Secret London: The Cloak and Dagger Capital


Avoid the carbon copy chain gang venues and head underground to a world of hidden London watering holes.

FROM furtive feasting in forbidden restaurants to Prohibition-era inspired speakeasies and surprise film screenings; London’s the place to be if you’re hungry for clandestine activity. As the bleakness of winter looms, driving urban dwellers underground into discreet basement drinking dens, the capital’s underworld raves on, cool and carefree.

Far from the commercial heights of the high street, beneath the cobbled Dickensian lanes of the east, a secret subculture has been thriving, rousing London from the pits of recession as residents seek inexpensive alternatives to the gastropubs and superclubs and embrace an efficient pop-up trend.

Today toilets converted into clubs and cellars into cabaret dens provide respite from the strife of modern life as vintage trends from various eras emerge: the 1940s in the form of the hidden Bourne & Hollingsworth bar just off Oxford Street with its granny-chic decor and teatime cocktails, is a classic example of wartime revival.

At Cellar Door, a former public toilet, you’ll be transported back to the ‘30s via a classy East End cabaret buried beneath The Strand. While across town, speakeasies of the 1920s are commemorated in former printworks Passing Clouds – the hip Dalston hangout where creatives host quirky club nights; one of note being Badger Badger, with its carnival-like atmosphere lead by a percussion-friendly ensemble. Revellers dress up as their furry icons and stomp to the animal samba, perform badger sacrifices, let loose to resident band Artful Badger – and other off-the-wall wildness.

Equally idiosyncratic is the charmingly illegal underground restaurant movement that sidesteps the usual tourist traps and sees savvy, anarchic restaurateurs take up Robin Hood-like roles. Taking advantage of the recent supperclub trend (whereby you visit a stranger’s home for dinner, usually via password entry) it is perfectly suited for these economically challenged times. Ms Marmite Lover’s Underground restaurant is a self-proclaimed ‘anti-restaurant’ with ‘guerrilla dining’, while The Secret Ingredient claims to be the UK’s first home restaurant and offers a broad menu from Japanese to Spanish cuisine. What you can generally expect in these places is quality home-cooked fare at a fair price with an eclectic cross-section of participants.

For something more upbeat there are secret club nights hosted by RF London; the Secret Safari Club in Shoreditch had safari-clad party-goers tucking into cocktails and canapés, while the Secret Vampire Club at Halloween is in a top secret location only revealed the night before the event. Also, new underground watering hole The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town has been causing a stir in Spitalfields. The covert operation involves asking a staff member for ‘The Mayor’ and making your way to a concealed basement bar in The Breakfast Club cafe via a Smeg fridge door.

Now one of London’s worst kept secrets, the The Underground Rebel Bingo Club – based on the premise that Oliver Cromwell outlawed London’s only bingo club in 1657, driving its members underground – proclaims to ‘meet under the cover of darkness’ and ‘use cunning cover stories’ to disguise their meetings. Secret Cinema can also be elusive; venues (in or outdoors) are discovered after several clues and teasers, while performers in fancy-dress set the scene. The monthly extravaganza has proven a popular hit with those gagging for an alternative to the conventional silver screen experience. So crawl into the woodwork Londoners – wear your baffled expressions with pride and peer through the spy holes to discover the secret underworld calling.

First published on I Voice, Ibiza, October 2011.
© Abbey Stirling