Queer London is a comprehensive go-to guide exploring the capital’s vibrant LGBTQ+ scene. The newly released book came about as a collaboration between writer Alim Kheraj and ACC Art Books as part of the publisher’s London series. From historic bars to background history on vital queer communities, Alim’s debut book is an essential look into some of the iconic venues and locations that have shaped the LGBTQ+ scene in London. Speaking to GAY TIMES, we asked Alim to rank his favourite queer nightlife spaces in the city.
“I learned absolutely masses and not just about various bars and clubs from decades passed, although that was really fascinating. There’s a lot of history out there that hasn’t been explored widely,” Alim says over Zoom, reflecting on the importance of Queer London. “My favourite thing that I learned about was the Porchester Hall drag balls that ran from the late 1960s up until the 1980s. Unless you knew to look for that, you would think that drag in the UK was very much in pubs or working men’s clubs until the sort of influx of the American drag scene in the 1990s. But actually, there’s this whole world people just don’t know about. It’s very quintessentially naff and British and I loved that.”
A wide-spanning introduction to influencers, nightlife venues, bars, pubs, and gentlemen clubs, Queer London magnifies the significance and necessity of LGBTQ+ spaces in the sprawling city. As the book digs deep to unearth untold stories, Alim speaks fondly of the people and communities who helped shape London in all its queer glory. “I had the privilege of talking to some really amazing people,” he tells GAY TIMES. “I feel really lucky to have heard a lot of stories from people who aren’t big activists, but who were part of an underground movement with how their venues came to be and what they were part of.”
With Pride Month around the corner, Alim lists his favourite top 10 LGBTQ+ nightlife venues to give the most iconic bar/pub crawl you could ever dream of. So, if you fancy a pint or your favourite non-alcoholic cocktails, here are the best venues London has to offer.
1. The Queen Adelaide
My first place is actually my favourite place, which is The Queen Adelaide on Hackney Road. It’s from the people who ran the iconic East London venue The George and Dragon which closed around 2015. It was famous for having a lot of tat on the walls and decorations. They moved all of that stuff, including this very cumbersome bit of seating, down the road into a much smaller space called The Queen Adelaide. The Queen Adelaide has a real casual and unpretentious atmosphere. It’s not trying to be aspirational or too hip or clever – it’s really easygoing. And as a result, it becomes the coolest place in the city. It’s so open and friendly. You can go there and you see people from all walks of life. The basement, when it’s open on the weekends, is anarchic with three different rooms. It’s like a little Labyrinth, it’s grimy, a little bit rough around the edges, and the music’s always wild. It’s just so fun. It’s so fun and that is my favourite place.
2. Royal Vauxhall Tavern
My second one would be the Royal Vauxhall Tavern which is probably the most vital venue in London. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern has been there forever. It has been a queer-friendly space since, at least, the early 1950s. It has a really rich history of drag and alternative performance and, in my opinion, it exemplifies what LGBTQ+ London is about. It upholds the sense of resilience and resistance that I write about in the introduction of my book.
The Tavern has weathered so much and it’s still surviving against all odds. As more people become aware of the importance of retaining these historical venues, I think the Royal Vauxhall Tavern will continue to survive. During lockdown, people donated money to help keep it afloat. It’s another really inclusive venue. There’s no transphobia, no racism, or ableism. A lot of queer venues are difficult accessibility wise and the RVT has no steps so that’s a bonus. During the week, they host performances and quizzes. It’s a really good space for a social group. It’s a fabulous place.
3. The Glory
Next would be The Glory which is on Kingston Road and it’s run by John Sizzle and Jonny Woo. It’s a cavalry pub with a basement that hosts drag shows, live music and performance art. It just has a really inviting atmosphere that doesn’t feel exclusionary pretentious or glossy. Some really great people have played there. Jonny Woo and John Sizzle have made a space for young performers to cut their teeth so you do see a lot of new people who are sort of fresh on the scene and they have a space to try out material which is really great. I think it has given people a space to explore their creativity.
4. Dalston Superstore
Just up the road on Kingston Road is Dalston Superstore which is another space that feels like a real community. They foster new talent and have really diversified their offerings to make them more inclusive for non-binary people or trans people. They’ve worked really hard to turn a very trendy venue into something that feels really beautiful and inclusive. And again, really fun. The owner, Dan Beaumont, is a delight. It’s also open during the day, which a lot of these places aren’t. You can pop in there for brunch or have a coffee which I really like. It makes it feel less like a bar or more like a community space. I really appreciate that as someone who’s looking for alternative things to do that aren’t just going out at night. I love that about those sorts of places. It’s become a better space as it’s moved away from being a trendy nightlife space to supporting the queer community.
