Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Marks & Spencer

When your husband tells you to go out and buy a new bathing suit, you can be quite sure that the acquisition is long overdue. With this imperative in mind, I decided to it was time to return to that “mother of all British institutions” – Marks and Spencer.

I hadn’t been in a store for ages. Neither had the British public were one to believe the headlines. “Is M&S in Terminal Decline?” has been asked so many times that one didn’t even want to be seen going into the morgue of mass marketing. It was embarrassing to be seen there. The stores looked lousy. The merchandise was boring beyond belief. Even the iconic underwear ( and by association the swimwear) was judged “not worth buying any more”.

But along came an ad campaign with a very beautiful middle-aged Twiggy to change all that. How did a model famous in the 1960s get customers back into Marks and Spencer? It’s a weird dynamic but a powerful one. Twiggy looks so great in the kind of clothes that most middle-aged women need to wear, that you are seduced into getting back into the store and having a look. I needed a swimsuit, I was past the bikinis on offer at Topshop and Zara and anyway, I wanted to look like Twiggy, heroine of my youth.

I chose to visit the M&S on Kensington High Street and not the main store on Oxford Street. First, I hate Oxford Street. It is the kind of street that makes you want to quit consumption all together. It is just too big, too crowded, too voracious and too crude for an enjoyable shopping experience. The same can be said for the Oxford Street Marks & Spencer. The M&S on Ken High Street has just enough stuff to keep me happy but not so much stuff that I am turned off.

The store in Kensington has been spruced up and looks better. Improved lighting insures that the merchandise looks more appealing. I’m still confused about where to find stuff but less so and the ladies underwear, I am happy to report, is back in fine form.

I found my ideal swimsuit quickly. Instead of setting me back £100 which is what an equivalent product would have cost me at Harrods, my lovely white one piece was a reasonable £35. It was made in Portugal from a sturdy fabric that should hold everything in the right place. I loved it and was in the mood to shell out for some beach accessories as well. But alas, the accessories were created with an over tanned Ivana Trump in mind and I gave them a pass. The fact that I tried on my new fab suit in a disorganised dressing room and had to wait a long time to pay for it, demonstrated that some things at Marks haven’t changed.

So would I recommend a return visit to this icon of British retailing. Yes, I certainly would for underwear (including socks and tights), jumpers/sweaters and food. In the underwear department, you can buy anything from good quality inexpensive utilitarian to great looking sexy stuff at modest prices. The food buyers have finally woken up to the fact that the middle classes have an aversion to additives and food miles and the jumpers/sweaters still beat anything on the high street for value and durability. Their washable wool can withstand the onslaught of even a housekeeper from the Philippines (and for those of you who have ever had someone from the Philippines do your laundry you know how miraculous this is). These sweaters make great affordable gifts.

For the rest of the merchandise, I’m still not convinced. The children’ department continues to look like an outpost of Disneyland. M&S take note – Eloise does not want Winnie the Pooh on her knickers. The shoes still can’t compete with the cutting edge cheapo shoe stores such as Office and for my money, the heralded Per Una and Autograph lines can’t hold a candle to what’s on offer at H&M, Zara and Topshop.

But with all that said, it’s nice to see a British institution getting back to the business of being a British institution. It seemed unnatural not to shop there. Too much has changed in this socially managed “paradise” of an island in the last eleven years and I, for one, look forward to the return of orderly queues, a rousing defense of free speech and buying my knickers at M&S.

Photo of Twiggy in M&S outfit from ad campaign taken from company's website

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Coach and Horses

Try as I do to sample all the real London institutions, I must confess to having missed out on the Norman Balon experience at the Coach and Horses, a Soho institution on Greek Street.

For over 60 years, Norman has famously held the title of London’s rudest landlord. Last night, at age 79, he handed over the reins of the Coach and Horses to a new owner. The Coach and Horses has long been a hangout for journalists and Soho personalities. It featured in Jeffrey Bernard’s Lowlife column for the Spectator and was the basis for a play staring Peter O’Toole, “Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell”. Most famously, the pub served as the site of fortnightly Private Eye lunches.

Norman Balon’s memoirs which are currently out of print are entitled “You’re Barred, You Bastards” and some of his more printable sayings which were included in a wonderful article about him in today’s Daily Telegraph include:

Here’s your money. F**** off.

You’re barred. You’re too boring to be in my pub.

