy. Thea Cumming and Lucie Massey promise music and mezcal at their flamingo pink, velvet hideaway and, coming out fighting after time away, they’re now pouring out their eye-wateringly stiff drinks until 1.30am from Thursday until Saturday.

92 Stoke Newington High St, N16; bardonalondon.com

Spiritland

 (Ed Reeve)
(Ed Reeve)

Across Spiritland’s sites, as much thought is in the playlists as the cocktails. They have some strange sorcery with the speakers: the way the bars are built, even with the music way up, they’re somewhere to sit, put away a few drinks and get lost in a chat. There’s an elegant louche feeling at all their sites; at Royal Festival Hall, things are open until 2am among the Seventies-style setting, and a weekly club night is promised from July. King’s Cross offers two spots, both open until 1am. Being in the named bar feels like drinking in a radio studio, while underneath Happy Face pizza, the Supermax bar is a neon-lit den for debauchery with a killer soundtrack. They’re also over at Joy in Portobello, with a six-week pop-up promising a good time until 2am on Fridays and Saturdays.

SE1, N1, W10; spiritland.com

Gibney’s

Under Richard Corrigan’s ever-humming Daffodil Mulligan sits Gibney’s, which quietly has become a star of London’s Irish bars. Its somewhere to settle on a stool at the red-topped counter or, better yet, sneak away into one of the small booths behind doors which, as must have been by design, seem to always prompt happily deplorable behaviour. Live music will get going later in the year; until then, and until 2am, stay and sink one of the capital’s finest pints of Guinness.

70 City Rd, EC1; gibneyslondon.com

Inception Group

 (Mr Fogg’s/Inception Group)
(Mr Fogg’s/Inception Group)

“Having to leave a bar by 11pm felt like being forced out before the main course had even been served,” says Inception Group co-founder Charlie Gilkes, rather neatly summing up the last year. “Some of the great moments in our bars are late at night when the tempo increases and you’re surrounded by the wonderful hubbub and sound of laughter and that joy of being serenaded by live music.”

Gilkes’s bars throw themselves headlong into the naughty hours: themed for the fictional explorer, Mr Fogg’s is somewhere for cocktails by the teapot until 2am, while both Bunga Bungas — those kitsch, karaoke-fuelled Italian party spots in Battersea and Covent Garden — are open late, until 2am and 3am respectively. Soho’s wartime-themed Cahoots also serves till 3am, and try Barts too.

Across London, inception-group.com; cahoots-london.com

Ronnie Scott’s

“There's something special about the bustling, busy ambience of Ronnie's,” says manager Fred Nash, “The waiters moving around the room in their deft manner, the chinking of ice in the cocktail shakers, musicians locked in and lost in each other’s playing, and the relaxed, smiling faces of the audience. Entertainment is what we do at Ronnie's and we're proud to offer Londoners a timeless venue, in Soho; the place that never tires.”

It’s an elegant summation. Ronnie Scott’s has its history in frames upon the walls, but its red-lit splendour is ageless. The late, late show — when the club sometimes stays open almost until it’s light again — is a wonderful thing to witness; the musicians lock in, the crowd enchanted, the waiters sailing between the booths with trays of cocktails in tall glasses. The Manhattans cannot be bettered, or the feeling.

47 Frith St, W1D; ronniescotts.co.uk

The Plough

 (The Plough)
(The Plough)

You either know the Plough or you don’t. As Matthew Scott of Hot 4 U, who have a residency there, puts it: “It’s a pub where anything goes, this place is pure vibes late at night, especially in the debauched depths of the subterranean bar.”

It is somewhere to come for drinks until 2am on Fridays and Saturdays and whatever you do, be sure to have the next day off. This is where the most fearsome of hangovers, and the best of blurry memories, are made.

23-25 Homerton High St, E9; theploughe9.com

Callooh Callay & Little Bat Bar

The Callooh Callay gang feel like familiar territory these days, but once upon a time they remoulded the idea of what a London bar could be and, if you visit either their Chelsea or Shoreditch sites, or sister pub-bar Little Bat, you’ll see all the cues that have found their way into other cocktail spots across the city. All offer a vague suggestion of mid-century eccentricity, and all are alike for their notably good service and top drinks. Chelsea and Islington’s Little Bat open till 1am, the original Shoreditch trailblazer till 2am.

