London’s Chinatown is broadly found between Shaftesbury Avenue to the north and Lisle Street to the south. It’s not far from Leicester Square and Theatreland. It’s a neighbourhood with a long history stretching back to the Great Fire of 1666 in which much of London was destroyed. In 1677 Lord Gerrard, the owner of the area, gave permission to a developer to build on land which had, till then, been used for farming. This became Soho, a corner of which we know today as Chinatown.
The area developed a lively reputation. It was home to immigrant French Huguenots; Gerrard Street became celebrated for its artists and was the haunt of many of the most famous painters, metalworkers and writers of London. A plaque on number 9 marks the meeting place of Samuel Johnson and Joshua Reynolds. In the 19th century the Newport Market area developed a reputation as a notorious criminal slum until the late 1880s. Italians, then Jews, then Maltese all called these streets home.
Until the Second World War the East End and the neighbourhood of Limehouse was the Chinese quarter but that was lost in the Blitz. By the time the Chinese arrived in Soho in the 1950s, the area had developed a reputation for nightlife and cheap commercial rents, and ladies of the night who found employment in various local brothels – basically, the sort of place your mother wouldn’t want you to go. There were still the arts, though, and Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club started in Gerrard Street in the basement of No. 39.
By the late 1960s Chinatown was fully established as a centre for London’s Chinese community, which had grown to tens of thousands. Restaurants and bakeries opened, replacing some of the seedier establishments. These days the streets are filled with locals and tourists alike looking for Asian groceries, a meal or a drink.
And there is Opium. No, not the substance, the bar! One has the sense that this is a rather risqué venue. Its entrance is an anonymous door and easily missed by the untutored, although the bouncer on the doorstep gives a clue that there is more to the activities behind than one would expect from an above-a-shop apartment.
This isn’t a bar for the feeble of limb. It has a staircase more associated with a lighthouse than a drinking hole. The deep red walls and the perfume of incense sticks combine to present an expectation of something truly exotic at the top of those stairs. Those expectations will be realised.
Opium isn’t just one bar but rather a maze of small and intimate bars, and all with great old Chinese character. This is the first bar I have visited that intrigued me so much that I wanted to just wander and explore. There are pictures, teapots, lamps and cups aplenty, along with apothecary bottles adding to the air of mystery. This is a carefully designed collection of rooms that seem to have naturally evolved. There are quirky corners, textures, shadows …and expertly crafted cocktails.
We tasted a few of the signature drinks skilfully concocted by Barman Pedro Sequeira: Opium #6 – Opium cup made with Olmeca altos tequila, cactus, pimiento, ginger, oolong tea, served with a fog of dry ice in a Mate gourd with metal Bombilla straws. This is perhaps the most dramatic and atmospheric cocktail you will ever have and it’s certainly one of the best I have tasted anywhere. It’s the fresh ginger that brings so much to this mix. Definitely order this one, and I would have to say it’s so good that it would be worth trying even if it was served in a glass tumbler without the drifts of vapour.
The Devil Doctor – shaken and long, made with a house blend of rums with grapefruit, cinnamon, honey, lime, bitters and absinthe – was served in what might be described as a Tiki mug but with an apt and unique face. This was a Dr. Fu Manchu version – probably a character not known to younger sippers. Fu Manchu was invented by author Sax Rohmer during the 1920s. The evil doctor was instantly recognised in films by the droopy moustache which bore his name. Another distinctive cocktail for rum lovers.
The House Without A Key is long and made with Havana Club 7-year old, full-flavoured, rich Cuban rum, chai tea, honey and pineapple, and all served in a young coconut shell topped with ice. A beautiful presentation and in keeping with the exotic theme of Opium. This is a deceptive beverage with a kick which one might not notice till descending all those stairs.
They serve food at Opium and it might be a good idea to have something from the Dim Sum menu. We had the Dim Sum Platter which is ideal for sharing. It’s a bamboo steam basket which holds Siu Mai, Char Siu Bau (my favourite), Har Gau and Summer Vegetables Dumplings. All these can be found in restaurants in Chinatown but they are good and authentic here, so settle in for the evening.
Opium is full of applied charm which works well with the original architecture. Its cocktails are outstanding and are evidently inspired by Chinatown’s history and heritage. This is a destination bar of distinction.
Reservation absolutely recommended, especially on the weekend.
Monday – Tuesday: 5pm – 1am
Wednesday: 5pm – 2am
Thursday: 5pm – 3am
Friday – Saturday: 5pm – 3am
Sunday: 5pm – 12 midnight
Opium Cocktail and Dim Sum Parlour
The Jade Door
15-16 Gerrard Street
Phone: 020 7734 7276
Bar review by Chrissie Walker © 2018