With a proper speakeasy attitude, Nightjar can be as almost as hard to find as it is to book a table: a properly battered & nondescript door, with the smallest of nameplates that is the only clue that you are at the right place, on a busy road near London’s Old Street underground station. This leads onto a tiny hallway where you stand and wait as the doorman checks with the receptionist downstairs. Once cleared, though, you’re ready to descend into as perfect a nightspot you’ll find this side of 1920s Chicago. The tables are low, almost as low as the lights, and if you want theatre, try to get one of the banquette side tables on the right, where you’ll have a great view of the bar and the work of the staff as they make some of the most elaborate drinks I have been served, barring the blue whisky sour with sparkler I once had in Hamburg. The cocktail menu comes with glasses of water & a small bowl of popcorn, and you are given plenty of time to decide whether to start with something simple & classic, or jump right into the sharing drinks that come served in pots stills, shells or probably even a watering can. Further into the bar are some intimate tables, and a stage for the live bands. The space is dimly lit, but it’s an enfolding, attractive kind of darkness – not gloom – a place that invites leaning into your companion to talk and get closer together.
Our first (and only – see later) two drinks, a Boulevardier & a Brooklyn, were excellently made, beautifully chilled, though I was baffled by mine being cooled by a submerged chocolate teddy bear in the glass, and Liz by the appearance of her cherry garnish, not in the drink, but glued to the stem of her glass with chocolate spread. On the table next to us, a jolly French party tried to come to grips with a conch shell that foamed with dry ice & a ceramic drinking flask that was garnished with sugar eggs & what seemed to be an ear of corn. The drinks, despite the eccentric trappings, are fabulous – balanced, strong & very drinkable. It’s when we decide to move onto a shared cocktail, the bonkers ‘Alchemist’s Brew’, served in a miniature copper still, complete with dry ice vapour coming from the chimney, that the wheels come off the wagon somewhat. We’re on a tight schedule, having been initially told the table was only ours for 90 minutes and so are heading onto another bar.
Five minutes before we’re due to leave, there is still no sign of our second drink; the bar is backed up with orders & they haven’t been able to assemble our smoking construction. We’ll have to leave that one for another time; but the staff are lovely & make amends, and we leave with our pockets bulging with Nightjar playing cards, a bill lightened by several deductions & an earnest wish to come again.
Nightjar, 129 City Road, London