5. The Apple Tree
The fifth one is called The Apple Tree and it’s in Farringdon. It’s a fairly new venue that opened up around 2018. I really like it because it’s something they describe as a neighbourhood pub and it draws a very mixed crowd. You get quite a lot of cishet people but you also get lots of trans people that go there because it feels like a trans-inclusive space, more so I think than a lot of other places. It’s a queer venue and they host really good cabaret drag and alternative performances there. It has a really nice neighbourhood vibe to it that a lot of places don’t have and feels just like a local. The good thing about it is that the two people running the pub also own the building so it’s very unlikely that it will go anywhere and they’re not going to get priced out by rent increases which is what pushes most venues out. So, I have a feeling it could be around for a long while and that makes me excited because there are not many LGBTQ+ venues that have that sense of security.
Comptons on Old Compton Street which has been there since the late 1980s. It can be intimidating from the outside, especially if you’re not a burly man with a beard who likes rugby, because it does draw that sort of crowd. It has this little has this upstairs seating area that if you’re you’re planning a date it’s a good place to go, because it’s very cosy. It’s not the sort of place that normally I would be that interested in, but I really like it there. It reminds me of how certain gay bars were before the AIDS crisis. It has an old school gay pub vibe to it that I really like. If you like sports, they always show some kind of sport especially rugby. It’s a really fun place that’s not got lots of affectations and is quite casual, very cruisy if that’s your vibe.
7. The Cock
The Cock in Kennington is from the people who run the Nelson’s Head, which was another iconic East London gay pub that was operated during the sort of early noughties, but then, closed down because of rising rents and development. The two people who run it, took over this bar in Kennington, which used to be a Tiki Bar, but was, originally, a gay pub called The Cock. So, they restored it and have kept some of the Tiki decorations. They have decorated it and done a really beautiful job inside. It’s a community feeling type of pub bar. It draws a bit of an older crowd, so you’re not going to get people who are in their early 20s. It has a really friendly atmosphere, a really friendly vibe.
A lot of LGBTQ venues can feel unfriendly when you go in. You get a lot of very manicured people who look for a buff and very put together and that can be intimidating for people. Whereas at The Cock, it doesn’t make you feel like you’re out of place if you don’t fit that ideal which I appreciate. What’s also really good about it, if you wanted to have a night on the town and you didn’t want to go into central London, you could start at The Cock, go to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern and then go to The Eagle and finish off your night there. If I was still someone that went out all night, that’s what I would do.
8. Central Station
Next would be Central Station. It’s in King’s Cross and it has been around for yonks. It’s not got ideas of grandeur like some of the bars in Soho have, and actually feels more like a neighbourhood gay bar than most places in London. There’s also a basement club, which hosts regular fetish nights. I think there used to be, or perhaps still is, a B&B there, too.
Number nine would be SheBar as the only lesbian bar in all of London and operates downstairs from Little Ku. It’s quite small from what I’ve seen and it has a dedicated following. It recently had a fabulous refit from the pictures I’ve seen and it looks amazing inside. As it’s the only lesbian bar in London, it does get very busy. It definitely has some of that glossy shine that a lot of Soho bars have and it looks like a fun night out.
London, and almost every city where there are large quantities of LGBTQ people, has a real dearth of spaces for lesbians and queer women. London has always had a problem with a lack of spaces. SheBar is small and it’s a shame because people really need spaces specifically for them, especially lesbians and queer women and non-binary folk. In the past decade, there’s been a real increase in club nights that cater to that demographic, but in terms of physical permanent spaces, it’s very slim pickings. There must be reasoning behind that, but I’m sure most of it’s got to do with misogyny.
I think the significance of Heaven can’t be underplayed. It was the first gay superclub in Europe and it invented a certain type of club in the UK, and it has an amazing history. It’s now a protected space which is good. While I don’t think G-A-Y, as a club night, it’s for everyone, it can be a lot of fun, especially if you’re in the right mood for it. Sometimes you want to get lost in the rabbit warren that is Heaven where it feels like it’s on six different levels. There are so many different rooms and you will lose your friends and you won’t have phone reception and you’ll find someone dancing to S-Club 7 in one room and then, upstairs, someone is dutty wining to Sean Paul. So, it is good if you want to a cheap night out. And they did spend a lot of money on refurbishing it recently so it feels a bit more luxe than it used to.
You can buy Queer London by Alim Kheraj here.