Where to drink in the City: The changing face of Square Mile nightlife

The Forge on Cornhill is setting the City alight with its unmatched combination of great food and good vibes

The City of London: engine-room for the country’s economy, working place of some of the most powerful decision-makers in the Western world. But the Square Mile is strangely anachronistic in terms of its watering holes. If you fancy a drink after work, the choice has tended to be between good old spit and sawdust boozers like the Hatchet and the Bell, and vodka-soaked bar/clubs that look and smell like they belong in 1992. That is until recently – now a new wave of thoroughly modern bars are changing the face of City drinking.

Abacus and Apt, those twin temples to bad taste, both shut their doors for the last time over the summer, replaced by Forge and Core, bars where cocktails rather than Jaegerbombs are the drink du jour and New York-style exposed brickwork takes precedence over mirrors and disco-balls. They join the likes of Kelly Brook’s Steam & Rye and relative stalwarts The Folly and The Anthropologist as modern, bright bars, where you can order artisanal baguettes and freshly ground coffee as well as pints of London Pride and peanuts.

So what has changed to inspire these chic new openings in the traditional heartland of the financial district?

“I think all bars and restaurants in the Square Mile have upped their game with regards to quality,” says Ross Parkes, nightlife marketing manager of Novus Leisure, parent company of Forge and Core. “Professional individuals are more interested in how they spend their money, and just any place around the corner from the office won’t cut it – they want the best place.”

At long last, that is what they’re getting. “London is a discerning audience in the midst of a bar and restaurant boom. The most important things are knowing your audience well, and obviously in the City you have a Monday to Friday audience, which does make them slightly different from what people are looking for in the West End where the emphasis is often on Saturday night. What someone wants on the weekend is different from the week. I don’t think one is harder than the other but perhaps one is a somewhat subtler experience.”

Forge, Cornhill

The folks at Forge have come up with a good phrase for the new style of City bar-restaurant – “industrial opulence”. Exposed brickwork, low lighting and brass fittings combine to create a New York ambience. There’s great attention to detail as well, with tiled flooring and antique furniture – a major improvement on Abacus, where the most remarkable thing about the floor was how sticky it was. Clubbing at Forge is an altogether more civilised experience. Once you’ve finished eating in the lively restaurant, head downstairs to grab a drink and a table where you can party late into the night.

The Folly
The Folly on Gracechurch Street is the latest bar to bring Shoreditch-style quirks to the City

The Folly, Gracechurch Street

The Folly is the latest bar-restaurant to take some of the dining quirks tried and tested in Shoreditch and Hackney and the roll them out in the City. Expect food served on chopping boards, in tiny saucepans and in blue-rimmed white bowls. As for drinks, these crazy cats serve cocktails in – wait for it – old jars of Lyle’s golden syrup. Having opened a couple of years ago the Folly is now a part of the furniture in the City, offering a more sophisticated alternative to Vodka Revs on a Thursday and Friday night.

Silk and Grain
Silk and Grain offers a selection of “aged cocktails”

Silk and Grain, Cornhill

There are plenty of cocktail bar/restaurants in the City but Silk and Grain like to do things differently. They’ve got all the classics (and some must-try originals), but star of the show is their selection of “aged cocktails”, which are mixed and then left in a variety of containers, such as oak barrels, metal, leather and glass. This is exactly the kind of hipster-ish, high-concept drinking establishment you would never have got in the City five years ago. The best leather-aged mojito in London.

Steam and Rye, Leadenhall Street

Steam and Rye received a lot of attention when it opened because of its connection to a certain Kelly Brook, who part owns this restaurant-bar. If that doesn’t convince you it’s a part of a new breed of classy City watering hole, take a peek inside. The leather banquettes and quirky Americana-inspired ornaments provide a welcome injection of character amid the shiny glass buildings and suited denizens of the Square Mile. The Main Hall is modelled on Grand Central Station and features a sculpted bar, stage and even dining carriages.

Core, Queen Street

Core opened a couple of months ago in where the widely-reviled Apt used to be. It’s the younger, more relaxed – and more hedonistic – brother to Forge, offering a range of sharing cocktails, beer buckets and platters perfect for big groups. If you’re looking for somewhere to have an ill-advised Wednesday night bender, Core will always be there, loud, friendly and teeming with hundreds of other people should know better. Head down early for a burger and stay for a craft beer or confectionary-inspired cocktail served in a jam jar.

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