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A Few Days of Play in London-town
Are you sitting down? Okay, here goes: the food in London is now good. It's true! For years, one of the world's greatest cities was rife with mealy Shepherd's Pies, greasy fish and chips and about as many Indian restaurants as the subcontinent itself. Boy, how times have changed. And for the better. These days, London is awash in trendy eateries, casual bistros and the kind of serious dining rooms which make mealtime memorable.
Even so, you'll be doing a lot more than eating during a few days of play in London-town. The city has put on the kind of spit polish which beckons you to explore and more. Hotels run the gamut from comfortable to luxe, the shopping is divine (move over, Paris!) and the range of activities boggles the mind. Whether it's a walk in the park or a seat at the theatre, a museum visit or a monument foray, London's got plenty to catch your eye. Ready, chap? Let's go!
Where to stay
At Brown's Hotel, you'll find the feel of an English country house in the heart of Mayfair. Mere steps from Picadilly and chic Bond Street shops, the oldest hotel in town is composed of eleven townhouses sitting side-by-side. Captains and kings, presidents and PM's have all slept in floral splendor at the hotel, and thanks to a recent multi-million dollar facelift, the fabrics and furnishings are as fresh as ever. The reception area evokes the coziest of sitting rooms, a theme which carries through to many of the 118 guest rooms. You'll want to have tea at Brown's, since everyone else does (and for good reason). Still unclear on the concept here? Think grandma's house -- if your grandma was an Astor. 30-34 Albemarle Street (0171) 493-6020 Rates start at $400; weekend and discounted packages available.
The Knightsbridge Green Hotel is for those who'd rather blow their wad at Harrods and not their hotel. Speaking of which, this 27-room gem is right around the corner from the fabled department store and across the street from wonderful Hyde Park. Enjoy your morning constitutional in the park, then return to your ultra-roomy, ochre-toned room for a power shower that'll have you rarin' to go. The Knightsbridge Green will also treat you to the daily paper (your choice of three) and guest passes (for a nominal charge) to The Berkeley health club nearby. Get that shopping list ready! 159 Knightsbridge (0171) 584-6274 Rates start at $220.
If the boss is paying the freight, by all means stay at The Savoy. This hotel is splendidly situated on the Strand and close by Covent Garden, the West End's theatres and the City, London's financial center. Frank Sinatra stays here when he's in town, so you'll certainly be in good company. The property offers 208 elegant rooms with no two alike; many are dressed in hushed greens, pinks and blues, though it's red and white in the marble bath. The Fitness Gallery boasts a pool, massage room and a host of pampering health and beauty treats, while the River Restaurant feeds both body and soul. The river, of course, is the Thames, and if you ask for a room with a river view (I suggest rooms 611 or 958), you'll capture the essence of a stay at The Savoy. Strand (0171) 836-4343. Rates start at $390.
Where to eat
At Brasserie St. Quentin, the food is quintessentially French and a pleasure with every bite. The greatest surprise is that these dishes are the handiwork of new chef Malcolm John, a Brit with a Francophone palate, indeed. The spare yet sweet brasserie decor is a confection of copper-colored mirrors and rich banquettes straddling hefty marble columns. Feast your eyes on the salade St. Quentin, a medley of gem lettuces with pecorino cheese and a lemony garlic dressing, or better yet, the Sainte Maure grille aux artichauts, grilled goat's cheese served with baby artichokes and a red onion dressing. The latter dish is a round mound of cheesy delight which will melt in your mouth. The foie de veau aux echalotes caramelisees is grilled calves liver with caramelized shallots and creamed potatoes. This very French dish has never been better. The poached pear dessert (with a scoop of cinammon ice cream here) would have made Escoffier proud.
And what of Auguste Escoffier, the French chef non pareil who had a way with peches Melba and poularde Belle Helene? He put in his time at the River Restaurant, an ode to gastronomy courtesy of The Savoy. Chef Anton Edelmann carries on the tradition today, practicing a "simple, bold and unfussy cuisine" which is sure to delight modern diners. The room may feel a bit formal, what with its high-backed chairs and starched pink tablecloths, but the gracious service (from waiters in cutaways, no less) will put you at ease. Begin with the ricotta and wild mushroom-plumped tortellini, or a salad of hickory-smoked chicken with mango and avocado in a zesty chili dressing. The definitive entree here is the roasted halibut, a perfect piece of fish which is resting on a parsnip and potato mash and surrounded by a lentil cream. End your meal with a strawberry mousse which is a perfect 10.
