Friday, October 20, 2006

The Happy Buddha off the King's Road



What’s fast, delicious, fun, cheap, perfect for children and will get you in all kinds of trouble if you say the name out loud. Phat phuc – which in Vietnamese stands for Happy Buddha.

Phat Phuc is an authentic noodle bar which can be found in an open air courtyard just off the Kings Road in Chelsea where seven days a week, the genial proprietor serves delicious rice noodle soups and a generous dose of philosophy from a decorative noodle cart brought over from Ho Chi Minh City. And you've got to love the fact that this is a cart with its own website!

You can sit outside either around the cart or at the few small tables nearby. If you like your food with conversation, sit at the noodle bar. Powerful heaters are fired up when things get cold but eating outside is all part of the novelty.

The menu is pretty much soup made with “pho” a clear broth with a choice of vegetables, beef or chicken, but the price is extremely reasonable ( about £6) , the bowls are large and the quality and freshness of the ingredients is excellent. Springs rolls are on offer for £2.20. As the lady sitting next to me yesterday remarked, “I live here. This is so much better than a sandwich.”

Phat Phuc is a real gem that drives a bulldozer through the conformity and pretentiousness of its surroundings. Students, ladies in Hermes scarves, shopkeepers and shoppers all communing over steaming bowls of healthy fare. Brings the kids but not lots of cash and enjoy the show.

Location - opposite Heals and next to the Chelsea Farmer's Market at 151 Sydney Street down the steps by the flower stall.

Tel: 07870 393863 or info@phatphucnoodlebar.com

Open daily from 12:00 to 5:00

Thursday, October 19, 2006

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

1001 Guidebooks and How to Select the Best



Standing in front of the shelves marked “London” in my local bookseller, I already knew I was in trouble. I was planning to write a quick survey of London travel guides but faced with hundreds of titles, and with no developed criteria for selection, I ended up sitting for two days in the basement of Nomad Books, a good independent bookstore with an excellent travel section, going through their inventory. It was a daunting experience. Of course, the usual suspects were there: Fodors, Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Insight, Time Out and Michelin Green Guides, but so were the guides for every variety of person or interest: London for Children, for Grannies, for Gays and Lesbians, for Food Lovers, for Teenagers, for Design Freaks and Shoppers. I began to wonder how one city, even a city as vast and varied as London, could support the 1,712 guides which I found on Amazon.

After two days at Nomad and countless hours on Amazon, I’ve tried to boil my survey down to the following observations:

There is not a huge difference amongst the big players.

Yes, Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Michelin Green guides, Insight, Fodors and Time Out have probably worked hard to differentiate themselves but from an information perspective, they all do a good job of providing lots of background and detail, covering the sights, accommodations, shopping opportunities and restaurants in different price categories and neighbourhoods. They all provide good summaries of the city’s history and stuff that is useful to know when you are planning your visit. They all cost more or less the same thing, somewhere in the range of £10/$18.50. They may think they are different, but they do pretty much the same thing. Once you start drilling down, you can make your selection based on criteria such as:

If you want lots of good graphics and visuals – Go for either DK Eyewitness or the AA Key Guide

If you like consistent rating systems – Go for Michelin Green Guides or Fodors

If you want your guide to have some energy and attitude – Go for Lonely Planet, Rough Guide or Time Out. If you don’t like ads in your guidebooks, feeling as I do that paying full freight for the book is enough, then Lonely Planet is the way to go.

The London e>>guide offers on-line updates but I went online and saw nothing special about the website. This format also promotes the use of podcasts as part of self-guided walking tours, a topic that I would like to explore in a subsequent post.

Many of the main providers also offer stripped down or condensed versions such as Lonely Planet’s “Best of London” and Time Outs “Shortlist” but I would argue that unless you are an absolute fanatic about the weight and size of what you carry around, there is no real reason to buy these formats. Go for the full monty and make your own selection.

The specialists guides rarely seem worth what they cost or weigh in your daypack.

I plowed through them all, Grannies, Lesbians, Children, Food Lovers, Museum Lovers, Design Lovers and more and found most either fall back on the same information that can be found in the comprehensive guide (just arranged differently) or suffer from annoying formats or amateurish production values, or are loaded with ads. Most are too limited to rate the real estate or weight they would claim in your day pack.

In general, I think Time Out does the best job of slicing and dicing their stock of information for London into specialist formats such as Time Out “Eating and Drinking”, “Health and Fitness” “Shopping” “Students” and “Gay and Lesbian”.

But as a rule of thumb, when in doubt, go for a comprehensive guide from a major provider and slice and dice according to your own interests and whims.

There are exceptions to every rule.

If I were to go to London with only one book in my bag, it would be the tiny City Secrets - London edited by Robert Kahn which is a highly subjective, wonderful little book about London written by contemporary novelists, artists, playwrights, curators, poets, architects and others of similar status. Like a typical guidebook, City Secrets divides London into neighbourhoods, sometimes reporting on a major monument or popular restaurant but also providing a massive amount of quirky, idiosyncratic and useful information. It is also the most beautifully written of all the guides.

For example, the section on Hyde Park covers the Serpentine and Albert Memorial but also provides a useful piece about how to find and participate in the softball game which has been played by expatriates Americans opposite the Knightsbridge Barracks for more than 40 years (April to October). And as many times as I have been to Osterley Park, before I read City Secrets, I never knew that both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had been turned away in 1786 for their failure to acquire tickets in advance – even in the 18th century it pays to call ahead.

