I was in London earlier this month and took the opportunity before and after my meetings to catch up with a few friends. I wasn’t there on a major tourist mission, so I didn’t see many sights, but with the help of some local knowledge, these are the places I discovered and re-visited.
Sunday lunch: Somerstown Coffee House
My parents used to run this place! The pub, the neighbourhood and the clientele were quite different back then (in the early 70s). The pub has been through a change of management in the last year. It’s now run by the “Yummy boys” who have turned around a couple of pubs in the countryside and this is their first venture into the Big Smoke. So far, they have opened up the two bars into one large drinking/dining space, installed a couple of shabby chic Union Jack sofas at the fireplace and brought in a British tapas/small plates menu plus roasts on a Sunday. They are working on the garden and had better get a move on – theUK’s in a heatwave! We had the Sunday roast – I had a veggie version which was a stuffed Portobello mushroom plus all the trimmings including aYorkshirepud and with olive oil sautéed potatoes instead of the goose fat version on the menu. They were a decent price (for London) at £10.95 and the staff were all chirpy and chatty.
This pub is a bit of an undiscovered gem – it’s right between King’s Cross/St Pancras and Euston stations, very near the British Library – don’t overlook it for long, because others won’t!
The Somerstown Coffee House,60 Chalton Street,London, NW1 1HS. Tel: (020 7)387 7377 (tube: King’s Cross/St Pancras)
Activity: Victoria and Albert Museum
On a rainy day, you can do a lot worse than dive into one of London’s many museums. The V&A is a good choice – it’s a great museum of applied arts and design, but it’s also in South Kensington, right beside the Natural History Museum. The V&A is far too big to tackle in a day, so we had a wander round the calm and peaceful Islamic Middle East section and the truly bizarre Cast Courts. Apparently, the making and collecting of casts of famous monuments (for study or conservation purposes) was particularly popular in the mid to late 19th century. And the V&A has a whole room of them – replicas of monuments which in real life are continents apart and have since crumbled, eroded or potentially been destroyed.
We also visited the newly restored V&A café, which is located in the V&A’s original refreshment rooms, which formed the first museum restaurant in the world. The setting is stunning – across a large open courtyard where fountains normally play (when the water’s not falling from the sky) and three rooms designed at the time to showcase modern design and craftsmanship. The menu of light meals, salads and large slabs of cake is perfect for a mid-museum pause and is provided by Benugo – caterers also at Edinburgh Castle.
There’s so much to the V&A, we didn’t do it justice on a rainy afternoon. I highly recommend a visit – they’ve just refurbished their fashion galleries and are celebrating an exhibition of beautiful ballgowns, red carpet evening dresses and catwalk showstoppers. That is something I have to see!
Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL. Tel: (020 7)942 2000 (tube:South Kensington)
Dinner: Da Polpo
Da Polpo is a part of a great new mini-chain across London and is a vibrant, warm bar/restaurant with an interior of reclaimed furniture and serving what could best be described as ‘Italian tapas’. The staff are super-friendly, the menu is a select collection of small plates and sharing dishes and the food is as fresh as a daisy. We had a couple of amazing simply yet tongue-zingingly delicious salads – one with a milky dome of mozzarella and buttery fresh beans (including their crazily spiralled shoots) and the other featuring lightly grilled courgettes – both drizzled with a light olive oil. We shared a spinach pizetta – a kind of extra-thin based mini-pizza Fiorentina complete with an egg on top. Pizzettas are a bit of a Polpo speciality: the star is the topping not the pillow-like base, as has sadly become the case in many popular pizzerias. We also had a fritto misto which consisted of crunchy batter around succulent fish and seafood pieces. I have honestly never had such a perfect batter. We finished all of that off with a lemon and yoghurt fool, poured in a glass over amaretti biscuits (one between us, I hasten to add!). Fabulous! Food that fresh is so much more satisfying and our shared light dinner, up at the bar with some mixed olives and a 25cl carafe of wine each, came to a very satisfying £48 (plus 12% optional service charge, as is customary in London), which is a steal for Theatreland. Da Polpo gets a big thumbs up from me!
Da Polpo, 6 Maiden Lane, London WC2E 7NA. Tel: (0207) 836 8448 (tube: Covent Garden, Charing Cross)
All the best of Scandawegian design under one roof and over two large floors! All your favourites are here: Marimekko, Iittala and Arabia and many more. On the ground floor you can buy homewares, accessories and smaller items; downstairs there are larger pieces such as furniture. The staff are really helpful, even when – as we were – you are only looking (and dreaming!)
Skandium – branches throughout London.
Sleeping: Premier Inn, Victoria
I often stay in the area around Victoria station for work and hotel represents the best value I have found. The rooms are a good size, beds are comfy, bathrooms are spacious and the wifi is cheap (£3 for 24 hours). When I was there, they also offered a meal deal (dinner and buffet breakfast) for £22. As I had already paid for breakfast, that was deducted and I ended up paying £13 for a substantial 3-course meal and a glass of wine. Try and find that elsewhere in London!! Best of all, though, were the staff. They were all helpful, friendly, motivated and enthusiastic. Top class service in a budget hotel.
The room cost a lot more than the cheap rates in their TV ad, but the hotel met all of my needs and actually exceeded my expectations. Around the corner on Belgrave Road is an EasyHotel, which although much more basic is clean and genuinely cheap.
Have you been to London lately? What are your favourite places to eat, sleep and generally hang out?
(c) Lynn Sheppard