Originally posted 28th February 2012
One warm February night in London…
I worked damn hard to get a table at LAB. Well, I say that- it took a few minutes to navigate the website at work, looking over my shoulder to see if the boss was coming back in; surely she wouldn’t be impressed that I was on the interweb arranging a Saturday evening in Central London?
Well, after slaving over that mouse and counting down the days to Saturday night, I approached LAB with a child-like sense of excitement and gusto. Well, I would have done but I appear to be getting my annual winter-to-spring cold and my throat was killing me. Still, a couple of cocktails would sort that out surely? It is a known fact that gin is medicinal.
LAB was packed and our reserved table was taken by three skanky man-eaters who wouldn’t look out of place on Paddy’s Take Me Out. Still, they were moved on by the friendly hostess but still decided to hang around like a bad smell, drinking white wine and generally being a fucking nuisance.
So the first impressions of LAB- arguably one of London’s ‘must-go’ drink destinations- was not great. It was packed – not always a bad thing – but I do get very nervous when waitresses are rushing around with trays of unstable-looking martini glasses and burning highballs of purple mysteriousness. It was also full of the typical London late-night crowd; those who are idiots, or arrogant, or simply arrogant idiots.
Well-dressed arrogant idiots.
However LAB also shelters a few other types of people; die-hard cocktail fans and bartenders. Bloody amazing bartenders.
For a relatively well-known watering hole, LAB is strangely inauspicious. It is quite small (hence packed) and has two levels. It is laid out like any trendy city bar you have seen before; funky wallpaper, funkier house beats (though not unbearably loud) and full of style for the sake of style. The actual service bar is different though; it’s wonderfully large; an Aladdin’s Cave of every type of booze anyone can ever think of. I could have cried with happiness (though it could have been the alcohol fumes).
Crucially, there is plenty of seating and the bar also enthusiastically offers table service; it makes the whole kurfuffle of ordering and sipping cocktails out of fantastic-yet-ungainly glasses so much easier.
“London Academy of Bartenders”
A clever name; this is was LAB stands for. It also stands for bonkers cocktails, so the word ‘laboratory’ is certainly not out of place. LAB is located on Old Compton Street in Soho, which means that simply walking from Tottenham Court Road station to the bar can be as entertaining as sampling the kooky cocktails within. This colourful watering hole was founded in 1996, quite simply as a training academy for bartenders; many of LAB’s alumni are considered to be the best on earth, and the biblical cocktail menu is replicated all over the world.
“To those who are about to drink, we salute you”
– LAB website
Table eventually secured, we set about the serious task of serious drinking. We were celebrating a few things so kicked off with bubbly- Veuve- which, at £fifty-five, was surprisingly reasonable considering we were at a trendy bar in even trendier Soho. It was served quickly and suitably chilled, but my one-track-mind was focussed on the 20-page long cocktail menu; aka the “Drinker’s Digest”, laid out in front of me.
Interested in money? When it comes to quality, neither am I- but LAB cocktails are priced around £8, with mocktails a bit cheaper. Great value for London. Especially when one considers that to get served you don’t even need to get off your arse.
The “Digest” is huge, yet well laid out (i.e. a Collins section, bubbles, shorts, shots and classics- pay heed to this last category, all the best drinks are here). To do the menu justice here is impossible. A few of the drinks we tried included a ‘Porn Star Martini’ (a passion fruit-laced martini sidelined with shot of champagne) and a ‘Tiramisu’ (guess what that one was like). My weapon of choice- the ‘Nuclear Daiquiri’ was a destructive mix of overproof rum, Green Chartreuse and lime juice that turned my mild sore throat into full-blown nuclear laryngitis.
“How’s your drink Mike?”
The general consensus was that all drinks hit the right notes in their own idiosyncratic ways. The only regret was that Pacha beckoned, and after one round we had to get out and head to Victoria. Not before I sneaked a few minutes at the bar, watching the barmen in action; such as free-pouring burning rum, a three-man synched flair show and something (I missed the beginning) which resulted in the ceiling catching fire. I was practically dragged out of the place. LAB is a typical London bar that is just not typical. It’s crowded, loud and looks like the inside of Hugh Hefner’s smoking jacket. So how is this place so good?
Oh yeah, I forgot. The cocktails. Definitely that. Looks like a bar, sounds like a bar, smells like a bar, tastes like Tiramisu.
Our friendly Pinot Grigio cougars who lusted after our table did eventually get the hint and pissed off somewhere else. But come on; they were in the wrong bar anyway. Anyone who comes to LAB and orders anything but cocktails has got to be mad. Mad enough to go on Take Me Out anyway.
Update: the Lab Bar is now closed. ‘The Swift Bar’ is now at the same address | 12 Old Compton St., Soho, London, W1D 4TQ