Dispatch From London: Balancing Museums, Tea, and the Occasional Fish and Chips
By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, July 13, 2018
London is bustling. As cosmopolitan as New York City, as historic as Rome, and covering more ground than L.A. or São Paolo, the city of Dickens and Sherlock Holmes is more stimulating, and practical to navigate, than ever.
My entrée to London is a view of the Thames River and leisurely afternoon tea at Swan Restaurant, on the premises of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. One of the great pleasures of afternoon tea in England is proper clotted cream. The combination of flaky scone, delectable clotted cream, and strawberry jam is a perfect accompaniment to a pot of aromatic loose leaf tea. Savory finger sandwiches, crusts removed, of course, are ephemeral: your appetite is momentarily sated, but will return soon enough for dinner.
Summertime, the south bank of the Thames is throbbing night and day. Retaining some hints of its darker, industrial past, the revitalized entertainment district is marked by many tourist attractions, notably the Tate Modern, a massive contemporary art museum in a former power plant. The dramatic collection is free of charge, as are all the museums, including the massive British Museum, home of the prized Rosetta Stone, and the National Gallery, which is mobbed with early summer crowds striving for a selfie with masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci or Vincent Van Gogh.
The adjacent National Portrait Gallery might sound less sexy, but it’s actually essential. This collection of portraits houses timeless oil paintings of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Shakespeare, Churchill, Amy Winehouse, and everyone in between. This is a place to commune with the British spirit, and if I had time for just one museum in London, this might be it.
Another candidate would be the Victoria and Albert Museum, not far from legendary upscale department store Harrod’s. The voluminous British Galleries, opened in 2001, display centuries of British craftsmanship, decor, and taste in endless detail. The V & A’s collection of sculpture boasts priceless pieces from Giambologna’s erotic Samson Slaying a Philistine, and a rare life-size replica of Michelangelo’s David.
Another gem is Sir John Soane’s Museum. Soane was an architect and collector whose lifespan roughly matched John Adams’s. His charmingly preserved townhouse teems with ancient collectibles and curiosities, most notably a precious alabaster sarcophagus of Seti I, and the eight canvases comprising William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. Refreshingly, cameras, mobile phones, and backpacks (you’ll have to check those) are verboten.
Like most museums, they sell maps and guidebooks for a few “quid,” but the immensely knowledgeable staff are eager to converse. From there, one is not far from Carey Street’s Seven Stars Pub, dating from 1602 (a rare survivor of the Great Fire of 1666), or Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street, rebuilt shortly after that fire, and retaining an aura of the era pre-dating Bach.
London has deservedly shed its reputation for lousy food. From street food to pretentious dining, foodies will find lots to savor. There’s a Prêt A Manger on seemingly every corner, but for a better lunch, try Leather Lane. A pedestrian-only thoroughfare in central London between Greville Street & Clerkenwell Road (near the Chancery Lane tube stop), Leather Lane is a veritable street fair of high-quality food popular with local office workers at lunch time.
Borough Market, on the south bank, near historic Southwark Cathedral (worth dipping into for a glance at its majestic nave), is a hybrid farmers market and food hall tempting crowds with exotic fresh produce, local honey, cheese, freshly shucked oysters and hot food like pie and mash. Fish!, a fish-and-chips institution here, has a fast-moving line at lunch, and the meaty cod is nicely fried, although I wish I had ordered the special of the day, plaice, a flatter fish affording more crunchy surface area to absorb the tartar sauce and malt vinegar.
The best fish and chips I had in London was at Masters Superfish, near the Waterloo tube stop. Actually, the chips weren’t spectacular, but the fried haddock sung, and accompanied by peel-and-eat shrimp, sweet, tart, pickles, crisp London Pride ale, and a talkative mixture of locals and cruiseship day-trippers, this humble restaurant has become the sort of tourist-attraction I can get behind.
Indian curry, long a staple of British cuisine, is alive and well — if mixed in quality — on Brick Lane, and in Shoreditch. But in Carnaby, a thriving dining and nightlife district in the West End, polished-retro Dishoom is a hotspot. An homage to Bombay’s storied Irani cafés, free drinks while waiting in queue, a hopping bar with excellent cocktails, and a delicious homestyle menu of sharable plates make Dishoom (and their handful of other locations, including Covent Garden) a hit.
Michelin-starred St. John, near Smithfield’s purple-and-teal Victorian meat market, revived interest in nose-to-tail cooking. While the dining room can be a tough reservation, the adventurous menu is available at the first-come-first-serve bar. Dishes like roasted bone marrow with parsley salad, a pork offal meat patty called faggot, and strawberry trifle deliciously balance high and low notes.
The skyline of London is quickly evolving, with new skyscrapers such as the glass Shard newly dominant, and a climb to the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral (if you can stomach the steep entrance fee) affords one of the city’s best views. Nearby, in this oldest section of the city, Bloomberg has built an elegant new headquarters that blends harmoniously into the surrounding cityscape, preserving for the public an ancient Roman temple discovered below, the London Mithraeum, which is worth a quick visit to experience some curious Roman ruins.
The Sky Garden atop the garish Walkie Talkie building is open late for nighttime views, but neither the gardens nor the cocktail bar are worth the expense or trouble. A more rewarding viewpoint is farther afield, atop Primrose Hill, at the northern end of Regent’s Park. Off-the-beaten-path, yet worthwhile for a contrasting view of the working city, is a walk, jog, or bike ride along Regent’s Canal, which extends from St. Pancras International to village-like Camden Lock Market and beyond.
A delightful excursion from London is a train trip to Bath, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its hot springs, which pre-date the ancient Romans, are elucidated intricately in The Roman Baths museum, complemented by nearby medieval cathedral Bath Abbey. The area’s history is peacefully contemplated amidst the Georgian splendor of traditional afternoon tea, accompanied by a charming piano trio, at The Pump Room.
Most tourists won’t venture to Forest Hill, a terrific neighborhood in southeast London, on the way to Gatwick Airport. But I was glad to have the occasion, and there the Horniman Museum and Gardens stands as a charming relic of Edwardian London, with fascinating collections of taxidermied animals and musical instruments. Nearby, restaurant and art gallery Canvas & Cream serves a fortifying “full British” breakfast, black pudding and all. I have been craving baked beans on my toast ever since.
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Cover: The Tower Bridge in London; photo: Brian Taylor / ZEALnyc.