Inside City Road's notorious speakeasy the Nightjar

How did an unassuming speakeasy revolutionise London's nightlife and become one of the world's most respected bars? We find out what goes on behind closed doors at the Nightjar...

It's amazing what can happen when you ban alcohol. Don't get us wrong – we're not calling for a return to the dark days. But without Prohibition in 1920s America, the golden age of the cocktail may never have occurred; alcoholic drinks may not have become revered; and, more to the point, London's contemporary bar scene would be significantly worse off.

Whether or not the capital's speakeasy trend is on its last legs is up for debate, but there's no doubting that Shoreditch's Nightjar is staying just where it is. You might have seen it, or you might not – it's accessible only by an unmarked wooden door on City Road. Established in 2011, it quickly found that Holy Grail combination of popularity and critical acclaim in equal measure, before winning Difford's Guides' Class Award for Best New Bar in 2011.

"We were still rookies at the time," explains co-founder Edmund Weil, who founded the bar with wife Rosie Stimpson. "I remember going to get drinks as they were calling out the winner, because I had so little expectation of winning. It was a great feeling."

My wife sings jazz, swing and blues, and we wanted somewhere that would do justice to the music

If the Class Award felt great, spending the last three years in the top three of Drinks International's fêted 50 Best Bars must be a kind of bourbon-drenched euphoria. That kind of award speaks volumes. It may be a trendy place, but what it's categorically not is a flash in the pan.

Nor is it superficial. The bar's speakeasy model wasn't the product of late-night PR brainstorms or comprehensive market studies. "It actually came from the style and the music angle before the drinks," Weil explains. "My wife sings jazz, swing and blues, and we wanted somewhere that would do justice to the music. The speakeasy trend has almost run its course now, but I'd like to think that we came at it very much from a purist angle. We love art deco design; we came to love the cocktails – the pre-Prohibition era in particular – and, obviously, we love the music, too.

Nightjar cocktails – in pictures

"I'm a lover of vintage style, and if someone opened a speakeasy bar I'd drink there over most other places because, well, what does it stand for? Good music, vintage style, drinks that have been made with care and attention, good service, and intimate spaces – and I like all of those things."

Having what – in bartending terms – is considered an A-list work force doesn't hurt, either. They've cut their teeth at some of the capital's finest drinking establishments. In Weil's own words, being introduced to Marian Beke and hiring him as their bar manager was a turning point in its success story.

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"Marian was working at Pearl at the time. He'd worked at the Langham before, and at Montgomery Place as bar manager; and he'd been mentored by people such as Ago Perrone from the Connaught and Alex Kratena from Artesian, so he had a pretty good pedigree," says Weil. "But his vision and his style is unique. Marian showed us some of his ideas and drinks and the moment we saw them we knew we had to make it happen. He also has a fantastic eye for staff, and a lot of people would give their eye teeth to work for him.

"There are a lot of different kinds of bartenders, and ours are all serious guys. They're all dedicated; see what they're doing as a craft, something that requires constant work and practice. Without that dedication we'd be nowhere."

So what next for the Nightjar? Having pioneered a city-wide trend and pretty much conquered London's bar scene single-handedly, questions of expansion are inevitable. Weil, though, remains tight-lipped. A simple "watch this space" is sadly all we get.

You can't blame him for being cautious – you could get arrested for that sort of thing; it is the 1920s, after all. Or at least, sitting in the Nightjar, swing music roaring, sipping the best julep in London, it certainly feels like it. ■

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