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There's no end of pleasures in London
By Anthony Rose

Every day I wake up in my home town of London, I feel grateful that there's so much activity on my doorstep: garbage collection, traffic noise, neighbors shouting and swearing and the pungent odors of doner kebab wafting across the street.

All this really does happen, but on a more serious note, while London has long been a cultural mecca for theater, film, opera and art, the past decade has seen an exciting new development. Call me biased as a home-grown Londoner, but I'm not alone in my view that England's capital is now the gastronomic melting pot, wok and saucepan of Europe.

Yes, London today boasts many of the world's finest dining establishments. You can enjoy, for instance, the sophisticated ultra-classical cuisine of The Savoy Grill, The Ritz, The Connaught or The Square. Equally, you can take pleasure from many of Mayfair's modern, discreetly luxurious establishments such as Murano, Quo Vadis, Galvin at Windows, Corrigan's and the Greenhouse. There's Hibiscus, Arbutus and Texture in the West End, West London's Medlar and The Ledbury, or great locals such as Chez Bruce, Hedone and The Glasshouse. The ultimate in trend-setting creativity is embodied by the likes of Dabbous and Heston Blumenthal's Dinner.

Whether because of recession or a demand for less formality and more fun, upmarket brasseries, bistros and wine bars have mushroomed like puffballs. Texture has opened two new wine bars called 28-50 with extensive wine lists and simple, appetizing food. Inspired by Cave de Pyrène's "natural" wine list, popular wine bar Terroirs just off Trafalgar Square has spawned Brawn in the trendy East End and Soif in residential Battersea. The Hotel du Vin's offshot, Bistro du Vin, now has two London branches, Comptoir Gascon sits cheek-by-jowl with its Michelin restaurant Club Gascon, and Smithfield's Vinoteca recently launched its second branch off Baker Street.

Most of these informal wine bars draw inspiration from classic French cuisine, but one of the thrilling aspects of the gastronomic revolution lies in the diversity of cultural influences. From Italy there's Bocca di Lupo, da Polpo, Zucca, Dego, Ottolenghi and Spuntino, from Portugal Portal, O Fado and Eyre Brothers. Japan is well represented by Umu, Sake No Hana, Roka and Yashin, China by Hakkasan and India by Tamarind, Benares, Rasoi Vineet Batia and the Cinnamon Club.

Did I mention British? Go to St John or Bread and Wine, or one of Mark Hix's places such as Hix Soho or Hix Oyster & Chop House for the finest of fresh British produce on your table.

Exciting influences

One of the most exciting culinary influences is Spanish, notably the plethora of new sherry and tapas bars. Some are the offspring of a parent restaurant: Moro's Morito, Camino's Bar Pepito, Fino's Barrafina and Cambio de Tercio's Capote y Toros. Others like José started as a tapas bar and then added a restaurant, in this case Pizarro. Brindisa, Ibérica, Salt Yard and the Opera Tavern fuse tapas bar and restaurant in one place.

Others again such as Soho's Copita are tapas bars in their own right. But whether traditional or modern, what they share is a passion for traditional, modern and regional Spanish cuisine and the wines to accompany it.

Crammed full of fresh meat, fish, vegetables, deli products, cakes and freshly baked bread, the calorie count is not low in London's burgeoning local food and farmer's markets (www.lfm.org.uk/markets-home). As well as Brindisa's spicy chorizo and Monmouth's aromatic coffee at the Borough Market on Saturdays, the pork and apple sauce rolls from Roast are succulently irresistible. Tozino's wafer-thin jamón iberico and Hansen & Lydersen's fine Norwegian smoked salmon in nearby Maltby Street Market are dangerously good.

Or head to the vibrant Brixton Village Market and try the exotic Som Tam at KaoSarn or Banh mi at Berwick Street Market in the heart of the West End. For hidden treasures of the flea market kind, Brick Lane on a Sunday morning is the place to be.

As the hub of global wine activity, London is home to a mind-boggling number of quality independent wine merchants such as Lea & Sandeman, Jeroboams, Philglas & Swiggot, Bottle Apostle and Roberson. A growing trend is try-before-you-buy, with sampling machines allowing consumers to try wines from under £10 to £1,000-plus (US$15.50 to US$1,549) in small, affordable measures. Selfridges's Wonder Bar and The Sampler pioneered the concept and there are many more such shops and bars, including Vini Italiani, the Kensington (and Fulham) Wine Rooms and Vagabond Wines.

Department stores are a feature of the London shopping scene with Harrods, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols all worth a visit, not to mention Fortnum & Mason for its musical clock and high-quality selection of branded wines, teas, jams and marmalades. A stone's throw along Piccadilly, tea at the Ritz Hotel is an institution and there are great afternoon teas in hotels like the Athanaeum and Browns.

London has quite a few tucked-away boutique hotels, from the luxurious, centrally located Montcalm, Hempel or Sanderson Hotels to the less well-known Orange in Pimlico or Alma in Wandsworth. For a change from hotel breakfast, try coffee at Cocomaya in Marble Arch or the Allpress Café in Shoreditch's trendy Redchurch Street.

On a fine summer's day, what could be more invigorating than a London city walk down memory lane. Our streets are after all "paved with gold," or at least that's what the fictional Dick Whittington who, according to the English folk tale, became Mayor of London three times, believed. If you prefer greenery, flowers and wide open spaces, take a leisurely stroll in one of London's beautiful parks such as Hyde Park, Regent's Park and Kensington Gardens.

For river enthusiasts, there's nothing to compare with a sightseeing trip down the Thames on the Thames Clipper, past the London Eye and Big Ben, under Tower Bridge and on to the Millennium Dome and the Greenwich Royal Observatory. There you straddle Earth's eastern and western hemispheres on the famous Meridian Line.

Galleries galore

A wet day on the other hand - and we have those - is the perfect time to visit one of London's galleries or museums such as Tate Britain, Tate Modern, The Hayward Gallery, The National Gallery, The Victoria & Albert or the British Museum. Or check out three off-the-beaten-track galleries, each with much of their original furnishings: the John Soane Museum, the Foundling Hospital, and the Wallace Collection. Try not to miss Picasso's Vollard Suite prints at the British Museum until September 3 and Damien Hirst's (whatever you think of the enfant terrible of modern British art) retrospective at the Tate Modern.

Talking of hot tickets, London's theaters are abuzz with fantastic shows. "War Horse" at the new London Theatre is a wonderfully moving play for anyone from age eight to 88. If you're happy to split your sides, if not your trousers, "One Man, Two Guvnors" with the brilliant Owain Arthur at the Haymarket Theatre and "Noises Off" at the Novello Theatre are two of the most hilarious farces known to humankind.

I don't think I've ever seen a bad play the National Theatre (www.nationaltheatre.org.uk) and the Barbican, as well as being home to the London Symphony Orchestra, is another cultural haven with a fascinating array of art, music, theater and dance (www.barbican.org.uk).

If you have the stamina for it, London's nightlife is so varied and exciting that it's impossible not to find a bar or club to suit you. London's hotels contain some of the best bars and one of my favorites is the Connaught hotel bar, but there's a huge range of excellent bars, each with their own unique atmosphere. Try The Corinthia, Durrants or check out the skyline at night in one of many rooftop bars such as the Vertigo 42 Champagne Bar or the SkyLounge at the Hilton Hotel.

So, if you are taking a summer break to come for the London 2012 Olympic Games and all the surrounding events and festivities, I sincerely hope you will feel welcome.

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