London is spoiled for choices when it comes to cocktail bars, ranging from world-renowned places like The Connaught, the American Bar at The Savoy, and Duke’s, to experimental gems. Without a doubt, this city offers unlimited opportunities to sip extraordinary cocktails. As an North/East Londoner, travelling all the way across the city to find a good mix isn't one of my priorities. Therefore, finding local cocktail bars that perfectly balance atmosphere, drink quality, and that extra wow factor isn't an easy task.
I’m more of a pub guy, but over the years I have to admit, I've become a cocktail bar enthusiast - still a long way from becoming a connoisseur though. I believe this affinity for bars has to do with discovering places that hit the right notes and are clearly the opposite of those popular after-office places like Be At One, Dirty Martini, or the Cocktail Club, which shouldn't be anyone's choices anyway.
What makes a cocktail bar memorable for me?
When thinking of a cocktail bar worth visiting and revisiting, I need three main factors to come together: a welcoming atmosphere that allows for good conversation (including appropriate lighting), music that suits the occasion, and of course, the quality and creativity of their drinks.
While days and nights are longer in London, and people are enjoying summer time in the capital, a visit to cocktail bars can add a fabulous high to your evenings. Whether you're looking for an intimate and quiet experience or a more upbeat atmosphere, the following recommendations are great choices for both occasions.
Knowhere Special - Kentish Town
After having lived in Kentish Town for over four years, in my final year in the neighbourhood, I came across this place purely by chance, and thankfully, it turned out to be one of the greatest discoveries. If it hadn't been for the Ladies and Gents’ bar being packed (which I wouldn't recommend), I would have never found this hidden gem, and indeed, it perfectly illustrates that definition.
This spot lacks a sign, name, or anything of the sort. There's just a discreet board in front of an open door, with a single neon light at the end of a corridor, revealing absolutely nothing. As you make your way downstairs, you'll encounter peculiar and random décor but at the end of it, you’ll find one of the cosiest bars ever.
This place likely takes up a former downstairs warehouse, and inside, you can find two circular cellars that serve as private booths, in addition to the main area. Normally, both co-owners are present, preparing amazing and unique cocktails, alongside the usual classics. Music is always spot on and service is fantastic, making the atmosphere just perfect to enjoy proper cocktails.
What has kept this place such a well-kept secret?
Both owners have deliberately chosen not to make a fuss about it aiming to keep it as a hidden gem for the locals. But at a certain point you need to share the love - you’ll thank me later.
Interesting fact: Cocktails paired with a bite and not the other way around.
A Bar with Shapes for a Name - Haggerston
After it was recommended by a chef and partygoer, I only visited this place last weekend and let me tell you, it’s something really special. Get ready to be wowed by their transparent drinks, which add a twist to the whole experience. The interior décor has this cool laboratory vibe, creating a haven for cocktail lovers that's both innovative and inviting. So, if you're up for trying something new, this a must-visit spot for any cocktail lover!
Interesting fact: #37 The World's 50 Best Bars 2022
Pictures: A bar with shapes for a name Instagram
Homeboy - Essex road
This cocktail bar of Irish heritage is a unique spot in the vibrant Essex Road and Upper Street area of Islington. While the neighbourhood is known for its famous pubs like The Alpaca, The Old Queens Head, and Kings Head, this lesser-known bar offers a refreshingly casual approach with its focus on elevated cocktails. The vibe is quite lively and energetic toward weekends with a live DJ, striking a balance between a vibrant ambiance and avoiding the feel of a full-blown club.
Happiness Forgets - Hoxton
One of my absolute favourite cocktail bars in London and all thanks to a good friend of mine who used to work in the alcohol industry, introduced me to this hidden gem. If you're not aware of its exact location, finding this bar while exploring trendy Hoxton is highly unlikely. Similar to Knowhere Special in Kentish Town, this cocktail bar is discreetly tucked away on a lower ground floor, deliberately maintaining a low-profile to avoid attracting too much (unwanted) attention.
For me, this spot hits all the right notes: a cosy and inviting atmosphere, perfectly dimmed lighting, and an awesome playlist featuring classic rock and other cool tunes.
But what truly sets this place apart is their exceptional staff. Attentive, friendly, and highly skilful, they take the art of cocktail-making to a whole new level. While their drinks menu changes regularly, they always deliver on the classics, leaving you happy every time.
Pictures: Happiness Forgets Instagram and mine
Three Sheets - Dalston
Located on Dalston Kingsland main road, this bar defies its busy surroundings by offering one of East London's most intimate and laid-back bar experiences. Three sheets is discrete in every sense, their space, décor and menu, making it a perfect place for a date. If you're looking for a quick drink or two, this bar is your go-to-place. Whether you're starting your evening with a cocktail or winding down after a satisfying dinner, Three sheets won't disappoint.
Picture: Three Sheets Website
High Water - Dalston
This cocktail bar is one of my go to places in Dalston and opposed to being cool and loud, they keep it simple, attracting small crowds that enjoy quality drinks in a non ‘party vibe’. Their music is rock ish and if I remember correctly they have a DJ at certain times of the week. This place serves as a great cocktail place before making your way to any of the nightclubs in the area.
The Rose & Crown - Kentish Town
Consider this a bonus track because it's not your typical cocktail bar—it's a craft beer pub with regular opening hours that stands out in many ways.
Firstly, they have a simple Japanese/Mexican inspired "tapas" menu, offering a fusion of flavours that will surely leave you pleasantly surprised.
Secondly, the pub boasts an impressive selection of craft beers, catering to every beer enthusiast out there.
Thirdly, what sets this place apart is their great cocktails, ensuring that even in a pub setting, you can enjoy a tasty one.
Interesting fact: This pub also has a downstairs area that hosts comedy stand-up and other exciting events.
Picture: Rose & Crown Facebook
I know there are plenty of bars missing, which I still need to discover in areas like London Fields. But like everything else in this city, the discovery journey is long. Share yours, and let's grab a drink there!