The Polo Bar: Cocktails and canapes score in Mayfair
Situated in the heart of London's shopping district, this is a hotel bar worth checking in to
Hotel bars tend to have a seedy reputation: think businessman in badly fitting suits and stressed parents trying to enjoy a night out with tired kids.
Now replace that with images of a hotel bar from the golden age of cinema, with luxe art deco furnishings and sparkling Swarovski Crystal "blinds" at the windows, transport it from Hollywood to Mayfair and you have The Polo Bar at the Westbury.
Situated on Conduit Street, a few minutes' walk from Bond Street, it is the ideal central location for Portfolio to meet up with an American friend during her visit to the capital. The large windows are perfect for people-watching, while the furnishings – deep, plush, blue velvet armchairs around dark walnut tables – make it a luxurious stopping-off point while shopping or sightseeing.
Staff are friendly and attentive, without ever being overbearing. "Our main priority has always been the service," says general manager Elias Yiallouris, who worked previously at Claridge's and the Savoy – a position he was told about by chef Marcus Wareing. "It's old school with a modern touch - no gimmicks. Everything must be done to a consistent high standard."
On our visit, head mixologist Carmine Catena is in charge, a man whose passion for and knowledge of cocktails shines through. After discussing the drinks and tastes we like, Catena expertly rustles up two Polo Bar classics for us: Pomegranate Deluxe (£19), a Bombay Sapphire gin shaken with elderflower, lemon and freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and Champagne; and Pearl Gem (£19), Tanqueray gin infused with Blend 68 tea shaken with lychee, lime and sugar and topped with champagne and pineapple foam. Each cocktail comes with a small taster glass of the other, allowing my friend and me to test and compare before committing to the larger glass.
One sip and it's easy to see why the Polo Bar won Best Mixology at the London Club and Bar Awards. Soft and gentle, they are a subtle mix of flavours, with the alcohol base neither overpowering nor being outshone by its supporting cast.
"We try to keep our drinks simple - simple but complex," says Yiallouris. "The secret of a good cocktail is balance and an understanding of how flavours marry, like a chef would make a dish. The look is also important and we use a very high quality of glassware."
Our drinks are accompanied by a little tray of olives, Sicilian bread and salted almonds, which are regularly topped up throughout our stay.
Not long after, our first dish to share arrives: panko-crusted prawns (23.50): sweet, fleshy king prawns with a delicate and delightfully non-greasy panko breadcrumb coating, accompanied by a chilli dip with just the right level of spice – a bit of a kick without the need to gulp down large amounts of cocktail to try to combat the heat.
The air is filled with the subtle murmur of fellow guests talking and the efficient coming and going of staff. Plans to visit Buckingham Palace go out the window as we nibble, sip and chat – and point out the occasional famous face that passes by (discretion is a byword at the Polo: asked to name some of the celebrities he had served at the bar, Yiallouris replies: "Discretion is key. We have regular, extremely high-profile guests who come to us because of that exact reason - we are private and discreet.")
Instead, Portfolio can name the stars of the second part of our stay at the bar: Summer in Warsaw (£16), a fruity mix of Belvedere grapefruit vodka shaken with peach liquor, grapefruit juice, fresh raspberries and Amaro Averna liqueur, and Russian Spring Punch (£16), Beluga vodka shaken with fresh berries and creme de cassis, charged with Peroni Gran Reserva. They are both delightfully tangy after the rich first round of cocktails and take several sippings of each before we can name our individual delight.
They are accompanied by delicate lobster tarlets (£21), elegant pastry mouthfuls filled with poached Scottish lobster, baked beetroot, pickled ginger and basil. All the food is designed by executive chef Brian Fantoni, with whom Yiallouris worked at the Savoy, and works wonderfully with the drinks menu – complementing and enhancing the other.
At this point, I am starting to understand the appeal of a hotel bar – a small siesta in a hotel room would be a lovely end to the day. And there hasn't been a bad suit or stressed parent in sight.
The Polo Bar at The Westbury Hotel, 37 Conduit St, Mayfair, London W1S 2YF