I don’t care if you are a man or a woman, you can go now.


You’re so ugly you’re upsetting the customers.

Can’t you see, you idiot, that I’m on the telephone – to an MP trying to find the Private Eye Lunch.

And don’t come back.

How this venerable institution holds up without Norman Balon remains to be seen but I am very sorry to have missed his time.

Coach and Horses
29 Greek Street
Tel: 020 7437 5920

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Friday, May 19, 2006

Favourite London Freebies

London may be the third most expensive city in the world but it can not be faulted for its rich offering of free entertainment. In fact, digging into this topic I am amazed at the almost limitless things to do in this town that are hugely entertaining and easy on the purse.

Let’s start with the museums: the British Museum, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate Britain and Modern, the Museum of London, the Victoria and Albert, the Natural History Museum, the Wallace Collection, Sir John Soanes Museum, Kenwood House, and many, many more. I’m not much for Math, but I counted 63 museums in London that don’t charge for entry and I suspect there are more out there. Most of these places also offer free or nominal cost films, tours, concerts, lectures and workshops which make for a whole lot of free activities.

In addition to its free museums, London has some of the loveliest parks you will find in any city in the world filled with no-cost or inexpensive things to see and do. Most of the larger parks, such as Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Holland Park, Regents Park, Battersea and Richmond Park have well equipped playgrounds, lakes with boats you can rent, cafes and even historic building and art galleries. Many of the parks offer guided walks, such as the Peter Pan Walk in Kensington Gardens.

For example, yesterday, I had a fine walk through Kensington Gardens en route to the Serpentine Gallery for modern and contemporary art which until May 21 has an admission free exhibition of works by Ellsworth Kelly. The combination of the park in full spring bloom, the elegant small gallery and sparse and thought provoking artwork put a very fine spin on what had started out as a grey and grumpy day. After the Gallery, I walked home via the refurbished Albert Memorial, an amazing example of “high Victorian gothic extravaganza”. All in all, an engrossing couple of hours that cost me nothing.

As well as the great museums, libraries and parks, London has fabulous markets where you can savour the exuberant street life and many fine examples of antiques, clothing, collectibles, food, jewellery and much more. And there is the added benefit that almost everything on offer costs far less than what you find in the boring old chain stores.

London is estimated to have over 100 markets ranging from the famous and crowded Covent Garden (with loads of free entertainers hoping to be discovered) and Camden Market as well as Borough the foodies paradise and Billingsgate for fish, Bermondsey and Portobello for antiques, Columbia Road for plants and flowers, Petticoat Lane for clothes, Brick Lane for “treasures and trash” and Leadenhall for a taste of Victorian times. Napoleon thought he was insulting the English when he described them as a nation of shopkeepers unfit for fighting but I would argue that it is precisely in the markets where you come to appreciate the dynamism and diversity of this society.

London churches are also wonderful places to visit. Sadly, both St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey now feel the need to charge tourists £9 and £10 respectively, but London has many fine examples of churches dating from Norman times through to the modern era which do not charge and offer an interesting, uncrowded experience. Some of my favourite London churches include Southwark Cathedral, St Bartholomew-the-Great (you saw it in Four Weddings and a Funeral), the Brompton Oratory, All Saints Margaret Street and Temple Church which is currently under siege by Da Vinci Code groupies. Both St Giles in the Fields and St James in the West End offer free concerts and Westminster Abbey has free weekly recitals by top organists at 5:45 every Sunday. For something out of the ordinary, visitors are welcome to visit the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Temple in Neasdon, north London, the only traditional Hindu mandir outside India which Reader’s Digest once called the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”

And finally, there are historic buildings and what can only be described as “one offs” that do not charge for access such as the Houses of Parliament and the Guildhall, where the Guilds who controlled London in earlier centuries met. For a more Dickinsian view of London, visitors over the age of 14 can visit the Old Bailey Criminal Court to view court sessions. Science enthusiasts can hang out at the Dana Centre and music fans can sample the nightly concerts in the Foyer of the National Theatre.

