The Olympians are in London! I see them walking the streets ready to chase their dreams. Good luck to them all! As the motto says, citius, altius, fortius; faster, higher, stronger! Thrill us. We will share your joys, shed your tears, but most of all we will prepare to be amazed.
Now for the rest of you who are here to witness the spectacle, a few words of advice. You are not athletes. You really should not wear sporting attire, especially if the furthest you’ve run recently is to the refrigerator door. Sneakers should not be seen outside the gymnasium. It is not acceptable to wear baseball caps indoors.
This is an exciting city with some wonderful bars and restaurants. Please frequent them. I know it is exciting for you to be here. Please contain yourself. We don’t really need to hear your conversation. Yes we know London is expensive and it rains a lot. We really don’t need you to tell us that either. I know you love your kids. I love mine too. I leave them at home when I go out. All decent hotels in London have babysitting services. They employ very beautiful Eastern European girls who speak no English, so your kids won’t bother them.
When the sun is shining in London, as it is now, there is no finer city in the world. Despite their stiff upper lips, the natives are friendly. Be warned however, that they will drink you under the table. Have a helluva time! Here are my current favourite bars and restaurants:
The best martini in London is to be had at Dukes Hotel. This is a tiny hotel and the bar is a small traditional affair. All the tables are marked reserved. Allesandro Palazzi, the bartender, will size you up. If you are a serious drinker there is already a table reserved for you. If you order something silly like white wine they’ll banish you to a lesser bar. Ian Fleming sat here and wrote Casino Royale. Legend has it that the phrase “shaken not stirred” was invented here. Don’t even think about taking your kids.
Another favourite martini haunt is the Connaught Bar at the Connaught hotel. It is only open in the evening. The Dukes Hotel is for serious drinkers. The Connaught is for serious drinkers to see and be seen. It is glamourous. They have an excellent range of home made bitters with which they will delicately flavour your martini. I like the lavender bitters in a Plymouth Gin martini. If you want to taste a £40 ($60) martini ask for their super premium vodkas.
Some of you may make it to London with someone you actually like versus someone you happen to get married to after you got drunk together during senior week. Take the person you like on a cocktail date to the Beaufort Bar at the Savoy Hotel. It’s dark and sexy, all black with gold leaf accents. The cabaret stage features live music from a venue where the likes of George Gershwin broadcast over the then newly launched British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). There are 27 champagnes available by the glass. The bar counter is by Rene Lalique. The cocktails are serious.
If you want to explore a proper drinking den without venturing too far outside central London I recommend the Experimental Cocktail Club (ECC) in Chinatown. The entrance is unremarkable except for the bouncer guarding it. Upstairs are two floors of shabby chic, a combination of fin-de-siecle opulence and antique store finds. The drinks are reasonably priced at £10 (US $16) although you can push the boat out and order a £150 (US $230) martini made with 1950′s Gordon’s Gin. I’m not sure gin actually improves with age – more likely its a marketing gimmick to take advantage of finding a case of unopened gin in granny’s attic. The crowd is young, hip and beautiful. Whilst you are in London do try the most exciting new spirits houses – Sipsmith and Sacred Spirits are both brewed in London and both make an excellent London Dry Gin. Sipsmith also makes a very good vodka. Chase’s makes my favourite potato vodka. All of the bars mentioned in this article stock them.
London’s food scene is cosmopolitan and exciting. Unfortunately most good restaurants get booked early. Go in the early part of the week or book lunch which tends to be less crowded (and frequently better value).
If you are going out to eat in London you must taste the best of British cusine:
- Fergus Henderson at St John Hotel near Leicester Square (plus his original Michelin starred St John Bar and Restaurant at the Smithfield’s). Don’t take your muslim friends here. Fergus celebrates eating the pig, every part of the pig, in what he calls “nose to tail eating”. He serves up inner organs in big exhilarating dishes that combine high sophistication with peasant roughness.
- Jason Atherton at Pollen Street Social in Mayfair. Atherton won a Michelin star at Maze and it won’t be long before his solo venture receives the same accolade. This is sophisticated but fun food, served in a bright space with great cocktails. Moreover there is a bar where you can eat the same food if the restaurant can’t find you a table.
- Mark Hix at Hix in Soho. I also like his new restaurant Tramshed in Shoreditch. There is a daily changing menu of seasonal British food. The emphasis is on beef and shellfish, particularly oysters. The art is by Damien Hirst and a revolving panoply of British talent. The bar downstairs is exceptional (see my review in Bombay Rolls, Persian Lovers and a Bit of Hanky Panky)
If you’ve forgotten to book early, look for a large restaurant with a bit more space. My favourite last minute haunts are Quaglino’s in Mayfair and Le Pont de la Tour in Shad Thames (by the Tower Bridge). These are both establishment restaurants that have stood the test of time. John le Carre’s spies met their handlers at Quaglino’s. My friends in the intelligence community suggest it still is favoured by James Bond types. The cigarette girls who sashay amongst the tables no longer offer cigarettes, but they still sashay. Quaglino’s offers a classic brasserie menu. Le Pont de la Tour offers a French menu, a waterfront setting and fabulous views of the Thames and Tower Bridge. There are no cigarette girls at Le Pont de la Tour but the service is impeccable with an old world courtesy rarely seen in busy restaurants.
Before Margaret Thatcher kicked socialism into the long grass and put the Great back in Britain, the food here was atrocious. It was said that the only edible food you could find in the UK was Indian. London still has some of the best Indian food in the world. Amaya in Knightsbridge serves some of the most creative Indian food in the world. It is better than anything I’ve tasted in India, plus the waiters smell nicer. Amaya was one of the first Indian restaurants in the world to be awarded a Michelin star.
If all else fails drop me a comment on this site and I’ll suggest some alternatives. I’m keeping the home bar going for all visiting friends. No baseball caps please.
This fabulous tube map of some of London’s best cocktail bars was put together by the Gin Monkey. Click for a larger image. The list of bars mentioned is also available on Foursquare; handy if you want to meet people once you’ve had a few drinks and feel irresistibly attractive to the opposite sex. You can find a very reliable list of London’s top 40 cocktail bars at Class Magazine, produced by the Difford’s Guide