Step Back In Time | The Gibson Bar, 44 Old Street, London
My day job as an art editor requires me to be fast and accurate, but the bar tenders at The Gibson put my skills to shame. Every stir, shake, twist and pour is so precise and so considered, it’s almost robotic like in its accuracy – and I thought I was a perfectionist.
The first thing that hits you when you walk into cosy, dimly lit cocktail bar is the smell. Saff described it as ‘spa-like’ with a hint of smoke and pine. Decor is a mash-up of Edwardian parlour, US speakeasy and art deco glamour, taking inspiration from the late 1800s to the 1930s – which, coincidentally, is known as the golden era of cocktails.
The Gibson takes it name from (and specialises in) a cocktail created in the Players Club, New York, in 1908. Legend has it that Charles Dana Gibson (the artist) challenges Charles Connelly (the club’s bartender) to improve the classic Martini. The solution? Simply swap out the olive for a pickled onion, simples! And so The Gibson Martini was created.
Marian Beke (of Nightjar fame) have created something rather special, the attention to detail has caught the eye of the powers that be at The World’s Top 50 Bars, who have placed them at number six on their list – making The Gibson the highest new entry. (If you’re interested we’ve visited number 16 in Berlin – the excellent Buck and Breck.)
We recommend that you book and if possible ask for a seat at the bar because this is where the wizardry takes place – we were lucky enough to have front row seats, sat right opposite Marian. Everything he does is rehearsed, even moving around the cramped bar or the opening a fridge door is choreographed to perfection – West End chorus line guys and gals could learn a trick or two from him.
The range of ingredients is mind-blowing and I was fascinated by exactly what was inside their magic fridge. Every time Marian opened this refrigerated draw out came another previously unused item, be it a chocolate ‘Lego’ brick, red currants or edible flowers. Mary Poppins’ carpet bag sprang to mind.
And if the incredible list of ingredients/spirits/bitters/garnishes isn’t enough then you’ve got to be impressed by The Gibson‘s range of glasses/cups/coconuts/inflatable flamingos. Tempted as you may be to choose your cocktail by selecting a receptacle (we had our eye on a huge ceramic strawberry) be patient and read the drinks menu. And you will need a little patience, their menu is long. It starts with the Classic Gibson, followed by a page on how to use the menu (it’s a time machine apparently – stopping off at points in The Gibson’s history) and then a month by month list, with each section containing four different cocktails.
I picked a drink from January, partly because I’m not a very patient person but mostly as the first drink, The Dry Gibson (£11), contained a sour black cherry wine – and I’m a sucker for anything cherry. Served in an unfeasibly heavy pewter ‘Martini goblet’ with a garnish of two black cherries (jackpot) and pickled ‘exotic’ nuts.
Saff ordered a Big in Japan (£12) from March, as that’s the month we were in. Although it was served in a fairly simple glazed ceramic cup the preparation was far from simple. A dash of yuzu vinegar, a drizzle of royal jelly honey, a splash of Ginkgo Choya Wine. But what mesmerised us the most was the garnish – a small dish of myrrh incense was set alight (wow, the smell) then dried orange slices were placed on the still glowing myrrh with a handful of wasabi peas sprinkled on top.
This wasn’t a one-off either, as we were sat at bar in front of Marian, we witnessed him lovingly create scores of cocktails and their intricate garnishes. Everyone so precise, everyone so fascinating, everyone so perfect – I actually felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and tingle. Saff had to shake me to snap me out of my trance. These drinks aren’t just mixed, they created and then brought to life, it really is amazing just watching them being made (let alone drinking them).
I time travelled right through to the December section of the menu and ordered a Wizard of Oz (£12). I’d seen one being built earlier and loved the look of the king of hearts enamel mug it’s served in. You should never judge a book by its cover the same way that you should never pick a cocktail by its title but this just so happened to contain everything I want from a drink. Bourbon infused with cherry stalks, maple syrup and bitter chocolate – what’s not to like? It had a real hit of smoke created by the burnt corn hair and combined with the huge cube of ice in the mug that touched my nose with every sip, it was just like drinking a cold bonfire. Not that I, or possibly anyone ever, has drunk a cold bonfire but it’s the best way to describe it.
