London’s latest batch of wine bars come back fighting

Nina Caplan goes on a post-lockdown bar crawl around the UK capital and discovers plenty to raise her glass to

Words by Nina Caplan

frank's wine bar in london
Frank's at Maison François, where according to Caplan the wines are selected by 'what must be one of the city’s best palates'

The human spirit is indomitable, thank goodness, or by now it would surely be impossible to get a glass of good wine in London. So many great places have been washed away by Covid and Brexit: Terroirs, the first and arguably best of the city’s natural wine bars, has gone, and so have The Ledbury and The Greenhouse, with their Michelin-starred wine lists.

There are more: Counter Culture in Clapham, The Mountgrove Bothy, Bubbledogs, where you could keep the hotdogs if you let me have Sandia Chang’s amazing list of grower Champagnes. I will remember an afternoon there with Fréderic Savart’s Premier Cru L’Ouverture when I’ve forgotten a great deal else, and not just because the memory of its fruit-rich delicacy now comes laced with bitter irony: ouverture means opening.

Interior shot, empty, of Frank's bar under Maison François, Duke Street, London SW1
Frank's: 'whitewashed brick and slender arched mirrors, small tables and a high bar'

And yet, more come pouring into the breach. It’s an act of magnificent courage – at least, for the small players. And I’m grateful, because another irony is that the disasters that have closed so many good wine bars have brought sharply home to the rest of us how much we need them open. And so I took myself on a mini-tour of promising places that have opened in 2021 – a celebration of renewal in a city punished, like so many vineyards, by a difficult year.

In Frank’s, beneath the beautiful space that is Maison François – double-height ceilings, lacy wooden dividers and a groaning dessert trolley – the wood gives way to whitewashed brick and slender arched mirrors, the white banquettes to small tables and a high bar. How I have missed perching at bars. I once spent a week alone, on assignment, in a fancy exercise resort in Miami. After a day of all-you-can-sweat aerobics classes, I’d hook a hip onto a high stool in front of the bartender, order a drink and open my book. I never finished a chapter, but I had interesting conversations with an astonishing range of people, from a New Jersey Jewish grandma to the owners of a Nascar team. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, when a woman is tired of sitting at a wine-bar counter, she is tired of life; for there is, in that particular spot, all that life can afford.

Small plates – Frank's bar at Maison Francois, London SW1
Cocktails in Frank's bar at Maison Francois, London SW1
Small plates and cocktails at Frank's

Frank’s Portuguese barman wore round glasses, a welcoming grin and the stylish house t-shirt. The illustrations, on clothing and wine list, are nearly as good as the wines – and since those are chosen by Daniel Illsley, the founder of indie shop Theatre of Wine and the owner of what must be one of the city’s best palates, that’s saying something. I don’t know many places serving Philipponnat Royale Réserve Champagne by the glass.

That aforementioned barman served me slick salted anchovies that went beautifully with a delicate Muscat rosé from Domaine du Gravillas in the Minervois, and a Dirty French Martini to wash down a glorious calf’s-brain burger, while showering me with recommendations for where to eat in Porto. I left happy, a state that none of us can currently take for granted.

Exterior, Top Cuvée bar and shop, Bethnal Green London
'Oysters, charcuterie and an ever-morphing range of open bottles': Cave Cuvée.
Picture: Oliver Hooson

From Mayfair and a palace owned by an Hon (François O’Neill’s father is Lord Rathcavan) to Cave Cuvée, a sliver of Bethnal Green Road barely wider than I am long, with a corrugated iron ceiling and stuffed shelves. When lockdown closed their Highbury restaurant, Brodie Meah and Max Venning transformed it into a wine shop; that worked so well they have gone east, and added a bar downstairs at weekends.

The funky labels and friendly, young staff signal a place that prioritises natural and low-intervention wines, but I’m not sure it’s still legal to open a wine bar that doesn’t, and there is certainly no hipster pomposity here: within five minutes, I’m telling a fellow customer about Chagall’s magnificent stained-glass window in Chichester Cathedral while he writes down for me the wine bar I absolutely must visit next time I’m in Mallorca. Downstairs, the Clapton-baked bread is as fresh and yeasty as the wines it is intended to soak up, and there are oysters, charcuterie and an ever-morphing range of open bottles.

Piazza Italiana on Threadneedle Street boasts 'High painted ceilings and Doric columns'

And then I move on to a place that shares with Cave Cuvée almost nothing except a London location and a thirst for good wine. Piazza Italiana, in the former British Linen Bank, with its high painted ceilings and Doric columns, is a venture by Latvian restaurateur Victor Ravdive. He has had the excellent sense to give a Sicilian head chef free rein and to bring in Daniele Arcangeli, formerly of wine club 67 Pall Mall and Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck, to amass a truly formidable collection of bottles, including 40 wines by the glass.


Like a vine, London responded to trouble by rooting deeper

The iron purity of Lugarara, a single vineyard Gavi di Gavi by La Giustiniana, was an inspired accompaniment to one of the best plates of fritto misto I’ve ever eaten. And Arcangeli won my everlasting devotion by serving several terrific Australian wines alongside his Italian choices, including Yalumba’s Tri Centenary Barossa Grenache 2015 from 130-year-old vines, which went as well with truffle pasta swirled through the centre of a giant pecorino as any Barolo could have. So quietly eloquent was Daniele about his wines, that even my 20-year-old stepson, whose interest in the subject had hitherto been non-existent, paid attention.

Watching him, I was filled with hope. Wine has brought so much to my life and his father’s: delight and comfort, knowledge and travel, flavour and friendship. It is the taste of celebration and the stuff of survival, and if this city, like a vine, has responded to trouble by rooting deeper and producing even finer fruits, then we will all have – at last – reason to rejoice.

Nina Caplan
By Nina Caplan

Nina Caplan is the Lifestyle and Travel columnist for Club Oenologique online and wine columnist for The New Statesman and The Times’s Luxx magazine.