While the current government is hell-bent on undermining the arts, at least we can rely on the hospitality industry to support creativity in all its forms. There’s a pleasing trend of arts venues now enhancing their in-house F&B operations with interesting collaborations: there’s José Pizarro at The Royal Academy of Arts; Forza Wine will be joining the already successful Lasdun at The National Theatre in September; and now, at the newly re-opened National Portrait Gallery, you can bookend your viewing experience with sustenance at Richard Corrigan’s new top floor restaurant, The Portrait, and/or (in my view) the far more convivial Larry’s Bar in the basement.
Named after Laurence Olivier, Larry’s Bar is the brainchild of the Daisy Green Collection who also run the ground floor café Audrey Green. This is a new drinking den, though not quite one of iniquity – that louche experience can still be enjoyed at Gerry’s underground bar in Soho. Larry’s similarly celebrates all things liberal, progressive and bohemian, but is a classier and calmer affair, with blue banquettes, plush stools and an outdoor terrace too. It’s a gallery in itself, with over a hundred portraits displayed on the exposed brick walls. As you sip on a ‘Hepburn’ (a riff on a White Lady with a vegan-friendly foam) you may be observed by Peter O’Toole smoking a cigarette, Marilyn Monroe pouting or Dame Edna Everage smiling mischievously.
And then there is the cocktail menu, which is quite possibly the most beautiful menu ever printed. Each page is a tribute to legendary luminaries and the photographers who captured their images. It is well worth a read.
On this visit, it was particularly pleasing to be greeted by familiar bartenders Vito Verrengia and Salvatore Distefano who most recently worked at Booking Office 1869. I’ve always trusted them to make an excellent Negroni and theirs didn’t disappoint here either.
Moving onto the house cocktails, a huge amount of research has gone into these to honour their photographic namesakes, marrying classic cocktail theory from the likes of Harry MacElhone and Henry C. Ramos with contemporary tastes. Take for instance the ‘Yevonde’, inspired by the female pioneer of colour photography who would overlay images in magenta, cyan and yellow. Here, these colours appear in edible gels atop lemon myrtle-infused gin, dry vermouth, blood orange and elderflower tonic shaken up in a siphon (alas not by hand). The result is a sort of reverse Ramos Fizz in a modern presentation reminiscent of similarly minimalist drinks at The Bar with Shapes for A Name and Tayēr + Elementary. It is also dangerously drinkable, its kick not immediately obvious.
The blend of contemporary and classic is particularly evident in ‘The Cecil Beaton’, named after the photographer whose subjects included the royal family in the mid-20th century. This drink is an ode to the late Queen Elizabeth II’s favourite tipple and her preferred ratio, i.e. 2:1 Dubonnet to gin, served in an elegant glass topped with sparkling wine for a Sbagliato touch, a white chocolate coin and Crème de Violette sprayed by atomiser tableside. Meanwhile, no bar menu is complete without a Martini: ‘The McBean’, named after one of Cecil Beaton’s peers, channels the current popularity of dirty Martinis, here made with umeshu in addition to gin and vodka and a drop of black olive oil.
On this occasion I didn’t have any bar snacks as dinner awaited at The Portrait but ear-marked the lobster roll and Scotch eggs for potential future soakage options.
Charing Cross has always been a bit devoid of decent bars, the only reliable ones being Upstairs at Rules in Covent Garden or Velvet at The Corinthia, but Larry’s is an excellent addition to the scene, whether as part of a visit to the gallery upstairs or just for some restrained hellraising.
National Portrait Gallery
St. Martin's Place
by J A Smith