Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Learning the Dark Arts at Barts

By Nathalie Bonney.

Picture the scene: a soggy July evening, my friend and I hurry along Sloane Avenue, our shoulders hunched and our paper map getting flimsier by the second. In fact, it’s about to turn to papier mache mush when the shop assistant in Sainsburys tells us Barts bar is just along the road at Chelsea Cloisters. 

Only Chelsea Cloisters is a posh block of flats, sorry apartments; confusing. Still, the concierge assures us we’re in the right place and a quick left turn around the corner brings us to a door with a small sign on it that simply says ‘Barts’. We push it open and find ourselves in a mini entranceway, the walls decorated in Mickey Mouse wallpaper.

‘Cute!’ my Disney-loving friend enthuses.

‘This is going to be a good night!’ I add; far, far too early.

To get through to the main bar we have to knock on another door. A young lady in a tassled dress opens it ever so slightly and asks for our names. Barts is by reservation/invitation only. She can’t find our names, I’m starting to think the Mickey Mouse cartoons will be the sum total of our night out. Thankfully, a moustachioed man in braces says we can come in and the pair of us gratefully make it into the speakeasy bar.

Twenties and thirties doo wop Jazz music is playing, there’s a dress-up box of fancy dress to the left of the doorway and the bar to the right is host to champagne flutes, old tankards and martini glasses hanging from it. Railway carriage luggage racks, with worn velveteen seats beneath them, run the length of the opposite wall. Barts oozes character and charm, it’s got Prohibition down like Kate Moss does festival dress: picture perfect. But, of course, this isn’t a speakeasy bar in Harlem, it’s in Chelsea, with prices to match: cocktails, such as Al Capone’s Little Friend and Purple Prohibition, come served in China teapots with dainty teacups, at £45 a pop. While the mad hatter top hat is even pricier at £60. We tried the Chelsea Rose, which was refreshing and oh-so English with Hendricks gin, apple juice, dark berries and elderflower cordial. But you’ve got to question if the cocktail would cost so much if it was poured out of a plastic thermos. Probably not.

Of course the price tag is meant to reflect the ambience the punters are paying for. Barts has done a good job of maintaining its secret aura, not even putting its address on its website, which goes a long way to explaining its popularity. However, while on paper the Sloane Street  drinking den deserves an A+, it lets itself down in the practical test. The bar’s desire to create an air of exclusivity means staff aren’t always terribly friendly to newcomers meanwhile existing customers can be downright rude; and this was especially the case on our visit.

My friend and I had arrived at Barts for what it hopes will be a semi-regular night called ‘Dark Arts at Barts’, the idea being magician and card shuffling extraordinaire, the Deceptionist, will teach magic enthusiasts the dark arts. Think Hogwarts minus the wands and quidditch and with mojitos and antipasti bar snacks instead. Despite a top-class magician performing tricks and then teaching laymen how to do themselves, for some reason a large proportion of the audience were insistent on chattering throughout, and not always in a quiet whisper either. New arrivals were greeted loudly and with much air kissing. As one irritated spectator near me put it, “It’s like going to the cinema and sitting near a load of people that talk all over the film.”

Even with the constant annoying din, the Deceptionist still managed to wow: one punter picked a card from a pack then put it back in the stack only for it to appear folded in four under his watch strap. Another wrote his signature on the card only for Britain’s tallest magician (he called himself that, he was being ironic) to pick multiple cards out of the deck with the same signature and, in a final flourish, reveal another one kept in a sealed envelope in his pocket with the same signature.

Taking things slowly, the Deceptionist, who also plans to run lunchtime magic workshops for wannabe wizards (see didn’t reveal the secrets to these tricks – doing so would have surely got the magic circle police busting downs Barts’ doors quicker than you can say ‘alakazam’ - but he did start to teach some nifty moves that if executed properly would definitely earn some serious kudos points. I’m sadly still at the ‘got hands like horse hoofs’ stage.

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