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SB Voices: Long live the UK’s bars and pubs

Amid a raft of restaurant closures in the UK, Nicola Carruthers laments the lost icons of the country’s bar world, but also looks to a bright future.

Silver lining: Cocktail bar Swift replaced iconic Soho venue LAB in 2016
Silver lining: Cocktail bar Swift replaced iconic Soho venue LAB in 2016

The declining fortunes of restaurants have hit headlines recently, with chains such as Byron, Jamie’s Italian and Prezzo closing sites in order to stay afloat.

Every month we get word of new venues opening in every city – cocktail bars, wine bars, quirky pubs and rooftop lounges – on almost every corner.

As the industry welcomes new watering holes, however, we’ve also waved goodbye to others, and in the last decade there have been plenty of bars and pubs which were sadly let go.

Figures from the Campaign for Real Ale show that Britain has lost one third of its pubs since the 1970s, blamed on the high price of a pint, the 2007 smoking ban and the 2008 recession.

Over the last couple of months, a number of long-standing iconic venues have announced their closures, including Kensington Roof Garden, and live music venue Proud Camden. Brixton Rooftop also closed down in January, after its five-year lease was prematurely ended to make way for a Sports Direct.

Meanwhile late-night Covent Garden venue The Roadhouse – well known for its flairtending – is currently facing eviction from its landlord who has been given planning permission to redevelop the Jubilee Hall building. A petition has been launched with the hashtag #SaveRoadhouse and Amy Lamé, the London mayor’s Night Czar, has already pledged her support to the venue.

We’re not sure we can handle the loss of any more iconic London bars for a while. But at least some come with a silver lining. Soho’s iconic LAB bar closed in August 2016 but reopened later in the year as cocktail den Swift – one of our Bars to Watch in 2017 – under the very safe hands of ex-Milk and Honey veterans Mia and Bobby Hiddleston and Nightjar and Oriole founders Rosie Stimpson and Edmund Weil.

And there are others who are bucking the trend. Cocktail chains such as Be At One, which operates 33 sites in the UK, continues to “actively seek” new sites. Meanwhile, renowned bartender Jim Meehan opened his first PDT venue in Asia, and the fourth outpost of Employees Only opened its doors in Hong Kong.

Expansion is also on the horizon for Marian Beke, who could be set to open a second Gibson bar in Asia or New York.

And the secret to Beke’s success could be what many bars should incorporate. “It’s the little details but straightaway people notice. Many elements such as business, social media, marketing, food, music, service, lighting, furniture, design.”

A new reservations system on Design My Night also helped to propel the business. The day after the system was installed, The Gibson was fully booked, Beke tells me. So in the face of ever-growing technology, venues should do best to incorporate this to their advantage.

It’s true that we’ve lost plenty of great venues in the past, and bars should continue to innovate and stay up-to-date with consumer trends if they want to have a place in today’s nightlife. While some may face unfortunate circumstances, we should do our best to continue to support the UK on-trade.

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