the urbanist: london

London’s Best Watering Holes, According to Star Bartender Tony Conigliaro

The Connaught Bar. Photo: Bruno Ehrs/Getty Images

Over the last two decades, Tony Conigliaro has become something of a legend in London’s cocktail world — the “Heston Blumenthal of drinks,” it’s been said. In fact, Blumenthal has described him as “a revolutionary,” and not for nothing: From the Drink Factory, his R&D lab and consultancy in East London, Conigliaro combines science, history, art, fragrance, and food to create liquid flavors, textures, and emotions that constantly expand the idea of a cocktail, whether bottle-aged (which he pioneered) or designed to taste like a violin or snow. Meanwhile, his establishments — from the intimate “Bar With No Name” at 69 Colebrooke Row in Islington, to central London’s coffee-and-aperitivo-based Bar Termini, inspired by the one in Rome’s main train station, to Untitled, a cocktail-food-art concept in Hackney with silver walls nodding to Andy Warhol’s Factory — defy the expectations of drinking dens. But for Conigliaro, when he’s not working, the best ones are simply those “where the bartender is smiling.” While gearing up to open Gazelle — an all-day dining and drinking destination in Mayfair with chef Rob Roy Cameron, formerly of El Bulli — he told us about seven of his favorite spots around town.

Jim’s Cafe. Photo: Courtesy of Jim’s Cafe/Facebook

For post-shift drinks …
Jim’s Cafe
“Quite a few of us ride motorbikes. A lot of the time, we ride up to Clapton after work because it’s slightly out of the way, and we hang out, we chat. It’s not a cocktail-y environment. It’s a caff, like an old British café, very 1950s — a dying breed. It’s got people from very different walks of life — from those who work in film to carpenters or electricians to jewelry designers to fashion people. You always end up having an interesting conversation because you never know who you’ll bump into. It’s also got a lot of people who are into bikes. The owner is part of the Black Skulls, a bunch of motorcycle enthusiasts. Most people drink beer: a Brooklyn lager or one of the local ales. But the general manager used to work for me, so I did some drinks for them — like a Builders Tea Collins, which is a kind of Tom Collins made with builder’s tea and a milk punch. Leave your pretensions at the door because there are none here. And try the full English breakfast — it’s awesome.”

For a fancier fix …
The Connaught Bar
“If I’m in the center of town, I’ll go and see Agostino [Perrone] at the Connaught Bar at the Mayfair Hotel. It’s a really nice hotel — ever so charming, excellent service. And it’s a great-looking bar: David Collins design, leather seating, stuff like that. I think there’s a dress code; you have to be fairly smart. They specialize in that high-end Martini vibe, and they make them very, very well. I tend not to get all of the trolley stuff, I just ask for a Goldy Gin Martini, five to one, with a twist. Ago does a great job.”

For a divey happy hour away from the crowds …
Pride of Spitalfields
“The British have a very tongue-in-cheek sense of humor when it comes to places they like to go, and this pub is definitely one of those. It’s literally just a crappy little boozer, but it’s really good fun. There are terrible pictures all over the walls, [and for] its standout feature, it’s got an awning inside — like an awning that should be outside on the street getting rained on. I have no idea why. It’s cheap and it’s got a great selection of beers and ales and spirits and whatever else, but don’t ask for a cocktail — I can imagine you being shot down if you did. It’s just off Brick Lane, away from the more pretentious stuff, and you meet some really cool, down-to-earth people who have been there for years and years. It’s not a scene; it’s more like where you go and bump into someone in their 60s who can tell you about the history of the whole area. Last time I was there, I met this bricklayer from Kent, having a pint after work. It’s like going back in time to an old East End pub, full of characters.”

Satan’s Whiskers. Photo: Courtesy of Satan’s Whiskers/Facebook

For superior no-frills cocktails …
Satan’s Whiskers
“I tend to go here with other bartenders and industry people. We don’t want to go anywhere too fancy; we just want a good drink. And that’s its appeal: It’s no thrills, and a bit of a nod toward New York bars in the sense that it’s very neighborhood-y. There are loads of taxidermy in it, and they make classic drinks. They’re not reinventing the wheel or trying to do anything you haven’t seen before. The clover club is a standard recipe — gin, egg whites, lemon, raspberry syrup, and a dash of vermouth — but it’s executed well and it tastes like it should.”

P. Franco Photo: Courtesy of P.Franco/Facebook

For natural wines …
“It actually says ‘Great Wall’ outside the door — it’s an old Chinese restaurant and they didn’t change the front — so you have to look for that; otherwise, you’re going to be walking up and down that street trying to find it. It’s basically a wine shop, but everyone sits around this big, shared table, and you get to taste lots of different wines. You can order a glass from a bottle and people that you don’t know will share that bottle with you. It’s a really convivial space. The guys and girls who run it are super-knowledgeable about wine. They use these somms who have had amazing jobs around town, who are filling in shifts, so you get good variance in terms of what you’re going to taste, depending on what night you go, or what you’re in the mood for. They also have guest chefs; I’ve tasted some great food, all really well-paired with the wine.”

The Mint Gun Club. Photo: Mark Arrigo/Courtesy of The Mint Gun Club/Facebook

For intimate imbibing …
The Mint Gun Club
“[The neighborhood of] Stoke Newington is very residential, very couples-with-prams. The guys here have a bit of fun doing drinks that you wouldn’t really expect in the area. Last time I went, I had a sherry Old Fashioned, which was really interesting, really well-balanced. It’s a tiny place — 15, 20 people, if that — and it’s super simple, almost like someone’s opened it up in their front room with their private collection of bottles. It’s like hanging out at someone’s house. You don’t need to dress up for it, but if you want to I’m sure they’d really appreciate it. But half the time you forget you’re in a bar because you usually know everybody in there. Or if you don’t, you know the difference between meeting someone in someone’s house, and meeting someone in a bar? It feels like you’ve met in someone’s house. It might actually be Rich’s house. [The owner is] a guy called Richard Hunt; he’s been on the scene for ages.”

For late-night eats …
Wood Mangal
“There’s nowhere in London where you can drink really, really late. It’s a licensing thing. So if you go here, it’s usually after you’ve been drinking. It’s quite drunken and raucous at times. There’s usually a lot of food on the table — everyone tends to over-order — so it’s chaotic, but a lot of fun. There are a few mangal restaurants around — kind of like the standard for good Turkish and great late-night food. This one cooks things over wood, so [the dishes] tend to be a bit more smoky. A lot of people have the koftes. I avoid the meaty stuff, especially that late at night; the falafel, the hummus, the pita, the tabouleh, and all of that is more my thing. We usually just have cheap red wine, or what’s the beer they have that’s very big in the Turkish community? Not Efes — the other one. It’s just a really low-rent beer. It’s great.”

Tony Conigliaro’s Favorite Bars in London