Actually, I now realise that I have only begun to scratch the surface of free things to do in London. One of the most useful resources I have found to keep tab on freebies is the website http://www.londonfreelist.com/ which is well organised and comprehensive. In fact, I’m now on a mission to find and report on the best value entertainment that London has to offer and to continue to do damage to London’s reputation of being unaffordable.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Americans in Paris Take a Hit in London

Following on from our visit to the Ben Franklin Museum here in London, the doppelganger and I decided (jointly, of course) to take a look at the “Americans in Paris 1860 - 1900” exhibition at the National Gallery which runs until 21 May. I don’t generally like shows in the basement of the wonderful Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. Like the Grand Palais in Paris, the space is always hot, crowded and claustrophobic but since the reviews had been so bad - “a fourth-rate show of second-rate art by some third-rate painters” - we hoped it would have discouraged the crowds.

Anyway, how bad can a show be that has Whistler’s Portrait of the Artists Mother and Sargent’s Madame X and the Daughters of Edward Darley Boit? Since when were Whistler or Sargent or Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, Frederick Childe Hassam or Maurice Prendergast, for that matter, considered third rate??? It didn’t make sense.

For the record, we found the show interesting and we enjoyed learning more about the impact of Paris on American artists in the late 19th century. I’m no art critic but I just can’t help thinking that the reviews were as much about the dreary state of Anglo-American relations as they were about art. Even artists who have been dead for a hundred years are coming under fire. In any event, thanks to the lousy reviews, the exhibit was not crowded.

After the exhibition, and since it was pissing down rain the likes of which London rarely sees, we decided to have lunch at the new National Dining Rooms, a proper sit down restaurant on Level 1 of the Sainsbury Wing. The menu consists of regional and seasonal offerings which fall under the heading of “Modern British”. I had mackerel with rhubarb which was first class. Main courses will set you back around £15 – 20. There is a children’s menu in the range of £6.50 and a less formal cafe where they serve things like Pork and Shepherd’s Pie also for about £6.50. They serve a full-on tea starting at 3:00 for £12.

The room has a view out over Trafalgar Square which is inspiring although the space is somehow too cool for its own good. All that glass and white walls left me feeling chilly. Still, the service was good and even though the crowd waiting for tables was starting to back up, we were left happily to linger and gossip. My biggest issue with the place is that it just seems too expensive for lunch and I expect the tourists and gentile ladies who are the logical audience for this place would agree with me.

Come to think about it, London has surprisingly good food in many of its galleries. The restaurants in the Tate Britain, the Tate Modern, the Wallace Collection and the Dulwich Picture Gallery are to be recommended. The National Dining Rooms are a welcome addition to this club but be forewarned that you will be spending full blown restaurant prices.

The National Gallery
Trafalgar Square
National Gallery Information: 020 7747 2885

The National Dining Rooms
First level of the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery
Open 10am – 5:30 pm (Wednesday late until 8:30pm)

Friday, May 12, 2006

Waiting for Bar-B-Q in Blighty

“Now don’t let your grandmother take you to Agnes and put a permanent in your hair!”

Those were the inevitable parting words of my mother as she handed me over to the Eastern Airlines stewardess in New York whose job it was to get me safely to Raleigh, North Carolina and in to the waiting arms of my grandparents, upstanding members of a small rural community where I spent my summers as a child.

In the eyes of my southern grandmother, all nice little girls should look exactly like Shirley Temple. Those who didn’t were taken to Agnes, local hairdresser and purveyor of extremely permanent permanents. Like punctuation, Agnes marked the beginning and end of my summers. She was the first stop on my ride into town and the last person I saw before being shipped back North. Agnes is as much a part of my North Carolina summers as cicadas, horses, tobacco auctions, sweet tea and barbeque.

Speaking of barbeque, today, I am sitting at my PC, waiting for Agnes' daughter, Jean Stanley Howell, to arrive here in London with two pounds of the finest barbeque in the world, all the way from Stephensons Bar-B-Q, established in Willows Springs, North Carolina in 1958. Eastern Carolina BBQ which is slow roasted pork in a spicy vinegar sauce deserves its cult status. It is simply the most divine thing ever created to put in your mouth. Period.

However, as this blog is ostensibly about sharing authentic and uncrowded experiences in Europe, I must, at last, get to my point. If the urge to eat barbeque overtakes you, even in London, you can do something about it. Homesick Carolinians and others head to either the Arkansas Café in Spitalfield Market or Bodeans Smokehouse with three locations in Soho, Fulham Broadway and Clapham.

If you are homesick for atmosphere, head for the Arkansas Café where Bubba, the proprietor, is straight out of Forest Gump. You can have a nice conversation about things. On the edge of Spitalfields market, the people watching is big fun. If the BBQ were better, it would be perfect.

