Nightjar, London

129 City Road, Shoreditch

Ask any bartenders who are remotely familiar with the London cocktail scene, and they will know about Nightjar. My friends at Le Calbar were the first to tell me about it, and even the guys at Rey de Copas in Buenos Aires had heard of it!

I’ve lived in London for nearly a year and a half, and despite the fact that Nightjar is less than a 10-minute walk from my flat, I’d never been there until yesterday. The reason is simple and also the thing that will prevent me from ever becoming a regular there: you have to have a reservation to get in, and you probably have to make that reservation several days in advance. I have tried multiple times in the past to go, but I have either been turned away at the door (apparently sometimes walk-ins do get in, but I don’t know how) or not been able to get a reservation for when I wanted one. In keeping with the grand tradition of modern craft cocktail bars, Nightjar applies the speakeasy approach, except the password to get in is your reservation name.

All of this frustration aside (after all, in a country where people love to drink, it seems silly and wrong to make it this difficult to go to a bar), Nightjar lives up to the hype. The menu is overwhelming: long and mind-blowingly creative. They have so many drinks that they actually produced a deck of cards with a drink on almost every card (and famous alcohol-related personalities taking up the rest). I arrived about 15 minutes after Ali and Jonathan, and their drinks made me even more intimidated. Ali was literally drinking out of a shell, exactly as I would expect to see Ariel do in a more adult version of “the Little Mermaid”:

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Beyond the Sea

Among the ingredients listed for this drink are “oyster leaf infusion” and “seaweed air”. (Without diminishing the points for creativity, what the hell is seaweed air?!)

Jonathan meanwhile was drinking something served in a teacup that appeared to be the consistency of soup. Between those two, I knew I was going to have trouble with the menu. Ultimately, I adopted a strategy of narrowing things down by using the icon next to each item indicating in what type of container it would be served. (It should be noted that the Beyond the Sea, judging from the menu, should have arrived in a wine glass!) I opted first for something in a coupe glass called an Airmail:

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The Airmail: rum, champagne, lime juice, bee pollen syrup, and sprinklings of Moroccan mint and sugar

Rum and champagne make for an interesting combination. It was a good drink but not one I would order again. I really enjoyed the scent of the Moroccan mint but wish it had had more of a taste, and the sugar coating the outside of the glass was actually kind of annoying because it just collected into a sticky mess on my hands.

My second drink was better. The Little Entente contains vodka, Saint Germain (always a good thing), white beer, lemon, and “Kaffir lime leaves” (I believe it was actually a grilled piece of lime) and comes garnished with a Korean pear, which is a cute miniature version of the standard pears we eat.

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The Little Entente with its cute Korean pear and cool wooden straw

The real star of the evening, though, was Ali’s last drink. She asked for a recommendation for something spicy, and our waiter recommended something that he described as “crazy”. When we asked why, he said, “well – it has worms on the top.”

Needless to say, this had to be seen to be believed. The drink was called the Inca Cocktail and boasted this list of ingredients: Jose Cuervo 1800 Silver, tomatillo, hazelnut oil, lime, chilli wine, epazote (apparently a Mexican tea), Buffalo Worms, fino sherry, and agave. Now, Nightjar’s drinks have such random stuff in them that the menu actually includes a glossary, which is where we looked for an explanation about the Buffalo Worms. They are apparently dried larvae and have a nutty flavor, which we found to be very true. Here’s the drink:

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The Inca Cocktail

The worms were clustered around the tomatillo there on the top. We quite enjoyed the novelty of them, and the drink was great too. It’s a shame that we usually just consume tequila as shots or in margaritas because it can produce some really interesting cocktails.

Nightjar definitely gets top marks for creativity and craftsmanship, but I can’t rank it as among my favorite bars because it’s just too regimented! Between the required reservations and the fact that the menu literally says you cannot take a picture of the bartenders making the drinks (not that you can even get close enough to watch given that there aren’t seats at the bar), it just doesn’t feel like a bar in the traditional sense! I’d be very curious to see if the bartenders are experts who can improve away from the menu, but I don’t think I’ll ever have the opportunity to assess that. In terms of value, Nightjar is probably the most expensive bar I’ve been to in London, but not by much. Given the wide array of beautifully presented drinks available, I’d say it’s fairly priced.

Ultimate verdict: will go back – if I can ever get another reservation…

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Frank’s, Buenos Aires

Frank’s is a speakeasy in the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires and is the bar about which I’d heard the most prior to our arrival and during our stay. After so much hype (including mention in The New York Times), I had very high expectations.

Though there’s a sign on the wall for it, it’s quite difficult to get into. When we first arrived, we could see no door to open to let us in – and we were so confused that we decided we should keep looking and took a full walk around the block. Fortunately, when we came back, we saw the door open and immediately pounced upon the couple exiting to ask if this was Frank’s. Step one complete. Step two is harder; Frank’s takes the speakeasy theme very seriously. A bouncer met us at the door and asked us for the password – they post a different one on their Facebook page each day. That day, the “password” was a quote: “you return in every cocktail that I drink” (in Spanish, of course). We fumbled to remember the right words, but eventually the bouncer let us into a dimly lit entryway with a phone booth on the opposite wall. Step three is to enter the phonebooth and figure out which button to press to open the secret false wall that lets you into the actual bar. It’s quite a process!

I give Frank’s full marks for creativity and atmosphere based on all of that. Unfortunately, that’s the end of my praise. This is a bar that, aside from the whole password/phonebooth thing, is actually supposed to have really good cocktails. Bolstered by my success at sweettalking the guys at Rey de Copas, I approached the bar (following a greeting by a very attractive bartender on the other side) and said that I needed recommendations about what to order. Now, to contextualize this interaction: there is a board behind the bar that lists about five drinks, but (here’s a sign that I’m no longer in my 20’s) I didn’t have my contacts in and couldn’t read the very small text particularly well, so there was a practical reason for asking for a recommendation aside from the fact that it’s just more fun and a good way to make friends with bartenders.

This guy was having none of it. One would think I’d asked the most trite question possible. He asked what I liked; I hedged a bit and said I like things that are sweet or bitter, with a particular preference for vodka or whiskey-based drinks. He seemed put out by this and said nothing further; he proceeded to make me a cocktail with a darkly colored Martini liquor in it and… wait for it… beer. BEER! There was something fruity too so that the final effect was something pinkish. This bartender was a total snob, not friendly at all, and didn’t even bother to make me something with either of my two preferred base liquors! Mary more wisely ordered from the menu and ended up with a very pretty drink. But here’s the clincher: our two drinks together were 400 Argentine pesos – which is 30 American dollars. To put this in perspective, most of our meals up to this point (other than the feast preceding this drink) ran about 350 pesos for the two of us. I’m talking about meals with steak and wine costing less than these two drinks. Mary’s drink was delicious but gone in a second because it was small, and mine wasn’t worth finishing. We didn’t stay for another round and left feeling affronted on a number of levels.

Don’t go to Frank’s!!!