A few years ago, prompted in part by my having a book to write, I got into the habit of 5pm margaritas at the club I work from. Not every day, mother, if you’re reading — but regularly enough for some people to assume I’m an expert on them, including the editor of these pages.
Full disclosure: I’m not really, not in the slightest. But in trying a fair few around town — as well as in my own home — I have learned a thing or two. Good tequila is key, of course, as is fresh lime juice over bottled. Whether the sweetness is better from triple sec, Cointreau or agave is largely immaterial, I’ve found, so long as the drink is made well. The salt should be sea salt, but fine or flaky rather than rocky. Himalayan rock salt can take a hike; I shouldn’t have to crunch at the same time as sipping. But the most important ingredient for any margarita — for any classic cocktail, I’d argue — is atmosphere. The atmosphere has to merit a marg.
That doesn’t mean it has to be Mexican — though it helps, as the list below shows — but there needs to be some kinship with that country’s fun, inventive, vibrant culture. The music should be upbeat and just a little dancey. The furniture and interiors should say: kick back and have another. And another. And a fourth one. It’s hard to enjoy a marg if the décor screams martini; just as a martini in a taqueria would feel a tad disorientating. For my money, these are your best shots for a good time.
Shrub and Shutter
Shrub and Shutter is the Mary Poppins of cool, quirky cocktail bars. Only when one is in need — whilst waiting for a table in Brixton Market, say, or when wanting to continue the night after finding the place — does it present itself as a possibility; and then what a possibility it is. The staff greet everyone like they’re hosting a party, and an old friend they’ve not seen in yonks has rocked up unexpectedly. The bar is always busy, and yet somehow there is always a table, and the staff are as enthusiastic as they are fast. The classic marg is generously served straight up with fine salt (and chilli, if you want it) in a large coupe — though it’s worth trying their twists if they have any. Their inventive yet unpretentious blackboard menu of regularly changing specials is worthy of anyone’s money and time.
336 Coldharbour Lane, SW9 8QH, @theshrubandshutter
Given Quo Vadis is the home of my aforementioned 5pm margarita habit, it feels only right to include it. Besides, their classic margarita set a very high bar; I’ve tried many others since, but it remains my favourite in town. Most of this is down to the bar team, who know their classics — and the regular drinkers of them — like the back of their hand. Yet part of this is also due to the tequila which, because of Quo Vadis’s relationship with El Pastor, is significantly better quality than the tequilas which usually grace cocktails. Casa Herradura Plata Tequila is a premium offering from 153-year-old agave house, Casa Herradura. Mix that with ice, lime, Cointreau, and the inimitable energy of the QV bar, and you’ve a near faultless marg. I’ve been known to drink them way beyond 5pm, as it happens.
26-29 Dean Street, W1D 3LL, quovadissoho.co.uk
The American Bar at The Stafford
At first glance, The American Bar at The Stafford feels like a bar for martinis. It’s in a hotel — a very nice hotel, deep within St James’s — and there are mahogany panels, deep pile carpets and muted green leather chairs. Having a marg here feels wrong — until the staff arrive, beaming, and the sun sets over a cobbled courtyard where people sit even in the chilliest months, and a margarita feels like a sensible thing — even more so when it arrives in a breathtakingly delicate coupe, encrusted with an even more delicate smattering of sea salt. Boasting high-end Cenote Blanco Tequila, it is as sophisticated and smooth as those mahogany panels, as cheerfully fresh as the courtyard outside, and as bright and uplifting as the beaming team.
16-18 St James’s Place, SW1A 1NJ, thestaffordlondon.com
Hacha is the home of the mirror margarita, which slips down like a silk slipper and looks like a glass one: crystal clear, created with Tequila Bianco and malic acid, a natural sour that occurs at nighttime during the lifestyle of the agave plant. It’s clean, strong and hopelessly ‘grammable. To ensure their food offering matches their drinks for quality and flavour, they’ve outsourced it to Tigre Tacos at Hacha Dalston and Nopalito at Hacha Brixton.
378 Kingsland Road, E8 4AA, hachabar.com
Dressed to the nines and loftily perched on the 10th floor of the Standard hotel in Kings Cross, Decimo has the sort of swagger that rubs off on people. You could be a crumbling tower of existential angst, and within seconds of stepping into Decimo’s red velvet, polished wood and cacti-clad dining room, would know exactly who you are and what you want. The former, I cannot vouch for. The latter is their margarita menu, which is founded upon Tapatio Blanco tequila, Cointreau and key lime. One could go for the classic, and be very well pleased; but it would be a shame to overlook the Tepache marg, which boasts all the above plus the eponymous Tepache, which is a Mexican juice made with fermented pineapple.
