Members’ bars come, members’ bars go. London’s ever changing nightlife scene is certainly a fickle one. Few venues have shown the consistency and longevity of this Soho institution. Still voted as one of the best cocktail bars in the world, its easygoing attitude towards members and non-members alike is to its credit. Just remember, there’s no name-dropping or star fucking allowed.
Milk & Honey is hard to find, but therein lies a big part of its appeal, which has since been copied by newer venues like Barts. Located just off Oxford Street, along Poland Street, you’ll have to keep your wits about you to spy the small, indeterminate doorway totally devoid of any kind of indicator as to what lies within. This is true Prohibition style. Once you finally locate the entrance, a button merely stating ‘reception’ is the only clue you’ll find as to how to enter. Press the button, wait for the door to click and finally step inside.
You’ll immediately be met by a reception desk where you’ll need to state your name (you have to reserve a table ahead if you’re a non-member) and hand in your coat. Going through a second doorway you’ll finally see what all the fuss is about. Like going back in time, the 1920s style music and jazz that plays in the background adds to the feeling that you’re in a genuine speakeasy. Similar to Freud in its demeanor, its cavelike appeal is made apparent by warm walls in a burnt orange hue, offset by metal embossed tiling across the lower half of the walls and the ceiling. The ground floor bar is small, consisting almost entirely of comfortable leather booths that offer secreted away pockets of privacy. The tables are low and simple dark wood, matching the dark wooden floors. A small bar sits in the back corner, simple and understated, the large array of spirits doing all the talking.
Although it’s all a little rough around the edges without the high gloss finish of so many other members’ bars, its style is perfectly Soho and very charming. The lights are so dim you’ll have to use candlelight to read the menu, but it helps to add to the secretive feeling the bar emits. Downstairs is a second area, almost identical to the ground floor, which can be hired for private parties (minimum spend of £1000, which is less than some tables at clubs and bars across London).
Upstairs on the first floor is a space that’s strictly members’ only. In stark contrast to the Aladdin’s cave downstairs, this is more akin to a funky living room, with a floor almost entirely covered by low sofas you can imagine sinking into for hours. The bar is hidden in a cupboard where the staff mix up drinks and make them appear as if by magic. Low tables, granny lamps and a red colourscheme are warming and you could imagine it being the living room of a cool aunt – were she a fashion icon in the Sixties.
Another floor up is the final room, which is exclusively used for private hire (for both members and non-members). An incredible space, it’s a simple room with a cabinet displaying painfully old and expensive whiskys, a space for ice buckets and bottles of drink (there’s no bar up here) and a long sofa area spanning the periphery of the space with a large TV screen at the far end. A table displays a place for an iPod, a laptop and speakers. For an incredible low price of £300 minimum spend, you can have the room, bring your own iPod or laptop and create the party you want. There’s even karaoke – although this is no cheesy karaoke bar.
The atmosphere at Milk & Honey is authentic and genuine. The decor and soundtrack are just part of the experience, whisking you away from the hustle, bustle and commercialism just outside the front door. The secretive world you enter is aided by the low lighting and it would be an ideal spot for a first date. A set of rules prohibit men from chatting up women here, although girls are welcome to ask the barmen to do an introduction. This will be a welcome relief for those who believe that every Central London bar is little more than a meat market. There’s a three strikes and you’re out rule if you book and don’t show up, but despite a page of rules, they’re actually very laid back, non-pretentious and friendly here. If you’ve booked a space, you can call and cancel late notice, they just like to know in advance.
They’re also very good at providing both members and non-members with the same level of service and courtesy. Whereas many members bars will kick non-members off a table if a member demands it, here you’re allowed to remain seated for up to two hours before 11pm, regardless of who comes in. Also, if you’re a non-member who hires a space for a party, you won’t find you’ve got a late cancellation if a member kicks up a stink. The first-come, first-served policy is admirable. Members have their own cosied away space on the first floor if they want to really get their money’s worth and the staff make an effort to get to know them and what they like.
The staff here are friendly, charming and genuine and even their uniforms tie into the speakeasy Prohibition theme. Red braces and simple shirts and trousers are key. The knowledge that every member of the bar staff shows in terms of cocktails and drinks is impeccable, each and every one of them know their craft inside out, and they’re regularly tested to ensure that they’re the best.
