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Hester’s Hideout: Review

It seems that no bar can open today in London without some spurious historical character attached to it. There’s Jack Solomon’s in Soho, named after a 1930s boxer (review coming soon) and now Hester’s Hideout named after a ‘Kitty Hester (stunning flapper) [who] would show up to entertain the traders with an air of decadence, a little swing, a few to [sic] many gins.’ Move over Josephine Baker!

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Apparently, the place which is now occupied by Hester’s Hideout, just off Exmouth Market, used to be an illegal drinking den in the early years of the 20th century. And so they’ve attempted to give the bar an illicit vibe: the entrance is a small door with the words ‘Traders Only’ on Farringdon Road. The clandestine feel is, however, rather spoiled by the prominent A-board advertising events at Hester’s Hideout and the John Lewis-advert music piped onto the street from Paesan, an Italian restaurant, above. When we arrived, they were playing a godawful acoustic version of Every Little Thing She Does is Magic by the Police.

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We went down the stairs into the basement, drew back the curtains and, narrowly avoiding walking into a pillar, wondered what kind of decadent antics we would find at the bottom. Maybe loveable criminals swapping stories about the Richardson Gang, or a fading beauty queen reminiscing about the film she did with Kenneth Williams. Instead it was completely deserted – not surprising as it was 9.30pm on a cold Tuesday night. No matter: a good bar should stand not on how it feels when it’s full, but when it’s quiet. Initial impression of Hester’s weren’t too bad. It’s nice and dark with booths around the outside, perfect for illicit encounters.

The room is decked out in reclaimed wood planks that look like railway sleepers, with an old piano in the corner for that Speakeasy look (anyone else bored of that Speakeasy look yet?). The seating, however, faux leather stools and booths with chained curtains, felt more like a Mayfair Lebanese restaurant. There was a clash with the music too: loud and bassy in the bar (Craig David at one point) and then different music, tinny and insidious, drifting down the stairs from the restaurant above.

This was not only irritating but it destroyed the whole feel, because it’s very obvious that Hester’s is simply a bar beneath a restaurant and not some underworld wonderland. The ‘Traders Only’ door takes you into Paesan upstairs. rather than straight to the Hideout. We appreciate that there is an element of artifice with most bars but artifice can be convincing.  In this case, it isn’t.

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So it’s a restaurant bar pretending to be something else, and that’s ok as long as the drinks are good. Thank heavens then that Thomas, the French barman, knows what he’s doing . First a Manhattan, made with Bulleit Rye and an unusual-looking Italian vermouth which we forgot to ask more about. The result was very smooth, with just the perfect amount of dilution from the ice so that the flavours of the whiskey and the vermouth melded delightfully. The list has five pages of gin, starting with Bombay Sapphire at £6 for a double and going up to Oxley at £15, which seems a bit excessive when Oxley is less than double the price retail.

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We were more taken with the sound of the pre-prepared ‘concoctions’ and ‘potions’, particularly the Latin Bloc made with brandy, PX sherry, Amaro Montenegro, Martini Rosso and bitters, but somebody hadn’t pre-prepared it in advance.  So instead we went for an Old Fashioned.  Traditionally made with bourbon, sugar and Angostura bitters, Thomas added some Maraschino (cherry) liqueur which gave the drink an extra nutty quality. Not too sweet, not too boozy but not watery either – top marks Thomas!

The cocktails were £12, which seems a bit ambitious, though a bargain compared with the wines: a choice of Veneto red or white, the kind of thing you get in a trattoria but for £27 a bottle.  The champagne prices were all over the place: Laurent Perrier Rosé a bargain at £80 (it’s £50 retail) but Moet at £100 (£30 in the shops.)

We stayed about an hour and were the only customers. They have cabaret and jazz nights on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays so hopefully, things will be livelier then. We can’t help feeling that Hester’s Hideout has something of an identity crisis. It feels like an attempt to do something interesting with the basement of an Italian restaurant which doesn’t convince – just try reading the copy on the website. Yet someone has clearly put a lot of work into the cocktails, and they’ve hired a barman who really cares. I wonder what Kitty Hester would have made of it all.

Hester’s Hideout, Basement, 106B Farringdon Road, EC1R 3EA

JOL was invited to review Hester’s Hideout on a complimentary basis. We retain full editorial control. 

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