Adrian Mourby

Back to Inspirations
London has so many unique places to drink, from pubs that double as theatres, to pubs that are divided in two by a public footpath, or that rattle every time the Bakerloo line trundles below. There are pubs that still retain their nineteenth-century “snob screens”, and one bar that produces the only London Dry Gin distilled in the city itself. All have their own story to tell. Here are just ten examples.  No two are remotely the same.

Given that the audibility of the bells of St Mary le Bow is what demarcates a Cockney from any other Londoner at birth, it’s not reassuring that Balfour at Bow Vaults has the churchyard of St Mary le Bow as its postal address. 
Bow Vaults, immediately opposite the church, has been here as a drinking establishment since 1987. The church itself is beautiful, understated baroque place of worship by Sir Christopher Wren. It was designed after the Great Fire of London (1666), damaged during the London Blitz of 1940 and then rebuilt over a ten-year period after the war.
The Balfour company, who produce their own wine from grapes grown in Kent, have turned Bow Vaults into a must-visit Monday to Friday venue. Its tables spill out on to pavement that leads to the old churchyard. It’s telling that Bow Vaults is closed over the weekend. This is a venue for young people who work hard and drink hard during the week and simply disappear from the City of London over the weekend.
To lure them back, Balfour at Bow Vaults runs a Breakfast Club from 730 to 11am Monday to Friday which serves up the Full English. There’s also a Dinner Club (Wednesday-Friday) where you can dine for £20 pp (drinks not included). Balfour also offers oysters with its own “bubbles” (a sparkling wine from Kent known as Leslie’s). Three oysters plus fizz comes to £11 and six to £18.
The ambience is very City of London: work hard, play hard and sit out noisily under heating lamps. But the food is also excellent and the location is as London iconic as you can possibly get. In what remains of the church’s graveyard there is a statue to John Smith, a parishioner until he sailed to the New World and met Pocahontas.


Billed as “the show after the show” Sarastro’s is famous for its decor, which was commissioned by Richard Niazzi, co-founder of this naughty theatrical bar. Richard was famous for his flamboyance and many enterprises. He was also known as The King of Covent Garden. Sarastro’s is his enduring memorial.

Before 1996 this gaudy extravaganza of gilt balconies and velvet swags was simply the canteen of the Peabody Trust  (a not for profit housing association, still based upstairs). That year Richard rented the space below and employed designers to throw everything at it especially a lot of gold paint and fabrics – plus nudes all over the bathroom walls. He also festooned this the Drury Lane dining bar with mezzanine balconies and cushions, giving the impression of a very small, very louche opera house. When Niazzi died in 2008, Sarastro’s was taken over by his daughter Isabel and his wife's brother-in-law, Murad. After an impressive funeral procession through Covent Garden with Chelsea Pensioners, Romany musicians, and mounted police in attendance, Richard was buried in North Cyprus but his extravagant, naughty vision lives on.
Today Sarastro’s is an institution serving excellent Turkish food and Turkish wine from the Ankara winery of Kavaklıdere. There is even Efes Turkish  beer.  Diners sit on or below the balconies while drinkers are accommodated near the front door. There is always plenty of live music – and even the occasional singing waiter. A string quartet plays on Sundays and the energetic Colin Roy belts out Delilah magnificently on Thursday evenings.

But what Sarastro is best known for is its bathrooms, which are the lewdest in London and not to be missed. Much as I love drinking here, no wine list could compete with the impact of Richard Niazzi's washroom décor. A truly unique SP.  


