As if the world needed more reminding of our obsession with the British monarchy, Netflix has just spilt the latest tea from Buckingham Palace in The Crown Season 5, starring Imelda Staunton (Umbridge!) as the new queen. Royal romps, quirky anachronisms and tourist sights are catnip to holiday-goers who have missed travelling across the pond. But new offerings in this Britain capital that has it all — except for, perhaps, sunshine — allow everyone to define his or her own London. Any walk down an alley or hidden nook feels like a personal discovery that can be cherished and, later, found again.
The city has re-emerged as an English weekend idyll, with the addition of contemporary art institutions, creative public spaces, inspired restaurants, and our great Malaysian pride, the rejuvenated Battersea Power Station. To help you get around better now, the recently opened Elizabeth Line, a departure from the cacophonous Tube cramped with unsolicited bodily intimacy, lets you ride straight into town or to the other side without hassle.
London is back to being the vibrant, electric metropolis it once was — one that more than lives up to the “Cool Britannia” nickname given by former prime minister Tony Blair. It is possible to shake off the limitations of retail tourism and experience a place as the locals do, away from the drama and hullabaloo unfolding at 10 Downing Street. Lettuce help.
What is an early riser to do in a city that sleeps in? Those raring to go before the crack of dawn can wake up to the smell of roses at New Covent Garden Market, formally established in 1670 but moved to the main road right next to the Battersea Power Station in 1974 due to a lack of space. Row upon row of hydrangeas, lilies, tulips and baby’s breath have made their way to weddings or been turned into theatrical showpieces and festive arrangements dotting many a window display. Available from 4am to 10am, the market is closed on Sundays but do not fret — Columbia Road Flower Market in Bethnal Green, which opens only on the last day of the week, can attend to all your floral needs.
Cinematic classics and coffee are mentioned in the same breath as wheels and axles at bicycle workshop Look Mum No Hands!, which doubles as a cultural hub of sorts that regularly hosts photography exhibitions, book launches and live gigs. Patrons kibitz about cycling races while tossing back a few pints or, whenever Tour de France season rolls around and the screening is on, swoon over machines overflowing with carbon vanity and vintage steel pride.
The manner in which you partake of your morning jolt can be personal, as Omotesando Koffee dispenses your caffeine fix with the ritualistic panache of a Japanese tea ceremony. This London outpost with a cubic bar design operates the same way as its Tokyo mothership, wherein a lone barista serves only a single customer at a time, affording you a sliver of calm before braving the early commute.
Although foot traffic still revolves around just a handful of mega art institutions, there are plenty of spaces worth exploring beyond seasoned playgrounds. Based in King’s Cross, Pangolin London is one of the very few galleries dedicated to exhibiting sculpture, promoting works by a stable of emerging artists and established luminaries from post-war icons Lynn Chadwick and Ralph Brown to cutting-edge contemporaries such as Merete Rasmussen and David Mach.
Peek into the minds of the city’s literary trendsetters at Housmans Bookshop, a 77-year-old institution peddling radical collections that are as interesting as the owner who animates the trade. Shelves go by the organising principle of quality instead of quantity, so snag that limited copy on black politics, feminism, pacifism or environmental justice before it is gone. Real treasures are buried in the bargain basement, where a great find is like kismet, and only costs £1.
A satisfying Sunday brunch is the crowning glory of the end of a work week. A golden-skinned bird with perfectly bronzed potatoes at The White Swan in Richmond is a meal you can count on. The pup-friendly pub smells of a working fireplace while its country-style garden with furnishings born out of fallen branches leaves you craving a picnic in the sun. If you have to choose either the sticky toffee pudding with butterscotch sauce or a nap as your postprandial treat, well, the answer is obvious: both.
The scene of bamboo steamer baskets being wheeled around in roving carts somehow makes the dainty treasures inside them more exciting to eat. But Park Chinois wants you to savour instead of scarfing down its scampi shumai, iberico xiao long bao and wagyu beef gyoza, whose creations have been given as much thought as the curation that went into its decadent 1930s Shanghainese décor awash in red velvet. The food only makes up half of the appeal at this Mayfair establishment as the ambiance is taken up a notch with world-class performances such as live jazz, DJ shows and aerial acrobatics. Its signature Duck de Chine is best served with a Veuve Clicquot bubbly or a side of culture from the local cabaret troupe.
If dining to the soundtrack of electric guzheng is not exactly your cup of tea, tune into a 45-minute free concert by the academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, which also has a hidden café in the crypt, during lunchtime. Instead of choral hymns, revel in classical and pop music every Monday, Tuesday and Friday at 1pm.
