With Raffles London due to open in 2020, it’s the perfect opportunity to rediscover the charms of this ever-changing city, which marries old and new, and is full of unexpected culinary, cultural and shopping gems
One of my favourite things about London, the city I’ve called home for 13 years, is that there are always new places to discover. No sooner have my friends and I finally got round to eating at one restaurant, than we learn about another equally lauded spot a few tube stops away. Ditto with must-visit cocktail bars and independent boutiques. These all naturally divide into very distinct neighbourhoods, adding a current, contemporary feel to the capital’s historic backbone — and nowhere is this more plainly evident than if one traces a route from west to east.
Before I do just that — with the aim of understanding how Raffles London, which is due to open in Whitehall with a major renovation of the iconic Old War Office building in 2020, will fit into the unique fabric of this ever-changing city, with its exceptional mix of heritage and cosmopolitan influences — I decide to kick-off my journey with an early lunch at the River Café, near Hammersmith. Founded by the late Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers in 1987, it’s the kind of iconic Italian institution that everyone should visit at least once for delicious signature dishes such as wild mushroom risotto and lemon and almond cake. Dine on the peaceful riverside garden terrace and you could easily think you were in the middle of the British countryside, rather than the multicultural melting pot that is the capital.
From there I head west towards the smart streets of Kensington. My secret foodie haunt here is Maggie Jones’s, a rustic restaurant tucked away in an easy-to-miss cul-de-sac and known for its hearty fare (chicken and artichoke pie, Scotch rump steak, wild boar sausages) and seating on wooden church pews. This is also the area where the new Design Museum resides on the edge of Holland Park, in the John Pawson-renovated former Commonwealth Institute.
“To me, London means diversity — from people to fashion to architecture, it is a world city, a melting pot of styles,” says Alice Black, director of the Design Museum. “Take architecture: from one neighbourhood to the next you will encounter cutting-edge Modernism in the midst of Victorian terraces, while in the City, Georgian and Edwardian architecture gives way to show-stopping buildings such as Lloyds of London and the Gherkin. London is forever transforming itself — it is not afraid to shock and take bold steps. I was born and raised in Paris. When I came to London, I felt the city was a little disjointed, but now I relish this flurry of energy and style — it is what I love most about London. And the same goes for the people; so many different nationalities, heritages and ways of life mix here.”
Next, I venture north-west to Notting Hill. Once a 1970s Boho enclave, it’s a vibrant area best known for its pastel-hued houses, bustling Portobello market (Friday for vintage fashion, Saturday for antiques) and the one-screen Edwardian Electric Cinema that shows both mainstream and art house films. Watching an early afternoon movie here, settling down in one of the leather armchairs with a glass of fizz is always a real treat. Follow it up with dinner at 108 Garage, all industrial brick walls, concrete floor and copper-topped bar, where chef-of-the-moment Chris Denney serves up inventive dishes such as agnolotti filled with minced lambs’ hearts and chocolate cremeux with artichoke ice-cream.
Serious homeware shoppers in the west should make a beeline for Chelsea Harbour and Brompton, where many of the heavyweight big-name interiors brands are based. In complete contrast is one-off shop Native & Co, which sells beautifully simple Japanese and Taiwanese homeware, and Mint. The latter is a design store founded by Lina Kanafani who has a reputation for spotting emerging design talent and commissioning limited-edition pieces.
“While online shopping has boomed in recent years, retailers are becoming more savvy and specialised — London increasingly offers impressive flagship stores for major brands and small galleries, which can constantly adapt to the market,” says Kanafani. “As such a vibrant and diverse metropolis, it is impossible to know all of London — and that is part of what makes it special. It’s a hub for the very latest in art and design.”
Shopping aside, another thing London has plenty of is green spaces and when my feet get weary, I often rest in the Chelsea Physic Garden. Despite being the oldest botanic garden in London and home to around 5,000 medicinal, edible and historic plants, it remains surprisingly unknown. For me, an alternative form of escapism in the centre of town is the world-class theatre scene, where venues such as the Royal Court and the Donmar Warehouse put on some of the best productions in the capital. And in keeping with a city that has such a cosmopolitan population, you can find restaurants that offer food from around the world, from no-reservations joints such as Bao (for steamed buns), Hoppers (for Sri Lankan street food) and Barbary (exceptional Berber-inspired flavours) in Soho and Covent Garden, all of which are ideal for a pre- or post-theatre supper.
For a more formal dinner experience, I might treat myself to the seven-course Friday night tasting menu at Bonhams restaurant inside the auction house in Mayfair, where talented Michelin-star chef Tom Kemble is at the helm. Surrounded by chic designer fashion boutiques, it’s a world away from buzzing Chinatown where rotisserie chickens turn slowly in restaurant windows and a nameless black door leads to the speakeasy-like Experimental Cocktail Club.
I usually order The Granddaddy — a winning concoction of bourbon, cynar, lemon juice, grapefruit juice and honey infused with rosemary. My back-up, should this be full, is always Swift on Old Compton Street, which has a 1920s vibe upstairs and a laid-back lounge below.
That’s the brilliant thing about London: from the buildings to the shops, bars to restaurants, each area has such a different vibe that it often feels as if the capital is really a cluster of villages, creating a spectrum of old and new like no other city. The next day, I pick up east of where I left off, outside the Barbican. Love it or loathe it, this performing arts centre, which is part of the Barbican Estate, is an important example of 1950s Brutalist architecture. For brunch I bag a table at St John Bread & Wine, near Spitalfields Market, tucking into one of their custard-filled doughnuts with my coffee before strolling round the corner to Redchurch Street. This particular pocket of London has seen a huge shift in recent years, from being a hub for artists and creatives (the rise in rent has now priced many of them out) to one of the hippest neighbourhoods for nightlife. Among the plethora of standalone shops, I am always tempted by the functional homeware at Labour & Wait and the designer fashion labels at Goodhood and Modern Society.
Despite the changes, east for me still symbolises out-of-the-box thinking and imaginative grassroots businesses — whether that’s in design, art, fashion or food. Take the Rochelle Canteen, converted from a school bike shed into a restaurant that offers lunch to the public, as well as to the businesses who work in the Rochelle School. Or Gunpowder, a home-style Indian kitchen that’s about as far away from a Friday night vindaloo as you can get.
“Our goal is to be a neighbourhood restaurant; we’ve always aimed to be part of the community,” says Gunpowder co-founder Harneet Baweja. “London’s restaurant space continues to evolve with new and authentic flavours. Londoners are very large-hearted and willing to go the extra mile for a great experience. This is one of the most inclusive cities in the world, which is reflected in its ever-evolving food and culture scene. No one experience is ever enough to understand the soul of this city.”
On a Sunday, when in this neck of the woods, a trip to Columbia Road Flower Market is essential and this usually quiet street bustles with life as traditional East End traders hawk their blooms. Otherwise, for a green fix, I nip up to Botany, which sells planters, art and ceramics alongside plants. My final stop is just off the Old Street roundabout at Nightjar, a subterranean bar where live jazz, blues and funk acts perform every night of the week.
As I wait for a six-piece swing band to take the stage, I reflect on how this cross-city journey is really only a taste of what’s on offer. Whichever corner of the capital you’re in, north or south, east or west, there is a new perfect gem waiting to be found just around the next corner. And that’s exactly how I like it.
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