Today, wine bars are fashionable. There’s even been talk that wine itself might be… *whisper it* cool. Things were very different when I was growing up. Wines bars were considered terribly old-fashioned. Most weren’t even aimed at wine lovers. Instead, they were places to drink that were open later than pubs. You might have gotten some cheese and crackers or shop-bought pate to eat, if you were lucky. There was a chain in the north of England called Yates’s Wine Lodge; from the name, you’d imagine it was a good place to discuss the difference between left bank and right bank Bordeaux. If you tried, you’d be in for a rude shock. On a Friday and Saturday night, Yates’s would be crammed with people getting uproariously drunk on anything but wine.
Even during the dark days, however, there were places serving good quality wine and food, and some of them are still around. What the newer places offer is sharper cookery and more adventurous wines, many of which are available by the glass thanks to the wonders of Enomatic machines or the Coravin (a sort of handheld Enomatic that dispenses a tasting measure and then seals the bottle with an inert gas). So I thought it would be interesting to examine the now-thriving wine bar sector in London. I’ve tried to group them roughly in order of opening, so you go from very old school to bang up to date.
El Vino, 47 Fleet St, London EC4Y 1BJ
A legend since 1879. Fleet Street used to be the home of London’s newspapers and this is where the journalists would drink and gossip. Women weren’t allowed at the bar until the 1980s! It’s less raucous now as the customers are mainly lawyers. The food is basic, the meat pies are the thing to go for. The wine list extremely old-fashioned, lots of claret, generic white burgundy by the glass, and none the worse for it. It’s recently been taken over by Davy’s, a wine bar chain, so it’s not clear what the future is.
Gordon’s 47 Villiers St, London WC2N 6NE
Entering Gordon’s is like being in one of those Roger Corman adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe. The ceiling is incredibly low, there’s cobwebs and candles everywhere. I keep expecting Vincent Price to be on the next table. It’s also a total tourist trap and can get unpleasantly busy, but is worth visiting for the amazing atmosphere. The by the bottle wine list is a bit dull so I’d recommend you order sherry or madeira which come directly from the barrel.
Le Beaujolais, 25 Litchfield St, London WC2H 9NJ
It feels like nothing at all has changed in here since it opened in 1972. The wine list consists of mainly negociant Beaujolais. It’s not the kind of place to share your obsession with low sulphur Morgon producers. You’re here to have fun. Sobriety is positively frowned upon and don’t be surprised if you ended up leaving with someone else’s wife or husband. The food is good especially the Boeuf Bourguignon.
Cork & Bottle 44-46 Cranbourn Alley, London WC2H 7AN
Another 70s stalwart. This place used to be very popular with the wine trade. They’ve probably moved on to somewhere trendy in East London which is a shame because this place is rather good. The room, a spacious and nicely lit cellar, is inviting. The, not particularly cheap, wine list is full of tempting stuff especially from Southern Rhone and Australia. It’s recently changed hands and the food has improved.
Albertine, 1 Wood Lane, London W12 7DP
Out in Shepherd’s Bush in West London, in the old days when BBC TV centre was around the corner, you might trip over Jeremy Irons or Maggie Smith sipping a glass of Muscadet. Since the studios closed in 2013, the clientele is now mainly newish locals who have been priced out of Notting Hill. The wine list very solid, with producers such as De Martino from Chile, just the sort of stuff that I like to drink at home. The food is good home-cooked stuff, beef stroganoff, chicken curry, that sort of thing. It has a proper family feel.
Andrew Edmunds , 46 Lexington St, London W1F 0LP
A Soho stalwart, this is more of a restaurant but notable for it’s extensive and often good value wine list. I often run into the eponymous proprietor at tastings around London and he really knows his stuff. Cooking is simple bistro stuff, usually delicious. It’s very romantic too.
Mr Lawrence, 391 Brockley Rd, London SE4 2PH
I’m count myself very lucky to have this place on my doorstep in south east London. They import their own wine from south west France as well as champagne and armagnac . You can order food from the pub next door and eat it in the wood-panelled splendour of the dining room. A neighbourhood gem but worth going to visit as well.