The Prince Alfred was built as a public house in 1856. At this time London was expanding in all directions. To the west there was an rural pub called The Maida (named after Britain’s famous victory over the French in Spain, 1806).
All around The Maida Inn, Victorian housing in white Regents Park stucco grew up. Both old and new money relocated to this west end of London. The east was too industrial. The north was hilly and disrupted by Hampstead Heath, and development south of the Thames was impeded by too few bridges.  The really imposing estates were built west of Regent’s Park and the area around this old pub became known, picturesquely as “Maida Vale”. 
Today The Prince Alfred is a tall, neoclassical mid-nineteenth century pub not far from the Regent’s Park Canal. It was named after Queen Victoria’s second son, Alfred, known in the family as Affie. In 1862 at the age of 18 he almost became King Alfred of Greece when its crown was offered to him, but Mummy forbade the move and Affie embarked on a naval career instead. In 1866 he became Duke of Edinburgh on his 21st birthday. His main achievement however was to begin the royal family’s famous stamp collection.  
Today the interior of the pub displays many photos of Prince Alfred (who looked remarkably like his elder brother, King Edward VII). It also sports some beautifully preserved snob screens. These hinged wood and etched glass panels allowed people to drink in the bar of a pub and engage with the bar staff  without their faces being seen by other drinkers in the bar (or even the staff if they wished). Victorian pubs installed “snob screens” so that gentlemen might drink without their servants noticing them or (later) so that ladies could drink incognito. Access to each section was by a discreet personal outer door and each section was linked to each other by very low doors, once again to prevent recognition. 
Nowadays only one part of the pub’s semi-circular bar had snob screens.  This area is very popular and if you want to try out “snobby” anonymity it is best to book. The rest of the pub is known as The Formosa Dining Room, a relatively modern, low-rise extension (which unfortunately lacks the charm of the old pub). In the basement there are four private dining rooms, carved out of the pub’s old cellars and lined with modern banquettes. These booths have a cavernous, crumbly brick charm. 
On the way down to the cellar (and the lavatories) look out for the photo of Sir Alec Guiness who was born in Maida Vale. Alan Turing the code-breaking genius was also born nearby, just a few houses from the Prince Alfred. He is commemorated by a blue plaque.
It is for its snob screens - to allow middle class drinkers to avoid the gaze of working class - that this London pub is unique There are only 12 such sets left in Britain today. 


Literally next to the Hackney Empire’s stage door, The Old Ship Inn is a respectable sturdy pub on the outside, and a lot of fun within. Externally it’s black-painted brick with the relief of a storm-tossed galleon over the front door. Inside is a broad open space with eating, drinking, and darts areas and a busy kitchen serving small plates known as “Ship Bites”.  
On Mondays there is a deal on two burgers and chips for £20 and on Tuesday a whole rotisserie chicken for the price of a half (£10.50). If you stay in one of the pub bedrooms upstairs you get 20% off your food and drink. (At a certain point in the evening taking a room probably makes sound economic sense.)
The cream tiles that cover much of the bar have been deliberately cracked and are a good match for the distressed, hacked-back brick on the walls. Overall The Old Ship has the feel of a slightly grungy found-space, a lively bar in one of London’s liveliest suburbs.  
The pub is run by Shannon Hughes whose colleague, Rayon Marshall offers nine bedrooms above the bar. Each room is compact and efficient, even with space for tea, coffee and biscuits. The staircase is vertiginous - so take your bags up before you head for the bar.


Leadenhall Market has occupied a corner of the old City of London since medieval times at least. (The old Roman forum of Londinium is thought to lie below.) However the current sequence of covered two-tiered galleries is Victorian and painted in gaudy gold and maroon, as it would have been at the time of construction. Queen Victoria’s subjects loved bright colours. It’s an instantly recognisable sight and has featured in many British films including Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (where it was home to the Leaky Cauldron pub containing the hidden entrance to Diagon Alley).
A hostelry of some kind or other has occupied the site of The New Moon Pub since long before the nineteenth-century redevelopment of Leadenhall. In the past it’s been known as The Half Moon and The Full Moon – for Moon is not an uncommon motif in the naming of British pubs:  Half Moon, Full Moon, Man in the Moon, Moon Under Water, Moon & Sixpence … The current exterior is ornate, resembling a first  class Victorian railway carriage. Inside there is a very basic footprint. Guests enter through a number of imposing  Victorian glass doors into a long dark room with a long bar and a few places to sit and lean. And that’s it. There are dining rooms upstairs and below in the former cellar but this ground floor really is just a simple boozer with a spectacular ceiling of beams and stamped tin or copper, a decorative style ‘popular in Victorian time. Were it not for the two TV screens showing technicolour sport all day at either end of the bar, you could imagine yourself in a Dickensian murder mystery or indeed a Harry Potter film.


