London’s nightlife is currently buzzing with everything, from some of Europe’s liveliest nightclubs right through to stylish design bars and traditional old London pubs. Night-time hotspots can be found across the capital, although there is a particular concentration in the West End, where Soho is still the coolest place to drink, although it remains seedy along the edges. Soho is also the best place for gay bars and clubs. Two particularly hip areas in which to drink are the perennially cool Notting Hill/Ladbroke Grove area in the west and the now very up-and-come Old Street/ Shoreditch area in the east (where the fashionable art and media crowd has popularised ‘Hoxton cool’). Many local areas, such as Camden and Angel in the north, Brixton and Clapham in the south, have great local pubs and bars and remain the areas where the best of the well-established gastropubs can be found.
The legal drinking age is 18 years and almost all of the clubs exact an admission price (often increasing after 11 pm or 12 midnight), which can be pricey, particularly in the West End. Dress codes vary depending on the calibre of the club but it may be wise to leave the runners at home. Although there have been plans for change for a while now, England’s licensing laws still mean that pubs and bars traditionally close at 11 pm Monday to Saturday and at 10:30 pm on Sunday. However, some places have special licences that allow them to stay open later. Clubs usually open at 10 pm, fill up by 12 midnight, and stay open until 2 am/3 am during the week and usually around 0500 at weekends, although often later. Drink prices are exorbitant in London and can vary from pub to pub and club to club. A pint will cost anything from £2.50 upwards and will be much more like £3 in the West End. Few venues can be defined by their music, featuring different styles on different nights, with regular sets by guest DJs. The best way to keep abreast of goings-on is to check out the listings in the weekly Time Out magazine.
If a traditional English pub is what you are after, try the 17th-century George Inn, 77 Borough High Street, SE1 – the only surviving example of a galleried coaching inn in London. Nearby, a popular watering hole for patrons of the Globe Theatre, tourists and locals is The Anchor, Bankside, SE1. This 17th-century haunt is quaint and quirky, while its Thames-side terrace is a delight on sunny days. Alternatively, the Nell Gwynne, 1-2 Bull Inn Court, just off the Strand, WC2, is one of the smallest and most endearing of the central, old-fashioned pubs, while the hugely popular 17th-century Lamb and Flag, 33 Rose Street, WC2, offers two floors connected by a rickety staircase and an outdoor area in summer. For ornate Victorian interiors, The Salisbury, 90 St Martins Lane, WC2, with its gin palace atmosphere, is unbeatable. No less popular is the Lamb, 94 Lamb’s Conduit Street, WC1. As for bars, many of the best in Soho are members only but Yo!Below, in the basement of Yo!Sushi, 52 Poland Street, W1, is far more egalitarian, featuring Japanese cartoons, Karaoke-singing staff, self-service beer dispensers and masseuses. For a chilled scruffy kind of Soho cool, try Two Floors, Kingly Street, W1; it doesn’t have the name above the door but you can tell it by the sofas in the window and the green walls. For stylish, hugely busy, trendy bars that stay open past 11 pm and do not require a membership card, Amber, 6 Poland Street, W1, is one of the nicest, while Akbar, 77 Dean Street, has a touch of exotic decor. The beautiful people go to The West Bar at Sketch, 9 Conduit Street, W1. Voted ‘Bar of the Year’ in 2002, by both the Evening Standard and Time Out, Rockwell, on the ground floor of the Trafalgar Hotel, Trafalgar Square, WC2, currently is one of the city’s coolest meeting places, with its sumptuous cocktails and chic decor. Point 101, 101 New Oxford Street, WC1, is a late-night West End bar that defies the archaic drinking laws with DJs and an up-for-it clientele.
Further west, in Notting Hill, one of the newest and best bars in the area is Under the Westway Bar and Restaurant, Westbourne Studios, 242 Acklam Road, W10. This bar is set out on the vast open ground floor of a studio/office warehouse – you have to buzz security/reception to be let in, explaining you want to go to the bar. The ceiling of the bar area is actually the concrete flyover known as the Westway. Two pubs about as different from each other as chalk and cheese are the old and unpretentious favourite Portobello Gold, 95-97 Portobello Road, W11, and one of the trendiest pubs in the area The Westbourne, 101 Westbourne Park Villas, W2.
Heading east, Vertigo, Level 42, Tower 42, 25 Old Broad Street, EC2, at 180m (590ft) above the ground, is one of the UK’s highest bars and boasts stunning views across the city from the floor-to-ceiling windows, although it is only open on weeknights, as it is in the business-orientated City of London. For pubs in the Old Street area, The Bricklayers, 63 Charlotte Road, EC2, is as reliable as ever for a pint and a possible glimpse of a famous artist, while for kitsch cool, the George and Dragon, 2 Hackney Road, E1, is your best bet. Table football is the focus of the Brazilian-style Kick Bar, 127 Shoreditch High Street, E1. If you are after more of a designer bar, the place to go for DJs is the Medicine Bar, 89 Great Eastern Street, EC2, or for food is Grand Central, 91-93 Great Eastern Street, EC2, possibly the most beautiful bar-restaurant in London.
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