If its really fine pulled pork you are after, head for Bodeans BBQ. Although the owners claim to be inspired by what they learned in Kansas City (good God, what does that have to do with BBQ?) however they do it, these guys know how to cook pig. Skip the bread for the sandwich and the cornbread, both of which are rubbish and ignore the “faux” Americana décor. I won’t say anything against the TVs perpetually tuned to sports channels because that is pretty authentic. What I will say is that the pulled pork and vinegary North Carolina sauce is superb.

And a final word of caution, don’t get suckered into the Big Easy on the Kings Road if you’re looking for authentic food or atmosphere or any of the supposedly “Tex-Mex” places around town. They may make a mean margarita but they don’t know the first thing about BBQ.

So come on Jean Stanley Howell from Smithfield, North Carolina, hurry up with that Bar-B-Q. I’m hungry and I do believe my hair is starting to frizz.

On a related note, today marks the 55th anniversary of the wedding of my parents, at the Baptist Church in Smithfield, North Carolina where plenty of barbeque was served to disbelieving Yankees. I'm very grateful for this happy marriage and my long association with the South without which, I suppose, I would just be another Northerner without much to say.

Arkansas Café
107B Commercial Street
Old Spitalfields Market
Tel: 0207 377 6999
Fax: 0207 377 6990


10 Poland Street
Tel: 0207 287 7575
Fax: 0207 287 4342

169 Clapham High Street
Tel: 0207 622 4248
Fax: 0207 622 3087

4 Broadway Chambers
Fulham Broadway
Tel: 0207 610 0440

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Affordable Accommodations in London

In a town known for either shockingly awful or shockingly expensive places to stay, it’s not easy to find interesting, good value hotels. Or at least that’s what I hear.

As a London resident, I have no reason to stay in a hotel but I’m asked all the time to recommend good, inexpensive accommodations in London. Normally, the question is just a ruse to get me to say, “But, of course, you MUST stay with us,” which I often do say, but when all the children are home or when the person inquiring is way too smart (in every sense of the word) to stay with us, here is how I typically reply.

For longer stays, try an apartment. My favourite site for finding London apartments is http://www.aplacelikehome.co.uk/.

As for hotels, if you like to search the internet for good deals, try http://www.londontown.com/ which has both good prices and some decent editorial so that you can get a bit of a feel for the hotel and location. If you know where you want to stay, http://www.hotels.com/ does as good a job as any.

And here are some of the hotels which I think are worth a look.

Base2stay – a new property in Kensington near the Earl’s Court tube station which claims to be a blend of boutique hotel and serviced apartment. Doubles start at £99. Each room has a small kitchen, air conditioning and broadband internet. Special discounts are available for longer stays.

B+B Belgravia – This is an award-winning small hotel which claims it will change the way you think about bed and breakfasts. The location and price (doubles for £99 which includes VAT, breakfast and internet access) are hard to beat.

The Pavilion – I read about this place and had to check it out. So should you if you consider yourself groovy, funky and “artistically minded”. This is not a boring hotel and I’m not even sure it’s a comfortable or clean hotel (some of the tripadvisor reviews were a bit worrying) but it is “different”. Double rooms are an affordable £100 a night for a good central London location.

Millers Residence – If you can spend in the range of £150 to £185, love over-the-top interiors, want to be in Notting Hill and are looking for a completely unforgettable experience, take a look at the website for this property, owned by Martin Miller of Miller Antique Guides. You really have to see it to believe it.

The Mandeville – A hip hotel in a great location. Their published rates start at £250 but hotels.com had rooms on offer in the £150 range and at that price, it’s good value.

The Zetter – Time Out describes it as a"super-hip and reasonably priced Clerkenwell hotel” and from looking at the website, I’d agree. If you like modern and prefer to stay in East London, this hotel offers great value in the £150 range.

So there you have it, some affordable alternatives to staying at my place. As our son Lee once said to the former headmaster of his old school, “You really don’t want to stay with my parents. You never know who you will meet on the staircase at two in the morning.” Personally, I have no idea what Lee is talking about.

