Photos courtesy of Simmons, Be At One, All Bar One, Slug & Lettuce (clockwise from top)

A high-profile appointment at a high street bar group turns Hamish Smith's lapsed attention to mainstream venues.

Last month, something unexpected happened. One of the best-known bartenders in the country, Chelsie Bailey, left her role as head bartender of The American Bar at The Savoy to join Stonegate Group. From the most famous bartending job in the world to Be At One and Slug & Lettuce. Not in the expanse of the cosmos did anyone see that coming.

But actually it also makes some sense. In her new drinks development role across the group, Bailey will shape the nation’s tastes like never before. High street bars are at the coalface of cocktail culture. What happens here matters.

I don’t know about you, but I know next to nothing about them. Not because I’m some sneering elitist, but because there’s never been much of a pull – drinks journalists gravitate to bars that are new, first or different. That means we head upstream, where trends are created, not where they broaden out. Reviews almost never mean the mainstream.

I’ve been to the odd Be At One but, if I’m honest, it’s been a few years. I don’t think I’ve ever ordered a cocktail in an All Bar One or a Slug & Lettuce and despite seeing them everywhere I stumble around London, I’ve never once stepped foot in a Simmons. All that needed to change. I put a pin in a map in Shoreditch and set out on London’s most ordinary bar crawl.


First stop was Simmons Shoreditch, which is “well known for being the best bar in London”, according to its website. If that statement needed further embellishment, the penis doodle on the table looking up at me at Simmons really didn’t. I was joined by now in this disco-themed outpost by my customary review consort Brenda. Looking confused, her first words were: “What is that smell?” Before I could answer, a woman next to us removed her top, so her partner could adjust her bra. But that wasn’t why they were asked to leave – that was on account of their tracksuits. It was a lot to take in at 5.30pm.

Having timed our visit for Simmons’ inescapable five-hour happy hour, we felt it germane to order from the two-for-one menu. Our two Midnight Margaritas (£10.20 otherwise – Jose Cuervo Silver, triple sec, lime juice, blue curaçao, sugar syrup) were less midnight, more Med blue, but despite the soupy texture and overdose of E133, the sharpness of fresh lime juice brought about a little order. Sweet, yes, but they were dispatched quickly enough when Brenda revealed she was also wearing tracksuit bottoms.


A short hop from Simmons, Be At One Shoreditch was considerably less seedy, but completely empty. We coyly acknowledge the bartender as we enter, like passing walkers in the countryside. This time I ask for a recommendation. “What’s the most popular drink?” “What do you like?” asked the bartender. “Everything, what’s good?” I reply. I find myself in these conversational spirals regularity. Brenda stepped in and ordered two Old Fashioneds (£11 for both – happy Happy Hour!). They’re made with Bulleit, stirred down then poured over ice and garnished with orange peel and an incongruous maraschino cherry. The well ice, brittle and cloudy, is soon giving too much of itself to the drink, but drunk briskly, this is not a bad Old Fashioned at all. At a faintly conceivable £5.50, it’s me who has to answer the questions.


If Simmons had a sort of dead-end-disco vibe, Be At One premium with a small p, All Bar One Moorgate was a vast savanna of airport lounge. The place isn’t quiet, but mostly people here seem to think All Bar One is a restaurant, including the bartenders, who are everywhere but the bar. We spend five minutes ordering through a QR code and fail to pick up on the 2 for £15 offer. When they arrive, the Espresso Martini (£11.50, Ketel One, Tia Maria, coffee) is a very respectible rendition, and I don’t know if it was an 


Heading further south into the City, we were straying into lesser-known lands. At the foot of a clutch of towering buildings is Slug & Lettuce St Pauls, whose market audience is signposted immediately by a rash of fake flowers at the door. Inside is a brightly lit, double-height space, inhabited by a veritable salad of people – braces of City boys, long tables of work parties, and pissed dancing people wearing tiaras who rhythmically roam between tables.

Porn Star Martinis are absolutely everywhere and inspired by the words The Love Lounge displayed in italics above the bar, we order two amore (forgive me). Two-for-one, naturally, the Porn Stars (otherwise £13.50 – Smirnoff Vanilla vodka, passion fruit liqueur, caramel syrup, lemon juice, pineapple juice and passion fruit purée, prosecco shot) are syrupy and viscid, like spiked Sunny D. Scanning around, it’s a depressing scene, but mostly because we’re the only ones not having fun. It’s time to call it a night.

So, we came, we saw, we pondered. High street cocktail bars – the ones we visited anyway – are much what you imagine they are: seedy or beige, vast and with a no-filter sort of fun, but the drinks aren’t. Order wisely and there are some sensible drinks with premium spirits, freshly squeezed juice, decent glassware and thought-through garnishes. I guess the market now expects it – and that is progress. One other thing: I don’t know if I can bring myself to order a £20 Old Fashioned again.