“I’ve been going to bars all my life and I have a very warm relationship with them – probably more so than I’m allowed to admit,” starts Idris Elba. Arguably Britain’s finest artistic export today – and certainly the one with the most cultural cachet – Elba is a polymath who has seen global success with every field he has turned his hand to.
This week, the drinking world discovers what these skills mean in terms of bar design, as Porte Noire opens at the foot of Gasholders, in London’s resurging King’s Cross. Launched in partnership with David Farber, founder of the acclaimed Connaught Wine Cellars, the bar is a shared project and a vehicle for Elba’s Porte Noire champagne brand, as well as a venue where he would happily prop the bar when on home soil in his native UK.
“I’ve lived in many, many places and I’ve met lots of good people as well as advanced my career in bars,” says Elba. “I’ve worked in them, drunk in them and they’re a place I feel comfortable in. I wanted to create something that feels luxe and special, but also relatable, warm and welcoming.”
The bar itself is predominantly wine-focused, with 800 bins and a series of temperature-controlled tasting rooms. Stand-out cocktails include the Porte Noire Flower with wild hibiscus syrup, vodka, apricot liqueur and champagne; the Twinkle Spritz, with vodka, elderflower cordial, prosecco and soda water; and what is perhaps a tongue-in-cheek nod to his ongoing links to the role of James Bond, a Vesper Martini with gin, vodka, herbal liqueur and vermouth.
Seventy terrace seats will be the plum spots come springtime, while the food menu will major in brasserie classics – beef cheek, pommes purée, leek persillade; and oeuf meurette (eggs poached in red wine) – as well as a large cheese and charcuterie selection from top French and British producers.
“When I’m going out to bars, it’s mainly two types I like to drink in,” explains Elba. “I like the old school, sawdust on the floor, dartboard out the back where you know the name of the bar staff and can feel super relaxed – that’s the kind of place I grew up in.
“Then at the other end of the spectrum, I also like those with a bit more sophistication. The kind of place that you know won’t get too rowdy, but you can come in for a quiet drink and it feels a bit more exclusive.”
Will Porte Noire have a dartboard? “No, not at the moment – but I may well stick one in the kitchen.”
Of all the gin joints in all the world
The life of an international movie star sees much travel. Elba has lived in Australia, the UK, South America and moved to New York after leaving London. “You can tell a lot about a city from its bars,” he says. “When I moved to New York City in the late 90s, it was the bar capital of the world for me. I used to DJ a lot in East Village, and you could really feel the place moving – the city changed a lot after 9/11 and it became a different place.
“Other places I love to go to are seaside towns in the UK such as Brighton, and the city of Paris will always have a place in my heart for its little hole in the wall type places where you can lose a few hours and meet new and interesting faces.”
Although the storied partying of his youth may well have slowed its pace, Elba will still find time to seek out good drinking experiences when on location. “Back in the day I was very into beer-drinking, but as I’ve got older it’s not so kind on the belly,” he jokes. “Having visited awesome places in Japan and from speaking to people who know more than me, I’ve got very into whisky, particularly Japanese whisky. If it’s the start of a night and we are looking to party and I’m not particularly tired, I’ll kick off with vodka and move on to tequila and tonic – I like to keep it pretty simple.”
The King’s Cross that Elba left in the 1990s would be unrecognisable today. The Coal Drops Yard area of restaurants and bars has been the driving force for this evolution and gentrification, and Gasworks, where Porte Noire has the largest slice of ground-floor real estate, will continue its development with a view to draw guests from all over the world away from the centre of the capital.
“Growing up in Hackney, I saw a lot of changes from the area I remember. There’s been even greater change in King’s Cross – it’s like a complete turnaround from what I once knew. It’s the kind of area that’s been well designed, but without the hard sell of other parts of central London. Seeing it grow into this incredible metropolis inside a metropolis is kind of cool, right?”
A version of this article was first published by The World’s 50 Best group on behalf of The World's 50 Best Bars. To stay up to date with all news and announcements surrounding The World’s 50 Best Bars 2021, follow them on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube