A onetime Londoner offers her tips on fitting in with the residents.
Where to Stay
The new East London hotspot for connoisseurs of cool is the Curtain, a members’ club in Shoreditch that doubles as an edgy, 120-room hotel, open to the public. The place is home to a broad range of amenities, from a rooftop pool and gym with a pop-up spa to live-music venues to a sneaker-cleaning service. The art is curated by Steve Lazarides, onetime agent for graffiti artist Banksy. That is to say: The Curtain corners the market on street cred. Rounding out the swank factor is Red Rooster, the hotel’s basement restaurant, run by chef Marcus Samuelsson, who brings a taste of southern comfort from his original Harlem haunt to the East End. Book the Terrace Loft Suite, with its private outdoor space and views of the London skyline.
Submerged in the swarming streets of posh Fitzrovia, the 34-room boutique Mandrake takes its name from the Mediterranean plant once thought to have magical powers. Two former office buildings have been transformed into a palm-tree-and-passion-flower-filled hideaway with theatrical interiors: velvet chaise longues, steel-and-jesmonite chandeliers, fairy-tale-esque artwork. The Hong Kong–based, Michelin-starred French restaurant Serge et Le Phoque opened its first London outpost at the Mandrake, while the hotel’s artist-in-residence program features Hollywood tattoo artist Mark Mahoney, who currently is hosting a pop-up parlor there.
With its friendly doorman, antiques-filled rooms, and afternoon tea featuring live piano music, the Grade II–listed, 56-room Milestone Hotel — built behind a 17th-century milestone marker that alerted coachmen to the distance to central London — is the antithesis of hip, which is precisely why it’s so appealing. Light on attitude and heavy on service, the Milestone employs a staff so unobtrusively attentive one wonders if they were trained by Downton Abbey’s Carson himself. The redbrick Victorian-era refuge has a residential feel about it, with each room individually decorated in traditional English style with input from hotel owner Beatrice Tollman. Thoughtfully curated extras include Milestone-prepared picnics in nearby Hyde Park and bespoke birthday celebrations for your pets, welcome at the hotel no matter their size.
Where to Eat
After almost a decade as the chef of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London — where she maintained three Michelin stars, making her the only female Michelin-starred chef in the U.K. — Clare Smyth has launched her first solo venture, Core by Clare Smyth, in a restored Victorian building in Notting Hill. Smyth takes diners on a decidedly British culinary journey with a $125 tasting menu offering ten to 12 dishes (there’s abbreviated options of three and five courses); pair with wines from a 400-bottle list. Current creations include an Isle of Mull scallop on the half shell with seaweed, roe, and butter sauce and a skin-on Charlotte potato with herring, trout roe, and minuscule potato crisps.
Housed in a rustic greenhouse at the foot of a meadow, Petersham Nurseries Café in Richmond is an idyllic afternoon escape for those in need of a respite from Central London. Order Petersham’s rose-petal Prosecco ($12) while you peruse the seasonal menu, which includes organic ingredients harvested from the gardens. Dishes might be Dover sole on the bone with creamed kale and Chanterelle mushrooms ($46) or a pair of roast quails with root vegetables ($32); the teahouse also serves coffee, tea, and cakes throughout the day. Although the café has seen a few chefs come and go since the departure of Michelin-starred Skye Gyngell in 2012, it doesn’t seem to have affected its popularity in the least — Petersham Nurseries is set to open a second café in 2018 in Covent Garden.
Jam-packed newcomer Kricket Soho is the first permanent iteration of a restaurant that began as a tiny pop-up in a shipping container in Brixton. Perch yourself atop a barstool at the L-shaped counter, where you can view the open kitchen and its tandoor turning out roasted kebabs and breads; order from a menu of Indian-street-food-inspired small plates using homegrown British ingredients. Try the tandoori monkfish with coconut chutney ($15) or duck breast with sesame and tamarind ($15), and ask for the rum-laced, spiced masala chai ($7).
What to Do
It’s easier than you may think to blend in with the locals in London — all you need is a little guidance. Hop off the tourist trail and do as Londoners do by following these in-the-know tips from a former resident (and fan of fitting in on the fly).
London’s many secret alleys and lanes are among its most charming attractions, and one of the loveliest is, without question, Lamb’s Conduit Street. This long, semi-pedestrian street in Bloomsbury actually has nothing to do with lambs but honors William Lambe, a wealthy merchant who in 1577 built a conduit here to supply the city with spring water. In the 19th century, Charles Dickens lived nearby, and more recently, actor Rupert Everett, among others, has called the neighborhood home. Despite its West End location, the street has a villagelike feel with small boutiques, traditional pubs, cozy cafés, and not a single chain. Don’t miss Persephone, an achingly niche bookstore-cum-publisher of out-of-print books written by women in the first half of the 20th century; Darkroom, which sells housewares, jewelry, and clothing by British and European designers; and the Lamb, an old English pub frequented by Dickens that still has its original “snob screens,” etched-glass partitions at eye height installed in the Victorian era so middle-class drinkers could see but not be seen.
