With a host of places to eat, wander, shop, visit and explore, London really is calling
After almost two years away, it’s great to be back in London for a blast of its guaranteed energy, even if the lack of Covid restrictions comes as a shock.
Whether you’re after nightclubs or exhibitions, theatre or live music, or a little gentle retail therapy, they are all there and fully open – and with fewer tourists around than usual, it’s easier to book restaurants and events at short notice. There may also be accommodation bargains to be snagged.
Oxford Street is looking a bit grim these days – tawdry shops and filthy pavements – so if the department stores of central London have always been your comfort zone, perhaps it’s time to branch out and explore some of the city’s ‘villages’, and their characterful independent retailers?
In west London, Portobello Market and Notting Hill are good for a ramble. The Spice Shop on Blenheim Crescent (thespiceshop.co.uk) is a one-stop shop for whichever obscure ingredients your recipes are crying out for, and a place of pilgrimage for cooks, as is Books for Cooks (booksforcooks.com) opposite.
The Cloth Shop (www.clothshop.net) is a treasure trove of linens and antique textiles for the table, as well as beautiful blankets and throws.
Along Westbourne Grove and its side streets you can meander happily from boutique to boutique, stopping for coffee and fortification at Daylesford Organic (daylesford.com). If more interesting fare is called for, Jackson Boxer’s fish and seafood-focused Orasay (orasay.london), opposite what London veterans will remember as Princess Diana’s favourite 192 on Kensington Park Road, could do the trick. Or there’s Ole & Steen (oleandsteen.co.uk) at Notting Hill Gate, with several branches across the city, for Danish-style smørrebrød.
Closer to central London is Marylebone High Street, where it’s easy to lose a couple of hours in the always-wonderful Daunt Books (dauntbooks.co.uk), or in outposts of Anthropologie and The Conran Shop – both good browsing territory. Nigella Lawson is a fan of the all-day offering at Fischer’s Viennese Cafe and Restaurant (fischers.co.uk), known for its reasonably-priced mittel-European food. Think schnitzels and strudels.
But if your preference is for something a little more glam, then Chiltern Firehouse (chilternfirehouse.com), close by on Chiltern Street, named by Condé Nast Traveler in 2013 as one of London’s coolest streets, shows no signs of a decline in celebrity status – even though chef patron Nuno Mendes hasn’t cooked here in a couple of years.
You’ll need to plan ahead, though, if you want a peak-time booking – the weekend brunch is a Scene, with a capital S.
If you don’t nab a table, you can always browse through the magazines at Shreeji Newsagents (shreejinewsagents.com) – which stocks one of the best selections of fashion, art and design publications you’ll find anywhere – and order coffee to go to drink on the bench outside.
Positioned directly opposite the entrance to the restaurant, this facilitates people-watching par excellence. Last month the newsagents even held a small show of drawings by Tracey Emin.
At Pace Gallery (pacegallery.com) on Hanover Square you can see A-list shows such as ‘Mark Rothko 1968: Clearing Away’, though it finished yesterday.
At the Barbican (barbican.org.uk), a major retrospective of the Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi runs until January 9. Noguchi is probably better known for his much-copied paper light fittings and signature coffee table – these feature in the exhibition too – but the focus here is on the sculpture which leaves a lasting impression.
Architecture aficionados will appreciate the Barbican Estate – designed by Chamberlain, Powell and Bon in the 1960s though not completed until a decade later and now home to over 4,000 residents.
The Banksy (artofbanksy.co.uk) show in Covent Garden continues until later in the month, while the Van Gogh immersive experience (vangoghexpo.com) in east London is a virtual reality show allowing visitors to step into the artist’s bedroom and learn about eight of his most important paintings.
London theatres are open at full capacity, with new shows including hot ticket Cabaret, Kander & Ebb’s dark masterpiece, starring our own Jessie Buckley alongside Eddie Redmayne, and a puppet-driven adaptation of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi opening this month. The Royal Opera House is staging classics including La Traviata, Tosca and The Nutcracker in the run up to Christmas.
The restaurant in the Opera House itself is pricy, but The Barbary (thebarbary.co.uk) and Frenchie (frenchiecoventgarden.com) nearby are both good, and if you find yourself without a reservation in Soho looking for a bite before or after a West End show, then try your luck at either Barrafina (barrafina.co.uk) or Duck Soup (ducksoupsoho.co.uk), both on Dean Street. Or head to Baoziinn (baoziinn.com) which stays open late for cheap and cheerful dumpling action.
