bartenders working behind bar at side hustle
Photo courtesy of Side Hustle
Photo courtesy of Side Hustle

The Ultimate Guide to London Nightlife

Fords Gin founder Simon Ford sounds off on his beloved city’s top bars, clubs, and late-night hangouts.

To know London nightlife is to love it. The gargantuan, ever-evolving Big Smoke knows how to party, as evidenced in its expansive patchwork of bars, clubs, and live music venues. And it’s far from a monoculture. Any given night could see you bouncing from a rowdy football pub to a world-renowned martini bar to a jazzy after-hours club that keeps the beats bumping well into the wee hours—granted you can roll with the dress code.

“London is a hotbed of art, fashion, and music, as well as diverse and international—The energy from that has always inspired one of the most creative and vibrant nightlifes in the world,” says Simon Ford, co-founder of celebrated gin brand Fords Gin and longtime Londoner. “Modern cocktail culture manifested into the hottest bars and nightclubs in the late ‘90s, and London has been at the forefront of cocktails ever since, giving birth to some of the most influential bars and bartenders of the last 35 years.”

It’s no wonder that London picked up no less than nine spots on this year’s World’s 50 Best Bars list, including two in the top 10. From historic pint peddlers to cutting-edge cocktail dens and everything in between, this lineup represents the best places to let loose when in Londontown, according to Ford and his discerning palate.

dark interior of the george public house, london
The George Public House

“It’s as if this pub knows exactly what I like,” says Ford of his current favorite London gastropub. And he’s not alone—the handsome landmark has been a Southwark fixture since the 18th century for a reason. “They have a Scotch Egg to die for, an excellent selection of English wines, great cocktails, and pour a very good pint of Guinness.”

Covent Garden
Nestled inside the 19th-century Magistrates’ Court turned ultra-chic NoMad Hotel’s former police station, this quirky yet cozy haunt buzzes with style, personality, and forward-thinking libations with an agave-powered twist. “Within NoMad, there are several options to drink and eat that are all great, but the one I find myself frequenting the most is Side Hustle, which is a Mexican-inspired bar,” says Ford. “Its Tequila range is exceptional, their cocktails are near perfect, and they have managed to make guests feel casual in what is a luxury environment.”

crowded bar at lyaness, sea containers, london

Another swanky hotel bar—a genre that London has historically dominated—this contribution from acclaimed barkeep and creative mastermind Ryan Chetiyawardana impresses with a narrative-driven roster of concoctions fashioned to make even minor components shine like the main character.

“I love encouraging people to try new and different things,” adds Ford. “Chetiyawardana and his team come up with their own cocktail ingredients with an eye for sustainability, all of which are wild, wonderful, and unique. You can find thunder mushrooms and tree caramel, bread bitters and burnt pea pods—It’s certainly one of the craziest sounding menus out there, but these drinks taste fabulous.”

West End
“Salvatore Calabrese is one of the most famous bartenders in the world, and this bar, his latest, is one of his best,” says Ford. This Corinthia London hotel newcomer from international “startender” Salvatore Calabrese ranks among the most exciting London openings in recent years. And this stylish venture from the inventor of the Breakfast Martini is definitely one of his most ambitious, sporting a Jazz Age theme that touches everything from the plush velvet drapery to the dapper cocktail menu. As Ford puts it, “The bar is doing its best to reinvent the ‘20s through its design, live music, and the drinks they serve.”

entryway to bar with "jazz cafe" signage
The Jazz Cafe

Camden Town
With room for some 450 people, this relatively intimate jazz, soul, funk, reggae, and world music venue has long been synonymous with live music in Camden Town. Ford recommends the recently renovated bi-level space not only for its consistently stellar artist roster—Jamiroquai, Amy Winehouse, Sun Ra, D’Angelo, Adele, Erykah Badu, Roy Ayers, Bobby Womack, and John Legend have all graced its stage over the past 30 years—but also for the strong food and drink program served upstairs, which pairs appropriately global bites like Korean fried chicken and plantain tacos with sturdy classic cocktails.

