From the outside, Rotate looks like an ordinary bar. Most people walking in off the street probably don’t realize what’s special about it. When I visit, none of the other customers have noticed. There’s a small sign, but that’s all: This is one of the only bars in London that accepts payment in crypto.
Rotate only started taking bitcoin in March, although that was the plan since November, when the bar opened. Manager Ross McNeil says Rotate wants to be “at the forefront,” but implementing bitcoin payments using the Lightning Network has not been easy.
Long before crypto was an option for buying beer, Rotate had been a hangout for crypto investors and traders, partly drawn in by owner James Stell’s social ties in the field. Twice a month, a gang of 30 to 40 would gather, nearly filling the bar, to exchange ideas and meet like-minded people. When Rotate finally started taking bitcoin payment, bartender Patrick Newton says it seemed like a natural progression.
The customers who want to pay in bitcoin are few and far between at this point. They come in the evenings: the same traders and investors who have frequented Rotate since last year. They have held bitcoin for a while. They “saw the potential,” in Newton’s words. At last they can buy beer with what they’ve long insisted is real money.
This is where young bankers come to splash their cash.
Rotate is located in the heart of Shoreditch—an area of north central London that has gentrified fast in recent decades. An opinion piece in Britain’s Daily Telegraph five years ago opened with, “It’s not particularly clever or novel to hate Shoreditch,” under the title “Why this ‘Shoreditchification’ of London must stop.” If London was a game of Clue, a prime suspect would be the hipster in Shoreditch with the vape. This is where young bankers come to splash their cash, as they spill out of the marble maze around the Bank of England to the south. If an enclave of crypto-savvy businesses were to crop up in Britain’s capital, this would be a likely setting.
So, why don’t they plaster the word ‘bitcoin’ all over the walls? McNeil says it’s because they don’t want to be pigeon-holed. “People don’t come here just for the fact that we take bitcoin. That’s not why we get people through the door,” he says. For a minority of customers, that might be enough to pull them in on its own. But the market is small at present and it’s not—yet—worth centering Rotate’s image on the crypto connection. In any case, McNeil explains, “The bar mats looked shit.”
"It’s so simple. More simple than using the till. In theory.”
London’s highest-profile bar accepting crypto is in its eastern financial district of Canary Wharf. The Scottish brewery BrewDog opened a bar last autumn that took payment in bitcoin and bitcoin cash—the day they opened they gave free bitcoin wallets to the first 100 punters through the door.
One of the very first establishments to take bitcoin in Britain was the Individual Pubs chain, run by Stephen Early. He told WIRED about it back in 2013, when he explained he had written the requisite 1,000 lines of code himself one evening. He is a fairly unique pub landlord: he spent 10 years at Cambridge University studying computer science when he was younger.
But Early doesn’t offer bitcoin payment any more. He told me in an email: “We stopped in July 2017 when the main bitcoin network became unusable for face-to-face transactions. (Very high fees, very slow or possibly ‘never’ confirmation of transactions.)” It just wasn’t practical back then to process bitcoin payments on a regular basis—even though he estimates no more than one in 1,000 customers were using the option.
Developments like the Lightning Network are changing the everyday practicality of crypto: the system enables transactions to occur off-blockchain—and therefore fast—while ensuring confirmation on-blockchain at a later time, long after everyone has been served their drinks.
All new register systems have issues at first, but conventional ones would come with constant in-person support from the supplier.
Taking payment in bitcoin is supposed to be straightforward, says Newton. “In theory, it’s so simple. More simple than using the till. In theory.” Lightning itself boasts “payment speed measured in milliseconds to seconds.” But there have been what Newton calls “teething issues,” when payments get delayed—and neither customer nor staff understand why. “At the beginning it was all the time,” McNeil agrees.
McNeil says all new register systems have issues at first, but conventional ones would come with constant in-person support from the supplier. “To have a bit more involvement is normal,” he says. When a member of staff couldn’t solve a problem, there’d be a representative of the company present to step in and smooth things over. As things are, staff and customers are having to work it out for themselves.
But both McNeil and Newton expect bitcoin payment to be normal before long. Newton admits the biggest draw is the novelty. It’s hitting the streets just as fintech, somehow, is becoming cool. He compares it to Monzo, the British challenger bank that announced last autumn it was issuing 3,000 new users with cards every day. Getting to a bar and buying a round of cocktails is now no hipper than flashing a brand-new method for paying for them.
McNeil says the tipping point will come when a major brand like Starbucks or McDonald’s starts taking crypto. When that happens, this little bar may be as regular as they come.