Bar Review: The Elephant’s Head, Camden

The Elephant’s Head – Victorian Camden

Camden Town, the simulacrum of whatever it used to be or thought it was. This one-time home of John Lennon, Charles Dickens and Sir Ambrose Fleming, saw a heroin-chic renascence in the early naughties. The skinny-limbed antics of Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty preceded Noel Fielding and Russell Brand entertaining audiences by competing to have the silliest hair. Today, Camden’s biggest export is Dappy from N-Dubz. Camden falls over itself screaming how alternative it is while trying as hard as possible not to care, as carefully as possible. Camden is a hangout for biker gangs without motorbikes, the worst cocaine in Europe, and enjoys a working-class brashness despite one bedroom flats renting at £3,000 a month.

The Elephant’s Head was a scruffy, characterful pub full of scruffy characters, the kind that makes the past-time of London boozing a uniquely British pleasure. I love dark Victorian London Pubs; I like to imagine Jack the Ripper sitting at the bar, nursing a pint of mild, fiddling with a Soduku. The Elephant’s Head dates to 1832, being once part of the famous Camden Town Brewery, producers of ‘Elephant Ale’ in the 1800’s. Feeling like Julian Barrat in Nathan Barley, I sought refuge in something genuine – something with more purpose and age than me – away from the surrounding nonsense. The classic checkered floor, dark wooden bar and low ceilings filled me with hope.

The pub was teaming with leather clad punters, holding what I assumed was a piercing convention. The standard issue Full English and a pint of bitter both did the job and weren’t unreasonably priced, given the fiscal hell-hole that is Zone 1. Unfortunately, members of The Elephant’s Head staff were the sourest, patronising and most abrasive as I’ve come across.

The Elephant’s Head Review Summary

Atmosphere 6/10    Cost 6/10    Quality 5/10    Service 1/10

Elephants Head Camden Pub Review

Camden Street Artist (Of Sorts)

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Bar Review: Pollen Street Social, Mayfair

Pollen Street Social – A Real Buzz

I’ve admired Jason Atherton for a long time. Not only does he have sixteen restaurants worldwide, but he comes across as a thoroughly decent bloke. Pollen Street Social is probably best known for its ‘Quail Brunch’, described in 2014 as ‘London’s Best Dish’, by Time Out magazine, although I was there for bourgeois booze only.

Pollen Street Social describes itself as a: “Michelin-starred modern urban meeting point. A place to eat, drink and socialise, both for special occasions, and for informal everyday affairs.” To be fair that is exactly what it is, and jolly good it is too.

Only an evil genius would have the audacity and creativity to combine: Riesling, Pisco, rhubarb vinegar, olive oil and egg white. The resilient frothy head confidently held the droplets of oil creating a uniquely beautiful texture. The sweet Riesling and sour Pisco were best buddies, with the rhubarb vinegar adding beads of magic. This drink was so special it would have been a crime only to order one.

I can’t decide whether or not I find truffles vile or delicious. AA Gill was spot on advising they: “teeter on the edge of being disgusting, but are actually fabulous”. I’m uncertain if it was bravery or campness that provoked a gamble on a truffle infused champagne number. This glass of bubbles was beauty and the beast in liquid form. For me the incredible pungent earthy aromas were overwhelming. This was a feminine option, for only the hardest drinkers.

In between shovelling endless salty vegetable crisps, I managed to request a Manhattan. It was promptly made to my specification (Rye+Sweet Vermouth). I can’t describe it any better than Esquire magazine: “It [was] bold and fortifying, yet as relaxing as a deep massage.”

I would have liked to chew the fat with the charming staff all afternoon, but by this point my wallet was empty. Pollen Street Social was expensive, but an understatedly smart Mayfair space I’d recommend to anyone.

Pollen Street Social Review Summary

Atmosphere 9/10    Cost 3/10    Quality 10/10    Service 10/10

Pollen Street Social Review

The best drink since I can remember

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Bar Review: The Hawksmoor Seven Dials, Covent Garden

The Hawksmoor Seven Dials – A Meating Of Minds

I was drawn to The Hawksmoor after Giles Coren advised it served: “the best steak you will find anywhere”. The Hawksmoor Group has seven locations (six in London, one in Manchester) but the Seven Dials branch proudly ranked highest on TripAdvisor (124 out of 17,095), so I followed the herd in more ways than one. The Hawksmoor Seven Dials in Covent Garden is named after a seven street junction, each with respective sundials. Despite every road leading to it, The Hawksmoor Seven Dials is deceptively camouflaged – the unassuming entrance only added to the intrigue.

