In the 90s London was deemed the coolest city humanly possible to travel to, and obviously even cooler to live in. This was long before Berlin, Los Angeles and other, more exotic destinations slowly took its crown. But how does the English capital really fare today? We decided to spend two intense days around London to answer that very question.
“If you’re looking for the genuine London, I might as well drive you straight back to the airport”, says our taxi driver when I explain our mission to him in the cab from Heathrow. He explains that he grew up in Shoreditch, a Shoreditch before a boutique barbershop opened up on every corner. We let him know that gentrification is something we’re used to and the mood lightens before we arrive at Shoreditch House on Ebor Street. The music is pounding from Boxpark, the ‘shipping-container mall’, on the other side of the street and the party is already in full swing.
I’m determined to prove the taxi driver wrong, or at least have fun and eat well trying. We dump the bags at our room and investigate Shoreditch House, the six-story complex run by Soho House. It’s naturally very expensive, but you also get what you pay for. The fifth floor consists of a restaurant, bar and club with a panoramic view over East London, and the sixth floor has, in addition to another restaurant, a pool. It’s simply grandiose. After an aperitif in the parlour, it’s time for us to head to dinner, so we take a brisk walk to Bethnal Green and the Bistroteque restaurant.
Luckily, we were forewarned that the restaurant is quite difficult to find, and that certainly wasn’t an exaggeration. When you consider how big the restaurant is, it’s pretty impressive how they’ve managed to hide the door away between two brick walls and scaffolding. The food is typically British in character, that is, it’s not exactly an overwhelming taste experience, but the décor is fantastic, the staff likewise. The drinks are also well-made and the bar has a chilled, relaxed atmosphere on this late evening. We decide to let Shoreditch House be the worthy conclusion to the warm-up evening of our stay.
To see as much of London as possible in the relatively short amount of time we have, the next day we switch to the Ace Hotel, around 200 metres north. Here the crowd is a little more casual, even though the hipster factor is a little higher. A vintage bike is hanging by the reception desk, and it’s impossible to determine if it’s available to hire or just part of the décor. Because we had a civilised, very grown-up evening the night before we’re well-rested and pop on our runners to take the journey between Shoreditch and Soho on foot, a distance of seven kilometres as the crow flies.
Along the way we decide to drop in on some London friends who have moved into the almost-dystopic, colossal Barbican Centre, which is situated along our route. The Barbican Centre was founded as a culture centre, the biggest in Europe in fact, and in addition to its residents it also houses restaurants, a concert venue, a cinema and a library. It was built in an area which was bombed to pieces during the Second World War, and in 2003 was named London’s ugliest building. But the apartments are great and the location is terrific. We decide to meet up with our friends later at the chef Nuno Mendez’s restaurant Taberna do Mercado. Before that we do a little shopping, having managed to arrive in the middle of London Men’s Fashion Week.
But no-one needs to know where I bought my jumper. Taberno do Mecado is a Portuguese restaurant smack bang in Spitalfield’s Market. Nuno Mendez has previously worked as a cook at El Bulli, and was even kitchen chef at the celebrity hangout Chiltern Firehouse. At Taberna do Mercado he makes dishes based on his childhood in Portugal which included tapas, or “pestiscos”, and it’s therefore an excellent start to a group night out, especially if you’re fond of having lots of small dishes to share. After dinner we embark on a pub crawl around the area and we wrap up with a karaoke session at The Star Of Bethnal Green, which plays a perfect blend of Manchester rock and Justin Bieber.
The evening finishes with an afterparty at the hotel room, which at the bohemian Ace Hotel unfortunately happens to come equipped with an acoustic guitar. No-one wants to have that guy with the guitar at the afterparty, and sadly this time I’m that guy. The day after we’ve booked brunch at the aforementioned Chiltern Firehouse. It’s fortunate that we did, because the place is completely packed with people. And as soon as we get our Bloody Marys we understand why.
The á la carte-brunch that follows tastes just as sweet as the cocktails. The man at the table next to us orders every dish one-by-one, and books his next visit before he’s even finished his desert. I can understand why and want to be like him in my next life. But just now I am not, as when we go to pay I discover that I left my card at the karaoke bar last night, so I can do no better than to take an Uber there and back to save myself. There and then, it hits me what an unbelievably big city London is. It takes around an hour to get there and back, and I’ve only gone between Soho and Bethnal Green.
The evening continues in Soho, with a visit to some of the pleasant speakeasy bars the area is packed with. We begin at Sketch, whose egg-pod bathrooms are probably the most photographed toilets in London. Sketch also offers a wonderfully pink lounge and a star-shaped bar where we have the first cocktail of the night. Our tour goes on to The Blind Pig, which moreover is adjacent to Social Eating House where we later grab an evening meal. The Blind Pig has subtle lighting and an innovative cocktail list, with entries like Silver Screen which is made of bourbon, cola and candied popcorn.
It’s as good as you can imagine. If there’s something to London outside of its pubs, it’s the speakeasy bars, and my memories from 15 years ago of everything in London closing at 11pm are just that – memories. Now, you can happily continue on until the small hours without having to go to a club. A Sunday in London is best spent at one of the many street-food markets that have popped up in Shoreditch. We go back to Boxpark, where it all began, and treat ourselves to burgers. The only bad thing here really is that we don’t have the time or the room in our stomach to eat at yet one more place. Because of the tube strike, our Uber to Heathrow looks like it’s going to take two hours. But right now we’re just too happy to care.
Something to eat?
Old Spitalfields Market, 107b Commercial Street
Portuguese tapas in a relaxed environment.
Chiltern Street 1
A modern classic. Booking your table well in advance is recommended.
23-27 Wadeson St
Snazzy and ambitious restaurant with a large oval bar for drop in food and drinks.
Something to drink
9 Conduit St
A perfect place to begin the evening if you like egg-bathrooms and pink lounges.
58 Poland St
Dark, elaborate drinks and tasty snacks. Book a table for best service.
13A Gerrard Street
Chinatown’s cocktail parlour always keeps half their tables free for drop-in guests. Remember that they charge entry after 11pm.
Where to stay
Ebor Street 2
Luxury living with access to the pool and other members’ facilities. Great breakfast and a great bar.
100 Shoreditch High St
Worth the price and a hip alternative option right in the middle of Shoreditch.
1 Chiltern Street
If money was no concern this might be the best place to spend the weekend. Not far from the city’s best restaurants.
Words: Pelle Tamleht