25 Courtfield Gardens
London SW5 0PG
Tel: 44 (0) 207 244 2255
Fax: 44(0) 207 244 2256

B+B Belgravia
64-66 Ebury Street
London, SW1W9QD
Tel: 44 (0) 207 259 8570

The Pavilion
34-36 Sussex Gardens
London, W2
Tel: 44 (0) 207-262-0905
Fax: 44 (0) 262 1324
Email: hotelpavilionuk@aol.com

Millers Residence
111a Westbourne Grove
London, W24UW
Tel: 44 (0) 207 243 1024
Fax: 44 (0) 207 243 1064
Email: enquiries@millersuk.com

The Mandeville Hotel
Mandeville Place
London, W1U 2BE
Tel: 44 (0) 207 935 5599
Fax: 44 (0) 207 9359588
Email: info@mandeville.co.uk

The Zetter
St John’s square
86-88 Clerkenwell Road
London EC1M5RJ
Tel: 44 (0) 207 324 4444

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Affordable Food in London

Eating out in London reminds me of playing Monopoly. At first you are careful with your money, you have a sense of what $100 means. As the game progresses, as you acquire property, houses and hotels, the Monopoly money somehow loses its value. Prices are relative. You stop caring. You stop counting. That is what happens when you eat out a lot in London.

Many, many years ago, as a student in this town, I could eat a very filling, if not very good tasting meal at my local Hot Pot for 25 pence. Recently, my husband took our son out for lunch at our local Gourmet Burger Kitchen. I asked Jeff what it cost. He responded that it was pretty reasonable at £22. At an exchange rate of $1.75/€1.00, that is a $38.50 hamburger lunch. Only after playing London Restaurant Monopoly for a number of years could you begin to believe that paying $38.50 for two hamburgers was a good deal.

Faced with such a hostile environment to finding good, affordable food, here are some of the things I recommend to help lower the cost of eating in London:

Check out the website, Toptable, which is the closest thing we’ve got to hotels.com. with deals at lots of restaurants that can represent as much as a 50% discount. I’ve used this service several times. It works, the restaurants always have your reservation and the offers are “as advertised”. Today, for example, I found an interesting “2 for 1” offer from Noura, a very good Lebanese restaurant with several locations in London. Make the booking through Toptable and two of you can eat for the price of one £29 set menu.

Go for lunch or pre-theatre. Most serious restaurants that would bankrupt you at dinner have a prix-fix lunch or pre-theatre offer that is much more reasonable. For example, the famed Gordon Ramsey restaurant at Claridges Hotel, has a £30 a head lunch time menu which everyone raves about. Dinner would probably set you back about £90 a head. These offers are available at premier restaurants all over town and the best way to find out about them is to call or if you worry about appearing cheap, which you shouldn’t, you can check the website.

Look for “Beat the Clock” deals. How it works is that during a set time, usually early in the evening, your meal costs whatever time it was when you ordered it. Pioneered by the quite good chain, Belgo Restaurants and Bierodrome, you can get a great bowl of mussels and perfect French fries for £6 if you place the order at 6:00 PM. The barbeque chain, Bodeans, also offers “Beat the Clock”. I predict other will follow.

Go to places where you can BYO. I know of 3 good Persian restaurants where you can bring your own booze and really keep the costs down. My favourite is Mohsen on Warwick Road in W14 but currently closed for renovations. Also good is Patogh at 8 Crawford Place near the Edgeware Road tube and Alounak at 10 Russell Gardens near the Olympia Exhibition Centre.

Wagamama, Wagamama, Wagamama. I know I keep banging on about this high tech chain of noodle bars (24 locations in London) but it really does represent the best value in town. Where do you think I went on my birthday last week with my family? Yup. Wagamama. We had a wonderful time. No one worried about the cost.

Have breakfast at a traditional London “caff”. Once described as linoleum temples to social isolation, you can eat a fabulous and fabulously cheap breakfast in these places. Take 2 Lipitor and enjoy a first class British fry-up. Perfect for hangovers. The website Classic Cafes has an excellent list of London’s top ten.

Eat sandwiches. Pret a Manger and Marks and Spencer, with outlets throughout London, have the best.

Time Out’s Cheap Eats in LondonBuy the book or visit the website for hundreds of listings of cheap places to eat. Not as good as it should be ( not enough surprises, new finds or good indexing such as lists of BYOs or restaurants with lunch/pre-theatre deals) but still the best we’ve got.

And finally, the other thing I keep banging on about, when in London, rent an apartment and get out from under the tyranny of London restaurant prices. The take out/take away options are great and if you like to cook, you can buy the most luxurious and expensive ingredients and still spend a whole lot less than £22 for a hamburger.