In a city known for its exquisite martinis, any bar worth its vermouth knows just how fierce the competition can be. But somehow, this elegant hotel mainstay manages to come out on top year after year, wooing gin lovers with an impeccable—and luxuriantly dramatic—bespoke martini service delivered with gusto via their signature martini trolley.

“The Connaught Bar’s been at the forefront of cocktail culture and hospitality for the last 15 years,” echoes Ford. “Home to bartenders Ago Peronne and Giorgio Bargiani, both of whom have taken home the title of World's Best Bartender at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards, they’re known for their theatrical martini service and their ability to bring contemporary cocktails to a classic five-star hotel audience.” And while he confidently recommends ordering the martini, he also suggests checking out their version of the Bloody Mary, an innovative spin that’s been on the menu since day one.

sleek interiors of bar at kwant mayfair, london

Another recent addition to Mayfair’s refined nightlife scene, this looker comes from Erik Lorincz, former head bartender at the legendary American Bar at The Savoy Hotel. Inside, the design is soothing, bordering on ‘70s chic with tropical accents, while the drinks stand firmly outside the average cocktail fan’s comfort zone—in the best way possible. “This bar feels like an accumulation of a lifetime of ideas coming together under one roof,” muses Ford, who’s a fan of both the boozy arrangements and the “next level” bar snacks. “The island-style bar allows guests to be a part of the experience, and they recently launched a food and cocktail tasting menu for those lucky enough to get a seat.”

“The owner of Happiness Forgets, Ali Burgess, rose up the ranks and earned his stripes at the Pegu Club and Milk and Honey in New York, and Happiness Forgets most certainly takes inspiration from both places,” Ford says, name-checking two now-shuttered icons of New York’s cocktail renaissance. And much like the dearly departed hotspots on Burgess’s resume, this respected purveyor of milk punches, sours, cobblers and martinis is somewhat of an oldie but goodie, having held it down in hipster-haven Hoxton since 2010. “The years have added character to the bar, bringing some dive bar vibes into the mix, which creates a unique ambiance,” he adds.

crowd gathering around dj at here at outernet nightclub, london
HERE at Outernet

West End
There’s no denying it: This place is gigantic. Built like a live entertainment megachurch, the multi-tiered space fits 2,000 revelers and lays claim to the world’s largest LED screen, among other superlatives. But make your way in the belly of the beast and you’ll discover more digestible nooks hidden within its four subterranean stories, each offering a different taste of London nightlife from DJ-focused club nights to flashy headliners. And, Ford notes, it’s all fueled by an unnecessarily well appointed drinks program from beverage director Shannon Tebay, who made waves as the first woman to hold the head bartender title at the esteemed American Bar at the Savoy.

A collaboration between prolific industry pros Alex Kratena and Monica Berg, this twin-concept stunner has been turning heads with its masterful menu execution and streamlined, industrial-tinged design since its 2020 debut. “Elementary is positioned as a modern neighborhood cocktail bar, while Tayer is a produce-driven cocktail bar that uses state of the art techniques to deliver on simple serve cocktails,” explains Ford. “If Noma decided to go into cocktail bars, I would imagine them to be a little like this.”

crowded bar in dim light at sager + wilde paradise row, london
Sager + Wilde Paradise Row

A laid-back wine bar holding its own among a group of A-list nightlife destinations? Absolutely, says Ford, especially when said wine bar has mastered the art so perfectly. “It’s evident from entering that this is a bar built on passion and love for wine, and by a team that understands good cocktails and food,” he explains. “You really feel like you are getting some true East London vibes.”

Notting Hill
This Notting Hill gem has been slinging tiki-inspired favorites out of a cool and colorful space for the last two decades, establishing itself as the go-to bar for rum-savvy Londoners. “It's been one of my favorites ever since I started drinking in cocktail bars,” says Ford, no stranger to the basement hangout’s impressive 200-strong rum list. No detail is left unattended in owner Sly Augustin’s house, from the hand-selected tunes playing over the speakers to the playful garnishes, moody lighting, and elaborate presentations. Come for the fine spirits, stay for the impromptu dance parties.

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Meredith Heil is the Editorial Director of Thrillist Travel. She likes her martinis wet, up, and served with a twist. Follow her at @mereditto.