25 January 2009

London Condensed

This week's Time Out has an article with a list of 40 things to do in London on a Sunday. Now, while activities in Cambridge are a little thin on the ground on Sundays, I've never really had a problem entertaining myself in London on a Sunday. Nonetheless, the first suggestion listed involves a pre-brunch Bloody Mary at Providores, and Providores also makes my top 10, even though most of the rest of Time Out's top 40 diverged from my own top weekend activities in the city.

I want to create a sort of beginner's guide to New York with a list of 10 activities, coffee shops, shops and restaurants that would, on completion, provide a perfect introduction to the bits of New York that I love. However, I need more time to review my Moleskine before doing this so in the meantime, this is my Beginner's Guide to London.

Food and Drink
1. The Soho Antipodean coffee shops. These include Milk Bar, Flat White, Fernandez and Wells and Lantana (technically in Fitzrovia but only just across Oxford Street). It used to be so hard to find good coffee in combination with a characterful, friendly ambiance in central London but thanks to these cafes, and similar, caffeinating in style is so much easier and more fun.

2. Providores. The fact that this cafe/bar/tapas bar is so close to where I live doesn't hurt, nor does the fact that the weekend brunch is good enough to queue for half an hour in the cold and the rain! The coffee is good and my usual brunch option (French toast with maple syrup, pecans and crispy bacon) as well as my recent variation (sweetcorn fritters with blueberries, vine-ripened tomatoes and rocket) are both yummy and filling. The cocktails are pretty good too-- I had a cucumber mojito, which was very refreshing on a sultry summer night in the city.

3. Relais de Venise. Their motto could conceivably be, "if the formula ain't broke, don't fix it." £19. Steak. Frites. Salad with walnuts. All of it so very tasty, even if the ambiance is kind of 1954 Paris, right down to the French wait staff. Is this the French equivalent to a retro American diner? Quite possibly. At a time when many small restaurant chains are cutting back and closing branches, Le Relais de Venise just opened a new branch in the City and there is usually a queue outside the Marylebone location, even on a rainy Tuesday evening.

4. Wild Honey. I'm not exactly a gourmet but sometimes, even I want a little more elegance, a little more style and a little more choice than Le Relais de Venise offers. Wild Honey, in Mayfair, offers plenty of the above and more with its bargainous set menus and also very reasonably priced à la carte options. The staff are incredibly friendly and welcoming too. When I went, my salmon was gorgeous, the pudding options were tantalising and the wine list is huge, with most bottles being offered in a carafe size to allow the pairing of a particular wine with each course, if one is that is that way inclined... 

5. The Duke of Wellington. My friendly, neighbourhood gastropub. I have been going there since moving to Marylebone, and didn't realise that it is also supposed to be one of the best gastropubs in the city (a big and growing category), being the runner-up in Time Out's "best new gastropub" category last year. I'm not a big Sunday roast fan (I prefer brunch) but whenever I've been, the food has always been good. It's equally nice as a purveyor of booze, whether that involves sitting on one of the outdoor benches with a glass of Pimm's on a summer afternoon watching the world go by or huddling inside in the depths of winter next to the fire, nursing a glass of red.

Retail Therapy
6. South Bank book market. Along with Henry Pordes, the book market on the South Bank is my favourite place to buy books--and to while away hours (half an hour, anyway) browsing. The collection is always varied enough for me to find all sorts of things I didn't know I wanted or had never heard of, as well as things I was looking for, and perfectly sized so that I can easily scan most books on the stalls in half an hour.

7. Liberty. Perhaps all department stores should be like Liberty, but then Liberty wouldn't be so special. It contains only the departments that I would want to visit (accessories, stationery, gifts, jewellery, chocolate, beauty, clothes, etc.) and none of the dull ones (washing machines, etc.). Liberty contains everything that is beautiful and not very much that is useful, which is part of its charm. They do have a kitchen department but it is a) hidden on the top floor and b) contains ridiculously expensive and/or frivolous items so that even buying a set of coffee cups isn't as tedious as it ought to be.

8. Marylebone High Street shops. London needs more streets like the MHS and I often walk its length, dipping in and out of its many shops, from Daunt to Aveda to Fresh to Comptoir des Cotonniers, stopping for coffee and a cake at Le Pain Quotidien or Paul (whose praline macaroons are delicious). Again, it isn't easy to find useful things here but you have Baker Street and Oxford Street in close proximity for such mundanities.

Other Diversions
9. The BFI. In stark contrast to the less characterful cinemas of the West End, the BFI makes going to the movies extremely pleasurable. The seats are comfortable, the main screen is huge (and in the others, the seats are designed so that you can actually see the screen even if a very tall person is sitting in front of you) and they have a couple of cool cafe-bars for a pre- or post-film snack or drink. Best of all is the fact that the people who attend the films shown do actually love the cinema and treat it as a sacred experience. They do not sit there talking through the film, letting their mobile phones ring or get up part-way through to go to the loo. They just sit and let the film come to them.

10. Green spaces. I recently discovered a new park for my running--well, two, really: Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens--and this is rapidly becoming my running route of choice, although this might be that I am suffering from Regent's Park Outer Circle overkill. I like running past the fountains and the sunken gardens and the Albert Memorial and somehow, Hyde Park reminds me more of Central Park than Regent's Park does, although neither of the London parks are particularly similar to my favoured New York alternative. That said, I do very much enjoy taking in the view from the pinnacle of Primrose Hill or the reward of a posh sausage bap at the Honest Sausage in Regent's Park. When the weather improves, perhaps I will want to run for longer and will explore pastures new...

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