Raven Smith Gets Caught Red-Handed at Bar Italia
It’s hard to accurately describe a working week in the year of our lord 2023. Lockdown meant torture-zooms and pyjama bottoms and we’ve never really got back to fighting fit. Maybe this week saw you working from home, or hot desking in a warehouse sliced into pods, or perhaps you spent days open plan toiling with co-tormentors trying to break into the best lunch clique?
If you’re not a media type, I assume you were feudally working the fields with your rough, bucolic hands — reaping, sowing, livestocking. Maybe skinning a rabbit and eating its flesh and lighting a fire with sticks. Work sucks, I know, but however small your personal cog is in the great machine of capitalism, the week is always the week and, thankfully, Friday night will always be Friday night.
Ah, Friday night, the transitional line break where the misdeeds and mistreatments of employment can be sidestepped as you ease into the familiar jacket of the weekend. Friday night is a psychological Never-Neverland: not quite the week and not quite the weekend. A work day that dissolves into a seltzer of fun — your solid becomes a liquid becomes a gas. Where Saturday is a going-out top, Friday is a shedding of your work skin like a corporate snake.
I’m a bit spoilt for neighbourhood locals as the sun downs in Soho, but nothing Friday nights me like Bar Italia, a Frith Street institution. Nearly everyone I know loves a lil daylight cappuccino or pre-game vino, or post-pint panini at Bar Italia, and yet I can’t find any former reviews of the Italian stalwart online. I’m not sure if this is suspicious, or cool? Is Bar Italia an open secret? Should it not be spoken of in order to protect it? I’m suddenly worried Bar Italia is the fight club of Soho jaunts, but it’s right there on the street with two neon signs and a hoard of people nursing tumblers on the pavement.
Bar Italia is not strictly al fresco, it’s essentially a long, mirrored, stooled corridor, making it Soho’s chicest narrow way, a thin slice of Italian torta in central London. The outside tables are chequered and wind-clipped, the bar has a Time Team-looking Gaggia coffee machine, churning out the best coffee in London (to disagree with me here is to waste valuable Friday night minutes), but I come here for the red drinks.
There are no airs, no graces. Bar Italia is the opposite of a pop-up, an immovable feast, it feels so forever-ry, reaching backwards and forwards in time as you sit and sip.
I don’t know your personal predilections, but do you ever feel I like you’re going to die if you don’t get some salt and vinegar crisps? This is how I feel about red drinks. I love a Martini, dirty or dry, but the pure gin or vodka can be cruelly alcoholic, leaving me susceptible to early-onset merriment and accidentally offending present company. I like something slower, moodier, a reviver with a footnote, a sliding doors for my night. Sour drinks are nice. Bitter drinks, too. Who among us can resist a half pint and a shot? But nothing comes close to the transformative power of a red drink. A ruby red spritz is a warning shot for merriment. It’s a few spirituous lengths of an alcoholic plunge pool, with the ability to nestle your psyche into the deep shag carpet of your weekend.
Aperol has infiltrated popular consciousness, a pandemic of sickly sweetness, which is fine if you’re a touch older and trying to get your groove back. By all means order a Negroni sbagliato with prosecco if you enjoyed it on Tik Tok. I’m still a devout follower of the father, the son, and the holy spritz, and Bar Italia will do me one with ruby-red Campari (without serving it in that giant Milanese Instagram goblet). Italia has a cicchetti menu, too, but you needn’t stray too far from olives (olives are obligatory with red drinks, I don’t make the rules).
In London, it’s easy to find bars as overworked as you are this week. Another mixologist in a waistcoat that spends 20 minutes doing you a gin and tonic with ‘smashed cukes.’ I don’t mind pomp, I don’t mind ceremony, but Friday nights are about ease. Bar Italia is not not a bit rundown, a bit hardy, a bit lived in. It’s decorated with Italian memorabilia and flags, a ceiling of miniature Pantones appears at Christmas, but it’s just so un-bougie, un-modernised, a relic that feels reliable rather than raggedy.
Having opened on Frith in 1949, you can draw clear lines to that postwar make-do-and-mend resolve, of building things to last and taking care of them. There are no airs, no graces, no overbearing, overly polite staff. It’s the opposite of a pop-up, an immovable feast, it feels so forever-ry, reaching backwards and forwards in time as you sit and sip.
It’s unpretentious, un-Michelin, more moody than foodie. This is exactly the kind of authenticity brands are trying to cook up in focus groups. And this is where you need to start your weekend, before your hope flares and then goes out like a match. Remember the power of booze and bar snacks and optimise your Friday night: catch yourself red-handed at Bar Italia.
Raven Smith is a cultural commentator, best-selling author, and a columnist at Vogue. Buy Raven Smith’s Men, his latest book, and follow him on Instagram here. Follow Resy, too.