London is one of the most exciting places in the world to go out drinking. And drinking is a fine way to spend an evening as long as you're sensible. In London, there are watering holes to cater for just about every taste. The problem is choosing the right bar.
Some people suffer from FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). I suffer from FOPIS (Fear the Other Place is Better). You've no sooner sat down with your pint, cocktail, or glass of wine when the horrible doubt creeps over you, like a billowing grey cloud of doubt: what if the venue you passed two doors down was better?
That's where personal recommendations come in handy. And that's what I'm offering here in this selection of unique London wine bars.
If you like wine and want to drink it in some interesting places - rather than cookie-cutter bars devoid of individual character - then here are ten that I can personally recommend to a London visitor.
I've spent happy times in them all. There's a wide range here too so choose the one that suits your taste – and wines that do the same.
Underneath the Arches used to be the theme song for Flanagan & Allen. That 1930s music-hall duo wrote it about the arches of Derby's Friargate Railway Bridge under which homeless men slept during the Great Depression.
But “underneath the arches” could also apply to London's The Winemaker's Club, which is hidden away in arches under the massive brick Holborn Viaduct. Vinophiles arriving at the club's small, understated entrance pass deep into the heart of this huge nineteenth-century construction. Here a number of basic tables are set up in what feels like a slightly damp brick cave. If you love wine that is produced and served with passion - and don't require plush velvet banquettes to perch on while you sip - this is the place for you.
The wine list is printed on simple sheets of A4 stapled together and left out on the tables. There are between 12 and 20 wines by the glass, divided up between Sparkling, White, “Pink”, Red, Coravin and “Orange”.
I have to admit my ignorance about Orange when I started this ten-part survey: Orange wines are made with sufficient skin contact to add texture and tannins but stop short of being red or even rosé. Or as John who runs Winemakers Club puts it so well, “Orange wine is white wine made as red”.
The night I visited there were six orange bottles on the wine list. They were from Italy, Spain, Austria, and Slovenia and mostly in the low £40s per bottle. There was also a lot of Hungarian wine, not only from Tokaj but Somlo, Eger, Matra and Lake Balaton - twelve labels in all, including a Balaton sparkling - but that's not surprising as The Winemaker's Club began as a commercial importer of European wines, especially from Hungary. There's also a pretty impressive list of French reds too (perhaps more than I think are needed in a such an idiosyncratically original cellar).
The “New World” is represented by South America, Australia and Tillingham of Sussex, which is just plain bizarre. OK, Britain is new to making quality wine but it's hardly a New World country.
But then that is part of the charm of The Winemakers Club. It's opinionated. And it doesn't use French phrases like “rosé” when a wine obviously looks pink.
To make sure you don't get addled, there are good, solid bar snacks sold here underneath the arches from 5pm till 10pm. Go for the cheese board with bread for £10 or the charcuterie board at the same price if you're carnivorously inclined. This is what I look for in a London wine bar. No frills. Good wine. Opinionated. Damp around the edges.
Address: 41 Farringdon Street, EC4A 4AN
Nearest station: Farringdon
Once again underneath some arches – but this time south of the River Thames – Bar Douro is remarkable because of its mission to promote Portuguese wines in Britain. Bright and cheery, Douro occupies a small single railway arch which has been decorated with blue and white azulejo tiles that were personally designed by Max, the owner and proprietor. Max comes from a family that has long been associated with Portuguese wine and its well-tested relationship with Britain.
The bar is small and narrow, and patrons sit either at the counter or on stools in the window. There is a kitchen producing Portuguese tapas dishes like pataniscas and Alentejana, a fine dish of marinaded pork fried and served with shelled clams. As Max will tell you, Portuguese wine was one of the first in the world to organise itself into recognised regions of production. In 1758 the Região Demarcada do Douro was created by the Marquis of Pombal in the Douro Valley. This is the area that gives its name to Max's bar today, but Bar Douro features wine from all over Portugal including Madeiras, the white Vinhos Verdes from Minho, and the intense reds of Bairrada.
Bar Douro also hosts guest chef evenings when the bar's wines are paired with dishes produced by visiting chefs from Portugal. It's an unusual enterprise, close to trendy Borough Market and a bar well worth visiting for something different.
Address: Arch 35b Flat Iron Square, Union St, SE1 1TD
Nearest station: London Bridge
Bottles opened in 2018 in a corner of the old Spitalfields Market. The bar has a stripped-down style with exposed brick walls and a central “sharing table” table where you can sit - or stand - and while away the day. There's also something akin to an urban garden at the back looking into the old covered market place.
