Originally posted 28th November 2012
…so we were already half cut, the stylish lift of SushiSamba had pitched us back onto a inelegant Bishopsgate and we found ourselves walking north, turning right onto Artillery Lane, in search of the Breakfast Club (Spitalfields branch), though not to eat.
As a stand-alone venture, the Breakfast Club deserves an honourable mention. It’s a relative newcomer to London – the first one, in Soho, opened in 2005 – but it is already venerated as an institution, for hipsters of the East End or simply those in search of a comforting morning-after-the-night-before. It is the former reason that I am yet to eat in a Breakfast Club, despite a very respectable Zagat rating of 22-20-18. Alas, it feels that I am yet to find a perfect London breakfast club of my very own, despite five years of seeking one out.
To be honest, these days, going into the Spitalfields Breakfast Club and asking to see “The Mayor” is one of the worst-kept secrets in London. I was certainly not the first to find out about it, and since I did, have told probably every one of my colleagues, some people I interviewed (interviewer tip #1: Keep ‘em relaxed) and a few random girls in nightclubs. The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town is one of an exponentially increasing group of self-styled ‘secret bars’ around town, a group whose members now include The Experimental Cocktail Club, the Jubjub Bar at Callooh Callay or Barts. More to follow as well; next up will be the Luggage Room, opening on 13 December; I’ve probably said too much already about this last one.
Of course, the USP that defines a secret bar is paradoxical as if they were truly secret, then they would go down the tubes quicker than a Chelsea manager’s career. For me, the acid test of a secret bar is this; does it offer an experience – not exclusivity – and does that experience set it apart from everything else?
When it comes to these magic moments, there are few as wonderful as entering the Mayor (excuse the double entendre). We ventured in to the Breakfast Club;
“I’m here to see the Mayor”
“OK, I’ll just see if there’s space”
If the Mayor is spoken for (there is not much room; and word-of-mouth travels fast) then there is always the option of having a few drinks upstairs in the Breakfast Club while-u-wait. From Sunday to Wednesday you’re usually alright to go straight on in.
Straight into the Smeg fridge…
Our host directs us to the fridge, up against one of the walls of the restaurant, telling us to open it. I know the drill already and it appears that most of the diners do as well; hardly anyone bats an eyelid as we venture in, making me feel that I was a year or so too late in finding this place. Someday I want to walk into the Smeg and for a baffled diner to scream “Heretic!” and throw a fork at me. Damn, that would be sweet.
The fridge leads down into the bar itself. It’s full; we have the last table, at the back of the room. We squeeze past clandestine groups of people – around forty drinkers in total – and park on a bench against a wall. It’s a little cumbersome; the chairs are way too low for the table, giving us the image of three little boys waiting for their porridge. It really is a hodgepodge of seating; some people are sinking into armchairs in alcoves (great place for a date night), some sat at the bar, others around the outside like us and the rest on standard tables and chairs in the middle. It gives the room a ‘stadium effect’ but the lighting is so muted all external distractions fade to nothing. The disparity of seating is contagious; as it appears to affect the walls too; exposed brick is splattered with bric-a-brac, like opening a bag of Rowntree’s Randoms. Influence is taken from anywhere but somehow feels very grounded with a punky, twenties twist, almost akin to a Speakeasy on acid (there is a reindeer head on the wall, named ‘Randolf’). The toilets are mental as well; it’s a communal bathroom which made for quite a few awkward moments (as I had ‘broken the seal’, so to speak) and one of the cubicle doors has been disguised with music magazine covers from the Seventies and Eighties; with plenty more of the same inside; it’s like going to the loo with Bros looking into your eyes… take that as you will.
I took it to mean that if the management are so visionary as to plaster the crapper with pictures of Eighties throwbacks, then the drinks menu must be good. We took a look.
Service is relaxed, much like the vibe above us in the Breakfast Club and in keeping with the atmosphere down here. We were busy strategising a points-based game of childlike antics to play on an upcoming trip to Budapest (i.e. to speak in Hungarian… five points, or to spend the day crawling around on your hands and knees…100 points) and clearly making the rules was taking some time, but not once did we feel rushed. Quite the opposite in fact; sometimes it was a tad too delayed.
There certainly is a lot to take in on the menu. The Mayor does collaborate with the Breakfast Club to a certain extent, offering a limited yet intriguing food offering – called, in the Rules*, the ‘Mayor’s Choice’ – that somehow caters to all tastes and degrees of repleteness (the suggestion of a cheeseboard was almost too good to pass up, and had me forgetting about the Devastator earlier that day), but our stomachs had indeed been lined; and we were here to drink.
