"Oriole’s sumptuous space is an oasis of warmth, mystery and magic where for the space of an evening Londoners and visitors alike can enjoy a glorious sense of disconnection from the outside world."
OK, that's taken from its website, but do you know what? It's not such an OTT description as you might think. The large room is dominated by one of those sweeping bars that looks like something out of a fairytale: hordes of underlit bottles glowing like potions, which I suppose, if you drink enough of one, they are. (This is not an endorsement.)
The walls are decorated by murals of the jungles, and there are numerous exotic ornaments (think daggers, statues, masks) enclosed in glass cabinets. Juxtapose this richness with the extremely unpromising exterior – a grey tunnel in Smithfield Market – and yes, disconnection from the outside world is pretty much the exact sensation.
Word to the wise: you’ll want to book in advance as this is not a place you just stumble into. There’s a doorman and, unless it’s an atypical quiet night, if your name’s not down, you’re not coming in. Make sure it is.
What’s the story?
Oriole has been going for a few years now. It was launched by the formidable team of Edmund Weil and Rosie Stimpson, founders of the world famous Nightjar. (A 20-minute walk away in Old Street if you want to compare and contrast.)
Like Nightjar, Oriole has been listed in the 50 Best Bars in the World, and also won Best New Bar at New Orleans’s Tales of the Cocktail festival. So yeah: there’s a reason why you have to book in advance.
What to drink?
Now this is where Oriole gets serious. There must be at least 30 cocktails on the menu, all of which are bespoke, most of which could easily pass muster in an art fair. Yes, Oriole is very much one of those places where every drink is an experience, one that you’ll almost certainly upload to Instagram. (Although cool points if you don’t.)
The menu - or rather “An Album Of Mixed Drinks (Fourth Edition)” - is divided into three sections: Old World, New World, and The Orient. (There’s also Companionable Cocktails, for sharing, if that’s your vibe.) Each section is preceded by a map showing precisely where in the world the cocktails came from. Each cocktail comes with tasting notes and its own special illustration, normally a plant or animal.
Not enough for you? There’s a four-page glossary explaining the more obscure ingredients in the cocktails, such as “Reindeer Moss: A lichen found in alpine tundra. Used in making Aquavit – (No. 33).” (Um… what’s a lichen? Don’t ask us.)
But of course Oriole makes such a song and dance over its cocktails because its cocktails are worth making a song and dance over. My Skyefall (Talisker 10yo, freya birch spirit, coffee leaf chinato, espresso stout syrup, clarified octopus milk) went down like an absolute treat, smooth yet smoky, and no, I don’t know if I tasted the octopus milk.
Or if you want something (relatively) straight, try the Sanshin Old Fashioned (Glenfiddich 15yo, Kamm & Sons, Dong Quai infusion, Brownie ruby port, Ceylon arrack). Served with an ice cube so big it almost impedes your drinking. Good. Something this rich needs to be savoured.
Confused by some of the above ingredients? That’s what the glossary is for!
What to eat?
There’s a list of small plates to fill a hole and compliment the drinks. We went for the grilled octopus and the steak slices, and both were delicious, but neither would count as a main course (not that they’re pretending to be).
If you’re feeling hungry, and flush, order a whole load of dishes and share between you – otherwise maybe fill up beforehand and concentrate on the cocktails. However the bread is fantastic and fully worth the £3 investment.
Will it bankrupt me?
Allocate a bit of budget and do the place justice: there’s no point booking in advance and then leaving after one. Cocktails are largely between £12-£14, and you’ll want two minimum, ideally three (one from each region, natch).
Most of the small plates are under a tenner but, as mentioned, you need quite a few if you’re coming with a ‘dinner’ mentality.
Anything else to note?
There’s live music every evening from £9, consisting of two sets of roughly 45-minutes, with a bonus third set on Friday and Saturday. Wednesday-Saturday there’s a small entry fee to pay the live performers: check on the website for exact pricing.
For more info, see Oriole