It’s one of only a handful of original American Bars left in London that retains that name, designed to cater for the first mass influx of travellers from the US in the 1930s. But The American Bar at The Stafford London Hotel is consistently re-inventing itself, and a recent re-imagining of the entire bar area has come complete with an all-new cocktail menu. The Luxury Channel headed into the heart of secret St James’s to check it out….
Inspired by the history of The Stafford’s illustrious surroundings, the majority of the cocktails shaken and served in The American Bar find the roots of their names in the stories and the streets around the hotel. But for every bit of history that could be used for the menu, there are equally as many dark secrets that had to be understandably overlooked. Pickering Place, for instance – the smallest public square in England – was not only previously used for bear baiting in its day, but was also the site of the infamous last dual in England. Although by that time, it had become a place where respectable ladies refused, if not feared, to tread – quite a marked difference from the quaint little square of today!
Who better to take us on a tour through the secret passages and secluded streets of St James’s to unearth every corner of its history than The Stafford’s Executive Head Concierge, Frank Laino? A member of the prestigious Les Clefs d’Or and voted by Virtuoso as the World’s Best Concierge, Laino is endearingly approachable and refreshingly funny. His re-telling of some of London’s darkest secrets was as impassioned as it was erudite, and we were instantly beguiled by his stories.
We started our tour a mere stone’s throw away from the hotel, at the majestic Spencer House, one of only two private stately residences left in London (the other being Apsley House, former home of the Duke of Wellington at Hyde Park). Owned by the Spencer Family, to whom Princess Diana was related, Spencer House now caters for private functions, and the beauty of the building and its interiors are a true sight to behold if you are ever lucky enough to come here.
A work of art in itself, the house is adorned with fantastic objects – Bacchus, the God of Wine, decorates the doors; a torch that was used in the Olympic relay in 2012 glints in the afternoon sunlight; and a lantern is suspended from the ceiling that, it transpires, once adorned the barge of the Doge of Venice (although, given the incredible size of the lantern, one wonders as to the enormity and subsequent splendour of the barge). The Painted Room is also well worth a look, if not for its original furniture pieces, then for one of the murals on the wall of two rather dour-looking women each flanked by a cherub. The rumour is that these were the two great aunts of the first Lord Spencer, who objected to his marriage to Georgiana Poyntz. He in turn objected to their indignation, and not only went ahead with the marriage but he then instructed James Athenian Stuart – the Painted Room’s designer – to incorporate them unflatteringly into the room’s design. Or so the rumour regarding their identity goes….
Just around the corner from Spencer House in the hustle and bustle of St James’s Road is Lock & Co, the world’s oldest hat shop. The conformateur – a device used for measuring both the size and the shape of your head – was in continual use during our visit, calling in as we did just ahead of Royal Ascot. The head measurements of various famous figures are framed on the walls of the shop, including David Gandy, Gary Oldman and Charlie Chaplain. Oh, and also a letter from Oscar Wilde’s agent enclosing a cheque for the £3.30 Wilde owed but hadn’t paid, because when the bill was sent, the playwright had in fact been serving time at Her Majesty’s pleasure in Reading Prison (the cheque itself was never cashed, and this too can be seen on the wall).
Returning to The American Bar, we could have sat outside in The Stafford’s beautiful cobbled courtyard, a hidden sun trap in central London that is just begging to be enjoyed with a long drink, a fine cigar and the company of good friends. However, we opted to stay inside and see the renovation of The American Bar itself. Helmed by bar manager Benoit Provost – actually only the third head barman in the hotel’s whole history, and who himself has been at the hotel since 1993 – we settled into the plush seating to enjoy delicious canapés prepared by the hotel’s Culinary Director, Ben Tish. Oh my, do you have to try the pea croquettes! A moreish burst of vibrant green, these little breaded bundles of yum were the perfect bar snack to devour whilst waiting for our drinks order to arrive.
Since we were discovering the secret side of St James’s, it was only appropriate that we discovered a few secrets at The Stafford too. Deep beneath the bowels of the hotel lies the 400 year old wine cellar, overseen by Master Sommelier Gino Nardella, which houses some 10,000 bottles of wine. The cellars also house a very special WWII Museum, containing authentic pieces seemingly left in situ (including ceremonial flags, browning newspaper clippings and eerie-looking gas masks) from the days when American and Canadian soldiers used the cellars during the war. If you want to see this impressive secret space for yourself, you need only ask a member of staff if they can arrange it.
It was then back upstairs to The American Bar for some theatre. That is really the only word I can use to describe the arrival of our drinks. Anyone who orders an Oppenheimer is in for a treat and then some, as this brilliant blue liquid, served in a diamond-shaped glass, is then placed on a rotating black tray to catch the light and sparkle in all its alcoholic glory. Whisky lovers can’t go too far wrong with the coffee-tinged smoothness of Three Dots And A Dash, and the strength of the rum in The Birdcage gave this refreshing cocktail a lovely kick at the end. Those who don’t fancy a hard drink are rewarded with a choice of The Scoop and The Republic mocktails. My personal favourite of all the cocktails, however, is the gin-based White Mouse.
It was named in honour of The American Bar’s most famous patron, Nancy Wake, who actually lived in the hotel for two years towards the end of her life. When she died, the hotel absorbed the majority of the cost of her stay; the reason being that Wake was one of the allies’ greatest assets and most decorated servicewoman of the Second World War. A resourceful resistance fighter, she was nicknamed The White Mouse due to the fact that she was frequently cornered, albeit never captured by the Nazis, and at one point was the Gestapo’s most wanted person with a 5 million franc price on her head. Bar manager Provost remembers her fondly, as do most of the staff who knew this larger than life character, who would take up her usual spot at the bar night after night to hold court. Today, a Karen Newman-sculpted bust honours her position, not just at the bar, but also in history.
We left as The American Bar began to fill up for the evening, as hotel residents joined those seeking a sanctuary to enjoy after-work drinks. The perfect place in which to escape, The American Bar should become your new local in London (yes, even if you don’t live here). Pick “your” perfect spot to sit in the bar, and then work your way through the cocktail menu. There’s a little piece of London’s history waiting to be discussed in every glass.
For further information about The Stafford London Hotel, click here.
For further information about The American Bar, click here.
For further information about Spencer House, click here.