SW3, EC2; calloohcallaybar.com, N1; littlebatbar.com

Piano Works

 (Piano Works)
(Piano Works)

With live music off the bill seemingly since forever, stay late to soak some up at the Piano Works bars in Farringdon and just off Leicester Square. At both, doors don’t close till 1am and until then the house bands — who, astonishingly, seem to have learned every pop hit from 1950 onwards — take requests and always burn the house down. Strutting to the dancefloor won’t be permitted till June; perfect your seat wiggle in the meantime. Is it a little cheesy? Absolutely, but that doesn’t stop it being a blast, especially as in Farringdon they’re offering to double any pre-bought bar tabs.

EC1, WC2; pianoworks.bar

Humble Chicken

Perhaps because Soho’s regulars tend to end up either in one of the area’s many private clubs (Gerry’s, Trisha’s and the Groucho as mentioned, but also Blacks, the House of St Barnabus, the Union Club, plenty of others), or in locked-in restaurants and pubs with the blinds down (it still happens; Soho’s demise is greatly overstated), the area seems to wind down surprisingly early. Humble Chicken, a yakitori bar from the talented Angelo Sato (formerly head chef of Restaurant Story), is a welcome addition to Frith Street: come to nestle at the counter until 1am for comb-to-tail cooking and plenty of sake-based cocktails and whiskey highballs.

54 Frith St, W1D; humblechickenuk.com

Boxpark

 (Boxpark)
(Boxpark)

Out of the centre of town, the Boxpark sites bustle with food, drink and games, and draw a lively crowd in search of a lively night. While the popular Shoreditch spot shuts just before midnight, those in Wembley and Croydon close at 1am on Fridays and Saturdays. Our pick is Wembley – go for a round of axe throwing, a glut of steamed snacks from Bun House and a few pints to see it off with.

CR0, HA9; boxpark.co.uk

The Hoxton

The Hoxton hotels are known for their drinks; hotel bars can be stuffy and antiquated but at the Hoxton, they’re chic, open plan places that draw a good crowd. They’re not party spots, but somewhere to come for “just one more” three or four times; they suit long, zig-zagging chats and hatching plans and talking about things that may never happen. They are fun too; you feel you can almost spot the affairs crackling into life. All three hotels, in Shoreditch, Holborn and Southwark, have licenses till 2am, while the Southwark’s upstairs restaurant, Seabird, is open till 1am. Seabird is really rather good and has stunning views, all the better when the sky is orange from the streetlights.

EC2, WC1, SE1; thehoxton.com

The Social

 (The Social)
(The Social)

The Social reopens in June; no small victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. £95,000 was raised in a fortnight to save it, testament to the way it operates, and the fondness it inspires. A bar that’s sort-of-a-club but sort-of-not, the wood-panelled, 70s-cool downstairs has recently had a little work, making it fit for gigs, with a new bar, DJ booth, lights, and even new loos. Fab news —it’s keeping the place fresh — but that’s not why you go. You go because there’s something special here; it starts to cook at a certain point, everyone having a proper night, the drinks flowing, the chatter cracking off the walls as the music starts to rumble through the floorboards.

5 Little Portland St, W1; thesocial.com

Nine Lives

Bermondsey Street bangs, and this is one of its many highlights. Vaguely jungle-esque in an LA kind of way – there’s lots of bamboo and greenery – the drinks list is short but focused, with the bar making a fuss of its canned cocktails, which are mixed and canned on site. Tigre Tacos take care of the food, and the place stays open till 1am. One for a date.

8 Holyrood St, SE1; ninelivesbar.com

Sabine

 (Sabine)
(Sabine)

Most witching hour watering holes live below ground, faintly murky secrets that have an appealingly illicit feeling. Sabine is not like that; for a start, it sits on a rooftop overlooking St Paul’s, and secondly, it’s all very clean cut and well behaved. But, open until 2am from Thursdays until Saturdays, it’s one to slowly work through a bottle on an endless summer evening, admiring the city as its lights begin to twinkle.

Unit 7, 10 Godliman St, EC4; sabinelondon.co.uk

The Black Book

Given this is a wine-centered bar opened and run by two respected sommeliers, Gearoid Devaney and Xavier Rousset, one might expect this to be rather sedate. But given it opens till 1am on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and until 3am on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, often things become charmingly unravelled towards the end of the night. It’s a smart, stylish basement, and while the wine list is unsurprisingly first rate, the cocktails are decent too. With plenty of industry ties, it draws a fun crowd, often dotted with chefs and bartenders. Rogues roam. Fun is had.

23 Frith St, W1D; blackbooksoho.co.uk

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