London: Through the Drinking Glass at Callooh Callay

Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series of guest posts from Mr & Mrs Smith.

“You are now
In London, that great sea, whose ebb and flow
At once is deaf and loud, and on the shore
Vomits its wrecks, and still howls on for more.
Yet in its depth what treasures!”
(Percy Bysshe Shelley, letter to Maria Gisborne, 1820)

It’s easy to fall out of love with London life –– the city’s din and dirt can get to even the most nonchalant native –– but with a little urban rummaging, it’s equally easy to fall right back in love again. Just the other week, we found a London treasure worth writing home about; a bar called Callooh Callay.

We quickly discovered several reasons to champion this place. First, it’s named after, and inspired by, Lewis Carroll’s goose bump-inducing nonsensical verse, Jabberwocky (“And as in uffish thought he stood/The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame/Came whiffling through the tulgey wood/And burbled as it came!’) Having indulged in that snippet, we’ll move on to our second reason: the whimsy (or should that be mimsy?”) continues in the decor.

On the ground floor, a grand Narnia-style cupboard leads from one bar to the next. The ladies’ toilet comes with a unique take on wallpaper: rows and rows of old tapes from top to toe. Furnishings are a blend of flea-market-chic and costume-cupboard finds; a gramophone here, a scattering of theatrical antiques there.

Our drinking hole for the evening was the Jubjub bar, an intimate little den on the top floor, all dark wood, flickering candlelight and dishevelled decadence. And so on to our third reason to love Callooh Callay: its rotating bar staff, who each have a weekly stewardship over the Jubjub’s liquor cabinet, stirring and shaking their signature sips.

We were (very well) looked after by the lovely Anne during our outing; highlights from her Bacchanalian menu include the Fizzy Lizzy (a sparkly blend of Hendrick’s gin, blueberries, mint and quinine cordial topped with prosecco), Tea Time (soft and sweet: vodka, strawberries, chamomile tea with fresh lemon and apple juices) and the Whizz Bang (a potent liquid orgy: whiskey, grenadine, vermouth, orange bitters and a drop of absinthe).

Some time later, we found ourselves sitting outside on a teeny patch of AstroTurf lawn, admiring two gentlemen wearing dickie bows. (When we mentioned this little alfresco spot to one of the bartenders, she looked utterly bamboozled, which only adds to the bar’s mystique.) Deciding it was high time we added some solids to the mix, we retreated to our cozy spot and ordered some nostalgic nibbles: home-made Scotch eggs and a miniature beef Wellington, along with the obligatory hand-cut chips. Because we were feeling peckish, we added some cured meats; because we were feeling curious, we added some risotto balls stuffed with mozzarella.

With full bellies and slightly befuddled heads, we declared ourselves utterly smitten with this bar. Luckily, we didn’t have to stagger far to reach our new east London lair, Shoreditch Rooms, to sleep off the excess…