A few years ago, I got taken to the bar at Dukes Hotel for drinks after work with an old colleague. Dukes is one of the many wonderful hidden gems in London, off of St James’s Street down a little road and through a tiny courtyard. Why are so many of the great places in the UK so hidden, I often wonder. Anyway, Dukes is a discreet and understated 5-star hotel that exudes a traditional aura. The bar has historically attracted a lot of wealthy American executives travelling on business in London and also a Mayfair banking / hedge fund set. These days the crowd is slightly more mixed and the bar is busy, pretty much without fail, on weekdays after work.
So what’s the big deal?
Well, Dukes arguably serve the best martini in London and possibly one of the best in the world. In fact, legend has it that Ian Fleming himself got the inspiration for the ‘shaken, not stirred’ line used in the Bond films, from his time spent drinking at Dukes. Before going to Dukes, I really couldn’t stomach martinis. I am ashamedly quite a lightweight when it comes to hard alcoholic drinks (wine is definitely more my thing) and typically go for the sweeter side of the cocktail scale. However, once I had a classic dry vodka martini at Dukes, that all changed. Since my ‘virgin’ cocktail at Dukes, I have returned a number of times. In fact, recently, I have been organizing a monthly night at Dukes after work with a group of friends. We had one of our rendezvous earlier this week, and I thought it high time for a post about this wonderful oasis of class.
When you step into Dukes bar, you will most likely be greeted by Alessandro Palazzi, a consummate and immediately charming Italian host who is without a doubt one of the leading barmen in London. He has worked all over the world in some of the most exclusive places. In 2001, he worked at Dukes bar under the former lead barman Gilberto Preti, and then went onto roles at The Ritz , The Mandarin Oriental and The Great Eastern Hotel (now Andaz) in London, before taking the helm at Dukes again in 2007. You can always be assured of receiving a warm, professional and personal service from Alessandro and the three other Italian waiters that work with him. The bar was completely redesigned in the summer of 2007, and features dark navy blue velvet chairs and silk curtains. The small tables are dark mahogany, as is the bar, the curtains are silk and the fireplace is marble. Overall, it is a classic, refined and clubby atmosphere without ever being in danger of being pretentious or stuffy.
If you are there for the first time, I definitely recommend one of their classic martinis (gin or vodka – choose your poison). All of the martinis are made fresh in front of you. A small wooden trolley is wheeled out and parked besides your table while your waiter prepares it for you. And, if you want, they will explain the difference between the Dukes version of whatever drink they’re making and other pretenders to the throne. My personal favorite is the Dukes Vodka Martini. This consists of Potocki Vodka (Polish), which has been frozen at a very low temperature for a minimum of 24 hours. First, 3 drops of extra dry vermouth are put into the cold martini glass. Then the Potocki is added. Next, the waiter slices the peel of a fresh lemon off (the lemons are organic and Sicilian), squeezes a few splashes of the lemon oil in the glass, rubs the peel around the edge of the glass and drops the peel into the concoction. Sounds simple, right? Well, the best things in life often are. The key here is that the vodka is ice cold, so no ice cubes are used. Also, it is not shaken or stirred (take that, 007). The result is a perfectly balanced and highly potent drink that you can sip for an hour or so over good conversation with friends. The vodka martini is fresh, cold and transitions between the slightly vanilla flavor of the vodka to a zesty lemon finish which lingers on in your mouth. Another of my favorite drinks is ‘Ian Fleming’s Classic Vesper’, which consists of Crown Jewel gin, Potocki vodka, Angostura bitters and Lillet. Also good is the ‘Strangeways’, which is made up of Hendrik’s gin, fresh cucumber, elderflower and lemon. I would like to reiterate the strength of these drinks – one or two is certainly more than enough on an empty stomach. At least for lightweights like me.
Oh, and speaking of stomachs, be forewarned that there is not that much food on offer at the bar in the evening, but they do ply you 3 small silver bowls of nibbles that are constantly refreshed throughout your drinking. One contains small, crisp disc-shaped crackers; another houses a variety of salted nuts; and the third is home to some very nice, fresh green olives which I understand to be imported from Puglia.
Another nice feature of Dukes is the fact that they have quite a collection of rare cognacs. On our last visit, our waiter brought out a selection of them for us to gaze at and sniff. Most impressive are the Bignon 1800 and the Imperiale 1811. Yes, they are really that old, and the bouquets are really unbelievable, especially on the Imperiale. We told Alessandro earlier this year that if our companies have decent years, we will come in early 2010 and have a glass of each of these (I seem to remember the Imperiale is nearly £400 a shot!). But we’ll have to wait and see about that.
So, if you ever fancy a great martini in a refined and gracious setting, with excellent service, head over to Dukes. You probably won’t be able to find it straight away, but I guess that’s part of the fun.