There's a Whimsical New Bar Hidden in London's Oldest Theater

Find rich history, lush greenery, and flowing gin and tonics off of Drury Lane in London's West End.

The Garden bar at Theatre Royal Drury Lane
Photo: Courtesy

More than 350 years ago, Nell Gwyn became one of the first women to act on an English stage. The theater where it happened, off of Drury Lane in London's West End, was destroyed and rebuilt several times over. But its grounds have been home to a theater ever since, making it the world's oldest theater site in continuous use.

Late last year, on the heels of a two-year, £60-million renovation, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane reopened with a glamorous tea salon, an art-filled rotunda, and a bar that feels like a secret garden, just minutes from the crowded Strand in Covent Garden.

The Garden's entrance is marked by a canopy of greenery. On the other side, a narrow enclave bookended by ivy-covered brick walls is capped by a soaring ceiling. Lofty trees strung with fairy lights share space with dramatic chandeliers, a stone floor padded by vintage rugs and glowing candles.

The goal, according to a representative from the theater, was to create a hidden oasis from the hustle of Covent Garden.

The ambiance — think speakeasy meets Bridgerton country house soirée — is a far cry from the venue's former life. Dating back to the early 17th century, the alley connecting Drury Lane and what was then called Brydges Street (now Catherine Street) was known as Vinegar Yard. Most recently, the area was a loading bay used to get sets and props to the stage.

These days, the idyllic all-day café has indoor and outdoor seating for plates like banana and blueberry porridge or Belgian waffles at brunch, and snacks and drinks (both boozy and alcohol-free) later in the day. Besides the decidedly English gin and tonic menu — with versions like elderflower mint or rhubarb and orange — the cocktail list was created with inspiration from the Garden's history. The Pearkes Punch, for example, is a nod to early 19th-century fishmonger George Pearkes who garnered local fame with his whistling oyster.

Legendary composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and his wife, Madeleine, bought the theater in 2000 and oversaw the renovation of the building, which dates back to 1812. The inspiration for the venue's design came from Madeleine Lloyd Webber, who aspired to transform the theater into more than a place to see an occasional production, but a place to return often to spend time in the bars and restaurants.

The Garden bar at Theatre Royal Drury Lane
Andy Paradise

"The Lane's restoration sought to create the world's first five-star theatre," Lloyd Webber said in a statement. "We are thrilled that The Lane is now the buzzing, all-day destination we so wanted it to be, breathing life back into the West End."

Besides the Garden, at the plush little Cecil Beaton bar, cocktails are inspired by the celebrated fashion photographer and theater and film costume designer. Curated by British bartender Tristan Stephenson, the menu includes the Eliza Doolittle, for example, with No3 Gin, white port, Creme De Violet, lemon juice, and soda, named after Audrey Hepburn's character in My Fair Lady. (Beaton's work dressing Hepburn's character for the film nabbed him an Oscar for best costume in 1965, and the bar's design, splashed in a black-and-white-striped carpet and Beaton's vintage photographs, is a nod to those costumes.)

For non-drinkers or the younger set — the theater is in the middle of a run of Frozen the Musical, after all — there's Coco, an homage to the 1969 Broadway musical about Coco Chanel that won Beaton an Emmy, made with Three Spirit Nightcap, tea, and coconut sugar, among the thoughtful no-ABV drinks.

Other revamped dining spaces include the lofty terrace, overlooking Covent Garden and serving evening snacks, rosé, and punch, the central Rotunda, with Champagne-popping amid the massive artworks depicting Shakespearean scenes by Brooklyn artist Maria Kreyn, and the Grand Saloon. There, under crystal-dripping chandeliers, an afternoon tea revolves around London bakery Lily Vanilli's pastel layered cakes and absinthe mint chocolate chip ice cream. Servingware, meanwhile, was designed with playful characters pulled from illustrations of the costume designs of the theater's erstwhile comic operas, ballets, and Edwardian musical comedies.

Since 1663, the theater on Drury Lane has been the setting for countless productions, iconic actors like Julie Andrews have graced its stage, and since 1812, every reigning English monarch has attended performances. With its new all-day restaurants and bars, though, now the drama and excitement at the historic venue isn't relegated to the stage.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles