Given that histories of London’s oldest restaurants often cite their status as the site of clandestine, high-profile extramarital affairs, it makes a certain sense that Gordon’s — London’s oldest wine bar, opened first in 1890, resembling nothing quite so much as a cave retrofitted with the furniture from a romantic bistro scene in a film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet — should trumpet its own suitability for bad behaviour right now. Not for nothing does it have the nickname “the adulterous barrister’s bar.” Subterranean drinking in near-darkness is, like drinking at high altitude, a recipe for high emotion and unusual (one hesitates to say “unwise”) decision-making.
“Anonymity,” the bar’s official site winks, knowingly, “is guaranteed!” Before the birth of Instagram, this might have been the case; today, while the clientele is guaranteed privacy in real time, there is always the distinct and damning possibility of online evidence. “Yellowing newspapers from yesteryear adorn the walls, and candles plugged into dusty wine bottles provide the illumination. If Miss Haversham was in the licensing trade,” the Evening Standard snorts affectionately, “this could have been the result.” If the word “yesteryear” is not especially indicative of the kind of thing millennials are fond of Instagramming, an exception has been made for Gordons in extremis — so that thirtieth birthdays and engagement parties and girls’ nights and date nights are ubiquitous on the GordonsWineBar hashtag, and most Londoners who like an iPhone-ready spectacle have been there. For a place that’s underground, it’s very well-known, and exceptionally well-liked.
“Gordon’s is loved by old and young alike due to the totally unique atmosphere in which time seems to have stood still,” the bar’s “About” page crows. “We try to maintain the bar as our customers like it which basically means ‘no change!’… easier said than done in a world dominated by rules and regulations!” (A frankly baffling electronic timeline on the website, which one sweeps from side to side to read its history between 1853 and the present day, is less effective at conveying information than it is at conjuring a kind of ersatz sense of actually being drunk: as when imbibing wine below street-level and in low light, focusing seems futile when not one damn thing appears to just stay still.)
“Come out from Embankment Tube on to Villiers Street and it’s there on your right: the dusty window, the stone steps running down beneath the street and, inside, a candlelit cellar full of old bottles and sherry casks where colleagues, friends and lovers can cosy up over a glass of something that won’t break the bank,” the American critic Erica Wagner wrote in the Financial Times, sounding as misty-eyed as anybody can in writing. “No, you can’t order a cocktail here. No, you can’t have a beer. But no one minds — why would they? This is Gordon’s Wine Bar.”
The Gordon family who are currently proprietors have been importing sherry — which might safely be assumed to be a drink of “yesteryear” if it weren’t for the fact that the “hipster generation,” per the Guardian, have been demanding it in cocktails, dry, since Christmas — since the 1700s; the bar’s first founder Angus Gordon, who happens not to be related to the present Gordons, was a tenant of the building in the 1800s. Samuel Pepys had previously lived on the premises before the place burned down and was rebuilt (hard not to wonder what Pepys might have done with Instagram, given his knack for diary-keeping), and Rudyard Kipling wrote his semi-autobiographical The Light That Failed half in a room above the bar, and half in the bar itself. G. K. Chesterton, too, used the place to write — a kind of early incarnation of the coffee-shop-cum-pub freelancer. “Inside,” one poetic soul reviewing Gordon’s on the internet notes, “all haste ceases because time seems to stand still.”
“Walking down the stairs of this busy candlelit wine bar, braced for the wall of heat that’s about to engulf me,” the historian Dr Matthew Green observed, “I’m reminded of Ned Ward’s sensuous account of walking into an 18th-century coffeehouse: ‘In we went, where a parcel of muddling muck-worms were as busy as so many rats in an old cheese-loft; some going, some coming, some scribbling, some talking, some drinking, others jangling.’” The true definition of the phrase “muck-worms” aside, the observation is especially true in its allusion to a “cheese-loft” — though you cannot get beer or a cocktail, there is ample opportunity to order cheese in gluttonous amounts. This seems fair: underground and in the semi-dark, one might as well indulge.