Spitalfields itself was built as a wholesale market in 1887. When in 1991 the serious business of selling fruit and vegetables to Londoners moved to Leyton, the marketplace, was given a thorough upmarket-airbrushing by Foster+Partners and reopened as Old Spitalfields Market in October 2017.
Bottles is the latest venture from Mercato Metropolitano, the team behind Bottle & Battles near Borough Market and the concept restaurant SOOD. A close look at the wine list reveals a preponderance of Italian labels, which reflects the nationality of the owners, but there's nothing faux-Italiano here, no phoney La Trattoria vibe with Mario Lanza on the jukebox just good wine well sold.
The décor is all brass light fittings, distressed leather stools and reclaimed fruit crates offset by lush gold and blue velvet soft furnishings. Walls are lined with bottles in racks, giving the impression to passers-by that this could easily be a wine shop rather than a wine bar.
Bottles focus on wines from independent Italian producers and small farms, often exploring little-known grapes. The 180 labels are a reflection of the owners' taste and the input of Bottles' own sommeliers. Every member of the waitstaff is a sommelier in his or her own right, a learning that they wear as lightly as their T shirts.
Excellent snack food includes Iberico pork with fermented cherries and coconut milk, handmade spaghetti all' amatriciana and Tiramisu Sbagliato made with apricot jam and goats' cheese.
Address: 67 Brushfield Street, E1 6AA
Nearest Station: Shoreditch High Street
Tucked into a cosy courtyard off busy Seven Dials sits a French bar that could easily pass for a very desirable boutique hotel. There are two floors, lots of comfy chairs and sofas and a youthful staff whose accents betray – if the name hadn't tipped you off already – that this enterprise originated in Paris.
Having been terrorised by Parisian waiters in my youth, I would have thought twice about settling in a window table to watch the world of Neal's Yard go by, but the service at Compagnie Des Vins Surnaturels is amiable and far from heavy. What is heavy is the wine list, which is densely printed on twenty weighty pages. There is a lot of French wine, as you might expect, but for the dilettante drinker like me, there is also a single page menu of selected wines by the glass. These include a very refreshing Gruner Veltliner from Austria that's a good opening wine for the evening. Reds by the glass that are not from France include vintages from Spain, Italy, Switzerland and even Naousa in Greece. A few wines are connected into a Coravin case behind the bar, but according to Roman, the sommelier on duty when I turned up, most of the bottles that he opens speculatively get drunk in the course of an evening so the Coravin is rarely needed. There are also four different Madeiras kept in this case just to chill. Madeira by the glass is another speciality at the Compagnie.
On the menu you'll also find some rather superior snacks to help you pace your evening, including an Ibérico ham in which the staff take great pride plus prosciutto cotto with truffle and foie gras à la plancha.
I visited in the winter when people were having to wait for a table – with only 60 covers booking is advisable. In the summer Roman told me they throw the French windows open and put tables out in Neal's Yard. That must be a lovely, relaxed experience. In fact, I may well go back in May or June.
Address: 8-10 Neal's Yard WC2H 9DP
Nearest Tube: Covent Garden
This Victorian cellar bar is probably one of the best-known in London. It's famous for its reasonable prices, its unchanging décor, its patches of damp, and its loyal clientele. Presided over by Gerard Menan from France's Loire Valley, Gordon's has the aura of a scruffy but very important club. Middle-aged men arrive here at 11am and order their favourite bottle before falling to discuss the Prime Minister's latest woes. By lunch-time young women pile in (Gerard claims Gordon's is a very safe space for women on their own) and in the evening groups book the private “Cage” from five o'clock onwards to drink wine until it's time to go home and all the candles in the darkest recesses of the bar have burned out. Yes, much of Gordon's is still lit by candles.
The bar began its life as a warehouse on the Thames when Charles Dickens was a young dandy about town. In the right light it still looks like a series of cellars for storage. When the Thames Embankment was built up in 1861, the newly consolidated river shifted south and a park was created between the old quayside and this new Thames Embankment.
Without its trading raison d'etre lost, the old warehouse was obliged to re-evaluate its role. Under the management of an enterprising Mr Gordon it became a public house. The cellars of that Gordon's saw many happy years and provided safety from the Blitz during World War II. But by 1974 the bar was lying empty and unloved when another Mr Gordon entirely – Luis Gordon of the Domecq Sherry family, and no relation to the original Gordon – bought it and transformed it into London's first bar dedicated solely to wine. Luis decorated Gordon's in his own patriotic style, with pictures of Winston Churchill and newspaper cuttings about the royal family. It has hardly changed in appearance since.