If you choose to dine with the hoi polloi, consider Langan's Brasserie, where co-owner Michael Caine helps the rich and famous (including a few Hollywood stars) feel right at home. Say you're not famous? Not to worry -- all you need is a navy pinstripe or a (faux?) Chanel to look the part. And looks do matter here, because the crowd can't help but sneak a peek in the many mirrors lining the walls. Those creamy yellow walls are also chockablock with prints, pictures and paintings, while the soft lighting casts a golden glow on everyone. Oh, yes, there's food here, too: the extensive menu is a melange of Brit favorites and brasserie bests. Start off with the oeufs poches au haddock fume, poached eggs swimming in a creamy sauce filled with hunks of fish. It's divine. The cod & chips are better than most, but the grilled tuna steak with a tomato and onion sauce is excellent and the better choice. Indulge in some veggies while you're here -- the creamed spinach is tasty, but the mushy peas are a revelation (I asked for seconds). Dessert? Champagne, of course, the better to toast your latest ouevre.
Other ideas? Well, you must have tea while in town, so repart to Brown's, where The Drawing Room has been drawing 'em in for over a century. This spacious salon is filled with overstuffed couches and velvety wing chairs, and their occupants appear to be landed gentry without a care in the world. Choose a seat by the fire if there's a chill in the air, although you'll quickly warm up with a pot of the Afternoon Blend. The tray of treats is as good as you'd wished, yet the smiling staff will wend its way around the room with even more cakes and pies for your nibbling pleasure. If the pianist isn't playing your tune, all you need to do is ask...the ultimate English Breakfast can be had at The Fountain restaurant at Fortnum & Mason, which bills itself as the "Queen's Grocer." If the Queen ate like this every morning, she'd be big as a house. The Fountain is almost tropical in feel, perhaps due to the faux palm trees in the center of the room and the island-y murals all around. Your royal breakfast begins with a choice of juices as well as a pot of coffee, tea or hot chocolate. Next up is a platter of eggs, Cumberland sausage, Back bacon, hash browns and toast. As if that wasn't enough, your waiter will return (after a short break) with a tray of croissants, Danish and sweet rolls, from which you'll surely choose a few. Safe to say the English only eat like this on special occasions...if you're looking for a place to put down a pint, pay a visit to Bunch of Grapes, a pub with a handful of ales on tap and a selection of wines which is both affordable and drinkable. The crowd, and staff, are as friendly as the folks at your neighborhood bar -- that's the idea, right?...the see-and-be-seen scene is happening at Momo, a Moroccan restaurant where the lamb couscous and hearty tagines don't seem to be putting an ounce on regulars like Kate Moss. Pay a visit if you can stand the competition, and by all means do visit the loo: it's a beaut.
Where to shop
There is only one answer to the shopping question in London, and that's Harrods. This really is the world's greatest department store -- it was good enough for Diana, which should be plenty good for the rest of us. Thousands of employees are on hand to cater to your every whim, assuming you comply with the rules posted at the front door, among them no photos, no ripped clothes and no unaccompanied kids under 16. Once inside, make your first visit to the incomparable food halls, room after room of incredible edibles. Here you'll find coffee and tea surrounded by luscious bon bons, pates of every color, the definitive chicken salad, a fromagerie with over 350 cheeses (and the adjacent bar fromage), a charcuterie, a spanking new sushi bar and "hampers," the British version of the picnic basket, filled to the brim with goodies to eat. Once you've had your fill of food, ride the Egyptian escalators to the upper floors, where fashion reigns supreme. Speaking of which, Harrods holds all four royal warrants, a seal of approval, if you will, which comes from the Queen and close family members (like Mum and Chuck). Bring your gold card to Harrods...umm, make that two.
What to do...