It wasn’t my drinking debut at The Hawksmoor Seven Dials, having wisely trusted Giles’s steak advice (he wasn’t wrong). On this occasion, I only had eyes for the bar. Leafing through the menu reading ‘Absinthe Pina Colada’ and ‘Full Fat Old Fashioned’ in the same breath, I fell hopelessly in love.

Nicole kookily orchestrated the proceedings, being knowledgeable, gracious and welcoming in equal measure. She advised the Full Fat Old Fashioned was a “game changer” – naturally I couldn’t refuse. This serious libation was patiently prepared, so I planned on giving it the respect it deserved. It was too good: rather than sipping and savouring, I greedily guzzled it down like a scene from Ice Cold In Alex.

The Hawksmoor Seven Dials’ best selling drink is Shakey Pete’s Ginger Brew, achieving cult status; served in pleasingly over-sized tankards, I lived out my pirate fantasies without a court summons. This fabulous concoction was the best ginger beer in town: ice cold, extravagantly frothy and mightily refreshing.

The Hawksmoor Seven Dials bar was handsomely stocked with quality bottles – many unfamiliar – of all shapes and sizes. I spotted Lagavulin, which I thought was my favourite whisky. I was poured Caol Ila and wryly told: “if you don’t prefer it – it’s free”. Predictably, my eyes were opened, and I happily paid. As the staff knew my favourite drink before I did, I was eager to learn what floated their boat. The Hawksmoor Seven Dials staff were partial to gentlemanly drops of Mezcal, something I’m relatively unfamiliar with. Two shots later I saw the appeal: beautifully smokey, slightly sweet but still put hairs on my chest.

A Sazerac – the dark prince of the cocktail world – was promptly made to order, with Nicole nodding in silent approval.  David Wondrich described it best:

“A proper drink at the right time—one mixed with care and skill and served in a true spirit of hospitality—is better than any other made thing at giving us the illusion, at least, that we’re getting what we want from life. A cat can gaze upon a king, as the proverb goes, and after a Dry Martini or a Sazerac Cocktail or two, we’re all cats.”

A zippy Margarita was soon whipped together, further jazzed up by the addition of fresh ginger. All this lead me to the conclusion that The Hawksmoor Seven Dials is my favourite bar. Bravo!

The Hawksmoor Review Summary

Atmosphere 10/10    Cost 4/10    Quality 10/10    Service 10/10

Hawksmoor Seven Dials Review

Something different…

Hawksmoor Seven Dials Review

Shakey Pete Ginger Beer & Caol Ila

Hawksmoor Seven Dials Review

Ginger Margarita & Sazerac

Hawksmoor Seven Dials Review

A martini (of sorts)

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Bar Review: Crazy Bear, Beaconsfield

Dazzling Beaconsfield – I Can’t Bear The Crazy Prices

The elusive and exclusive Crazy Bear Beaconsfield had intrigued me for some time. Their glitzy website extolled baroque glamour; ironically, the entrance and exterior re-defined nondescript. I had previously walked passed Crazy Bear Beaconsfield on several occasions, in complete ignorance that a five-star hotel sat hidden in plain view. Going through the ironically featureless doorway, one would never anticipate the extravagant bonanza waiting behind.

The Crazy Bear Beaconsfield unique interior – the lovechild of Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen and Marie Antoinette – is not to everyone’s taste. In my heightened sense of camp giddiness, I very much enjoyed it. If there were an award (and there should be) for ‘Bar With The Best Smoking Area’, it would win hands down. The Crazy Bear Beaconsfield no doubt offered a sense of theatre: this was not the time nor place for two pints of larger and a packet of crisps. There was a lot going; a restaurants downstairs, annexedxed buildings offered country-chic private dining, while the lavatories were a spectacle in themselves.

The Crazy Bear Beaconsfield Cocktail Menu was top drawer: very classic without being stale. But here is my gripe – the clientele did not appreciate real cocktails. The ladies who lunch only drank Pornstar Martinis (yay a passion fruit), Strawberry Daiquiris (yay a strawberry) or a Cosmopolitans (yay nostalgic DVD Box-Set). Make no mistake, the Crazt Bear Beaconsfield bar staff knew what they were doing: all the hard-hitting cocktails hit the spot. The Manhattans were carefully crafted and the Martinis as good as anywhere. I just lamented that the bar staff’s commendable enthusiasm was largely unappreciated.

