My husband and I arrived in London from Oregon on a drizzly Sunday afternoon. We were exhilarated to be in one of our favorite cities and went straight to the Christmas Market at King’s Cross. We strolled the vendor booths, delighting in the black sausage and mince pies we can’t get in the States. Scents of cinnamon and cloves from the mulled wine station wafted toward us—so tempting on a cold, wet day. We decided against it, though. After our redeye, it seemed too early to imbibe. Besides, alcohol might induce sleep, and we would miss our first evening in London.
Night fell early, as it does that time of year in the UK, and we decided to go for cocktails. We could have explored the pubs near our hotel, but chose to go for a long walk. Earlier that year, our son had spent a weekend in London visiting the top cocktail bars. He regaled us with tales of the drinks at Bar Swift. Soho was forty minutes away, and it started to pour. Scurrying under an awning, we questioned our plan to go bar hopping on a cold night in the pouring rain after a sleepless twenty-four hours of travel.
“Should we head back to the hotel, grab a quick dinner, and get some rest?” I asked.
“We’re from Oregon. A little rain won’t hurt us.”
I lifted the collar of my leather jacket, took my husband’s arm, and we pressed on. A block later, the rain stopped.
Near Covent Garden, the sidewalk grew thick with cheerful people. Angels and whimsical ocean scenes in twinkling lights arched over the streets. Store windows were decked out in holiday décor.
The Bar Swift has two levels. Upstairs is for hipsters—an aperitif menu and lights bright on the marble countertops. We wove through to downstairs, a warmer, darker space with an intimate, speakeasy feel. At the back, we settled into two available seats at the bar. We always sit at the bar. Making friends with bartenders is our hobby.
A tall bartender sported a denim shirt, brown apron, and a thin moustache above his warm smile. His name was Sam, he said. I told him that our son, now studying at the University of Glasgow, had recommended Bar Swift downstairs. The bartender said he was from Belgium. We discussed our fears of how Brexit might change London. I ordered a Cobblestone, a whiskey-forward cocktail with subtle complexity made with Irish Whiskey, walnut liqueur, sherry, and chocolate bitters. I loved it. My husband opted for the Goldfinch, a vibrant cocktail prepared with bourbon, cognac, lemon, kola nut, and Fernet. I tasted his Goldfinch but liked my drink better.
When it was time for our second round, I told Sam I wanted an Irish Coffee but thought the caffeine would interfere with my sleep.
“It’s never too late for an Irish Coffee,” Sam said. “And you have to try ours.” He went on to describe how they used a sous vide bath to keep the coffee/sugar mixture at the ideal temperature of 75 ̊C.
Nutmeg drifted toward me as I lifted my Irish Coffee. I loved the weight of the hot liquid on my tongue and the flavor blanket of coffee, sugar, and whiskey. A stout-finished Irish Whiskey added a subtle hint of malt.
“My son said we’d love this place,” I said, a taste of the soft cream still on my lips. “We’re meeting him and his girlfriend in Paris.”
“You must go to the Little Red Door,” Sam said. “You can’t miss it.”
Three days later, traffic overwhelmed the streets of Paris. Strikes had closed the Metro, forcing more people to drive. Accompanied by the din of screeching brakes and blaring horns, my husband and I walked to The Little Red Door in the Third Arrondissement.
We stood outside the bar, staring at a closed red door. Moments later, a door masquerading as a side wall opened, and the host let us inside. We entered a dark, warm space filled with eclectic yet opulent furniture. At the bar, we perched on the blue velvet stools.
I smiled at the dark-bearded bartender, who wore a bright, floral apron over his black shirt and jeans. He grinned back.
“Bonjour,” my husband said.
“Good evening,” the bartender replied and handed us the English version of their menu.
Bound in hardcover and illustrated with surrealistic artwork, it felt more like a book than a menu. Each page was dedicated to a single drink, and every drink celebrated the bar’s 2019 theme: A Way with Words. The Little Red Door staff had collected words from around the world that did not translate into French or English then designed a cocktail to evoke each word’s meaning.
I tend to prefer simple cocktails. It’s the craft of preparation that intrigues me, not the artistic creativity of conceptualizing. I was hesitant but quickly discovered I had no reason for concern. My cocktail, prepared with bitters and Amaro to highlight the whiskey, was delicious.
We talked to the bartender about Bar Swift in London. Turned out he and Sam were friends. After a chat about the strikes, the bartender handed us a wallet-sized pamphlet with his restaurant recommendations for Paris. He grabbed a pen and quickly crossed out restaurants he thought wouldn’t appeal to us. Then he drew stars near the names of those he thought we’d love.
And love them we did. Every restaurant exuded a relaxed yet charming atmosphere and catered more to locals than tourists. Their menus highlighted the root vegetables of winter and the game meats we adore. Had we relied on website reviews, we wouldn’t have found these restaurants, nor would it have been as much fun. There is something special about going to a place someone has recommended to you, especially if you’ve met that person on your travels.
Warm conversations over the perfect cocktails can turn strangers into friends, and that’s what makes a trip into an adventure—at least, that’s what I’ve decided.
BIO: Gail Pasternack, president of Willamette Writers, lives in Oregon. Her story, Asmodai in Portland, was published in the New Mitzvah Stories for the Whole Family.
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