Gerard arrived in 2000 and Mr Luis died in 2002. Nowadays the bar is run jointly by Gerard and Luis' son Simon with Gerard, one of London's few elder statesmen of wine, responsible for the impressive list. Eighty per cent of the wines are available by the glass. These days there is also a Gordon's Terrace on what 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. Or book online for The Cage (a private sanctuary for a minimum of eight people) when you can have the best table in the cellars for yourself and your friends.
Gordon's wines, as well as being reasonably priced, cover a wide range of suppliers from Chile to Lebanon's Bekka Valley with all the house wines – white, red, rosé and prosecco – being supplied by the Pasqua family of the Veneto. Gerard reckons that it is the long-term and close relationship that Gordon's has built up with such suppliers that allows it to offer such reasonably priced wines in a prime London location.
Address: 47 Villiers Street WC2N 6NE
Nearest Tube: Embankment
This edgy, minimalist wine bar with its funky music and poster art sits close to English Opera and has been going strong since 2008. Its speciality is wines made with “minimal intervention”. Some may be organic and some biodynamic but Kevin Barbry, the head sommelier, late of Manoir aux Quatre Saisons, stresses that wine is simply fermented grape juice and he wants to offer bottles of it that have been subject to as little intervention as possible. As the name Terroirs suggests, these are wines that draw primarily on what the soil offers.
Terroirs was started by Eric Narioo, winemaker, wine-importer and rugby player. After the opening of this, his flagship bar in London's theatre land, he also opened the restaurant Soif in Battersea, and a second Terroir in Dulwich. There are almost 400 labels on the wine list and Kevin claims he has been given a great deal of freedom to keep adding to it (as long as they all sell well).
Here you'll find no Bordeaux nor any oaked Chardonnays but plenty of Orange (aka “amber” or “skin-macerated”) wines (almost 30 in fact). One drawback of Terroirs is that while 20 wines are available by the glass – a respectable number – that only represents about 5 per cent of the cellar. At a certain stage enthusiastic drinkers are just going to have to take a punt on what a bottle might taste like. Glasses cost between £4 and £8 with bottles starting at £19 and going much, much higher.
Kevin says that Terroirs has three sets of customers: those who come during the day and take their time over eating and drinking; those who arrive around 5.30 pm and need to order quickly because they're going to the theatre; and finally those who arrive after 10 pm when the West End curtains have come down. For all these drinkers the food on offer is dependably simple – charcuterie, salads and fish.
Address: 5 William Street, WC2N 4DN
Nearest Tube: Leicester Square
Andrew Gray recently opened Grays & Feather. The bar is situated in a former Covent Garden coffeehouse from which Dickens edited his magazine, All The Year Round from 1859. It had taken Andrew four years to find the ideal premises and he's made of it something quite special, a wine bar devoted to sparkling wine from all over the world in a boutique setting that can seat 60 people, many of them downstairs in a cellar with two wonderfully snug brick caverns and sofas.
Grays & Feather is specifically not about Champagne although Andrew does keep a bottle of Taittinger on ice in case anyone rushes over from the Royal Opera House in need of Grand Cru. What the bar is about is 70 sparkling wines from countries all over the globe. There a dozen or so from Britain and five from France (though none from Champagne). There are four from Austria (including an interestingly sparkling Gruner Veltliner) eight from Italy (including an extra dry Prosecco) and individual bottles from unexpected places like Canada, Japan and Brazil. And they're not all whites. There is an excellent sparkling red called Sziggeti Zweigelt that is full of blackcurrant notes and goes very well with the bar's signature peanut butter salt brownie.
The wine list itself is jocular and full of descriptions and useful information. Andrew penned it himself because he is very keen that people can learn about his wines if they want to. After many years working at London's Vinopolis and Gray & Feather is clearly Andrew's labour of love. He enjoys promoting wines that he strongly believes in. What could be more fun?
Address: 26 Wellington Street WC2E 7DD
Nearest station: Covent Garden
Enter 68 & Boston and the colour red hits you. Red walls, red lights beneath the bar and twenty red wines at £20 a bottle.
There is a touch of perversity in all this red because in the days when London's Soho was truly naughty, these Greek Street premises housed the Green Carnation drag club. Miles the manager still gets people of a certain age wandering in asking “Didn't this place used to be all green?”
