A drink from Lyaness in London.
Common Decency offers an ever-evolving bar menu that is an ode to the city's history of light and dark.
DURING THE FIRST half of the eighteenth century, London was awash in gin. Consumption of the juniper berry–flavored spirit skyrocketed, mythologized now as the catalyst for violence, prostitution, and an overall sense of despair that garnered the maddening era the nickname “the Gin Craze.” Many of the city’s drunken, unruly denizens wound up at the informal courthouse set up in magistrate Thomas de Veil’s home at No. 4 Bow Street for what was described as their “affront to common decency.” By 1881, the complex continued to soak up the limelight. It was there, for example, that Oscar Wilde was detained overnight in 1895, and gangsters the Kray twins were charged with murder in 1968.
Inside the swank NoMad London hotel, which took over the historic courthouse and police headquarters in 2021, is Common Decency, a recently opened bar that recasts Bow Street’s dark past with a classy yet playful sheen. Consider the lush murals enlivening the subterranean space. Painted by set designers from the Royal Opera House, who had extra time on their hands during the first pandemic lockdown (the venue sits across the street from the NoMad), the artworks evoke the flair of Aubrey Beardsley, whose explicit ink illustrations graced the pages of Wilde’s one-act tragedy, “Salome.”
These murals are an apt addition to the glamorous design scheme hatched by Roman and Williams, the New York studio that left its deft mark across the entire property. The moody, glowing room is awash in velveteen and mirrors, mixing ethereal petal-shaped lighting with voluptuous nooks and sculptural chairs donning fringed skirts.
It’s a decadent backdrop that complements the bold menu overseen by Leo Robitschek, renowned for his New York bar programs at Eleven Madison Park and the original NoMad a few blocks away. Robitschek is also responsible for the bars within NoMad London’s other two hot spots — the restaurant in its soaring atrium and the Mexican-inspired Side Hustle, home to micheladas laced with Scotch bonnet pepper and white miso.
Common Decency is, according to Robitschek, a chance to flaunt another side of the NoMad hotel ethos, historically synonymous with vibrant nightlife offerings. “We’ve all grown up and aren’t going out to clubs every night anymore,” he says. At the same time, a desire to have fun remains strong, and the bar provides just that, albeit in a sophisticated fashion. “Common Decency epitomizes the culture of NoMad seen through the lens of cocktails, with great music,” adds Robitschek. “We have curated DJs, but it’s not a big night out, just a place to swoosh around a bit.”
Reflecting that spirit is the ever-shifting cocktail list, a collaborative effort by the staff following weekly R&D sessions. Seasonality has always been of prime importance to Robitschek, but it’s taken to new heights at Common Decency. The menu showcases eight of-the-moment ingredients expressed as two distinct cocktails that reference the personalities of London’s markedly different West and East Ends, bolstered by an array of reinterpreted favorites.
The West End–style libations are “classically driven but tend to be whimsical in presentation. They are a bit more embellished with garnishes, so when guests see one of those come out, they often ask for one too,” says Robitschek, noting how the quirky East End versions, by contrast, emphasize technique. “They are deceptively simple in appearance, but conceptual. Some people order one of each to try them and see how we captured an ingredient two different ways.”
For the opening menu in late September, Robitschek gave the spotlight to tomato, cucumber, beet, and quince, as well as more offbeat choices like butternut squash, Szechuan pepper, marigold, and cobnut. “The cobnut in particular was so interesting for me to play around with,” says bar director Liana Oster, who also flits between NoMad’s food and drink venues.
The cobnut (a British hazelnut) was parlayed into two captivating concoctions — one of them a savory riff on the old-fashioned, pairing Michter’s rye, maple syrup, olive oil, and salt; the other a mélange of hot salted cream, Elyx vodka, Mr Black coffee liqueur, and cold-brew coffee. Other drinks showcased during the inaugural run mirror a sense of adventure, like the salted caramelized Quince Park Swizzle and the bright Sun Conure, wherein toasted Szechuan pepper is mingled with Appleton Estate 12-year-old rum, Campari, lime, pineapple, strawberry, and passion fruit. After the cocktails have had their run on the menu, Robitschek explains, the star ingredient and its two respective drinks are pulled off the list to make way for newcomers.
This month’s kitschy holiday pop-up reinforces Common Decency’s animated approach to hospitality. Divided into Naughty and Nice cocktails, a soulful Not the Buttons, made with bourbon, sherry, ginger, lemon, and brown butter makes an appearance on the former; a frosty Candy Cane Colada made with absinthe, Fernet-Branca Menta, coconut, and pineapple on the latter — and the menu is interspersed with a smattering of communal punches best savored in one of the cozy mugs.
One especially attractive aspect of turning out a series of fleeting, market-fresh cocktails is sustainability. Oster works directly with local purveyors and farmers on sourcing the produce, and draws from the kitchen team as well “because they have such a big influence. I’m having the time of my life looking at what’s seasonal. I’ve not done this before in a menu process and it’s nice to think about,” she explains.
Robitschek singles out the carbonated Tomatoes R’ Us cocktail with Olmeca Altos tequila, verjus, and white balsamic from the first menu as a strong example of zero-waste prep. “We created a water with roma tomatoes from the U.K. and all the pulp and leftovers were used to make fruit tuiles. We also infused the stems into sherry.”
Common Decency certainly represents another vivid dimension to an already beloved hotel brand, and beyond the curtain leading to it, the aura is immediately transporting. As Oster puts it, “It feels alive in here.”
Originally from New York, Alia Akkam is a writer living in Budapest who covers design, drinks, food, and travel. Her book on hotel bars, published in 2020, will be followed up by one on gin cocktails this year.
Emma Hardy is a self-taught portrait and documentary photographer based in London. She works in close collaboration with her subjects, offering a tender and honest gaze. Neither intruder nor witness, she is more like a participant with a camera, endeavoring to capture subtlety and the sweet humanness of the indecisive moment.
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