Are neighbourhood bars now as good as their inner city contemporaries? Hamish Smith hasn't got far to go to find out.
The problem with neighbourhood bars was always that they felt like a compromised experience – a trade-off between what you want and what’s convenient. And a night out in a residential area, between the chicken shops, bookies and nail salons, never felt like much of a night out at all. No, in London anyway, good cocktail bars, like pickpockets and Garfunkel’s, were always an inner-city phenomenon.
When Dandeylan launched on the Southbank nearly a decade ago, I mused that it was the best cocktail bar south of the river, and the only one. It was almost like South London was listening. Like Lime bikes and estate agents, you’re now never far away from one.
For good reason. With more than half of Londoners working fully or partially from home, according to the Office for National Statistics, a cocktail bar seems as viable now in a buzzy Zone 3 high street as it would be in the best postcodes of London. And if a neighbourhood bar is really good, it asks that incisive question: are the bars in town really worth the effort travelling to?
If the answer is yes, it's not nearly as much of a yes as it used to be. So there you have the market – a vastly improved product that exploits people’s love for localness (and/or laziness). When you read press releases of dazzling central London hotels appropriating the word ‘neighbourhood’ to describe the vibe of their bars, you know we’re witnessing changing tastes.
And all of this is to say, it’s about bloody time I reviewed one. So, to Camberwell – the gloriously tatty location of my first daughter’s birth, which incidentally was the last time I was out drinking here (a story for another day). I'm headed to Mama Funki, which opened its doors earlier this year. Housed in a large basement under the restaurant Forza Win on Camberwell Church Street, it is the bigger, though younger, sister of Sergio Leanza and Anna Fairhead-Benitez’s Funkidory in Peckham – a great little spot should you be in the area.
The high street by the green in Camberwell is buzzing as if half a million home workers just emerged from their zoom calls. It’s early evening and the restaurants and pubs are teeming - even the kebab shops are in the weeds. But as we descend the stairs at Mama Funki, it’s yet to get its piece of the passing action.
The scene is dark, with the only illumination emanating from dimmed table and soft wall-side lighting and the glowing central bar. Red walls, leather banquettes and low-set ceilings frame this cosy, subterranean space, and as customers trickle in, the atmosphere builds with the music, which is flawless, a faultline of funk running through it.
The drinks at Mama Funki have the hallmarks of higher thinking, with branded block ice and house-made ingredients you wouldn’t expect in a neighbourhood setting. The Mamarita (£11) is the house spin on a Margarita with lactofermented blackberry cordial, while my companion Brenda’s La Jefa (£12), borrows from the El Presidente playbook, but with raspberry not grenadine. Not straying too far from their inspirations, both are delicious, balanced twists, which are despatched with a little too much alacrity.
The Green (£12) with bourbon, Lilet Blanc, Chartreuse and absinthe, has Greenpoint vibes, and points again to considered drinks-making. The Crocodile (£12), a stout glass of colourless rum, sherry and apple brandy, showed a few too many teeth for my taste, perhaps requiring a less boozy dimension, or a little dilution. And the Camberwell Beauty (£11), with gin, orange, vermouth and a cinnamon basil cordial, was just that bit too spiced to be in kilter.
The glasses here – barring the Nick & Noras – felt slightly standard issue and the use of a cocktail topper a little redundant.
And if these critiques sound picky it’s because I’m not making allowances for location. Mama Funki – like many of the new raft of neighbourhood bars – deserves to be compared to the best bars in London. It gets you close enough not to visit them.
ON THE SCORE BOARD