Monday, 13 September 2010

All Bar One, Bishopsgate

Has it really been 15 years since All Bar One first opened its doors on an unsuspecting London public? And ten years since it last opened a new bar?

The ABO chain has been criticised by many over the years (this writer included) for applying its Starbucks-like model to one of things that British most cherish - drinking. However, it would be churlish to give not these bars credit where it’s due. For a start, I’m sure that ABO pioneered the way for 'women friendly' pubs. They were the first bar chain to offer a comprehensive range of top quality wine by the glass and free tap water in a British brasserie-style setting across London. ABO offered a clean, safe environment that was pitched at and appealed to lunching professionals and after-work City drinkers alike. OK, the brasserie claim might be stretching it, but I think its easy to take for granted the contribution that ABO has made to London drinking.
These thoughts crossed my mind as I entered the most recent addition to the ABO empire on Bishopsgate. On what was once the site of the Sir Paul Pindar - arguably the worst pub in the vicinity of Liverpool Street Station - is now a state of the art gastropub for the noughties. Set over two levels, the bar’s interior is stainless steel mixed with pine, framed by an open kitchen and a floor-to-ceiling cast iron wine rack (although library is probably a better way of describing it given the number of bottles on display). The top floor houses a more formal seated dining room, while the ground floor is your traditional All Bar One mix of tables with limited standing area.

The pitch, which the PRs were so happy to describe to me, is to continue the ABO tradition of targeting women, but with a reinvigorated menu that includes specialities such as Cottage Pie spiced with cinnamon, clove and cardamom, and griddled vegetable risotto with parmesan and Asian style pesto. I opted for a Moroccan style lamb flatbread which, whilst not being genuinely Middle-Eastern, was tasty enough, and a delicious (and very large) glass of Brazilian Pinot Gris.
The crowd are what you would expect given the location and setting - suited and booted City workers - but despite still being glisteningly new, the bar had a buzzing ambiance, the likes of which I don’t normally associate with this chain.
This bar won’t appeal to hipsters or traditional pub types, but that’s not what this place is about. What All Bar One Bishopsgate does, and will continue to do, is to offer good quality food and great wine - while probably becoming the chain bar of choice among the stiff competition around Liverpool Street Station.
It makes you wonder why it took them so long to open up here in the first place.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The Queen of Hoxton, Shoreditch

For those of you who don’t know London, there is a small but clearly-defined border between the suit-wearing financial district that is the City, and the style-leading triumvirate of all things cool - Shoreditch, Hoxton and Clerkenwell.

In bar world, this means a transition from wine bar chain heavyweights, such as Corney and Barrow and Jamie’s, to a land of independent boozers and cocktail bars where suits are not allowed.
Standing on the cusp of both worlds is The Queen of Hoxton, voted by no less a blog then my own as Bar of the Year in 2009. Yet as of last year, this didn’t seem to translate into punters. In other words, it was quiet. Not dead, but never at capacity. What a difference a year makes, and I can now say that a combination of well-promoted DJs and the decision to make the previously 'party only' roof terrace available to all patrons has seen it shift to a standing-room-only/queue around the block sort of place.
So what’s the appeal? Well for a start, it has all the elements you associate with East End cool - art installations, photographic installations, fringe theatre and screenings. Stylistically, its urban industrial décor sits alongside a games room complete with table-football and pinball machines, while a cinema advertising board takes guard of the bar. The drinks are nothing extraordinary - your now-traditional offering of classic cocktails, American lagers (including Mexican and Argentinean) and New World wines. What we saw of the food was of the bar snack/canapé variety. But what marks the Queen as somewhere special is the combination of music - from electronic dance to '50s Americana - and the cool creatives that make its crowd everything you would expect from London’s fashion set. That is, young, beautiful, and very stylish.
The icing on this trend-defining cake is the roof terrace, which is as large as the one at nearby Shoreditch House, but without the pool and self-aware crowd. The English garden party design, with large bean bags, picnic tables and artificial 'grass', turns the place into a year round oasis of fun. Of course, being Shoreditch, there are some glitches. Why nobody has seen fit to place toilets on the roof terrace rather than forcing punters to schlep down not four, but five flights of stairs to the loo is an oversight (and a tad hazardous after a few drinks). Also, the roof terrace bar only offers three drinks - Becks lager, cider, and a version of a mojito. Not a glass of wine in sight. However, people who criticise the place for these failings are being picky, and dare I say it, a tad 'City'.
The Queen has plenty of people willing to forgo these hardships to indulge in its special mix of hedonism, so you might want to start queuing early.