10th Floor, 10 Argyle Street, WC1H 8EG, decimo.london
Though Quo Vadis is where I married the marg, Santo Remedio in London Bridge is where I first fell in love with them: over totopos with housemade salsa verde, soft-shell crab tacos zinging with fresh Jalepeno peppers and grilled cheesy corn. Play safe with their margarita de la casa, or opt for their hisbuscus flower margarita, which is made fragrant with home-made hibiscus flower cordial, strong with triple sec and Cointreau, and intriguing with the addition of both lemon and lime juice. The atmosphere is also on point: both the London Bridge and the Shoreditch Santo Remedios are colourful, cluttered and yet meticulously done.
152 Tooley Street, SE1 2TU / 55 Great Eastern Street, EC2A 3HP, santoremedio.co.uk
Donovan Bar at Brown’s Hotel
The last time I went to Brown’s Hotel we saw Bill Nighy, and my friend insisted on congratulating him on every film he’s ever been in, whilst I died quietly beside her. More recently, I returned to the hotel’s award-winning bar, Donovan’s, to try their take on a margarita, and almost died again — though this time from joy. The bar has a separate entrance — crucial to the ‘good hotel bar’ definition above — and is led by industry icon and master mixologist Salvatore Calabrese. The marg is elegantly served in a slender coupe with sweep of fine salt on the side and a chilli, if one orders spicy. The tequila inside, Casamigos Blanco, comes courtesy of George Clooney, and is suitably suave. All this sophistication is delightfully tempered by black and white photographs taken by the eponymous Terence Donovan himself, an iconic 1960s photographer; and by the bartenders who are having — and want to show you — a great time.33 Albemarle St, W1S 4BP, roccofortehotels.com
Though the delightfully ramshackle El Pastor in Borough Market is the original and the best, all the El Pastors shimmer with vibe; that ever elusive and yet essential concept, particularly where margaritas are concerned. No surprise, then, that El Pastor’s margs are some of the finest in town. They come frozen, straight up or on the rocks. They come flavoured with hibiscus and honeydew, spiced mango or avocado. There’s even a breakfast margarita, made with marmalade; those in the know, though, go for the spicy diabolo, which is delightfully fiery and fun. All are made with the reliably rounded El Jumador Reposado — apart from this ‘margarita month’, for which El Pastor’s Group Bar Manager, Carlos Fontoira has created a special, eponymous serve. The Carlito’s Margarita, above, features Tequila Herradura Blanco, Campari, Cointreau, lime, hibiscus, pineapple juice and is served in a highball on the rocks.
Various locations, tacoselpastor.co.uk
Side Hustle at the Nomad Hotel
There’s an art to creating a good hotel bar. A bad hotel bar makes one feel shabby, like one’s trespassing on the hallowed ground of those who can afford to sleep there. A good one makes one either forget the hotel, or feel even more special for having graced it with one’s presence, just for a marg. The casually cool Nomad Hotel in Covent Garden has two bars, Side Hustle and Common Decency, and both are good — but it’s the Side Hustle you want for the margarita. The buzzy, happy atmosphere lends itself to the drink, as do the bartenders who are having such a good time, it’s enough to make one consider joining them as a real life side hustle. The salt rim is perfect — a feather dusting of salt around half the glass as well as the rim — and Patron Respado is a failsafe for tequila cocktails. For Margarita Day itself, Side Hustle is offering Dr Feel Good: an aromatic infusion of Patron Reposado, avocado, suze, génépi, lemon and Aleppo pepper.
28 Bow St, WC2E 7AW, thenomadhotel.com
Wild by Tart
Hanging plants, tropical flowers, bazaar cushions and wall murals: Wild by Tart screams marg even before you’ve considered menu; a vibrant, seasonal medley of ingredients sourced locally or from the Tart farms in Somerset and Northumberland. Fortunately, the founders have catered accordingly, by offering £7 margaritas between 5—7pm. Their regular serve is fab, but they also offer a seasonal takes featuring delicious seasonal fruits like blood oranges, gooseberries or forced rhubarb.
3-4 Eccleston Yards, SW1W 9AZ, wildbytart.com
Paladar is not Mexican; it is Latin American, and as dearly beloved by that community as it is everyone else who has sampled its crispy pork belly and Nikkei Tuna tostadas. Those and its margs, served straight up with a fine salt rim, are the only things standing between Elephant and Castle and a vortex of despair. You forget all about the location once you’re inside, mind — particularly if you’ve bagged a seat in their brick-walled courtyard, which is basically a Secret Garden filled with cocktails, green plaintain crisps and happy, chattering diners. For margarita day, Paladar will be offering a quartet of twists on the classic cocktail: a pineapple margarita, lulo margarita, mezcarita and raspberry & habanero margarita, available for £10 each or £35 for four.
4-5 London Road, SE1 6JZ, paladarlondon.com