Raise the bar
Expensive London has some daringly decadent watering holes, says Rob McFarland
Listen carefully in any London pub and you might occasionally hear a muted scream. Don't be alarmed - it's just an overseas visitor buying a drink.
London has never been a cheap place to enjoy your favourite beverage and the strong pound means it's likely to stay that way for a while. Buying a round requires not only a strong constitution but ideally some substantial offshore funding.
All of which is a great shame because the city has some of the most varied drinking establishments in the world.
Wherever you drink in London is going to be pricey, so why not push the boat out and go somewhere truly amazing? There are, after all, some daringly decadent spots in which to chip away at your children's inheritance.
Loungelover has to be seen to be believed. Located in the gritty but up-and-coming East End suburb of Shoreditch, its interior is a bizarre mix of mismatched chandeliers, giant wine glasses, dolls' houses and vintage furniture. Its clientele is almost as diverse as its decor. Frequented by everyone from city bankers to celebrities (Madonna famously spent a birthday here), it's a great place to play 'spot the aspiring short-film director'.
Drinks-wise, it's all about the cocktails. Eighty of them, in fact, listed by genre in a mock-crocodile skin menu. Prices range from GBP7 to GBP11 (HK$109 to HK$171), so sip rather than slurp, but most of all just sit back and drink in the ambience.
Hotel bars are rarely inspirational but Light Bar in the St Martins Lane hotel is an exception. Designed along with the rest of the hotel by the legendary Philippe Starck, it has become an attraction in its own right. The long, thin bar is divided into four atmospherically lit sections, each with towering ceilings and huge black and white close-up photos.
Service is refreshingly attentive, with well-informed, helpful staff happy to talk the uninitiated through the extensive cocktail list. It's an intimate space, so when London's finest DJs fire up, prepare to rub shoulders, knees and toes with fellow drinkers.
Beach Blanket Babylon, or BBB to its regulars, is a visual treat. Housed in an imposing Georgian town house in ever-so-trendy Notting Hill, its interior is a baroque riot of columns, fireplaces, urns and antique furniture.
Go beyond the chandeliered opulence of the main bar and a combination of stairs, walkways and fairy-tale-style chained bridges take you to each of its three atmospheric dining areas: The Chapel, The Crypt and the Scullery. The drinks and service are both top notch (the unassuming Aussie manager who served me was one of the most helpful I've met) and the clientele well-heeled. For sheer wow factor, BBB is in a league of its own.
Sketch is worth a visit for the toilets alone. Housed in large, egg-shaped pods, each one serenades you while you go about your business. Having a toilet cheer when you undo your trousers does wonders for the ego and I visited them five times.
Sketch is actually a collection of several bars and restaurants, including the notoriously expensive Michelin-starred Lecture Room & Library, all housed in a converted 18th-century town house in Mayfair.
While the Star Wars-style circular East bar is impressive, the spacious Parlour Room is the more civilised spot to spend an evening. Beautifully decorated with high ceilings and antique furniture, it has knowledgeable staff, imaginative cocktails and a great vibe.
Since opening in November 2006, Mahiki, a Polynesian-themed bar in Mayfair, has become a celebrity magnet.
Sting and Bon Jovi attended its launch; Prince William and Kate Middleton have graced it with their presence and Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan dirty-danced together after downing a Mahiki Treasure Chest (a drink intended for eight to share).
With two South Seas-themed bars and a nightclub playing feel-good tunes, Mahiki is an unashamed party palace. And unusually for a bar of this calibre, it has no guest list - although you will need to book a table to eat. Among its carnage-inducing range of drinks are Pina Coladas served in coconut shells and flaming tequilas embedded in watermelons.
Cathay Pacific (cathaypacific.com) and British Airways (britishairways.com) fly from Hong Kong to London daily.
Where to stay
If you like good-looking bars, the Blue Bar at the Berkeley Hotel is a London institution and
would be an excellent place for a nightcap before heading upstairs (the-berkeley.co.uk).
Top spots for a tipple
Loungelover, 1 Whitby Street, London,
E1 6JU, tel: +44 20 7012 1234, loungelover.co.uk (bookings essential).
St Martins Lane Hotel, 45 St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4HX,
tel: +44 20 7300 5599
stmartinslane.com (bookings essential).
Beach Blanket Babylon, 45 Ledbury Road, London, W11 2AA,
tel: +44 20 7229 2907
Sketch, 9 Conduit Street, London,
W1S 2XG, tel: +44 20 7659 4500, sketch.uk.com.
Mahiki, 1 Dover St, London W1S 4LD,
tel: +44 20 7493 9529, mahiki.com.