Image: Ben Phillips
November 14 2010
Mark C O’Flaherty
I have a great fondness for the sinister, camp musings of Ian Fleming, and I’m very partial to some classic Sean Connery. Neither of these things, however, has any bearing on my affection for the bar at Dukes in St James’s, despite it being a place of pilgrimage for James Bond fans. This was, as many will tell you, a regular haunt for Fleming, where he developed the notion of 007’s love of martinis (or, indeed, the Vesper) and where he is rumoured to have coined the phrase “shaken, not stirred”. However, I just think it’s the best bar, in this part of London, for this kind of cocktail.
Dukes was taken over some years back by hotelier Gordon Campbell Gray, and its bar has enjoyed something of a renaissance by polishing to a fine sheen what it was already doing very well: classic British style with a sense of occasion. Although you can’t reserve a table (unless you are a guest in the hotel), this is a very civilised watering hole; it’s all-seated (and sumptuous) and, refreshingly for a hotel bar, there’s no background music. Crucially, the drinks are perfect.
Most first-timers opt for the celebrated Vesper (£16.50) which comes with Crown Jewel gin, Potocki vodka, Angostura bitters and Lillet. The gin and vodka martinis (£15) are also a safe bet, but I prefer the Strangeways (£16.50) with Hendrick’s gin, fresh cucumber, elderflower and lemon.
Head barman Alessandro Palazzi (pictured) – a king among mixologist men – takes the action right to your table, with all his martini-making elements on a trolley, and the drink mixed and poured right there. Of course you could say that a good martini is just a good martini, but the attention to ingredients, temperature and technique at Dukes has surgical precision; these drinks aren’t just good, they’re fantastic. They’re also quite a size and pack a punch – two will definitely suffice over an evening, unless you’re staying upstairs and haven’t got far to go.