...or better yet, where to begin? London is full of fun and things to do. The following selection is merely a start, since you're sure to return many more times...Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens are an oasis of green in this bustling city. Joggers share this space with happy dogs and strollered babes, each pleased as punch at having captured their own little corner of paradise. Kensington Gardens is the setting for the better-known Kensington Palace, the stately stone manse which was the late Princess Diana's home...buy a 'brolly at Swaine Adeney on New Bond Street. The classiest umbrellas anywhere can be found in this store, which has been selling them for over two hundred years...go to the theatre while you're here. Whether it's a half-priced ticket from a Leicester Square ticket booth or fabulously expensive ducats for a first-run show, the excitement of the theatre is hard to beat in this town. Andrew Lloyd Webber still has plenty on the boards, including "Cats," "Les Miserables" and "Phantom of the Opera"...the National Portrait Gallery is tucked behind its more famous sister, the National Gallery, but it's the young 'un you want to visit. You won't find any landscapes or still lifes at this nearly-150-year-old museum, just plenty of faces -- but hey, doesn't a face say it all? Check out the "Later 20th Century Galleries" first, now that the old rule of having to be dead for ten years before your portrait was hung has been waived. This means that Maggie Thatcher and Salman Rushdie are sharing wall space with Andy Warhol's homage to QE II. You'll also find classic photos of Mick Jagger and Yoko 'n John, and a shriekily pink sculpture of designer Zandra Rhodes. Other musts: the royal portraits on the first floor landing; a pensive Henry James by John Singer Sargent; a very confident-looking Viscount Montgomery by Frank O. Sainsbury; and a colorful T.S. Eliot courtesy of cubist Patrick Heron...the Wallace Collection isn't exactly a museum, since it was the home of successive Marquesses of Hertford dating back to the mid-18th century. What these wealthy gents acquired is a cache of French porcelain, Old Master paintings, gilded clocks and fabulous furnishings. The Sevres porcelain is a feast for the eyes, as are the tiny gold and bejeweled snuff boxes on the second floor. The armor and swords are remarkable (check out the full body armor for man and horse in Room 9), as are the Dutch and Flemish works. The painting of Philippe LeRoy by Van Dyck in Room 22 is perfection... take a walk from Trafalgar Square down Whitehall and past Horse Guards to the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. If you can do this at twilight, you'll be rewarded by the spectacular sight of the orange-brown clocktower against a graying sky. Westminster Abbey next door is a church for the ages, all weathered stone, flying buttresses and serious saints. Opening hours are tricky and change on a whim, but the exterior alone is superb...Picadilly Circus is really a zoo, although the "animals" aren't exactly caged. The sea of humanity here is clamoring for a photo op in front of the statue of Eros, the God of Love. Since traffic whizzes around the statue at warp speed, say a prayer to the Gods before crossing the street...tube it, by all means. The London Underground, as the subway system is officially known, has to be one of the most extensive, well-marked, clean and safe subway systems in the world. It's fast and cheap, too, and especially so if you buy a daily pass which is good for 24 hours. When you hit the surface streets, hail a black cab to get to your final destination. London cabbies have to undergo a rigorous drill, known as The Knowledge, in which they must learn each and every street extending seven miles from the city center. Most cabbies need two to three years to collect enough knowledge before sitting for the ultimate exam. The resulting drivers are well-informed and courteous as can be, so tip well...the sweetest church in town may be St. Martin-in-the-Fields, an intimate house of worship where the airy interior and Italian plasterwork ceiling will keep you glancing heavenward...walk through cozy St. James's Park and on to Buckingham Palace, just to say you did. The Queen's home is big and hulking, and unless you want to hang around for the Changing of the Guard, there are better sights to see...
...pay a visit to the Tower of London, not to see a castle, but to ogle the crown jewels. Disney World has nuthin' on this place. You'll be standing in line for an eternity to get a quick glimpse of the royal gems, but what a sight they are! The sight (and size) of these diamonds boggles the mind: the First Star of Africa and the Second Star of Africa are blindingly bright, golf ball-sized gems set into ruby and sapphire-encrusted crowns. Queen Victoria's "small diamond crown" is false modesty, indeed.