Everything changed after The Starman left this planet in 2016. Just a few days after David Bowie’s untimely death in January that year, my favourite actor Alan Rickman made his trip to the Great Theatre in the Sky. Prince soon departed this life too. Then followed the Brexit referendum, Trump’s election, sleaze in the UK government, Covid, war in Eastern Europe… I sometimes wonder if Bowie was the force holding the universe together.
Bowie’s back catalogue of music has provided comfort in these dark times but what we’ve always needed is an all-day Bohemian den that channels his creative, open-minded spirit. I came close to experiencing this when I visited his old Berlin watering hole Neues Ufer – a neighbourhood bar Bowie used to frequent with his flatmate Iggy Pop in the late 1970s, but until we invent Star Trek-style transporters it isn’t exactly feasible to travel to Germany just for a drink.
Finally, in March 2022, my prayers were answered with the opening of The Thin White Duke in Soho. Any fan will immediately recognise this is a reference to his Station to Station era – incidentally, an excellent album which contains the sublime song Word on a Wing (and the gorgeously relevant lyric “in this age of grand illusion, you walked into my life out of my dreams”).
Owned by musician Giovanni Almonte and production designer Sasha Stamp, this coffee shop, bar and music hub is a small two-floor venue on the conduit between Shaftesbury Avenue and Lexington Street. The ground floor, as slender as 1970s Bowie himself, is a minimalist bar – about the same intimate size as nearby Bar Termini, Swift or Henson’s and this bar certainly should be considered in the same league. Downstairs is the members-only recording studio.
The cocktails are devised by Dav Eames (avid Palate readers will remember he also oversees the bar at Indian speakeasy Bandra Bhai where he still works half the week – see our review here). Each of his drinks are inspired by Bowie’s music and film career but, consistent with Dav’s classically-trained approach, there’s no style over substance, no need to wade through foliage or mini pyrotechnics just to get to the ruddy drink. The spirits speak for themselves and the drinks are intelligent. OK, some of the references are a bit more obvious, such as the ‘Hunky Dory’ (rhubarb infused vodka, lime, cardamom syrup) and the ‘China Girl’ (jasmine pearl infused gin, Domain de Canton, peach, lemon, egg white). But most are a lot more obscure, with a lot of thought behind them.
Take for instance the ‘Gin and Milk’ – ordinarily I balk at any dairy mixed with spirits but this is made with almond milk and references Bowie’s odd diet before he moved to Germany. Then there’s the clever ‘Four Walls Black’ – comprising coffee infused Bourbon, Antica Formula, Heering cherry liqueur and chocolate bitters – a liquid Black Forest Gateau that simultaneously evokes Bowie’s bleak Berlin apartment and final album, Blackstar.
As for the background music, there isn’t as much Bowie as you’d think (can you imagine having too much of David Bowie?). On this visit the soundtrack actually leaned more towards indie rock. And did I mention the cicchetti and pastries? A slice of cherry tart went beautifully well with the Martinez and Life on Mars mashup, the ‘Martian-ez.’
Perhaps my only minor concern is that you can’t book seats in the bar. If it gets busy you just have to try your luck. But I was assured a seat will always be found, even if there’s a little wait. And it’s perfectly located for a pre-theatre drink or an aperitif before Andrew Edmunds or Blacklock next door. I have high hopes for this place.
22B Great Windmill Street
by J A Smith