Take the tube’s Northern Line to the Chalk Farm station, and within minutes you’ll alight in Primrose Hill, a well-heeled enclave of Victorian terraces, tree-lined streets, and, of course, the fêted hill itself, a 213-foot-high mound on the northern side of Regent’s Park, once the hunting grounds of King Henry VIII. The Rolling Stones put Primrose Hill on the album cover of Between the Buttons; a strange meeting there inspired the Paul McCartney song “The Fool on the Hill,” recorded in 1967 at nearby Abbey Road Studios. Stock up on gourmet eats at Melrose & Morgan and invest in a good read at Primrose Hill Books, then begin your ascent — you’ll be rewarded at the summit with spectacular views of central London and beyond. When you return to street level, be sure to pop into Mary’s Living & Giving, the most glamorous secondhand shop in town — it sells hand-me-down designer duds from locals including Kate Moss, Victoria Beckham, and Jude Law. Pass by Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath’s old flat at 3 Chalcot Square, then mosey over to the Landsdowne for a pint and a thin-crust fennel-and-sausage pizza.
The Frontline Club is a members’ club for journalists founded by videographer Vaughan Smith to commemorate his colleagues at Frontline Television News who died pursuing their work. But many events are open to the public (as is the recently revamped, 50-seat restaurant and bar). Set in a high-ceilinged 19th-century factory that once housed Hackney carriages, the club presents documentary screenings and live-broadcast discussions most evenings. Since opening in 2003, the club has hosted talks with the late photojournalist Tim Hetherington, late Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto, war correspondent Christina Lamb, and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Any in-the-know Londoner will tell you that if you want to mingle with erudite locals in a beautiful space, head to the Tate Modern. In 2016, the museum expanded with the Switch House, a ten-story brick tower that increased its gallery space by 60 percent. The $375 million expansion, by Herzog and de Meuron, allows for more work by female and international artists — but also, of course, more visitors. Families, couples, art students, and retirees from Battersea to Belsize Park flock to the Modern in droves, particularly on weekends and often on the last Friday of the month, when the galleries stay open until 10 p.m. Wind down your visit at the Modern’s top-floor restaurant and bar with its alfresco terrace with 360-degree views of the city.
From Juliet Kinsman, author of the 2018 Louis Vuitton London City Guide; founder of Bouteco.com, celebrating sustainability in luxury travel; and founding editor of mrandmrssmith.com, a boutique-hotel-booking site.
Seeing my colorist Mads at Josh Wood Atelier is always a highlight (excuse the pun). Tucked away in a discreet mews house in Holland Park, the salon has a red-carpet clientele thanks to its expertise at natural-looking highlights. And you can protect your do from the drizzle with an umbrella from one of the city’s oldest umbrella-makers, James Smith & Sons on New Oxford Street. Dating to 1857, James Smith is inside and out the best-preserved “glass and brass” high-Victorian shop in London. Duly armed, head to Katrina Phillips, set in the most photogenic curve of pastel Victorian buildings and antiques dealers, where abstract canvases by local artists are propped up behind tables spilling with Ethiopian silver charms and ceramics handmade in South London.
At Sir Christopher Wren’s domed magnificence, St. Paul’s Cathedral, view some of the unique public art that surrounds it. You’ll see Angel’s Wings, Thomas Heatherwick’s striking stainless-steel sculpture, and, in nearby Postman’s Park, the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice, a poignant monument of tiled plaques that tell the stories of ordinary people who died saving the lives of others. (Those familiar with Patrick Marber’s Tony-nominated play and BAFTA-winning film Closer may recognize the location as being the setting where both productions open.)
Though I’m a West London gal, my favorite restaurant right now, Cub, is East, on Hoxton Street. For an after-dinner drink, Tony Conigliaro’s tiny Bar Termini feels like your own Soho secret on Old Compton Street. Order an aged-rosé Negroni.
Read up on London food, fashion, music, and design, with particular attention to secret spots and lesser-known gems, on the blog Poppyloves.
Click on streetmap.co.uk to navigate the streets of London when Google Maps fails you here (it will).
Consult Urban Junkies for the latest intel on London entertainment, restaurants, and bars. The site also announces sample sales and publishes a weekend guide every Thursday.
Grab the weekly Time Out London for detailed listings of events, festivals, concerts, films, and more.
Access the Visit London App to help you experience London like a local, including lists like Cheap Eats and Top Markets (viewable as a list or on a map).