Monocolumn: Soho’s Secret Drinking Dens

London’s Soho was once famous for unmarked doors that led to private drinking clubs and semi-legal clip joints, but a new generation of bars and restaurants means that hidden venues are no longer the preserve of furtive businessman or guileless tourists.

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London’s Soho was once famous for unmarked doors that led to private drinking clubs and semi-legal clip joints, but a new generation of bars and restaurants means that hidden venues are no longer the preserve of furtive businessman or guileless tourists. Instead, they have become the destination of the capital’s gastronomic cognoscenti.

With its rusty signage and frosted windows, Spuntino looks unremarkable against a vista of neon shopfronts and window displays of fluorescent lingerie in this seedy corner of the capital. If you weren’t looking for it you would walk straight past. But for those in the know, Spuntino (“snack” in Italian) is the latest addition to a growing list of chic under-the-radar venues that provide a vintage aesthetic and, most importantly, quality cocktails. Unadvertised, rarely marketed and with websites that furnish the barest of details, these bars and restaurants rely on word of mouth recommendations. Their sudden profusion suggests that their unorthodox methods are succeeding, and that a slight aura of mystery is an excellent way to attract a loyal following.

The appeal could lie in a post-recession need for understated entertainment and a renewed focus on quality ingredients: “It would be exaggerating to say we are in an austerity era but I think people have tapped into that feeling,” says Russell Norman, owner of Spuntino. “We are conscious that things are fragile compared to boom times and are a little bit more modest.”

The renewed emphasis on discretion means that these venues owe much to their speakeasy forbears. A few hundred metres away from Spuntino is the Experimental Cocktail Club. In the heart of China Town, visitors enter through an unmarked grey door between two greasy-looking all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants.

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