The best places in London to indulge in the subversive joys of smoking
Queuing for a museum exhibition in the States, I thought I’d go wild and have a fag in the outdoor line. As soon as I clicked my lighter, the man in front of me turned round, glared balefully, and informed me that “You’re killing my kid.” The girl in question resembled Queen Victoria in the most ample stage of her bulimic mourning, and was munching a corn dog (a southern American delicacy consisting of deep-fried abbattoir sweepings on a stick). I considered pointing out that the father appeared to be a doing a fine job of seeing his daughter to an early grave without my assistance, but the museum was in Texas and I thought he might shoot me, so I stubbed out the cancer stick apologetically. I have to go to New York this week, and am naturally preoccupied with where I might be allowed to smoke. Queens, perhaps? In the brief, halcyon period of Manhattan life between the introduction of smoking legislation and Mayor Bloomberg’s drive to ban all manner of fun, anywhere, as being economically unproductive, resourceful New Yorkers invented something called “smirting” — combining smoking and flirting. Asking someone for a light was no longer the world’s lamest chat-up line, but an invitation to a secret club, a huddle of rebels crowded in the cellar areas of downtown dive bars or the swanky rooftop terraces of the Meatpacking District. Smirting was more romantically reliable than Tinder — at least you knew you had one thing in common.
There are few moments in life that a fag doesn’t improve. The glow at the end of the little white tube transforms moments of misery into melancholic poetry and bad one-night stands into Alain Delon. Arguably, cigarettes also provide a health break, since one is obliged to go outside and suck up some vitamin D along with the nicotine. It is the smoking ban, along with real estate prices, which has transformed New York from the creative centre of the universe into a safe city for safe people, draining the life from it far more effectively than a few alfresco gaspers. So for those who believe that death can’t be postponed indefinitely, and that the obsession with living longer is in itself a denial of life, here are some of my favourite places in London where one can still light up. Members of Ash can turn the page.
A martini without a fag is a crime, so it’s a pity that Duke’s Hotel, which makes the second-best silver bullets in Europe (the best ones are made by a man called Colin in the Hemingway Bar at the Paris Ritz), is reluctant to wheel the drinks trolley outside to the tiny but charming terrace area at the end of St James’s Place. But you can order any of their other cocktails outside, and possibly even walk home afterwards, so it’s a great place to start. The American Bar at the nearby Stafford Hotel is also a fantastic find — spacious, sheltered, with cosy heaters and beautifully-made drinks.
Over in Soho, the successful Russian group Jean Jacques has launched its first UK offering on Frith Street, a huge space occupying a whole townhouse, clean and airy, with plushy brasserie touches. The food, mostly French classics aside from a caviar list and a superlative borscht, is rather predictable — steak frites, a tartine of snails in persillade, roast cod and slow-cooked lamb — but reliably executed, and the enclosed first-floor terrace is a gem. Owner Nika Borisov hopes that Jean Jacques will establish a salon, as it has happily done in Moscow, for late-night artists and performers, so the location next to Ronnie Scotts is ideal. Jazz musicians, like Russians, are not afraid of cigarettes.
I have to declare an interest in my next choice, Hardy’s in Dorset Street, since it’s owned by a friend, but sitting in the candlelight in this corner of Marylebone almost transports one to the Left Bank. The restaurant has been there for 30 years, like the huge, trailing wisteria which covers the 18th-century terrace opposite, and the stalwarts on the menu, including fantastic fishcakes, shepherd’s pie, fish and chips and an extraordinarily good smoked haddock soufflé, which regulars refuse to have removed. There are two spaces inside, the more informal brasserie and the white-clothed restaurant, as well as a charming private room, but the long row of tables on the pavement are always full, on the principle that nothing amusing ever happened in the no-smoking section of anywhere. Round the corner is the Chiltern Firehouse, which is an entirely pointless place to visit unless your idea of fun is catching a glimpse of the cast of Made in Chelsea, but the garden, with its open fireplace and soothing sofas, works well for an aperitif without the late-night bother of the rope Nazi. Or you could hang out with the paps and a pint in the pub on the corner and do a little sleb spotting.
In New York, artists have become ascetics — they don’t do drugs or nicotine or sugar or alcohol or gluten. Indulgence in the pursuit of inspiration is old-school, a bit Beat. The East End of London is slowly and sadly moving the same way, but you can still light up on the terrace at Shoreditch House in a writhing crowd of lithe hipsters, or better still check out the Bedtime Stories nights at the small but perfectly formed 40 Winks Hotel in Whitechapel, where girls and boys in silk pyjamas pop out for a spot of smirting and a teacupful of gin in the fairy-lit garden. South of the river, where artists can still just about afford to live, is Frank’s Café in Peckham, on the top floor of a multi-storey carpark. There are revolving art and sculpture projects, a stunning view of the London skyline and a short but appealing list of sharing plates, including radish with buttermilk and a deeply-smoked aubergine purée to accompany the cocktails.
The ne plus ultra of London smoking terraces is the garden at 5 Hertford Street, the members’ bar above Loulou’s nightclub in Mayfair. It’s a bit too Eurohearty to be exactly cool, but it’s very, very comfortable, and the awnings and huge stone fireplace reduce the indignity of shivering in English showers like the tragic addict you are. White-jacketed waiters, impeccable drinks and the heady pulse of money render it somehow wonderfully un-PC, an unashamed refuge from puritanism. Find a friend to sign you in and spark up with pride.