London’s New Bathroom Bars

A former public restroom might not seem like the ideal space to open a bar, but London’s nightlife creatives are looking beyond the urinals to uncover the potential of these derelict spaces. Tyler Wetherall on the new bathroom bars.

As I was enjoying my teacup of Hot Buttered Rum in a London bar, an elderly chap appeared through the blue velvet curtain looking as confused as Alice at the bottom of the rabbit hole. “Beg your pardon,” he said. “I thought this was a toilet.” The bartender smiles back, and welcomes him in regardless.

The man’s assumption was fair. From the outside, the venue looks like a public restroom: The Ladies and Gentlemen sign is intact and now illuminated to indicate the entrance to those in the know. But instead of housing a lavatory down the dark narrow steps, this is a recently opened neighborhood cocktail bar from Vestal Vodka‘s William Borrellsensibly named Ladies & Gentlemen—and an excellent one at that. After using the bar’s restroom, the lost chap stays for a beer anyway—a craft Camden Pale Ale from the local Camden Town Brewery.

Ladies & Gentlemen is just one of a number of new bars—like Bermondsey Arts Club, WC and The Convenience—that have opened up across London in former public restrooms, and more are expected. In the dense urban areas of Victorian England, restrooms were frequently built underground, accessed by staircases, cordoned off by iron railings or arches and lit by frosted glass skylights. Some of them had beautiful ornate signage and marble tiles. But as time passed by, they fell out of common use and became foreboding subterranean dens where junkies went to shoot up, the homeless went to wash or men went for an anonymous fumble; they were not somewhere you ought to drop your pants unless interested in any of the above. They have a rich and fascinating history—George Michael included—that I won’t go into here.

More recently, beleaguered London councils—who preside over the public space of each borough—have decided to sell the shuttered restrooms to raise much-needed revenue. The city now also boasts a coffee shop, a restaurant, an apartment, a nightclub and the smallest cabaret in the world in what were once loos.

There is high demand for these spaces. When Andy Bell and Jayke Mangion of WC placed a bid on the derelict Edwardian public toilets in south London’s Clapham, they were up against 400 applications. After winning the lease, it was another two years of painstaking red tape (licensing, planning permission, etc.) before they could start work. The difficulties didn’t end there.

“In comparison to my other venues it was a lot harder,” says Mangion, who has opened a number of London restaurants and bars. “It was once a fantastic looking public toilet with mahogany walls, hand-laid mosaic flooring and a beautiful design, but the space was a wreck when we got it. We wanted to keep as many original features as possible and pay homage to its former self, but after more than 100 years with no work done to it, there were major structural issues.”

Bars like these pique our desire for novelty. And while they are indeed another variation on the secrecy or obscurity of the neo-speakeasy theme, there is also something distinctly British about them, from the architecture to the English penchant for toilet humor.

Now open and a lauded success, their renovation work paid off. WC—which now stands for “wine and charcuterie,” rather than “water closet”—has that rustic chic look, but it’s the historical oddities that make it stand out, such as the collection of framed love notes, Playboy magazines and miscellany on display, found deposited behind a plaster wall from the days when this was a notorious cruising spot. “People come in on a daily basis curious to have a look. It’s the history and stories that they love,” says Mangion.

Restoration isn’t the only challenge. For William Borrell—best known to the booze world for Vestal Vodka, a single-distilled potato vodka made on his family farm in Poland—the biggest obstacle was the local residents. We don’t need more bars, they argued; we need more public toilets. The fact that those toilets had been out of use for decades seemed irrelevant, as did the illogic of fighting to save a space that’s was previously the preserve of the illicit, rather than celebrating the opening of a friendly bar.

He persevered, and now just two months after opening the gates to Ladies & Gentlemen it has loyal regular customer base. He also houses a 16-litre copper still in the bar, which during closing hours churns out bespoke gins and liqueurs. “The idea is that it’s a fully utilised working space,” says Borrell. “By day, we’re making 50 to 100 bottles, and by night, it’s a place for the community to have a craft cocktail, listen to some records or live music, and relax.”

Bars like these pique our desire for novelty. And while they are indeed another variation on the secrecy or obscurity of the neo-speakeasy theme, there is also something distinctly British about them, from the architecture to the English penchant for toilet humor.

However, what’s really at the heart of this recent spate of restroom conversions is the issue of space. There isn’t enough of it in central London. We’re squeezed in tighter than a fish farm and just as miserably. There are 230 skyscrapers currently planned for the capital, as we reach to the skies for fresh real estate. Central London is increasingly at the mercy of the corporate behemoths set on developing it, and the NIMBY residents who can still afford to live there. Between the two of them many cultural landmarks are slowly being pushed out from burlesque club Madame JoJos to arts space The Wapping Project.

The council began selling off their derelict public services as part of a wider government initiative to utilize central London’s vast underground “dead spaces.” These include 5,700 acres owned by Transport for London of abandoned Tube stations and old horse tunnels, which they see as having untapped economic potential for development into retail and leisure attractions. While some will go to major developers and retailers, others will be given off to alternative projects such as an herb garden in part of Clapham North tube—or a bar.

What makes the availability of these “dead spaces” so valuable is the opportunity for independent entrepreneurs to be creative in central London areas, and reinvigorate some of the character that London is at risk of losing. Just as every borough needs public restrooms, they also need a great little bar tucked clandestinely away underground. According to Borrell, “You just need to be crazy and eccentric enough to find a way to do it.”