Regarding value, at £15 per drink, a boozy night in the Crazy Bear Beaconsfield is expensive – unjustifiably so in my opinion. If you are a camp millionaire, it’s bang up your proverbial. The abundance of multimillion pound properties in Beaconsfield suggested drinkers probably were. For out-of-towners who’ve had one too many (or gotten lucky) and need to discreetly stay the night, on site accommodation is easily arranged (for £450).

The Crazy Bear Review Summary

Atmosphere 8/10    Cost 2/10    Quality 10/10    Service 10/10

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Bar Review: Stratos, Preston

Stratos Bar – Preston’s Best Cocktails

Stratos is justifiably not a budget bar; nowhere in Preston is as attractively designed and fitted. Drinkers who behave themselves early doors, receive complimentary aperitivos – thanks to Stratos, visitors from Burnley can now recognise tapenade. Plus, nowhere else in Preston is open until 3 am with no entry free, with flesh and blood DJs, not iPods.

Stratos, Kuckoo and Forum are the only progressive bars in Preston shaking quality cocktails. The vast majority are £6.50, contain double premium spirits and often unusual ingredients – this price point is rare in Manchester and extinct in London. If you think Stratos is poor value, get out more. Something masquerades as similar in Yates or Revolution, but is predictably sweet, on a sticky table, in a cheap glass without a garnish, but with a 2005 playlist. Spend another £2 and drink something to enjoy, not something to later vomit.

Stratos’ bar staff unpretentiously graft, pushing Preston kicking and screaming to the next level of boozing. If you drink Cosmopolitans through a straw, think Daiquiris only exist with strawberries, and regard Mojitos as exceptionally exotic, converse with the passionate and knowledgeable Stratos’ bar staff. Likewise, if you’ve had more than your fair share of drams, Stratos staff are always happy to learn more.

The real value of Stratos is their willingness to develop customers tastes for those unaware of the great products available, and the ability to cater for the seasoned drinker. A Preston bar where customers can forfeit a menu entirely, forming a relationship with the staff is progress. Regardless of how manically busy Stratos gets, they will craft drinks to your individual tastes. This level of enthusiasm to learning and promoting cocktails is unmatched, making Stratos the best cocktail bar in Preston. (The food’s not bad either).

Stratos Bar Review Summary

Atmosphere 10/10    Cost 8/10    Quality 9/10    Service 10/10

Stratos Preston Bar Restaurant Review

Stratos – Still Preston’s Best

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Stratos – Still Preston’s Best

Stratos - Still Preston's Best

Stratos – Still Preston’s Best

Stratos - Still Preston's Best

Stratos – Still Preston’s Best

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Bar Review: White Stone, Cagliari

White Stone – In The Holiday Spirit

White Stone Bar sat on the busy Piazza Yenna –  Cagliari Marina District’s focal point. It provided perfect people-watching potential, made all the more attractive by very reasonable prices. Be warned: everywhere in Cagliari, music is hideously inconsistent, fluctuating between naff and painful. Think MTV dance hits, intertwined with a Phil Collins medley nobody wanted. Fortunately, there was ample seating outside, mostly free of irritation.

Given White Stone Bars low cost relative to the UK, it would be unkind to be too critical. I visited three times in three days – they did something right. That said, there was plenty of room for improvement. ‘Bourbon Sour’ was made with Irish blended whisky. Everything arrived with a completely unnecessary cherry. The margaritas were undrinkable. They weren’t blends

‘Bourbon Sours’ were made with Irish blended whisky. Everything arrived with a completely unnecessary cherry. The margaritas were undrinkable. They weren’t blends of tequila, lime and triple sec – just tequila with lime wafted over the glass for ceremonial purposes. Crucially, White Stone Bar’s consistency of drinks between servers was laughable. Even the same drink, made by the same person, in the same evening, differed considerably.

However, the size of the pour was gigantic. The Weights & Measures Act of 1985 evidently hadn’t reach Cagliari. The Negroni was intimidating, taking me all afternoon to tackle. I appreciate Italian’s love bitter flavours, but I’d consumed 500ml of Campari after three cocktails. I like an occasional bitter drink, but not to be pummelled mercilessly by them. I hoped Stockholm Syndrome would kick in, so I could perversely come to welcome my aperitif abuse, but sadly it never did.

Thankfully, White Stone Bar wasn’t just quantity over quality. Despite its tacky name, the ‘Between The Sheets’ cocktail was an ironically classy drink. By some miracle, it dodged the ever zealous Campari, although couldn’t survive the obligatory cherry. The sophisticated combination of cognac, rum, triple sec and lemon juice was rather wonderful. An excellent Mojito benefited from mint and lime swollen by the sun’s loving rays. A pleasing frothy, beautifully balanced Pina Colada was perfect on a late summer afternoon. White Stone Bar’s free aperitivos were in plentiful supply, and their budget buffet offered vegetable lasagne and vibrant salads, that were embarrassingly delicious for their low cost.

