Ernest Hemingway, possibly the world's most celebrated pub crawler, swigged his way from Madrid to Manhattan. But the prized literary lion did scant prowling in London's drinking establishments. Why? Because he hated warm beer and could never get a bone-dry martini. Too bad. For if Hemingway were around today, he'd find a London bar scene so spirited and sophisticated that even he would have to pace himself if he tried to drink it all in.
Still, a London pub probably wouldn't be Hemingway's first stop. It may sound like heresy, but more and more Londoners are forsaking traditional pubs for more fashionable thirst parlors. Sure, the city's 9,000-odd public houses - originally taverns for wayfarers and locals - are charming and historic, but they're also typically smoky, loud, and crowded. Thus the stiff competition they're facing from upscale hotel bars and the latest libational oases, the "style bar" and "gastropub."
Here's where to go and what to expect from London's latest best-of-all-breed bars.
At London's new style bars, bartenders don't just pull pints, but handcraft fine cocktails. You'll also find other non-pub diversions, such as music, billiards, dancing, dining, and, typically, a door charge after 9 p.m. The current style-bar czar is a former barrister named Jonathan Downey, who jettisoned his powdered wig five years ago to launch Matchbar, recently voted London's best style saloon. Downey is on a crusade to "bring proper drinks to the proletariat in a comfortable space where you can say 'Make me something interesting' and have a conversation." When he's asked to recommend a drink, Matchbar's own head barman, Michael Butt, might come back with something like an English-styled Old Fashioned with bourbon, bitters, sugar, and a splash of soda. And at $9, it will be sensibly priced. For London, that is.