Saoirse Ronan is at the Almeida playing Lady Macbeth – apparently Kim Kardashian inspired her performance – until the end of the month. Near the theatre in Islington two restaurants worth investigating are Lee Tiernan’s impossible-to-categorise-but-excellent Black Axe Mangal (blackaxemangal.com). Be warned, the music is deliberately ear-splitting and they won’t turn it down, even if you ask nicely. There’s always the calmer Trullo (trullorestaurant.com), where chef Tim Siadatan cooks unfussy and delicious Italian food.
When it comes to restaurants, the focus of London eating has shifted east over the past decade, which means that if you want to explore some of the city’s newest and most exciting restaurants you’re going to have to head in that direction.
The current hot favourite is Sessions Arts Club (sessionsartsclub.com) housed in the distressed former judges’ dining room on the fourth floor of Sessions House in Clerkenwell. It offers glamour without bling – and if you need confirmation that this is the place to be right now, on the night of our visit last month, Nigel Slater was celebrating the launch of his new book, A Cook’s Book.
Chef Florence Knight’s food is smart, sexy and utterly delicious – and not crazy expensive. Be sure to start with a signature quince bellini and if the eel dish and the sea bream crudo are on the menu, you must order them. That’s an order.
If you prefer to eat outside, old favourite Rochelle Canteen (arnoldandhenderson.com), located in the garden of a former school in Shoreditch has a good new tented outdoor set up, and the food is as assured as ever.
Around the corner on Calvert Avenue, Leila’s food shop (leilasshop.co.uk) is a joy and Luna & Curious (lunaandcurious.com) has gorgeous knitwear, gifts, children’s clothes and Christmas decorations. Hardware store obsessives will love Labour & Wait (labourandwait.co.uk) on Redchurch Street, while Smoking Goat (smokinggoatbar.com) on Shoreditch High Street is the place to head if you want a fix of Bangkok’s late night canteens (the chilli fish sauce chicken wings is the signature dish.)
Teenagers and anyone interested in vintage clothes will love the markets of Brick Lane, perhaps preceded by a salt beef bagel from Beigel Bake (bricklanebeigel.co.uk) or followed by a visit to Bengal Village (bengalvillage.com), while the refurbished Spitalfields Market is where you’ll find the wonderful Dumpling Shack (dumplingshack.co.uk).
On Saturdays, Broadway Market hosts a bustling food market but it’s good to visit on other days too – Sundays are particularly stylish – for the scallop and bacon rolls from Fin & Flounder (finandflounder.co.uk), the esoteric selection of reading material at Donlon Books (donlonbooks.com) or a meaty dinner at Hill & Szrok (hillandszrok.co.uk), butcher shop by day, restaurant by night.
Bright (brightrestaurant.co.uk) is the East London restaurant that pleases everyone, tiny Michelin-starred Pidgin (pidginlondon.com) is another, and Claire Ptak’s Violet Bakery (violetcakes.com) on Wilton Way is a must-visit for the sweet of tooth. Momosan (momosanshop.com), also on Wilton Way, has a beautifully curated selection of items from independent craftspeople.
London always does Christmas well, and with the festive season approaching you may want to visit Somerset House (somersethouse.org.uk) for ice-skating, the illuminated Christmas Experience at Kenwood House (christmasatkenwood.com), or the massive Hyde Park Winter Wonderland (hydeparkwinterwonderland.com), which has everything from ice slides to fairground rides to a Christmas market with over 100 stalls. These will all start around the middle of the month and are open for bookings now.
While moving around London, you could be forgiven for thinking that nasty Covid virus is done and dusted. There may be signs all over the Tube that face coverings are mandatory – but the compliance rate last month was well under 50pc. You don’t have to wear masks in shops either, although some display a notice stating that they are “preferred”. You definitely won’t be asked to show a Covid passport in pubs or restaurants.
Libertarians may find this refreshing, but it takes a bit of getting used to and you may prefer to keep yours on.
There’s nothing like a blast of London to shake you out of your comfort zone, so whether you’re after food, culture or retail therapy – or all three! – you’ll find plenty to savour on a quick winter visit.
Download the Transport for London Oyster app onto your phone and you can hop on and off trains and buses as you please, scanning as you go. Black taxis may be prohibitively expensive – Uber and Bolt are efficient and cheaper – while walking the streets and parks has always been one of the great pleasures of London.