The Intertwining of Drink and Letters
An elegant spot for elegant drinks, the Bloomsbury Club Bar is a moody, chic and apt place to toast the relationship between cocktail and literary prowess
Review by Winston Chesterfield
The early 20th century cemented the relationship between literature and cocktails. Although assisted in no small part by that catastrophic piece of legislation, the Volstead Act – which did more to glamorise the consumption of ardent spirits than demonise it – the pens of the early century’s literary darlings delivered the true ‘coupe’ de grace.
Cocktails, and cocktail bars, owe a lot to literature. The Jazz Age’s own chronicler, F Scott Fitzgerald, was a notorious glutton for powerful gin libations like martinis and rickeys. Ernest Hemingway had a fondness for mojitos – as well as the 51 dry martinis he chalked up to celebrate his own ‘liberation’ of the Ritz Bar. Faulkner, known for keeping whiskey close to him whilst he wrote, apparently preferred mint juleps. And it wasn’t until Raymond Chandler had his flatfoot Philip Marlowe order one in The Long Goodbye that the Gimlet took off in America. These titans of early 20th century writing were all born into an era of Wharton-esque high society Viennese-style punch-and-champagne soaked balls in the late 19th and early 20th century – and they all helped to supplant these antiquated affairs with the rather more modern ‘cocktail party’, which became the societal form du jour for the next several decades.
Fitzgerald wrote of these parties in his short stories and most famously in The Great Gatsby, in which he reported on seedy affairs in stuffy Manhattan apartments and then elevated the licentious dancing and gin-swilling to grandiose affairs at an enormous mansion on Long Island. On the other side of the pond, the de facto narrator of the lives of the Bright Young Things, Evelyn Waugh, wrote of those Vile Bodies inventing ever more lunatic themed circumstances in which to consume “martinis with a spot of absinthe…”
The Bloomsbury Club Bar & Dalloway Terrace celebrates this relationship like nowhere else.
In the basement of the Bloomsbury Hotel, a hop-skip-and-a-jump from Tottenham Court Road station, you’d have a hard time remembering that you are around the corner from London’s increasingly grisly Oxford Street. Clubby and cosy, it has a look of an Ivy League club on New York’s Upper East Side. Old school without being old, the lighting is barely a whisper – very speakeasy chic. Heavy mahogany walls contribute to the members-only feel, but the music – low and smooth 1960s rhythm and blues – keeps it from veering too deeply into its own homage.
The bar is a pretty semi-circle in the centre of the room with absinthe-green velvet bar stools – as beautiful as a Vanderbilt heiress and possibly more costly to maintain. Waiters are discreet, speaking in a gentle hush, and attired in a smart-but-not-stiff inter-war style with white shirts, double breasted waistcoats and slim black ties.
The outdoor Dalloway terrace is what happens when you cross India Jane with Midsummer Night’s Dream: fairy-lit magnificence. I had expected to find it twee but this Courchevel apres-ski environment has to be one of the most creative uses of dead spaces I have ever seen. What would once have been a Victorian service entrance, goods delivery point and filthy coal store has been transformed into a dreamlike environment with comfortable seating reminiscent of a Hamptons beach house and a black and white chequered floor and oversized gilt mirror that recalls Lewis Carrol. A fellow drinker walked past on her way to a cigarette break looking around, cooing like an 11 year old in Hamley’s: “I just…love this place!”
Amongst the clientele I spot heavy-set Hemingway-looking types with beards at the bar, with mountaineering tans and highly specific tastes in bourbon; on the banquettes I see elegantly coiffed ladies-of-a-certain-age with bangles, stylish disdain and the majestic remains of beauty. Though it is clubby, the twinkling Dalloway terrace saves it from being overly blokey. Whilst perfectly serviceable as an after-work platonic catch up joint, you’d seriously impress anyone you brought here on a date – mainly because it is such a hidden gem, but also because it’s just so hush-hush.
Food at the bar comes in the oh-so-trendy form of small plates, which in all honesty weren’t actually that small. My companion and I settled on protein-packed steak tartare, quails eggs with chilli jam and courgette croquettes. They arrived to the incongruous sound of a mariachi version of Michael Jackson’s ‘Rock With You.’ Whilst the croquettes were slightly disappointing, being rather too potato and too little courgette, the tartare was fresh, chewy and served with a healthy bed of greens. The quails eggs were gorgeously gooey with the tart chilli jam the perfect accompaniment.
However, whilst the food is entirely necessary and really rather tasty, it isn’t why you come here.
As should be expected from a bar that knows its onions (yes, they know how to make a Gibson), the cocktail list is an exciting array of concoctions utilising classic ingredients like bitters, vermouths and Amari – rather than cartons of lychee juice and paper umbrellas.
As per the theme, the house cocktail list is called ‘The Bloomsbury Set.’ The menu I sampled, the bar manager informed me, is the winter list; “The spring and summer menu will be released soon” he said.
Take note; if your cocktail bar has seasonal drink menus, you’re in the right place.
Haymans Old Tom Gin, Plymouth Sloe Gin & Orange Bitters
My first cocktail was – much like the namesake’s books – beautifully bittersweet. Forster, known for his social snobbery, would perhaps object to the use of Old Tom Gin but it was a perfect sweet-and-savoury contrast to the Sloe Gin and Orange bitters. A perfect aperitif.
Bloomsbury Gin, Lemon, Honey, Galliano, Cardamom Bitters
Though this cocktail is a Jazz Age classic, it is too often made as a sick-bed throat-soother with too much lemon and a sickly sweet aftertaste. This version stays true to the original, with a punchy gin, fresh citrus note and just the merest hint of honey.
Calvados, Goslings Black Seal, Byrrh, Peychaud’s Bitters
Beautifully crafted, this was the cocktail of the evening. The bitters and Byrrh work beautifully to create a perfume quality for the spicy punch of the rum and calvados. A definite after-dinner digestif, you’d struggle to find anything wrong with this.
Blood & Sand
Macallan Gold, Cherry Heering Antica Formula, Orange Bitters
Order a Blood & Sand in another bar and chances are you’ll be made a highball with cheap blended scotch and Martini Rosso. Not so here. They don’t scrimp on ingredients. Instead, you are treated to Macallan Gold and Antica Formula – the aristocrat of vermouths. The result is altogether more refined than typical versions.
Enquiries; The Bloomsbury Club Bar & Dalloway Terrace, 16-22 Great Russell St, Bloomsbury, London WC1B 3NN/ 020 7347 1222/ http://thebloomsburyclub.com