White Stone Bar pertained to being a proper cocktail bar but lacked the attention to detail required to be one. However, White Stone Bar genuinely friendly staff shouldn’t be unacknowledged, who were happy to chat in broken English, despite my shameful inability to meet them halfway.

White Stone Bar Review Summary

Atmosphere 7/10    Cost 10/10    Quality 5/10    Service 9/10

White Stone Bar Cagliari Review

The Holiday Spirit

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Bar Review: Duck & Waffle, City of London

Duck & Waffle – Rum With A View

Duck & Waffle is all about the view (and waffles). Boasting the highest restaurant in the UK, the vistas are stunning and the environment unique. Cocktail prices are equally sky-high, but free entry, as opposed to the extortionate Shard, remedies this somewhat. A comical gripe is that metal supports run at eye level across the window panels; only crawling toddlers and NBA superstars can fully benefit.

The Duck & Waffle Cocktail Menu was original and intriguing, although style over substance in places. The Bourbon Old Fashioned was £15.50 (inc. service) but only used standard Jack Daniels. It was served on a bed of hay, yet the drink was made from corn (maize). I’ve no time for fussing about with inedible props. As the drinks menu offers oddities like Bee Pollen Liqueur and Beetroot Champagne, the bourbon and other base spirit selection felt pedestrian.

Finishing Duck & Waffle’s Truffle Cocktail was like waking up disorientated from a heavy night in a wet compost heap, with earthy garlic cloves pushed into every orifice. I have no idea what was meant by ‘removed citrus juices’ but the Removed Aviation was both ballsy and impressively floral.

Regarding Duck & Waffle’s atmosphere, the interior walls were intentionally covered in scruffy graffiti that failed to be edgy and smacked of pretentiousness for attempting to be. The Motown soundtrack was completely out of character with whatever identity Duck & Waffle tried to create. Unless they are Jackson Pollock collecting oligarchs, customers inclined to appreciate scribble on walls, don’t spend £16 per drink. Duck & Waffle was a place for capitalist elites – framed portraits of Margaret Thatcher would be more appropriate.

Our small group was completely blanked by all the Duck & Waffle staff as we attempted to say thank you and goodbye. A group walking out in anonymity is quite a challenge in such a small space, and being totally ignored twice made me doubt the genuineness of the servers initial hospitality.

Duck & Waffle is still worth a visit: it makes a fabulous refreshment break for tourists, and the lift ride alone is a giddy experience. The views are memorable – arguably the best in the UK. If you are looking for unusual ingredients in your libations, it really set the bar high. While any drinking establishment that is open twenty-four hours a day should be revered as a potential guilty pleasure. Personally, I prefer boozers a bit more down to earth – in more ways than one.

DUCK & WAFFLE REVIEW SUMMARY

Atmosphere 8/10    Cost 3/10    Quality 8/10    Service 7/10

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Bourbon Old Fashioned (Minus Orange Peel But With Hay)

Duck & Waffle Review

£14 (+ service charge) drinks, but basic quality ingredients

Duck & Waffle Restaurant Review

Unbeatable views

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Bar Review: Bedales Wine Bar, Borough Market

Bedales of Borough Market – People Watching Paradise

Bedales of Borough benefits from an excellent location and is a trendy, yet unpretentious wine bar that nestles perfectly in the area. Borough Market is one my favourite parts of London; a melting pot of flavours, as diverse as anywhere in the world. It feels unspoilt by corporate interests, just a shame a loaf of bread is £4. The down to earth interior and warm staff created a welcoming atmosphere, while chaotic South London went about its business all around us.

Bedales wine was very much enjoyed, although chosen from a relatively limited by-the-glass menu. That said there was an impressive collection of bottles to order. I tried orange wine for the first time, which was rustic and robust, but I was glad I ordered a glass rather than a bottle. Some nibbles consisted of top quality ingredients but offered laughably small portions: small bursts of Mediterrean umami punctuated the wine glugging. The bites to eat were just too expensive given the almost zero lack of preparation required.

Sipping wine and people watching – are there any greater pleasures? Well yes probably, but at least this was legal. Bedales of Borough Market is a great little place for classier boozing, but don’t bother eating.