Close-up sounds like the worst way to see the big picture but this independent cinema in Shoreditch is named such to bring people closer to an eroding film culture and prevent the industry from joining the same cemetery space as radio and TV. Housing over 20,000 titles spanning documentaries, classics and video art, this 40-seat theatre also stocks a compendium of rare works by filmmakers who are not represented by bigger distributors — this is the only place in London you will be able to see them.
To tide you over until dinnertime, how about indulging in some retail therapy? The design-minded owners of homeware brand Labour and Wait subscribe to the belief that vintage will not date but mellow with age. How did they make utilitarian items such as Japanese enamel kettles, aprons, hand-knit blankets and even a feather duster so covetable? These were, in fact, scavenged from all corners of the world or produced in limited quantities by local artisans, making them one-of-a-kind.
Sartorial traditions are being gently upended at Savile Row, where bespoke streetwear brand Clothsurgeon recently debuted in the area known for fine tailoring. British-style arbiters and celebrities such as A$AP Rocky and Kendrick Lamar have already come a-knocking, drawn by the brand’s ingenious remixes of bomber jackets, tweed trousers and suits cut with precision and wit.
It is about time you feel peckish — the mystique pertaining to traditional afternoon tea and floral-patterned china is not limited to hushed hotel rooms adorned with gilded cornices and crystal chandeliers. If calories are no object, subject yourself to Gloria’s most ridiculous offering on the menu: the lemon meringue pie crowned with almost six inches of pillowy, whipped egg whites. Sugar is not your enemy; your stomach space is.
Managed by Princeton graduate Jeremy Chan and his childhood friend Iré Hassan-Odukale, pan-continental restaurant Ikoyi burst onto the gastronomic scene when it won the American Express One to Watch Award at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2021. Dishes touting flavours and techniques from Africa, Asia and Europe such as smoked jollof rice, plantain-smoked kelp and blackberry and morel fondue with sorghum crêpe have made curious food journalists clamour for a seat at the two-Michelin-starred restaurant. Ikoyi, which continues to rack up international plaudits, will reopen in its new home, 180 The Strand, at the end of this month.
You can walk towards the bright lights of West End after dinner, but a better proposition would be to scale Battersea Power Station’s Lift 109, the newly opened glass elevator that soars above the Thames and gives you a 360° panorama of the skyline from the peak of a chimney.
It is often easier to harp on daily inconveniences and the throng of incoming tourists than it is to maintain a sense of awe about the city. Yet, slivers of it are breathtaking enough to snap things back into perspective. Unlike other lookout points that are routinely crowded, Sky Garden in Fenchurch is filled with leafy corners that allow you to carve out a private nook while enjoying sundown with a cocktail in hand.
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Does the world really need a musical version of Nelson Mandela’s life story? Theatregoers are about to find out when the curtains of Mandela, written by South African brothers Shaun and Greg Dean Borowsky, are raised at Young Vic on Nov 28 after seven years of painstaking work. Starring the charismatic Michael Luwoye of Hamilton fame, the story begins in 1960 at the time of the Sharpeville massacre before moving on to spotlight how the eminent South African leader struggled to end apartheid. The show seems to be headed for Broadway based on the size and scope of its elaborate production.
A buzzing din is always a positive indication of a reliable bar but you may find yourself burrowed in a few moments of silent contemplation when the tipples are served at Nightjar’s new outlet in Soho’s Kingly Court. Each drink harbours a secret ingredient or surprise, be it a flaming marshmallow, pear cordial or a helluva hangover later. You can stick to the regular menu that honours three distinct historical eras in 20th-century mixology — pre-prohibition, prohibition and post-war — or dial up the adventure with a tequila shot, which is only forgivable if you order it in a cocktail (choose the lemon liqueur-based Lupita) like a respectable adult.
Looking for an unusual crashpad to cap off the night? Heritage and hedonism make happy bedfellows at Henry’s Townhouse in Marylebone, said to be the former home of Jane Austen’s favourite brother. The seven-bedroom Georgian house — where early sections of Sense of Sensibility were written — underwent a facelift by designer Russell Sage, who was behind some of the most expensive addresses in London, such as The Savoy Grill and Zetter Townhouse. A trusty housekeeper is contactable via speed dial (on one of the antique telephones, no less) if you need to run errands or cook up a rip-roaring supper.
This article first appeared on Nov 21, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.