Fergus Butler-Gallie loves a night out in Chelsea.
There’s a particular type of hangover – where glumness and ennui hang heavy over me – that can only be cured by laughter. When a reminder is needed that things can be all right again, I reach for my phone and trawl through the reviews of a small operation near South Kensington tube station: Janet’s Bar.
The majority of the reviews rate Janet’s as ‘one-star’ or ‘terrible’ according to TripAdvisor’s taxonomy. Numerous posters lament the absence of a zero-star rating. The titles of the reviews themselves tell their own story:
‘Atrocity exhibition ‘
‘I need a shower’
‘Avoid like a horrible disease’
Janet, who is not an abstract or invented mascot but the owner herself, features heavily:
‘Janet is the worst person I have ever met’
‘Janet – a terrible person’
‘janet is unhinged’
‘Janet is a sociopath’
‘Time to retire racist old lady’
Perhaps the most succinct one is this:
‘The worst bar in London’
The content of these reviews is even more satisfying. The precise factors that make Janet’s so terrible are hard to pin down, because every single aspect of it – the food, drink, service, decor, pricing – are reckoned to be abysmal.
First up is the interior:
‘Bad decor, eerie atmosphere: kind of like a weird punishment dungeon.’
Other reviewers provide a little more detail:
‘At first the decor seemed quirky and fun, but when you actually spend time looking around, there’s a strong vibe of “mental asylum meets hoarder meets bin picker”, Merry Christmas, St Paddy’s day and hen party (to name a few) decorations, random bits of clothing hung around the room, photos, drawings and messages all over the walls … a dead body with a suicide note wouldn’t be out of place.’
Then there’s the smell of the bar:
‘As we walked to the bar initially, we must have walked into someone’s fart, as it smelt really bad.’
It’s not just the atmosphere that’s special; the welcome is too:
‘I was told within about 12 seconds of entering the bar to buy something or leave.’
The idiosyncrasies of Janet’s bar management also come in for criticism. Staff are instructed that they must take payment prior to any drinks being prepared. This leads to numerous arguments when, inevitably, drinks arrive and are below par. One such incident is described in a review from March 2019:
‘She charged 3 young lads £36 for three beers and then shouted as one dared to go to the loo! When they questioned the price she rudely said “the bottles are open so you pay”’
The pricing is a consistent area of complaint:
‘I paid nearly £30 for a couple of very weak cocktails in two small cheap glasses that only vaguely tasted of alcohol’.
As is the quality of the drinks that do then arrive:
‘We enquired as to the price of two glasses of house red: 18 pounds! Now, I am not one to baulk at the price of wine. Good wine by necessity is rather expensive; however, Chateauneuf du Pape this was not; a quick fact check revealed that “The Shy Pig” was, in fact, a “wine-based” drink purchasable for £3.75 a bottle from Morrisons.’
The staples of Janet’s food menu are hot dogs, which if the reviews are to be believed inevitably arrive late and stale. In stark contrast to the Weimar-levels of price inflation exhibited by the drinks menu, crisps at Janet’s are free. They’re generally taken from multipacks and therefore ‘not for resale’. Indeed, multiple threats of litigation via TripAdvisor reviews show that Janet is keen on legal minutiae. She rarely takes the negative reviews lying down. Janet’s Bar fans have speculated that Janet herself replies to the reviews, especially those that mention her, but does so using the voice of an omniscient third-person narrator. One pertinent example is the review which alleges that Janet, for reasons known best to herself, consistently refused to tell a party where the toilet facilities were. Janet’s response to these allegations was:
‘Considering you do not know Janet, this is quite a personal and spiteful review. Clearly Janet was correct in her analysis of the situation.’
When people regale the internet with tales of being arbitrarily removed from the bar, invariably there is a reply underneath saying, cryptically:
‘You know why you were asked to leave.’
