I have a theory about good bars in London.
There is an inevitable lifecycle: they begin initially as slightly underground bars, drawing in those in the know with something quirky, technically good or unexpected. The word then spreads and they will usually maintain their excellent form for a while – the crowds increase but not to the detriment of overall quality or value. I call this “the sweet spot” and there are always a few places around which fulfil this criteria.
But at this stage, a problem can arise. The word spreads and a vicious circle kicks in: limited space ratchets up prices while the stressed-out bartenders are not able to deliver the same quality. Eventually they’ll either become bland mainstream or go out of business altogether as their original values get diluted and the accountants take over.
Maybe I’m too pessimistic. To some extent, the best London hotel bars are sheltered from this cycle as they have a permanent captive audience in their almost full hotels. Bartenders are then free to invest in their skills and push the boundaries continuously with ever more creative cocktails.
And a number of old classics like the American Bar at the Stafford or the cosy bar with its exquisite martinis at Egerton House Hotel retain their high standard. But the newer arrivals face a bigger challenge: how do they make themselves heard above the noise?
In the case of the Quarter Bar at London Bridge Hotel – which only opened in Spring 2011 – the strategy seems to be based on serving really good cocktails. I have made three visits in recent times and in each case have been blown away by the consistently well-executed drinks.
My first visit was completely anonymous when a friend and I decided to “detox” after an afternoon spent at the nearby Vinopolis (museum
of wine) with a couple of mocktails. Well, at least my friend had the mocktail while I was swayed from my worthy intentions by the
temptations of the mojito. Both (pictured at top) were exceptionally good and at the lower end of the London hotel bar price spectrum.
In fact, I ended up nicking about half of my friend’s delicious mocktail (Joel’s Tropical Dream – pineapple and mango juice, fresh lime juice and passion fruit syrup served in a tall glass) which made me want to meet this Joel whoever he is, because he must be seriously inspired!
But I have to admit, as a bit of a hotel bar snob, I put this down to “beginner’s luck” – the joint had barely opened after all.
So when I was later invited back to the hotel recently to more “officially” sample their cocktails, I jumped at the chance but kept my expectations in check. As it turned out, this was a huge misjudgement on my part – they were even better than on the first visit.
I decided to warm up gently with a mocktail to see if Joel’s Tropical Dream was a fluke. This time I went for Berry Me – a fruity concoction of seasonal berries, pomegranate juice, fresh lemon and a hint of vanilla syrup.
It was a truly refreshing drink…many bars opt to knock you out rather than deliver the understated pleasure of “refreshing” – a gentle transition to ease you from the rigours of the working day into a laid-back evening vibe.
And it was refreshing in another sense, because it’s so rare to taste a great mocktail in a London hotel bar. The best barmen tend to be a bit snobby about non-alcoholic drinks and may hold back from giving them that extra flourish. But the barmen at the Quarter Bar seemed ready and trained to give their all at all times…we were amazed at the care and attention the barmen were putting into even a piddly little mocktail!
My companion though went for a deceptively alcoholic Watermelon Cooler – “dangerous” she told me, since it went down so easily and tasted so fresh. It contained a delicate blend of vanilla vodka, fresh watermelon chunks, fresh lime, sugar and lemonade in just the right proportions.
She was particularly impressed by the texture of the drink (a recurring theme at this bar) and the fact that it was so subtle – “subtle” being another quality that so many show-off hotel bars fail on.
At this stage we were offered a culinary interlude and found that here too the Quarter Bar dares to be different. They don’t stop at the rather bland bar snacks (fresh from a packet!) that are offered at many other London hotels. I’m talking about the salty nuts or crisps that are designed simply to dry up your mouth and cynically boost up your bar tab.
The London Bridge Hotel instead does “sharing platters” – a novel and clever idea. It’s not a proper meal but may spontaneously morph into one and turns into a sort of tapas show presented with cocktail bar flair.
We opted for the “skewer platter” – and were rewarded with a smorgasboard of just-grilled meats with delicate flavours. I have to admit that the skewers were a bit more hit and miss than the drinks but the majority were absolutely fine as accompaniments (there was a particularly good salmon one). But it’s really the cocktails that take centre stage here and we were definitely ready for our next round.
This time we got down to serious business – no more messing around with mocktails! I opted apprehensively for a ginger-based cocktail called Cuban Melody – white rum, elderflower liqueur, fresh ginger and fresh lime juice. I love fresh ginger but have found it to be abused in other bars. It’s a very strong flavour and therefore has to be incorporated with great subtlety.
Subtlety and restraint are big challenges for hotel bartenders who tend to be naturally flamboyant. But the Quarter Bar seems to have turned this into an art form. My drink (pictured below) was absolutely superb…10/10. The ginger was definitely there but acted as a backdrop to cleanse the palate and was never overpowering. You could taste the drink’s other ingredients, which were superbly balanced to complement each other.
My drinking buddy is a conoisseur of pina coladas and cheekily asked for one though it’s not on the menu. Our barman Pablo didn’t bat an eyelid and produced a drink that took her breath away. The amazing thing was its subtlety – that word which keeps cropping up. And also its texture. Texture in a cocktail is so important and is all about balance and technique. Perhaps the bar staff are able to dedicate time to it because they try harder as a relatively new bar – back to my “sweet spot” theory I guess.
She drank it extremely slowly and was amazed the texture and thickness didn’t alter as she got through it. She shook the glass, stared at it suspiciously and almost turned it upside down at one stage. Yet it stayed deliciously thick, creamy and fruity – basically the perfect pina colada.
Finally, we were offered another innovation – bitterballen. These come from Holland and were described to us as “breadcrumb-coated meatballs”. Their salty flavour makes them ideal drinking accompaniments and again, so much more fun than nuts, popcorn or crisps. Apparently we were among the first to try these and they have now been introduced on the menu.
One of the most impressive aspects of the Quarter Bar is that the drinks I’ve enjoyed on separate visits have been mixed by different barmen. I’m told that bar manager Carlo Pallone has painstakingly trained his team to deliver consistently. I also liked that on my third visit, the duty barman honestly disclosed which he could (and couldn’t) make well – there’s no culture here of making a mediocre drink to see if you can get away with it.
What worries me is that if my “bar lifecycle” theory is valid, will the Quarter Bar maintain its standards as it (inevitably) gets busier? I’ve seen several London hotel bars drop the ball when they become too crowded for their own good, which I sincerely hope doesn’t happen here.
Oh, and by the way, the 4 star hotel linked to the bar is not bad either, as our reviewer Marie-Hélène found in her London Bridge hotel review…
Photo credits: London Hotels Insight photos.
Disclosure: on one of our 3 recent visits we were guests of the London Bridge Hotel, while on the other 2 visits we went anonymously and paid our own way.