Planet of the Grapes, 9/10 Bulls Head Passage, Leadenhall Market, London EC3V 1LU
This business started out as a shop in Holborn, they’ve since expanded to three wine bars in the City and one further west in the neo-baroque Sicilian Avenue. You can buy wines to take away or for a corkage fee, drink them on site with food. The wines are excellent, very much the kind of thing that you can imagine prosperous stock brokers drinking, claret, burgundy, Brunello, and Californian cabernets. Just don’t ask for natural wine.
Terroirs, 5 William IV St, London WC2N 4DW
This was the only natural wine bar in London when it opened in 2009. Some of the wines are a too natural for me but the knowledgeable staff are always happy to steer me towards something more conventional. Whilst the wines can a be a little wacky, the food is decidedly classic, very French, cassoulet etc with particularly good shellfish. They have a sister restaurant in East London called Brawn.
10 Cases,16 Endell St, London WC2H 9BD
The name comes from their policy of buying ten cases each of special wines and selling them until they’re gone. They also do a regular house selection. On my last visit I had a very good mosel riesling by the glass and a Xinomavro from Greece with some great tapas. They’re currently trialling a one hour wine delivery service in central London so you don’t even need to leave your home to get the 10 Cases experience.
Sager & Wilde, 193 Hackney Road, London E2 8JL
Where Sager & Wilde sits used to be the roughest pub in East London, the British Lion. My Uncle used to go there to talk about horses with the locals. It was opened in 2013 by Charlotte and Michael Sager-Wilde and has since become wildly popular not least with the wine trade. The list is very modish with orange wines, Santa Barbara pinot noirs and Jura whites. Their cheddar cheese toastie has achieved mythical status. They have another venue which is more of a restaurant under the arches in nearby Bethnal Green
Wine Pantry, 1 Stoney St, London SE1 9AA –
A few years ago a bar that only sold English wine would be a punchline to a joke. Not now. English sparkling wines in particular are winning plaudits all over the world. The still whites, even some reds are catching up fast. Julia Stafford, the owner of this place in Borough Market, bursts with enthusiasm. If you come sceptical, like I did, you’ll leave converted especially after half dozen oysters and a glass of Henners Brut Reserve.
Quality Chop House, 88-94 Farringdon Rd, London EC1R 3EA
This London institution was closed for a few years but reopened in 2014 under new management. It lives up to its name by offering the finest pork chop I think I’ve ever had (sorry mum) especially with their signature confit potato. It has a great wine list, of course, with a very nice Bergerac as the house red. Particularly exciting are the early 20th century Rivesaltes and Maurys (sweet French wines not dissimilar to port) which they offer by the glass.
Wine makers club, 41a Farringdon St, London EC4A 4AN
This was once a branch of Oddbins, the chain of wine merchants where I worked in the late 90s. It’s an incredible space under the Holborn Viaduct but beware, it’s basically a cellar, so wrap up warm. The cold smell of damp mingled with wine when you walk into the bar took me back to my days in the wine trade. They offer a very interesting selection of wines, particularly good on Tuscany with Brunello from Sesti and Chianti from Riecine. There’s simple food available to eat alongside.
Noble Rot, 51 Lamb’s Conduit St, London WC1N 3NB
The owners, Marks Andrew a former wine merchant, and Dan Keeling, former A&R man who discovered Coldplay, are geniuses are self-promotion. I’ve never known a new wine bar opening to get so much attention. Fortunately the place lives up to the hype, they’ve taken on a top chef, Paul Weaver, formerly of St. John’s, and the wine list made me want to empty my savings account. On my last visit, I had some mouthwateringly juicy hogget (somewhere between lamb and mutton in age) which went down nicely with a well-priced bottle of Vina Tondonia Rioja. The owners edit a wine magazine also called Noble Rot which you can read whilst you wait for your food.
67 Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5ES
I shouldn’t include this place because it’s a private members club but the by the class list is so extensive that I thought it worth mentioning. I had an a delicious Cote Rotie from Jasmine for £9 a glass. It would be double anywhere else. With it I had some, very good, bar snacks but there is a proper restaurant too. My advice is to befriend a member next time you’re in London.
This originally appeared in Food & Wine magazine.