The replies routinely accuse those who leave negative reviews of having psychological or substance abuse problems. The people who complained about the stale hot dogs were accused in the response of public urination, vandalism, and theft. In that order. Responses have been known to speculate on the romantic lives of disgruntled clientele, including informing one man, who had referred to the fact he asked for a refund in his review, that:
‘The fact that you spent so much time being paranoid that we were out to ‘cheat’ shows what a boring relationship you and your partner have.’
There are regular incidents where it is alleged Janet is less than keen on serving non-white customers:
‘We did not notice that your friend was “brown” until you pointed it out. We did notice however that he was drunk.’
So how, given the consistency of the negative reviews, the owner’s famed irascibility, the batshit pricing structure and the quality of the food and the drinks, does Janet’s stay open? Surely, to mix limb-based metaphors, people should have voted with their feet years ago, resulting in the invisible hand of the market throttling Janet’s profitability?
There’s further to go down the flat, warm and allegedly racist rabbit hole of Janet’s yet. And, as is becoming clear, normal rules don’t apply to Janet’s anyway. It’s not just the decor or the prices that are unlike anywhere else: Janet’s Bar is unusual in another way too. The premises have a licence enabling it to serve drinks until 2am on Friday and Saturday nights. Not unusual in Soho or Camden perhaps, but in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where rents are high and residents like their sleep, late licences are rarer than hen’s teeth. In fact, a cursory look at the council’s licensing database suggests Janet’s is one of only a handful of non-hotel bars that are allowed to serve alcohol after 1am. It’s certainly the only one in quite such a prime location.
Why would a bar, hardly the epitome of the sort of business that the otherwise fastidiously image conscious royal borough would want to promote, be one of the few places able to entertain visitors and residents after a certain time? Interestingly, the owner, the eponymous, often furious Janet, is herself Conservative councillor for the Courtfield Ward and member of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea licensing committee, which oversees who gets to serve alcohol and when.
There was only one thing for it. I had to visit Janet’s. I gathered some friends, forewarned them, and passed through the slightly shabby looking-glass that was the entrance just past South Ken station.
An American guy – by his own admission new to and alone in London – dropped by for a beer. He was chatted to politely by Janet, who gave him some constructive advice about places to visit. A couple came in, took one look at the prices and left – alas unmolested and unshouted at – immediately. A trio of women arrived, ordered cocktails, and spent a good couple of hours giggling loudly, manifestly enjoying themselves.
My own party was treated to the infamous free crisps. There was some confusion over what drinks were available, but we managed to secure ourselves some bottles of Spitfire ale, which did the job. The following day I discovered they were on offer at the Tesco Express for a fifth of what we’d paid for them.
We did get to chat with one member of staff.
‘How long have you worked here?’ I asked.
‘Just under two years,’ he replied.
I expressed surprise, given the famously fast turnover of staff, courtesy of Janet’s unique management style.
He shrugged and then said with a smile, ‘For most of that we’ve been closed.’
Janet’s bar is undoubtedly crackers, but I can’t say I saw anything in line with the horror stories from online. I contacted Janet via email, asking her about the licences. She pointed out, politely, that Janet’s had been licensed since 1998 and, as it was in the basement of a hotel, had been entitled to the late licence long before her election in 2018. The licence to Janet’s had not, she said, been renewed for a decade.
I also asked about the replies to the TripAdvisor. She informed me these were dealt with on an ‘ad hoc’ basis. I hope they continue to be; they’ve brought me more laughter in the middle of bed-bound gloom than almost anything else.
I returned to Janet’s again, this time with a TF colleague. We took advantage of the unseasonably good early autumn weather and sat outside. Janet wasn’t there, though, of course, her image still stared down maniacally from the walls. As I sipped a passable but pricey Moscow Mule (which confusingly also included a cocktail cherry), realisation dawned on me: despite, or perhaps because of, its forced insanity, I actually quite enjoy Janet’s Bar after all.
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