Bethnal Green is one of those areas that will never be really cool. There might be pockets of ostentatious hipster-ism, but for the most part it’s been left unaffected by vintage stores and irony. Instead Bethnal Green is an intense mix of cultures with fight nights and family homes and quirky cocktail bars and insanely good restaurants all meeting at the junction of Cambridge Heath and Old Ford Roads.
And it’s here, where cockneys with beefed muscles escaping their singlets perch at the bar to unashamedly order Cosmos, that some of the best of London’s cocktail culture has come to reside.
The shift east, or rather further east, started slowly but for obvious reasons. With Shoreditch now more mainstream than Soho, and attracting a healthy Saturday night bridge and tunnel crowd who have forsaken Leicester Square’s casinos to queue for Cargo and Aquarium, those in search of good drinks and less people had to move on.
Let’s be clear, Shoreditch still has world class bars which are busy most week nights - Joyeux Bordel, Happiness Forgets, Callooh Callay to name a few - but come Saturday night when the hen parties descend, Shoreditch is one sticky mess of kebabs and sambuca. We all managed to grin and bear it for a while, just to get a Negroni at Happiness or an Old Fashioned at NOLA, but with the loss of dirty dive bars like The Love Shake, the last of the cool kids fled.
Dalston looked promising, but it’s always been a place to rave into the early hours more than sip Manhattans and while people may talk about Stoke Newington, it simply isn’t kicking off that far up Kingsland Road. But while we flirted with small openings in Haggerston and bemoaned the cultural phenomena of stag dos, Bethnal Green was busy stripping back floorboards and exposing brick walls.
“When the Town Hall opened that was a big deal,” says Marcis Dzelzainis, who was part of the opening team at Satan’s Whiskers and now runs the bar at Sager + Wilde. “It set the tone for the area and I would go as far to say they were a little bit ahead of their time. I remember it was quite a big deal to come this far east. Now it doesn’t seem that way at all.”
Nowadays you have six incredible bars all within stumbling distance around the tube station, plus several excellent restaurants, to the point where you’d be pushed to see the area’s best offerings even over two nights. What is more exciting about the area isn’t just a list of venues however, it’s how distinct their offerings are.
In 2013 Satan’s Whiskers opened, with not much else happening in the area. Marcis remembers it well; “people opening venues in a strange part of town can be a gamble. But when Satan’s opened the area was ready and the crowd has become more interested since then. Satan’s had, and still does have, lots of simple tasty drinks, whether it was an A&B Sour, a Whiskey Smash or a Bitter Summer they were staples that weren’t changed and the classic element of the bar reminded London what drinks where. It was about taking away mad garnishes and saying this is what drinks should be.”
Satan’s Whiskers, still there today, is a small and grungy cocktail bar which blares out hip hop and grime while shaking up the very best classics in a space littered with taxidermy and vintage booze posters. It reads like the worst mash up history could piece together and yet the unaffected staff and sheer deliciousness of the cocktails bring it together seamlessly. And because this is Bethnal Green it’s unpretentious, a quick look around at your fellow drinkers will show you local couples in their 50s and 60s, old school east Londoners chatting away at the bar and young groups working their way through the drinks menu.
Drinks at Sager+Wilde Paradise Row
Down along Paradise Row you have more innovative cocktails by Marcis, who after leaving Satan’s Whiskers went to work at Dandelyan before returning to Bethnal Green to run the cocktail programme at Sager+Wilde. His menu is pure genius thanks to its simplicity, the easy to understand drink descriptions and its subtle use of unusual ingredients, which is coupled with the bar’s flawless wine list, championing modern wine makers from both the new and old world.
“People are much more receptive,” says Marcis. “No balking at anything, they understand the menu. We have nettle beer in one of the drinks and no one questions it at all. That said you have to think who is coming through the door and I think I do that automatically. Drinks should be accessible.”
Next door to Sager+Wilde is Mother Kelly’s - the type of venue which could inspire even the most ardent beer-hater to try a brew. With six fridges groaning under the weight of bottles from every corner of the globe plus 20 taps pouring a rotating list of beers from IPAs to sours, lagers and the odd cider this is so much more than a pub or brewery tap room could be. It’s a designated beer bar. One arch way down you’ll find London Cocktail Club’s latest outpost where things get a little wild and well-made classics slide effortlessly from the bar to your hand to your lips.
Wait, we’re not done yet. Around the corner on Bethnal Green Road you have the unassuming Sun Tavern, an industrial-chic styled pub which has been opened by the same team as Discount Suit Company. Here you’ll be exposed to local beers, all brewed in London, on a rotating basis, as well as Irish spirits – from the well-loved whiskies to poteen.
“The area still has a long way to go,” says Andrew Kerr, owner of the Sun Tavern. “Especially where we are along Bethnal Green Road but a lot more people are on to it and we have busy Mondays now. Our like for like sales from last year have soared.”
The Sun Tavern
Andrew describes the whole area now as an established community which has helped the scene grow. Customers can now spend a night in Bethnal Green, and when he asks where they’ve been before or where they’re going it’s always to the local bars and restaurants surrounding the Sun Tavern.
“From day one we’ve had right people in but now we have a lot of regular customers. It’s almost crazy the area hasn’t developed more, with everyone having to migrate further and further out of London. I was in London Fields and am now in Lower Clapton. Prices just go through roof and Shoreditch has lost its edgy cool night life.”
Of course Bethnal Green isn’t exactly the easiest place to manage a bar, and many venues outside of Paradise Row have struggled with licenses as Tower Hamlets push back against late openings. Finding somewhere post-midnight can be tricky and often the only solution is to head north to Dalston or back into Shoreditch.
But as Marcis points out, London can feel pretty intense sometimes, and good local bars take away the need to commute and trek across the city. Yet increasingly Bethnal Green’s bars are attracting Londoners who are making the specific journey to come and see what all the fuss is about. And they’re not disappointed. Most drinks in the area are under comfortably under £10, the bars are atmospheric and often have a specific music style rather than random playlists. It’s fun, easy drinking without the queues and the masses. And most importantly, what’s in the glass is often exceptional when you’re drinking in Bethnal Green.