Cocktail quarter: step inside Knowhere Special

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We predict the tiny basement bar is about to be Kentish Town’s biggest subterranean hit since Chicken Shop. Just don’t all go there at once


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Inside the paper bag is a Strongbow can. But what's inside the can itself? Cocktails at Knowhere Special. Photos: Stephen Emms
Inside the paper bag is a Strongbow can. But what’s inside the can itself? Cocktails at Knowhere Special. Photos: Stephen Emms
The entrance is more art installation than cocktail bar. Slip through a purposefully low-key 1960s-style door next to the Mamma Mia caff on Kentish Town Road. A Chinese laundry-inspired corridor, graffitied by local artist Jeba, is lined with washing hanging from the ceiling.

Downstairs, the candle-lit interior holds instant appeal: restored flagstone floors, a shiny green-tiled bar, a lively assortment of furniture from Victoriana to retro 1950s. And an adorable scruffy-haired Jack Russell, Otto, complete with cravat, rubs his back on the rug or paws new arrivals enthusiastically.

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Helen, Ash, Otto: graffiti lines the corridor, with washing hanging above. Photo: Stephen Emms

Knowhere Special, which has finally opened its doors, is the vision of a Kentishtowner couple, Ash Clarke and Helen Gay. They have just moved back to the area after living in east London and travelling the world with their jobs, as mixologists and bar consultants.

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Sweet: bar detail

“We want this place to be an extension of who we are,” says Helen. “It’s not a theme bar. It’s really like our living room. People should be able feel that they can flop in the corner as part of the furniture.”

Helen first found the basement space six years ago, but then accepted a job offer which took her away from Kentish Town. And it was while looking for a “pop-up” bar last summer that she and Ash, who’ve only been together a year, fell in love with it.

The project became all-consuming, and the pair set about transforming the disused cafe store-room over a period of six months, while also rummaging flea markets and antique fairs for the eclectic range of pieces that fill the interior.

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Inside one of the arched snugs, a former police cell

It’s a highly atmospheric cluster of rooms. Together with Shebeen next door, the whole subterranean space was once Victorian police cells. They were built in 1862 underneath the cop shop itself (now Kentish Canteen) to house Y Division, conveniently located next to the Assembly House, then a notorious drinking haunt. Now? Well, they make delightfully cosy stone-arched snugs off the main room (see pic, left). Natch.

So what’s the schtick? You can pop by for a beer, of course, or carafe of wine, but the real point is the cocktail list which befits the pair’s experience working in some of London’s edgiest bars. They readily describe in detail the complicated flavour reductions and processes involved – which range from old-fashioned “grandma techniques” to modern-day Heston-style molecular experiments in taste, texture and colour. Ingredients are bought or sourced locally: meat from Meat NW5, coffee from Bean About Town, for example.

Helen creating the Park Bench cocktail.
Helen creating the ‘Park Bench’

Cocktail names might be quirky but don’t let it put you off: I had to try “The Park Bench” (see main pic above), after all the stories I’ve written on the subject. Served in a Strongbow can and paper bag, it’s made by reducing a two litre bottle of cider to just 200mls, its essence added to apple brandy, poire william eau de vie and fizz. The result? Clean-tasting and invigorating. You could describe it as a deconstructed and then reconstructed cider, “but don’t let that put you off,” says Helen, laughing. “It’s not meant to be pretentious. We came up with the idea after a few drinks.” And to underline this, it’s served with a home-made sausage roll and some piccalilli.

Look, There's Something 'Punchy' Over There...complete with naked flame.
Look, There’s Something ‘Punchy’ Over There…complete with flame. Photo: Stephen Emms

Next up, served in a china mug, is the snappily-titled “Look, There’s Something Punchy Over There…” One to share (reflected in its price-tag) it’s packed with layers of flavours that do the samba across the tastebuds: dark rum, cachaca, rhubarb liqueur and pineapple juice. Each cocktail comes with an edible “surprise”: this one includes a quite more-ish caramelised banana, and a naked flame that has to be extinguished imaginatively (we’ll say no more than that). So it’s perhaps a good talking point for a date – rather than one to share with your co-editor, as I did. Cosy.

Grow Your Own Martini. And what's that on the spoon?
Grow Your Own Martini. And what’s that on the spoon?
Photo: Stephen Emms

Best of all, however? We liked the simplicity of the “Grow Your Own Martini”. Served in a charity shop chic vessel and exuding a dirty martini vibe, it fuses pink peppercorn vodka, cucumber and vermouth, with a dash of “house syrup” (they create this themselves too, of course). Crisp and not too sweet, it suited our negroni-loving tastebuds down to a tee. Unusually, it’s served with a teaspoon of beetroot “yolk” which explodes on the tongue. But again, we won’t say more than that. It really is one to experience yourself.

If this all sounds a little bit “out there”, don’t panic, you can order regular cocktails too; but it’s well worth trying one of their inventions. They’ve worked hard at it. And the ambition shows in its own relaxed way; this is one hell of an intriguing new addition to what we might soon be calling cocktail quarter.

This is box title
The basement, 296 Kentish Town Road, NW5. Open Thurs – Sunday 5pm-late. Beer £4, wine from £3.50, cocktails from £6.50. The house specials described above cost from £10

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  • Julianator

    The place and the cocktail menu sound absolutely inspired. Look forward to dropping in and having a Park Bench or two. An exciting addition to Kentish Town!

  • Dean

    Looking forward to trying here, a new cocktail bar is always worth a visit.

  • April

    A few of us went by during the soft opening and it was fabulous! The cocktails are excellent & the nibbles that come with them inspired. The whole place is a real gem 🙂

  • Jon Simmons

    We popped in during the soft opening and really like what they’ve done with the space. The signature cocktails and accompaniments are really inventive and on the whole hit the mark. It’s quite pricey though so Shebeen definitely beats them on that front.

  • Joe

    Also went during the soft opening and had a great time. Definitely worth visiting now before it gets really busy!

  • Dave

    Expensive and very pretentious (They don’t want “everyone” knowing about it).

    • Pat

      Totally agree with you mate. Not worth a visit at all.

  • Kid Piccalilli

    The cocktail quarter? Oh please …

  • Jenna

    How do you book?

  • alf

    Hi – looked at these messages and was very surprised to see a couple of negative reviews. The cocktails are on a par with Hix and 69 Colebrooke – it doesn’t have any of the pretension or unfriendliness of somewhere like the Experimental cocktail bar. We turned up the second time without a booking and they did everything they could to squeeze us in and then the new brazillian guy gave us some free shots of his banana cachaca – of which there are only 400 bottles in the world and he’d bought back two. The cocktail list had changed on the second visit – which means that they’re keeping things fresh and the people we took absolutely loved it. It’s fine to bash a place that’s up itself but the fresh faces starting places like Shoe Shop and Nowhere Special in the face of local opposition should be welcomed with open arms – raw talent like that on your doorstep is a total gift.

  • Danielle

    Loved it ! It is absolutely fantastic, I can’t wait to go back