A small selection of bar food is available at Milk & Honey, ranging from £4-£19 for small plates, divided into Fancy Snacks for dishes like oysters and tuna carpaccio and Saloon Food offering plates like olives and sausages.
From the Fancy Snacks selection, the tiger prawn tempura (£9) is an excellent dish of large, plump and juicy tiger prawns covered in a light, delicate batter with a rich undertone. Also excellent are the salt marsh lamb chops (£12), thick chops of perfectly cooked lamb that are juicy, tender and full of a lightly minted flavour.
If you’d rather save your pennies for cocktails, the Saloon Food is equally good and a lot cheaper. The Puglia olives (£4) are plump and almost a toxic green colour with a consistency and salty flavour almost like frankfurters – they have to be seen to be believed. Cheddar fritters (£8) made from aged Montgomery cheese may sound a little dull, but the creamy, melted cheese beneath the crisp breadcrumbs are delicious and it’s one of the best dishes on the menu. Cumberland cocktail sausages (£6) are a charming addition, coming on cocktail sticks you’ll feel as if you’re at a children’s party – were the parties of your childhood catered with incredibly fresh, juicy sausages with a spiced aftertaste rather than Asda specials. Finally, the shoestring fries (£4) are well worth the money, appearing in a papered tin, the crisp thin fries are delicately salted with Maldon sea salt and come with a jalepeno relish that isn’t too hot, instead supplying a pleasant tang to each chip. This is unpretentious bar food with style.
Milk & Honey are famous for their cocktails, and with cocktail genius Dale Degroff behind the menu it’s not hard to see why. Although they offer a great choice of Champagne, wine, bottled beer, whisky and premium spirits, as well as a fine and rare wine list, it’s the cocktail menu that most people come here for.
The list is surprisingly succinct, you won’t find a tome of faddy drinks here. There’s also a refreshing lack of flavoured spirits, the ethos being that the base spirit should be the main flavour, built upon by the ingredients added. There’s also a lack of over the top garnishes and flouncy glasses - the drink does the talking. Prices are also refreshingly cheap, coming in at an average £7.50.
The Morning Glory Fizz (scotch, absinthe, lemon, sugar and egg white) is a surprisingly refreshing choice, an appealing pastel green colour in a simple long glass. The consistency is quite thick, courtesy of the egg white, and the flavour of the scotch is clearly evident. However, the nasty aftertaste that often accompanies absinth is entirely absent, the lemon and sugar cutting through nicely to provide a subtle sweetness. Alternatively, the East 8 Hold Up (vodka, aperol, pineapple, passion fruit, lime) is a far fruitier affair, tasting strongly of the tartness of the pineapple mixed with the sweetness of the passion fruit. If you prefer creamier cocktails then the Lazy Man Flip Port (calvados, cream, sugar, egg yolk) is presented in a long glass with a handle and is a rich, creamy cocktail with a slight marzipan aftertaste. The egg yolk and cream provide a thickness that’s pleasant to drink.
Recent additions to the cocktail menu are equally inventive. The Aviation Number One (calvados, creme de mure, lime, sugar and absinthe) is a deep red drink appearing in a shallow martini style glass. The flavour is strong with the calvados coming through and the lime balancing the strong spirits well. Perfectly mixed, it’s highly recommended. The Boston Cobbler (calvados, Tawny port, sugar syrup) is beautifully presented with a pineapple slice as garnish alongside an orange wedge. The drink is surprisingly sweet with the port providing an interesting balance to the flavour. The Black Thorn (sweet vermouth, sloe gin, sugar syrup, lemon juice, orange bitters, angostura, lemon peel garnish) is a stronger drink with the flavour of the gin and vermouth coming through just enough, whilst the lemon and bitters provide depth and the sugar lifts it with a slight sweetness.
The Last Word
Milk & Honey may be a Soho institution but its lack of pretension and ‘all welcome’ attitude are to its credit. Best of all, its prices aren’t exclusive, especially in times when the credit crunch is affecting everyone’s wallet. A real (hard to) find.