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The Bar Necessities: Opium

Hidden above Chinatown, and styled like 1920s Shanghai, Opium houses three separate cocktail bars and a dim sum parlour – a good time is guaranteed 

There’s something rather wonderful about the way Opium transports you away from Chinatown, one of the busiest streets in London, and into this secluded little cocktail bar two floors above it. The vibe is 1920s Shanghai, and a very nice vibe it is too – all cosy and red and ever so slightly sinful.

Opium actually houses three bars: the main Apothecary Bar, the top floor Academy Bar, and the intimate Peony Bar, the smallest of the three, accommodating a mere 30 people (including standing).

We visited the Apothecary and the Peony – the Academy is only open Thursday-Saturday – and both complimented each other very well. Any venue where you can have a full-on night-out without leaving the premises is OK by us.

What’s the story?

Opium has established a reputation as one of London’s in-the-know spots; hidden behind a jade door, you could easily walk past a hundred times without ever knowing it existed. However it was recently listed in the Top 50 Cocktail Bars UK and its staff were voted Best Bar Team 2019 so the industry recognition is very much there.

What to drink?

Depends what bar you’re in! The Apothecary has a feng-shui themed menu based on Chinese remedies – either order the one that looks best or the name you most identify with: ‘I’ll have a Visionary, please, and a Companion for my friend.”

All joking aside, I went for The Visionary (mellow corn whiskey, Tio Pepe dry sherry, banana, ginger, curry leaves and yoghurt) and it looked and tasted delightful; as did my friend’s Herbalist (Kyro Napue gin, dild akvavit, chartreuse yellow, fair goji, thyme, pomegranate, lemon and egg white). It should be noted that a lot of the ingredients go on top of the cocktail rather than in it: the presentation is swell.

(Re. the Herbalist choice: as fair as I’m aware she’s not a massive stoner but you never know. Mine speaks for itself.)

Things get funky in the Peony Bar, where the menu is organised by regions in China, and you order your cocktail off a map. Have some education with your booze!

My Hong Kong (Frapin 1270 cognac, Earl Grey, Lalani & Co sake, orange flower water, peach, smoked pear and lemon balm) came with fragrance and fan (you can’t keep the fan, alas). However it was utterly upstaged, in presentation if not taste, by the Harbin (fair vodka, salted caramel, crab apple, sweet spices and single-batch hand-rolled Oolong Himachal Pradesh) that’s served within a blizzard of dry ice.

In short, you cannot fail to have a good time in the Peony Bar.

What to eat?

As well as a cocktail bar – or three cocktail bars – Opium is also a dim sum parlour! You can choose between single baskets or platters if you’re in a sharing mood. Well, you can share the baskets too – there are three or four pieces in each – but you’ll want a few of them.

The standard platter includes four pork & prawn dumplings, two barbecue pork buns, two king prawn dumplings and two seasonal vegetable dumplings. Every single one of them hit the spot, although the barbecue pork buns were especially good (but then barbecue pork bun is one of the greatest things in creation).

There’s also a green platter (vegetarian) and a seafood platter (um, seafood) if you’re so inclined. Dim sumptuous!

Will it bankrupt me?

The cocktails are around £14, so not cheap, although in The Peony especially you can really see where the money goes – so much dry ice!

The dim sum platter is £16, and baskets range from £7-£11.

Basically, if you go to all three bars and order food, it won’t be cheap, but nor will you be phoning your bank the next morning begging for an extra credit line.

Anything else to note?

You’re about two minutes from Leicester Square so there’s plenty to do once you leave Opium – but be careful! We went to the casino afterwards; I lost £60. It’s a mug’s game, kids.

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For more info, see Opium

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