I want to tell you about one of my favorite places in London. It’s a wine bar, said to be the oldest wine bar in the city and, therefore, one of the oldest in the world.
It’s at the end of Villiers Street, which leads from the Strand down to the Embankment tube station. On a recent trip to London, and during one of several stops at Gordon’s Wine Bar, I overheard one Londoner telling a friend as the entered, “This is one of the best-kept secrets in London.” But I would argue a place that is elbow-to-elbow with people trying to get a glass of wine and has so many patrons that they spill out onto a side terrace in numbers greater than those inside is hardly a secret.
Gordon’s Wine Bar has been in its current location since 1890. Although the structure has been built and destroyed a few times over the centuries, the address is occupies on Villiers has been home to diarist Samuel Pepys and Rudyard Kipling, though not at the same time (put those rumors to rest once and for all).
The bar was originally set up by Arthur Gordon and a family of Gordons operates it still today, although only by chance — the current owners are not related to the Arthur Gordon.
The entrance off Villiers Street opens to a stairway leading down below street level — a literal wine cellar. A food station is set up at the foot of the stairs. If you’re with someone else, this is a good time to peel off and take separate duties. One of you get in line for food while the other — presumably the stronger of the two, someone with bigger elbows — makes way for the wine bar where all wines are ordered and served. There are a few bound wine lists on the bar and someone will be glad to pass one back to you so you can make your selections while waiting your turn. There doesn’t seem to be any pattern to order-taking here, but most everyone is polite and everyone eventually gets served.
Unfortunately by-the-glass selections are meager — a simple Rioja became my favorite. But Port lovers will want to pay attention to the casks behind the bar. They are not just there for show — they’re actual casks and Ports are tapped directly from them. My companion found them to be the best thing in the house.
From the food table, cheeses are an extraordinary deal. Order a plate of three — your choice — and you’ll be given a plate full of large wedges along with half a baton of bread. A jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou can indeed be enough, as long as thou brings a plate of these cheeses, too. Want something more than cheese? The meat pies are about four inches thick and served in ample wedges.
Now comes the most difficult part: finding a place to sit. The best place to be is in the low-ceilinged catacomb-like room next to the bar. You must duck your head to walk through the room, and let your eyes adjust to the low light levels, provided solely by candles in wine bottles on the tables. Gordon’s does not play music in the bar, so the only sound is the conversation that bounces around the barrel-shaped ceiling.
If you can’t find a space in the cellar, or if claustrophobia prohibits it, head up the half flight of stairs to the terrace that runs along a walkway known as Watergate. Unlike its American namesake, this Watergate actually was a gate to the water. York House, a grand estate, originally occupied this property between the Strand and the Thames. An elaborate gate, which stands yet today, was where the noblemen would board boats to traverse the river. Although the gate still stands, the river is several hundred yards away, a result of the embankment project of the 1860s.
Terrace seating is somewhat plebeian, provided by cheap-looking plastic chairs. But if you can snag one on a busy day, you’ll be treated to a fine show of people-watching. (This is also where the smokers go, so keep that in mind. England bans smoking in all public places, including bars; Florida still doesn’t believe employees in bars deserve a smoke-free work space.)
As I was leaving Gordon’s Wine Bar for the last time of my most current trip, I encountered a couple of women, American, outside looking as though they weren’t sure if they should go in. It does have a decidedly seedy appearance. Without being asked, I told them, “This is one of the best places in London.” It is. I couldn’t, however, call it one of the best kept secrets.
Gordon’s Wine Bar is at 47 Villiers St., London. It’s open every day from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. except Sundays, noon to 10 p.m. Take a look at Gordon’s Wine Bar’s Web site for more information and a lot more of the history surrounding it.