The cocktail list is like lovely Lois from Take Me Out; short, quirky and distinguished. Classics are served ‘as is’ such as the Manhattan and Negroni, others are given a little shakeup such as the Rosco Pisco Train; a sweet twist on a classic Pisco Sour. Other drinks are completely unique originals such as the Chilli and Lemongrass Margarita or the Basil-no-Faulty (Stoli, St. Germain, lime and basil). I have never found fault with the cocktails at the Mayor, to the point that it makes me wonder how astronomically expensive ‘top’ bars in London such as Amaranto, The Connaught or Mahiki can justify what they charge when you can get equally great cocktails for no more than £9 each here. I will concede that service clearly plays a part in the pricing, but how much does that really matter when you are three sheets to the wind?
I started off on the winner of ‘Rumfest 2012’, King Yellowman’s Answer. I found to be so agreeable I stayed on it all evening – a first for me, as when it comes to cocktails I do like to shop around. My friend chose beer (there is an odd-but-functional wine and beer selection on offer, all sensibly priced; beers at around four quid, bottles of wine starting at fifteen), with one keeping to Cusqueña. This Peruvan bottled beer is silky smooth and a personal favourite of mine, seldom seen in bars over here. My other compadre opted for a litre – yes, a litre – of Cruzcampo, a Sevillan beer which I had not really heard of before but bloody hell, it tasted great, not too dissimilar to an IPA. It was ludicrously served in a dimpled beer glass.
King Yellowman’s Answer (named for a famous Jamaican reggae and dancehall DJ) is not only award winning, but sums up the Mayor perfectly; f**king mental, and fantastic fun.
The Answer is a Blackwell Rum-based cocktail with chunks of roasted pineapple, cinnamon, honey, espresso and pear… I’ll leave that little lot to sink in.
Our waiter brings everything over. Accompanying the cocktail is a shot glass full of clear liquid and a hulled chilli pepper perched on top, which I immediately recognise as a Scotch Bonnet. Our waiter utters the immortal words to me;
“There a method to drinking this”
“This is a Scotch Bonnet. It’s very hot chilli. It’s full of Wray and Nephew rum, and I am going to light it. The longer you let it burn the stronger it gets”
I’m just nodding. The drink smells godly.
“You can try the cocktail before you pour the rum in, or…”
“Yeah, I think I’ll try it first”
The waiter ignites the Scotch Bonnet with a lighter and departs. As it burns, I try the cocktail and immediately recognise that this is the greatest mixed drink I have ever had. The sweetness and hugs of the cinnamon and fruit is kept in check with a tropical tartness of coffee and rum. I blow out the chilli and empty its contents into the cocktail, and try it again. The overproof rum makes King Yellowman’s Answer a whole lot snappier, and the intensity is accompanied with a fierce but manageable chilli heat. It’s not over yet…
“Are you going to eat the chilli Mike?”
Being easily lead and very suggestible, as well as being well-aware of how ‘aggressive’ Scotch Bonnets are, I stuff it into my mouth and munch away. The waiter comes over for a check back, only to find me with my head in my hands, in considerable pain.
“We normally advise people not to eat the chilli”
Now he tells me. Maybe he forgot.
“I’m fine. I mean, I will be fine, in a minute”
“You wouldn’t like some milk?”
“Yes, actually, that would be great”
As he rushed off to fetch a pint of milk (which was probably the only drink there and then that could trump the cocktail) I suffered through about half an hour of slowly-abating chilli pain, by which time it was time to order another round. As I mentioned, I spent the whole evening on these wonderful cocktails (but left the Scotch Bonnet alone after the first one). Sadly, I didn’t take any photos either as my battery had died on top of the Heron, but hey.
Four rounds and a relatively reasonable £70 later, it was home time. As much as I would be willing to stay at the Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town all evening, all day, all week, it would be Monday in less than an hour and I needed sleep. As per the rules, we exited up stairs and through a toilet (NOT back through the fridge), and into the now deserted restaurant, and out into the even more deserted Artillery Lane. The Mayor kicks up the old USP yet again; a whimsical experience, and a whimsical exit. Consistently rambunctious; and fantastic.
So, after a mad few weeks, we had all earned this chilled day out; comfort food at Red Dog, posh drinks up above and a combination of the two down below at The Mayor.
Karma is sometimes defined as the action of ‘cause and effect’, that what you do is related to what will happen. I could define our easy Sunday as the Karma of ‘work hard, play hard’, but as I headed down to the Central Line at Livepool Street, my stomach was on fire; executing cause and effect too. And the ‘cause’ was a Scotch Bonnet. To push through the pain, I thought back to a quote I saw on the wall of the Breakfast Club;
“Let the morning time drop all its petals on me, life I love you, all is groovy”
* The menu dictates seven Rules, which apply to all. As tempting as it may be to spoil the surprise, suffice to say that #1 is pretty awesome and suggests that ladies stick their skirt up into their knickers, and #7 states that you get a free drink if you can prove that your name is Garfield…