68 & Boston is actually two venues on top of each other. Boston is the louche cocktail bar upstairs, which manages to look like it's 2am whatever time you arrive, and 68 is the wine bar below.
Beyond the narrow bar that faces the street there are a series of two-person tables which can be put together to create spaces for oenophiles to congregate in as small or large a group as they chose.
Miles says that around 5.30/6pm people come to 68 for a quick drink before heading home or out on the tiles. These are the folk who raid his Discovery Menu. The great thing about this section of the wine list is that all twenty reds and all twenty whites are priced at £20 a bottle (excellent value) or £6.75 a glass – not such good value, but then no one who loves wine buys it by the glass.
There's a great range, especially among the whites which include a few from Turkey. Miles claims no agenda behind the selection except to offer good wines at a very reasonable price. Because they all cost the same there is no need to scoot down the menu and choose the one that is second from cheapest. You look at the names and you read the expert descriptions and decide what suits your palate.
Later in the evening more serious drinkers pile in. They tend to opt for the “reserve” section of the menu which starts at £30 a bottle and goes a fair bit further, but for a start to a good wine evening in London I'd say 68 & Boston is hard to beat. Who knows. By 2am you may be upstairs carousing over cocktails with the night owls.
Address: 5 Greek Street, W1D 4DD
Nearest station: Tottenham Court Road
The talented Falvo family, who have done so much with their luxury masserias to put Puglia on the tourist map, have recently opened a wine bar and shop in Covent Garden. Unusually this is a bar that sells wine from just one region – Puglia. Even more unusually it only sells the wine made at the owner's own estate, 33 acres based around Masseria Li Veli, right down at the heel of the Italian boot in Cellino San Marco.
Li Veli's wines are served at the family's hotel masserias – Borgo Egnazia, Masseria San Domenico and Masseria le Carrube – and they are the mainstay of this glowing white London wine bar. Anyone who's stayed at Borgo Egnazia in Puglia will notice the same large glass lanterns and the same bunches of old keys and bundles of dried herbs used throughout as decorative motifs.
There are eleven different vintages on offer, seven of which are reds, red wine being the main product of Apulian viticulture. Five of the wines are in Li Veli's new Askos programme which is rejuvenating and promoting ancient Apulian grape varieties that are in danger of dying out. So, there is a fine Askos Verdeca, a mineral-rich white wine and a gentle Askos Susamaniello rosé, as well as three reds from the Susamaniello, Malvasia Nera and Primitivo grapes.
Food is based on dishes served at Borgo Egnazia, the biggest of the family's masseria-hotels with olive oil made at Masseria San Domenico. If you don't want a full meal, go for scarpetteria (Apulian bread and focaccia served with four of the chef's own dips) or the bruschetteria which is toasted bread topped with catch of day, beef tartare or caciocavallo cheese. But do save room for the pistachio ice cream with that olive oil which is a delicious surprise.
Truly this is a taste of southern Italy in London, presided over by amiable sommelier Nicola Russo who is from Sicily - which makes him about the only part of the operation that hasn't arrived from Puglia.
69 Long Acre, WC2E 9JS
Nearest tube station: Covent Garden
And to end with: a personal favourite. I've been hosting a Christmas Dinner for freelancers at Sarastro for years now and drinking there for decades. Sarastro is famous for its décor, which was commissioned by Richard Niazzi, co-founder of the bar and also known as The King of Covent Garden. Richard was known for his flamboyance and many enterprises but Sarastro is his enduring memorial.
Before 1996 this gaudy extravaganza of a dining den was the ground floor canteen of the Peabody Trust (still based upstairs). In 96 Richard rented the space and employed designers to throw everything at it especially a lot of gold paint and as much naked imagery as they could lay their hands on. He then turned it into a Drury Lane restaurant lined with mezzanine balconies and cushions, giving the impression of a very small, very louche opera house. When Richard Niazzi died in 2008, Sarastro 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, gypsy musicians and mounted police in attendance, Richard was buried in North Cyprus but his vision lives on.
Today Sarastro is an institution serving excellent Turkish food. It calls itself the show after the show as many people come here before or after the opera. 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.
The wine list offers five reds and five whites by glass as well as two rosés. There is also a respectable number of wines by the bottle, mainly from France, Italy, Australia, Chile and South Africa.
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.
Address: 126 Drury Lane WC2B 5SU
Nearest Tube: Holborn