This Victorian cellar is probably one of the best-known watering holes in London. It's famous for its excellent wine list, its unchanging décor, its patches of damp, and its loyal clientele. There is also an airy green terrace that faces south towards the Thames but it is for its dank, cellar bar that Gordon’s is unique.  In its darkest recesses the clocks always seems to be stuck at midnight.
Artwork and cuttings on the walls all have the marks of damp on them. In fact you may occasionally be dripped on by rainwater that has worked its way through the buildings above over many decades. Or at least that’s what I hope it is.  Tables are lit by real candles jammed into real rafia bottles.  You may have to prop up the bar until a suitable table comes free but if you are in a party you can always book the private “Cage” which stands at a corner of the bar, sealed off by what looks like prison bars out of Hogarth print’s for A Beggar’s Opera. 
The house white is an excellent blend of Sauvignon and Semillon and the red a combination of Merlot and Cab Sauvignon. Both have been bottled and labelled for Gordon’s for years. And the whites are kept in a tin bath of iced water rather than a wine fridge. It does chill better that way than in a fridge. 
The bar began its life as a warehouse on the Thames in the days when Charles Dickens was a young dandy about town and the Thames lapped a few feet away from its doors. Then when the Thames Embankment was built in 1861, the newly consolidated river was shifted south and a park was created between the old quayside and this new Thames Embankment.
No longer a warehouse for trading direct from the river the cavernous old building was obliged to re-evaluate its role. In 1890, under the management of the enterprising Angus “Staff” Gordon it became an unlicensed bar. How it was possible to legally run an unlicensed bar in London is another story entirely.  The cellars at Gordon's saw out the roaring twenties and the anxious thirties. It became a wonderfully safe place during the Blitz. But by 1974 Gordon’s was failing when another Mr Gordon entirely – Luis Gordon of the Domecq Sherry family (and no relation to the original Staff Gordon) – bought it and transformed it into London's first bar dedicated solely to wine. Luis decorated Gordon's in his own British patriotic style, with pictures of Winston Churchill and newspaper cuttings about the royal family and, later Margaret Thatcher. And it has hardly changed in appearance since. Or sound. The Bakerloo line still rumbles cozily below the cellars causing a homely tremor from time to time. Currently the bar is owned by Wendy Gordon, widow of Luis and run by her son and daughter in law.
There is also a Gordon's terrace on Waterway Walk, which was originally the Thames quayside (until 1861). At its busiest Gordon's can accommodate 400 people. The best time of day to visit is around opening time (11-12 noon) when you can choose your table inside, providing you don’t mind the occasional drip from the ceiling.
The wines at Gordon's, as well as being reasonably priced, cover a wide range of suppliers from Chile to Lebanon's Bekka Valley. When it comes to snacking, there are also reasonably-priced sharing boards (both vegetarian and chartcuterie) available to help soak up all that wine!  


In the 1960s El Vino (or  El Vino’s) was the most influential wine bar in London. The El Vino’s (there are a few) was – and still is – based in Fleet Street, not far from the Old Bailey. Here journalists, lawyers and politicians would meet for off-the-record boozy lunchtime briefings. It’s unlikely that Private Eye could have had such a finger on the national pulse without El Vino’s.
The off licence and bar that still goes by that name was opened here in 1879 by a wine merchant called Alfred Bower. The business prospered, selling burgundy, claret, and sherry “direct from the cask”. Bower opened four more wine bars but in 1923 he changed the business name of all of them from Bower’s so that he could become a respected city alderman.  Thus El Vino/El Vino’s  – the Spanish name for wine – came into being . Later Bower became Lord Mayor of London but the wine business continued in his family up until 2015, when it was sold to the Davy chain of wine bars. They themselves began in the nearby Strand in 1870 - so ownership of El Vino’s has not travelled far.
This popular watering hole bar inspired Pomeroy's in John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey series and the Fleet Street El Vino’s now has a Rumpole dining room to commemorate that famous association. For much of its history, the bar required male customers to wear ties, and although women customers were permitted, they were not allowed to approach the bar direct to be served or to drink.
Much has changed now. El Vino’s is cleaner than it used to be but also less scurrilous. Nevertheless the words of its best known managing director, Francis Bower (1946-1965) are preserved on a framed photograph on your way down to the Gents: “You cannot drink too much wine, you can only drink too quickly.” 
Among those who tried not to overdo the vino were the novelist Ian Fleming, the gossip columnist Nigel Dempster, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne and the political commentator, Paul Johnson.


