Wine bars are hot in London right now. Some nod to their 70s heyday with a retro vibe, others max sales in busy tourist destinations, and increasing in number are neighbourhood venues that thrive when run by passionate, second career professionals. Well established operators like Vinoteca and one or two branch specialists such as 10 Cases and Vini Italiani have set the standard for a raft of new openings. Three top picks to illustrate the current London wine-oriented scene are reviewed here:
Noble Rot, Bloomsbury, London WC1
Wine fanzine boys are food critics' hot favourite
Noble Rot began as an indie magazine for hardcore wine geeks. Set up by Mark Andrew, formerly of London wine merchant Roberson and Dan Keeling, an ex-music exec, it was a breath of fresh air in the corporate world of UK wine publishing. The wine bar of the same name opened autumn 2015 in Lamb’s Conduit Street. Called Vats in a previous life, Noble Rot has re-born a classic 70s wine bar louche vibe coupled with retro Bloomsbury air of "Hello Darling" raffishness. The spacious, simple, wooden-floored bar area, warmed by a Victorian coal fire at the front, is for walk-ins. By-the-glass list reads like a wine aficionado’s tick box of favourites. Even Prosecco is the most interesting of its type — Colfondo ("natural"). The candle-lit restaurant at the rear could be from a Dickensian scene: happy faces and clinking glasses enjoying the “fresh every day” food pumped out from a tiny kitchen. With restricted cooking facilities, the covers are currently 65 capacity. However, Saturday nights are the best time for short notice bookings. In central London business districts, weekends are often the quieter time of the week.
Vagabond, Spitalfields, London E1
By the glass: taste every wine before you buy
Vagabond started life as a wine shop in busy, urban-suburban Fulham, south west London. Not the first to utilize by-the-glass wine dispensing systems, Vagabond pushed the concept further by encouraging customers to taste all wines available before they bought. The third branch in the chain has fully morphed into a proper wine bar, located on Brushfield Street, a busy route from Liverpool Street Station to hip Brick Lane. The premises back onto the covered Spitalfields Market at the rear, with outdoor seats. A cool basement lounge with more dispensing machines completes the relaxed vibe. The food menu is simple with platters and small plates, maxing the food offer within the non-extractor location (as in many market and urban locations). Creative use of “fresh food and daily deliveries” allow a food offer that doesn’t appear stifled by the kitchen constraints. Vagabond is run by Stephen Finch and his team, and he is looking to expand to seven branches. It would seem they have hit the perfect formula in this location. You can buy a bottle of wine to take away or drink in-situ for a fair corkage fee, have a tasty platter, enjoy 100 high-quality, affordable wines by the glass watching the market bustle, or settle down on a sofa downstairs in an “at home” atmosphere.
Vindinista, Acton, London W3
Blogger's second career running wine shop and bar
Remember “Cheers”? The suburban bar is an important institution — a meeting place, a local business run by nice people who live here, too, unlike faceless chains. Owner Paola Tich is an ex-journo and was one of London’s first high-profile wine bloggers. Her first successful venture into the London wine business was a wine shop, Park and Bridge, in media inhabited suburb Acton, west London and now, the second premises, a wine bar opposite, Vindinista.
Paola is fully engaged in social media, an important driver of interest in any brick-and-mortar venture into the busy London restaurant and bar scene. Vindinista focuses on wine events and tastings with producers. Paola believes that “you create your own destination.” Park and Bridge wine shop opposite is a gold mine for wine lovers whilst also being accessible to wine newbies. Well-priced classics, interesting quirky regions, and the friendly vibe are a template for anyone longing to leave that corporate job and set up a lifestyle business they are passionate about. Acton is in west London, near tourist shopping destination Westfield Shopping Centre in Shepherd’s Bush.
The wine bar scene in London is riding a wave moving into 2016. A combination of a currently buoyant restaurant economy, strong tourism figures, engaged landlords who can operate outside banking covenant requirements, a growing interest in wine from young people, and not least, social media interaction by successful operators, all facilitate business success.