Not going out: A lament for London wine bars


A quick thought today about wine bars in London.

Out of the blue on Saturday night, a friend’s text message interrupted my slumber: “Okay, Gordon’s Wine Bar is officially crap,” he said.

Uh oh. Surely he has it all wrong, I thought?

Until recently, I would have defended Gordon’s Wine Bar and given harsh words to anyone who described it in such vulgar terms as “crap”. Surely such language should be reserved for that will that comes out of the barrels at a Toby Carvery rather than the cellars of a bar staffed by people who have at least a vague understanding of how proper wine ought to taste.

My instinct was to tell this friend he was wrong. That he needed to lighten up. That he needed to embrace this London institution for its charms, its foibles and, ultimately, its fun side. It’s rough and ready. Dark and romantic. Cozy and comfortable. Surely?

Perched on the edges of the Victoria Embankment between Charing Cross and Embankment stations, the sheer volume of people walking past means it absorbs customers as quickly as their bloodstreams absorb Rioja.

Mention you’re going to Gordon’s and people’s eyes will perk up with fond memories of previous bouts of debauchery in its vaults  and unspoken desires to be going there with you that moment.

But for some time now I’ve felt Gordon’s has a couple of serious problems. It’s always heaving. And the wine isn’t actually all that great.

A busy bar is good for the bartender but murder for the drinker. In Gordon’s case, its location and a lack of other visible options means everyone on a date or having after-work drinks falls in there naively thinking they can cozy up in a corner and sit out the evening.

Instead they contort against a wall or sit shivering over the sangiovese on a brick wall outside.

Just as a glass of warm wine sends my blood boiling, little is less enjoyable than drinking wine that matches London’s frigid spring breeze.

Then there is the wine list. Good on them for offering a list with a wide rang of modestly priced wines. But just look at that list. Go on the website and download the PDF. What is that lurking on its pages but off-licence wine in the name of Concha y Toro Cabernet Sauvignon? £17 for a forgettable bottle that goes for less than £8 in your local offie.

Or how about El Coto White Rioja? Yet another £8-or-less bottle, but selling for £21.

We want a bargain, but it isn’t a bargain if we’re being given run-of-the-mill bargain-basement wines for more than twice their value.

Where else do we go? There is Vinoteca, of course, but beware it gets busy too. But at least their wines command the prices they charge.

If you’re after an Italian wine bar there is Negozio Classica with outlets in Notting Hill and Primose Hill. Rather than rough and ready it’s slick and modern. But the wine is good. The food as well. But really, it is a place you go only when you find yourself either in Notting Hill or Primrose Hill. Or if you live there. But if you’ve spilled out of work or are trying to get to know your date a bit better, they might not be within reach.

Whenever I ask friends to name the best wine bar in London, I am given a flurry of options. You can look on Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages for her listing of wine bars, or you can check out a similar list of UK wine bars compiled by Matt Walls on Tim Atkin’s website.

More recently I’ve been impressed by the simple coffee shop-cum-wine bar known as Notes on St Martin’s Lane. The fact I lost track of what we drank and how much is testament to how much I enjoyed it. If my memory were complete, it would mean I stopped things short and cut my losses.

But the bar everyone seems to rate is Cork & Bottle on Leicester Square. I’ve heard more praise than put-downs. It couldn’t frustrate me more than Gordon’s, could it?