Ever wondered what lurked below ground in London? I’m not talking about sewers and tubes, but the fact there is a whole wealth of entertainment down there waiting to be enjoyed, you just need to know where to find it. If you’re anything like me, pushing your way to a central London bar at a weekend is anything but fun so feeling like a special select few that know the location and existence of some secret or underground (or both) establishments is wonderful – a chilled relaxed fun where you step into another world, take on a different country, era or persona and it’s all by appointment only.
Evans and Peel Detective Agency, Earls Court Road
London embraced the underground vintage entertainment trend a few years ago with a rise in 1920s style speakeasies brimming with gin, suave jazz musicians and a glitzy, retro dress code. Since then a few other places have followed and the good ones have stayed around. Evans and Peel Detective Agency is one that stands out for me as offering that point of difference.
The idea is, enter the bar you have to appeal your case in the hope the agency will take you on as a client, so have a story ready; the crazier the better from missing persons to alien abductions. As you arrive expect an interrogation by intercom a dapper chap behind a desk then keeps pushing you: ‘Under what name did you book your appointment?’ And, ‘Can you tell me something about your case?’ How far you take the acting is up to you but the more you play then the more you get from the experience – it’s amazing how your inner actress will surface with a bit of coaching. The bar is how I would imagine a 1920s bar to be, with bare brick walls, cracked white butcher’s tiles and orange-filament bulbs.
As with many prohibition bars it’s really dark so a great venue if you have an ugly date but tricky if you are trying to eat. Much of the food is served after a spell in the in-house smoker, so it sounds great with there’s a smoked pulled pork slider, beef rib, smoked Tabasco etc. Sounds delicious I know but none of our party was too impressed with the dry meat, which seemed over smoked.
Drinks were brilliant so if in doubt, order chips and line up cocktails. Meantime London Pale Ale is served through an antique radiator and the cocktails are well mixed and delicious. A G-minus, for instance, featured Tanqueray infused with lavender and earl grey, then mixed with orange bitters; Sheer Fashion simply blended good bourbon with honey, sugar and vanilla syrup.
My negative about E and P was that it was an anti climax, the cloak and dagger questioning on the door was so much fun and they could have carried the game on a bit but it stopped when you entered the bar. Service has been reported as slow but we found it absolutely fine.
The Escapologist, Earlham Street, London, WC2H 9LD
A bar in central London that isn’t overpriced and crowded with tourists can be found in the Escapologist. Based in the riotous Headquarters of the secret society that ran Victorian London, The Escapologist is styled as part ‘modern day Victorian men’s club’ and ‘part Masonic lodge’.
Legend has it that in 1898 party fiend and general vagabond Baron Von Took fled to London shrouded in scandal. With little to his name but his skills of cunning and a questionable reputation he battled for survival from one day to the next until his erratic behaviour landed him a date with the gallows. His final wish being a drink in one of Covent Garden’s numerous brew houses, from which he promptly escaped. His following days were spent in hiding, rebuilding his power base. This new phase saw him gallivanting with the stars of the time from Disraeli, to Brunel, Dickens to Nightingale, Tesla and Shaftesbury. By now he had adopted an almost mythical reputation as a heroic partygoer and evader of the realm. Since history has a way of smoothing rough edges, his moniker over time became ‘The Escapologist’. True or not, I love a good story!
The bar itself is absolutely huge and behind a secret door, with vaults even further underground. There are darkly lit secret yet comfortable leather booths for illicit meetings or The Vaults more of a party space for groups that want to party. The food is ok, not very 1898 as it’s predominantly pizzas but tasty all the same. The cocktails are out of this world, mixed well and the staff work like crazy. The place is loud so it’s quite hard to chat to each other– think more night with friends than cosy date and you’ll be fine.
This place is less secret than some of my other recommendations and there isn’t much in the way of game playing. Owing to its central London location, it gets busy so I recommend booking. £25 secures you a table and that’s redeemable against drinks – well worth it.
Cahoots/Squiffy Picnic, Carnaby Street
Cahoots is my favourite pick of the bunch – maybe it’s the era (1940s) or the infectious atmosphere, who knows, but it has a much more fun innocence about it compared to my other picks.
Cahoots/Squiffy Picnic takes place in an actual wartime bunker that has been made to look like a disused tube station. After saying the password to a jovial chap you are whisked downstairs to the bunker where a lovely lady takes your coats and shows you to your picnic table in a carriage.
The place is perfectly 1940s with wartime posters and memorabilia all around. Even the toilets have warnings against STDs for soldiers, but don’t let that dampen the romance. In the evenings the Hotsie Totsies will serenade you with some wartime anthems, but in the day you have the delightful Lois (lead singer of the band) all to yourself. Lois is a wonderful entertainer and really works the room; cheekily flirting with the men and making the ladies feel special. Lois has a wonderful back-story of being jilted by Bing Crosby, which she really has you believing – with her silky American accent you would never believe she is a Geordie!
The place offers two options – a wartime picnic on Saturdays or a cocktail bar all week. We went for the picnic.
When you sit at your table your picnic is already waiting – little sandwiches in brown paper bags and paper aeroplanes to play with. The food isn’t wonderful but hey, it’s wartime ration cuisine so what do you expect? Thin pastrami or salmon sandwiches, sausage rolls and marshmallow cakes are the order of the day. Some delicious hot food is passed around too – mini sausage rolls and mincemeat tarts. The cocktails are great though more fruit than cocktail – in your price you receive a complimentary welcome drink and cocktail included which was actually better value than taking the ‘bottomless’ drink option as you only have a few hours to make it count.
Cahoots, like I said had a real innocence and felt very authentic rather than out to make money – the best of the three by far. It’s somewhere you could go with friends, a date or your parents and I will 100% be returning as I want to experience it at night. Within a few minutes I was smiling, dancing and being transported to a different time. Fully recommended.
Not into Vintage but still want to lurk underground?
Bodos Schloss, Kensington High Street
If you still like to be under the cover of darkness then look no further than the Bavarian beer cellar in Kensington (weird right). Bodies Schloss looks, from the outside like an entrance to a hotel but as you walk under the fairy lights and down the steps you find yourself in a traditional beer hall. Long tables with gingham table cloths, busty wenches (well not so busty but this is Kensington) and ski lodge chic. Celebrities from Prince Harry to Gwyneth Paltrow have been here for the great atmosphere and you know how fussy they are.
Expect traditional German food – pretzels, sausage, schnitzel and lots of beer. The food is tasty and surprisingly good. Vegetarians may have a challenge with only a pasta dish being on offer, but that’s typical of German cuisine! Buying shots is a great experience as the bar manager sounds a gong, everyone cheers and a bottle of schnapps is poured into shot glasses and served on skis with flares spitting and fizzing as they are bought over to your table. A bottle of schnapps will set you back around £50 – I recommend the hazelnut.
The only thing not traditionally German is the music, which is fantastically funky. The crowd are a mixed bunch from tables of lads being raucous; hen parties dressed in traditional German costume, posh Chelsea girls taking selfies and couples. Weirdly though, this odd bunch works and everyone is cheering and laughing together.
This place is so un-Kensington like and offers a really authentic experience. You don’t feel like it’s aimed at tourists, just punters wanting good food, a good time and a unique experience.