Last Guy Fawkes night, I took a walk around the block for half an hour just after midnight. It was amazing to me that there was not one pub or bar out of at least a dozen that was still trading after 12:30, especially after Britain was promised 24-hour alcohol licensing a decade or so ago.
Of course Westminster is famous for being very tough on licensing, so it was interesting to see which places are still open and doing a thriving trade.
In the whole area, there were just three.
Tinseltown is a new-ish burgers and shakes place that has moved in to where a branch of barbecue joint Bodean’s used to serve tasty meat. But one relatively unique characteristic was a Halal meat sign in the window. Its closing time is 1:30am, and it was doing a fairly brisk trade. Guess what though: it doesn’t serve alcohol.
The second place open was the Al Farawlah Arabic supermarket, which means ‘strawberry’ in English. This is a nice shop that we buy a lot from. It does not have a door, because it never shuts. And guess what: it doesn’t serve alcohol.
There really was only one other place trading, or at least not shutting up shop. A Moroccan lounge, called Marhba, or ‘hello’. For some reason, in the three or four years since it replaced the local outpost of Pizza Express, we’ve never been there to eat.
But when I say it was doing a roaring trade, it is a huge understatement. There were maybe thirty to forty people sat outside under toasty patio heaters, puffing away on shisha pipes, and it looked like there were at least the same number indoors as well.
I asked the waiter when they close for the night, and the answer was ‘never’ – it’s another 24/7 destination. By day, it’s a fairly nondescript looking restaurant, but at night it is practically the only show in town.
It looked like a cultural melting pot crossed with continental cafe culture. But of course, minus the alcohol.
So my question is whether one of the greatest advantages that New York has over London – its 24-hour culture – would be at least partially overcome if more cafes and restaurants that don’t sell alcohol would just see what it is like to stay open all night!
Presumably pubs and bars are hamstrung by the licences that allow them to sell alcohol; perhaps they can’t stay open, even with a promise not to sell booze. But it would seem – and perhaps someone with some knowledge of the law on this could clarify – that you can do what you like, if you forgo the moonshine.
The paradox of course is that most traditional Londoners probably wouldn’t want to frequent a late night destination that won’t sell them a drink.
Or would they? I would love to know the answer, whether you’re a traditional Londoner or not.
And certainly the people at Marhba looked as though they were having a great time!