Learning to Love London
It sounds so easy, right? The city's charms are legendary. But as Dave Herndon found out when he moved there for all the right reasons, the dropping dollar has London playing hard to get.
As usual, it was the National Theatre that captured us, with a café table available for our picnic, ringside of the amphitheater, where a troupe of young thespians performed a raucous entertainment. They were followed by a Congolese Soukous band that knew all about good vibes and how to spread them. As evening advanced, we were overwhelmed with choices--two discount plays and some sort of multimedia rave later on at the National, or the Japanese art-film festival next door--but we'd had enough. It was dusk, time to stroll across the Millennium Bridge, into the wide-open arms of Central London's cityscape.
The more I resisted the reflexive urge to mentally convert pounds to dollars, the happier I became. Cruelly, the credit card company did it for me: It took me exactly one whopping monthly statement to realize that dining frequently in London's restaurants would quickly earn me enough miles for a return ticket to New York, alone and in debt.
And thus we hatched the genius strategy of building excursions around days at the market, where comparatively inexpensive delicacies compete for attention. We cultivated our picnic technique in London's abundant and extremely well-appointed parks. When it was time to splash out, as they also say, we had to plan ahead or fall into the ever-present trap of an $80 pizza lunch or a perfectly mediocre $120 dinner for two. Our favorite park in Central London quickly became St. James's, between the Thames and Buckingham Palace, initially because we went there to neck on our first date, and thereafter because it offered a full menu of options.
As with all the London parks, St. James's enjoys the rain dividend and the benefits of being in a land where the arts of gardening and landscaping are staples of prime-time television. The resulting bounty of luscious habitat is not lost on the bird population; some 47 species of waterfowl call the place home at one time or another, if you believe the placard next to the lake.
Also on the lake is a wonderfully clever mixed-use restaurant, Inn the Park, catering to a clientele of businesspeople, ladies who lunch, and clued-in tourists. Modern but comfortably so, the Inn has pondside alfresco seating and a versatile brasserie menu. The beauty of the place is that it also provides exactly the same prime seating to consumers of take-out drinks, snacks, and meals from its organic sandwich and salad canteen. How very democratic.
Being in a celebratory frame of mind--our first meal out with the baby, on the day we took him to the embassy to become officially American--I went for the splash-out option: gazpacho, oysters, steak, wine, dessert. Okay, it was not a cheap meal ($150), but it was an occasion. Afterward we sunbathed on canvas deck chairs of the kind provided in many of London's parks at the entirely reasonable fee of £1 apiece, and purred like a little lion family after a good feed. (Until our son erupted in an inconsolable, high-decibel crying jag, shattering the peace and quiet of the entire park, scattering cormorant, coot, and great-crested grebe alike.)
Other of our most memorable meals took place before the arrival of the turbo-lunged one, in gastropubs. At its best, this category, indigenous to the Realm, represents a melding of two worlds: pubby atmosphere and an ambitious kitchen, with prices far lower than at comparable proper restaurants.
"With this exchange rate, if I can't put it in my mouth, I'm not gonna buy it," said a visiting foodie friend, so I made sure we had a suitable dining destination on our day trip to the north of the city. As promised, Hampstead has oodles of English-village charm, despite its in-town location. Sidewalk planters on tiny lanes and mews overflowed with geraniums and impatiens in a way that seemed generous rather than self-conscious; the shops were lively with personality, refreshing in a town that can feel choked with dreary chains. And the Holly Bush provided everything we could have wanted for an early-summer-afternoon supper. Downstairs is a venerable pub, reliably dark and smoky inside, with a gang of bright young things quaffing pitchers of Pimm's Cup on the sidewalk. Upstairs, a light, high-ceilinged dining room serves a very British menu (sausages, lamb, meat pies) with adventuresome ingredients in the sauces and salads (and even some vegetarian options). The three of us had a wonderful meal, notable for the warm, easygoing vibe of the entire experience, which retained its nice afterglow even when the credit card company did the math ($126).
To me, shopping for its own sake holds about as much allure as outpatient surgery--so it says something that I'd happily go with the Foxy French Girl through London's famous markets. Notting Hill's Portobello Road to the west and Spitalfields to the east are variations on a funky-chic theme, both awash in legions of fashion-aware young women with eyes set on original designs at bargain prices. And both markets are in cool neighborhoods, worth checking out even when it's not market day. Notting Hill is like New York City's Greenwich Village, boho-gone-upscale, with more in the way of collectible bric-a-brac that you buy when traveling because you simply won't find it elsewhere. Spitalfields is more heavily tattooed, with an accent on home and fashion accessories. It's also the gateway into the very "now" neighborhood of Shoreditch. This is the place to go cool-hunting for streetwear like limited-edition hip-hop sneakers that come with certificates of ownership proclaiming them to be "one of only 70 pairs worldwide."