For her next drink Saff opted for a cocktail from May, her birth month – The Hour of Stardust (£13) not only sounded magical, it looked it too. The star of Bombay Gin and vapour distilled Forager’s Tincture came served in a conical glass held on a lava stone base decorated with sprigs of herbs and an edible cone of redcurrants.
Whilst on the subject of edible items, The Gibson do serve a selection of ‘Vittles’ (an obsolete spelling of the word victuals, meaning food supplies or provisions – phew, I bet you’re glad I cleared that up). They all fall into the bar snack category but are satisfying enough that two or three dishes each would easily been the equivalent of a decently sized two-course meal.
Saff’s not a big fan of beef tartare, she’s had a couple of very bad experiences that really put her off. So when she ordered The Gibson‘s signature dish – the English grass-fed beef tartare (£9), I was surprised. The dish had been highly recommended, not only on social but by the PR and by Marian himself, so Saff decided to give it another go. And she’s glad she did, the organic 21-day-aged beef chopped with smoked pancetta and finely diced pickles and served with lightly toasted rye bread was just fantastic. So much so that I barely got a taste myself.
Another one of their signature dishes was the boozy Flambé Armagnac and pheasant terrine (£6.50) and that’s exactly what I ordered. Served with dill and onion bread, gin soaked blackcurrants, wild cranberry chutney and pickled mushrooms. Theatrically set alight in front of me at the bar with a mini blowtorch – now that’s what I call bar food!
We had just enough time for another cocktail each. So I asked Marian to choose one for me. He asked what I liked and so replied ‘whisky, cherry, sour’ and as quick as a flash he started to assemble my Jekyll & Hive (£12) from the October section. Waxed Makers Mark bourbon, Acerola Cherry Beer and kumquat peel reduction covered all my requirements. Presented in a smoking pipe shaped glass, rimmed with bitter chocolate and aniseed sprinkles it was another stunning looking drink with incredible flavour combinations.
Saff did the same, asking Marian to match a cocktail to her tastes. Now Saff isn’t a girlie girl, in fact in some respects she’s more manly than me. Rather than state what she likes, she told Marian what she doesn’t like – not girlie (yes we’ve established that), not fruity, not sweet or sugary. Again with minimal processing time Marian span on his heels, grabbed a few ingredients and began building Saff’s Royal Bombay (£12) from September.
First off he picked pretty glazed character mug – did Marian not hear properly, NOT girly! But he knew what he was doing, first in a big glug of East India Gin (Saff loves a drop of gin), pistachio berries, fresh lime, spicy mango chutney and various other spices. A pinch of chilli here and a drizzle of coconut syrup there and boom, it’s done – curry in cup. To be honest it wasn’t really her favourite cocktail as she found the chutney overbearing but her loss was my gain. I quite enjoyed the spice, it made it different, it made it exciting and it made it interesting.
So that’s nine cocktails down and by my reckoning another 40 to go! Any excuse to revisit – The Gibson is a stunning little cocktail parlour and worthy of its high entry in The World’s Top 50 Bars. It was far less pretentious than we feared plus the bar food on offer far succeeded our expectations. It truly is magical, you really feel as if you’ve been transported back to those glamorous and flamboyant days of the early twentieth century, maybe their time machine does actually work after all…
44 Old Street, London EC1V 9AQ
Book online here
Opening hours: Monday to Thursday 5pm – 1am
Friday and Saturday: 5pm – 2am
Nearest station: Barbican Station (7 mins walk) Old Street (8 mins walk)
We ate as guests of The Gibson, this does not affect our review in any way. We always write with complete honesty.