Brightly-painted in red, black and gold The Ship and Shovel is a Victorian pub pretty much underneath Charing Cross Station. It is unique in London for consisting of two public houses either side of a broad Victorian footpath. One was originally called The Ship (not an unusual name for a pub) and the other may have derived its name either from the Thameside coal labourers (who also visited the nearby Coal Hole) – or from Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovel whose picture now hangs over the entrance to The Shovel.
This famously bifurcated pub is now owned by Hall and Woodhouse who began brewing beer in England in 1777 and who own a slew of pubs across the south of the country. Their Badger Beer is the house pint at The Ship and Shovel. 
The pub is very proud of its steak and Tanglefoot pie (British Beef cooked in Tanglefoot Ale) plus its Hall & Woodhouse Burgers and what they claim is the best fish and chips in central London. The wine list is limited – five whites, five reds and two rosés. This is essentially a beer drinkers pub and a very good one at that.


Downhill from the journalist’s church of St Bride’s in Fleet Street there is a doorway that has all the dodgy charm of a Cockney speakeasy. Even the sign “City of London Distillery” reads like a euphemism. 
Venture inside and  down a steep flight of wooden steps, and you enter an establishment that resembles a Prohibition era dive-bar. When it opened in 2012 the Distillery offered saggy overstuffed sofas and Victorian memorabilia. These have now gone in a chic makeover and the bar is now much more brightly lit than before but there is still a whiff of the illicit about this distillery. 
The original divebar on this site was created by Jonathan Clark. He was aware that London Dry Gin was no longer being produced in the city to which it had given its name worldwide. So Jonathan set up a distillery in this basement with two German-built stills, named Clarissa and Jennifer after the Two Fat Ladies on BBC Television. City of London thrived with its excellent gin and remarkably inventive bottles, including the Sir Christopher Wren which replicated the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral below its neck and the interior of the dome as its kick.
In 2021, Whitley Neill Gin purchased City of London from Clark who went off to create Wessex Gin. The Whitely Neill family have been in the business of producing spirits for centuries.  (One of their descendants is the actor Sam Neill who has his own vineyard in Australia which he describes as not so much a business as “an opportunity to get pissed from time to time”).
Today Clarissa and Jennifer distil Whitley Neill Gin. Meanwhile the whole visitor experience is hosted by Harvey Austin-Francis who sports a bowler hat and a leather apron, accessorized with the world’s longest swizzle stick that he twirls to emphasise any point he is making to a guest. 
Introductory tastings of Whitley Neill Gin cost £10 each and involve a lot of showmanship. It’s unlikely you’ll emerge without buying a bottle or two. The “classic” in its bright blue bottle is irresistible. 


In fashionable Islington the Kings Head has operated a pub theatre for over 50 years. The auditorium, tucked behind a busy 19th century bar, is basically a black box with seating and distressed bricks lining the walls. A lot of alternative opera has been staged here, earning the pub the reputation of London’s smallest opera house. Recently an all-male Tosca set in London’s clubland, which presented Scarpia as a gangster sniffing amyl nitrate - and with Tosca sung by the remarkable male soprano called Calvin Wells - attracted a lot of attention. Over the years theatrical performances have drawn in actors like Victoria Wood, Steve Berkoff and Alan Rickman.
Now the pub is creating a purpose-built theatre space beyond the black room which will offer more professional resources but anyone who has ever taken their pint into the old theatre will not forget the extraordinary creativity that has gone on behind this bar for over half a century.