Depending on one’s definition, there are anywhere between 3500 to 4000 pubs and bars within the Greater London area. Over the last few years most of discussion has been focused on how many have shut or been bought out in the last decade and what a great tragedy it is that London’s pub-scene is disappearing.
Anyone who has the misfortune to be in the City or central London after 5PM might disagree, not to mention that no one really bothers to consider this figure does not include restaurants or hotels who have a bar area of their own. The resulting conclusion is that in a city run on alcohol and money, bars won’t be going anywhere soon. The discussion we tend to have amongst ourselves is invariable closer to “where should we go?” because there is a surfeit of choice, the great majority of it being not very good.
Speaking simply, I loathe tourists, so I endeavour to go where tourists don’t. Thankfully for someone who enjoys wine like I do, this works out particularly well as tourists are attracted like moths to overpriced pubs.
One of my first port of calls is Daly’s Wine Bar just off the Strand, very near my office. I have heard Daly’s Wine Bar described in various ways, ranging from “up-scale” to “a dump”, and the truth is more in-between. If your point of reference is the bar at the Plaza Athenee in Paris, then yes, it is a bit of a dump. If, on the other hand, your point of reference is a Fullers in Slough then Daly’s is practically a palace.
In the end, Daly’s is what you make of it. Its clientele is almost exclusively Barristers, Judges, Solicitors, or local business persons. It has the décor of slightly run-down members-club with that slightly-faint odour of wood floor that’s had too many things spilt on it. My reason for liking Daly’s is that the wine hits all the right categories, so if you want to have 6 bottles of inexpensive Picpoul de Pinet for dinner or a £30 glass of 2005 Bordeaux, you can.
On the other side of the west-end lies the venerable institution known as Shampers, one of the favourite wine bars and boozing spots of Savile Row tailors and eclectic selection of regulars. Located in the Kingly Court complex, the bar is dimly lit and small, yet somehow manages to pack in as many people as possible in the tiny bar area, somewhat akin to a drunken clown car.
Most of the space is taken up by the restaurant seating, with a very French brasserie feeling menu to go with it. Though like when at Daly’s I almost always seem to find myself having wine for dinner. This is just as well because the general vibe from the staff is that they are both surly and very French. In this paradigm, the customer is more of a nuisance than a guest. They probably wonder why you are there and why must you drink rosé in the dead of winter, and you in equal measure are wondering where they developed their fine customer service skills. It is a timeless wine bar tradition.
In fact, if you enjoy moody waiters with a French inclination, head over to Brinkley’s in “Chelsea” (it is more Fulham in reality).
Brinkley’s is a storied institution that has been running for over 30 years now but has aged surprisingly well. Going there is a bit like being back in the 1980’s, power-ties and all. John Brinkley, the owner, started his life in the wine industry which is made evident by the very diverse and surprisingly accessible wine list. The bottles start at £18 and if you’re a banker with a townhouse (which most of the regulars are) there are the usual first growth Bordeaux that range at around £750. Mr. Brinkley himself can often be seen sat at the bar sipping Domaine Ott and enjoys chatting with the regulars of the restaurant.
It is admittedly not everyone’s cup of tea: it is a decidedly Chelsea institution with the clientele to boot. Think lots of gilets and signet rings, plus there is invariably some sort of vintage Rolls-Royce parked out front. In other words you won’t have a hard time identifying the kind of people who inhabit the place.
I would argue that if I had to give a first place to one of the wine bars on this rather small list, it would be Daly’s Wine Bar. It is comfortable, reliable, and most importantly it has decent wine for a decent price. Otherwise try any of the Davy’s wine bars, or Pall Mall Fine Wine and its sister Shepherd Market Wine House.