Bedales of Borough Market Review Summary

Atmosphere 9/10   Cost 3/10    Quality 8/10    Service 8/10

Bedales of Borough Restaurant Review

Great selection of wines by the bottle, not so much by the glass

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Bar Review: Le Beaujolais, The West End

Le Beaujolais – Wine Down & People Watch

Being turned away from The Ivy was embarrassing; I felt heartbroken, like a teenager who’s object of desire remained unrequited. I lamented that I’d ironed a shirt and cleaned my ears for no reason. However, all was not lost as I stumbled across the charming Le Beaujolais practically next-door.

Le Beaujolais looks French, it feels French, and it tastes French, and it even sounds French. But there is something distinctively alien to any truly authentic French wine bar which I couldn’t immediately put my finger on. Then it hit me. The staff were welcoming, helpful and cheerful. Obviously, this kind of attitude wouldn’t survive in Paris, but their loss is our gain. I later discovered that Le Beaujolais is London’s oldest French wine bar, with downstairs reserved as an intriguing member’s only club.

Do you remember Tie Rack; those cubicles offering a plethora of patterned neckwear, for sales reps who’d spilt their latte on the Virgin Pendolino? This is what Le Beaujolais is, with the addition of an excellent cheese and wine selection. I have no idea why hundreds of ties dangle from the ceiling like polyester stalactites, but it was all rather fun.

Nestled in the heart of theatreland, sitting outside Le Beaujolais with a bottle of something provides a perfect people watching spot. A high-quality meat filled baguette was sneaked into proceedings, served with an unusually violent harissa. My only gripe was the stingy sized wine glasses – they didn’t do justice to the high-quality wine served.

Le Beaujolais Review Summary

Atmosphere 9/10    Cost 6/10    Quality 8/10    Service 8/10

Le Beaujolais London Restaurant Review

Wine and bread; what the French do best.

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Bar Review: The Dorchester, Mayfair

The Dorchester Bar – Bourgeois Boozing

Strolling down Mayfair’s Park Lane, my lack of gaudy supercar and harem retinue ironically made me more conspicuous. Thankfully, The Dorchester doormen were completely unpretentious and perfectly polite, warmly welcoming my drinking buddy and me through polished opened doors. First impressions were stunning: the scent of fresh flowers washed over me like a luxurious feminine tidal wave.

The Dorchester Bar was opulent but felt dated – not F. Scott Fitzgerald retro hedonism dated – I just mean dated-dated. The lack of windows, oppressive purples and glossy surfaces were reminiscent of a low-stakes casino. The shiny pink stalagmites which surrounded the place were just bizarre. I was expecting The Dorchester Bar to offer timeless British glamour, not The Crystal Maze Mayfair Zone. I’m not sure if this was the interior designer’s way of forcing a contemporary edge, but I had never seen anything quite like it.

Regarding The Dorchester Bars value, there is nothing worse than someone complaining about drink prices; however, £20 for a gin and tonic is ridiculous. Although not as silly as the tin foil paint jobs on the supercars littering the entrance. People have rated The Dorchester ‘Excellent’ for value on TripAdvisor. Who the hell spends £80 on four G&Ts and thinks: “I just can’t believe the outstanding value!” I imagine Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has better things to do with his time. The Dorchester Drinks Menu itself was comprehensive and elegant as one would expect. While the glassware was the prettiest I’d ever handled. The Dorchester Bar was a place for proper cocktail drinkers: strawberry daiquiri lovers need not apply. The Brooklyn was properly excellent, and I became obsessed with the sticky, salty, delicious nibbles.

Regarding service, the gentleman working the bar was permanently elegantly poised, and no doubt skilled in the art of libations, but wasn’t particularly engaging. Perhaps staff were instructed to behave in this corporate manner, or maybe that’s just what The Dorchester’s clientele prefers. I would have liked to have seen his fun side; after all, if you can’t have a good time in a bar, where can you? I wasn’t demanding a game of beer pong!

The Bar at The Dorchester is a unique place, worth a visit for any cocktail enthusiast, but only ones with very deep pockets. I wouldn’t bother with the Champagne Simmer – I can live without the ‘gold dust and The Dorchester Lip Gloss’ – especially for £40. Although that’s nothing compared to Louis XIII: an eye-watering £1,600 a measure, plus £200 service charge for pouring. Across the sparsely populated Dorchester Bar was the most miserable woman I had ever seen drinking champagne; I didn’t know it was possible to drink Bollinger and simultaneously retain such a scowl. She was a spiritual meme for money not equating to happiness, as I visualised my bank balance dwindling to zero with a smile.

The Dorchester Review Summary

Atmosphere 4/10    Cost 2/10    Quality 10/10    Service 10/10

I'm only jealous

The Dorchester: I’m only jealous

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