There is a surprising amount of information packed into this tiny book. Many would say it is no substitute for a proper guidebook, but when I was last in Rome, the only book in my bag was City Secrets - Rome and I was delighted with the way this book helped us discover the city. If you want to see London through the eyes of articulate people who know and love this town, for my money, City Secrets London is all you will need.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Shopping for Children's Clothes in London



Years ago, my husband visited a Gap store in Washington, D.C. while in the US on a business trip with an arm long shopping list. He proceeded to buy dozens of pairs of pants and t-shirts in different little boy sizes. The sales girl had seen it all before. “So, you must be from Europe. You’re the fourth guy in here today buying like that. Hey, don’t they have kids’ clothes in Europe?”

Well of course they did, but at the time, European children’s clothes cost at least twice what was on offer at Gap, were not as durable and could not match the peerless informality which became Gap’s trademark.

But the tables have turned and now I am often asked by both continental and American friends visiting London where to go for low cost, high fashion children’s clothes. It’s not that London is an inexpensive town, perish the thought, but it has become a great place to pick up some cutting edge children’s fashion at bargain basement prices as well the more expensive English classics.

Top Ten Stores for Childrens’ Clothes in London

H&M

Fast-forward fashion at rock bottom prices. Everything from ski wear to party dresses and accessories. Don’t expect great quality but children tend to grow out of their clothes before they wear out anyway. My nine year old daughter found most of her favourite things here this autumn. We bought bags and bags of stuff for £50. With outlets throughout London, the nicest children’s branch is at High Street Kensington. Alas, it is always crowded.

Zara

Similar to H&M but with better made and nicer things at slightly higher prices. Zara is famous for getting copies of high fashion designs from the runway to the shops at lightening speed. If you want the latest trends for very competitive prices, Zara is hard to beat. Nicest children’s branch just opened off the King’s Road at the Duke of York Square and was completely empty when I was there last week.

Marks & Spencer

Always good for staples such as jumpers (sweaters), underwear and socks and well worth checking out because occasionally M&S has something that is so good you can’t believe it. For example, Eloise and I recently found a £34 faux sheepskin fur coat that is so glamorous, the lady at the till (cash register), told Eloise she would look just like a movie star, and typical of M&S, its machine washable as well. Best children’s branch is either at the main Oxford Street store or High Street Kensington.


Gap

Similar inventory as in the US and the look does get tiring but if the sales are on, and to compete with the likes of H&M and Zara they often are, 50% to 70% discounts are common and it is hard to argue with the quality.

Next

Trendy to the point of tacky, but when they get it right, the clothes can deliver good value.


Trotters

Well made, good looking classic clothes for the aspiring middle classes at prices that are high enough to be reassuring. No bargains here but nice stuff if you need it. More selection in smaller sizes. A good shoe department where we were able to buy a perfect pair of trainers (sneakers) that no one else had in stock. They also have a children’s hair salon. Stores can be found on the King’s Road and Kensington High Street

Monsoon

For pint sized bohemians. Lots of sequins, silks, fancy knits and bright colours. Good party dresses at reasonable, but certainly not cheap, High Street prices.

Jigsaw

Similar to Monsoon but a bit more conservative. Best children’s branch is on the Fulham Road near the Brompton Cross and Bibendum.

Rachel Riley

If price is no object, but romance is, then this is my favourite children’s shop in London. Sadly, Eloise won’t touch the stuff. Too tasteful. Beautiful smocked dresses and pinafores, round collared shirts, Fair Isle sweaters and smart night clothes. Stores in Knightsbridge and Marylebone.


Boden

And finally, this is the catalogue retailer who has become a one-stop shop for the British middle classes. The clothes are well made, fun, smart and sensibly priced. What they are not is trendy, cutting edge or complicated. Perfect for holidays in Cornwall or Martha’s Vineyard. If you, like me, hate to shop from catalogues, then you can visit their only shop (in London) which is on Hanger Lane and next door to the Park Royal tube stop on the Piccadilly Line.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Let's Do the Time Warp - Again

London in the 80s, Lady Diana Spencer and the rise and rise of the Sloane Ranger. Well, social archaeologists, it is time to brush off your head bands and head for Foxtrot Oscar on Hospital Road in Chelsea where the tribe of Sloane is alive and well and enjoying two squares a day in their eminently likeable canteen.

I joined a group of friends there recently for lunch during the week. It was a hoot. The room and d├ęcor are nothing to write home about but the unpretentious, almost scruffy feel of the place is relaxing and club-like, as if it would be bad form to try too hard. The menu is full of English schoolboy favourites which the regulars have enjoyed eating since birth. Old menu stalwarts such as eggs benedict and hamburgers were really well prepared and reasonably priced. I read somewhere that even Gordon Ramsey, whose 3 star restaurant is nearby, can sometimes be found at Foxtrot Oscar enjoying a hamburger. Since we are on the topic of celebrities I should mention that everyone who has reviewed this restaurant, except me, seems to have been seated next to Prince William. It’s that kind of place. And even though, with our big broad American accents, we were obviously not members of the tribe, the service was friendly and welcoming. As I was sitting there with my girlfriends, it struck me that this was the absolutely perfect place to go for Sunday lunch, read the paper, nurse a wicked hangover and time travel.

Lots of visitors come to London in search of lost time. You can find them hanging around the “Old Curiosity Shop” near Lincoln Inns Fields and the crosswalk on Abbey Road. That’s all fine if you are chasing Dickens or the Beatles but if you harken back, as I often do, to a moment when the world’s attention was drawn to a young woman in wellies who worked in a kindergarden, you can recapture it all, plus eat a pretty good meal at a fair price at Foxtrot Oscar in Chelsea.

Foxtrot Oscar
79 Royal Hospital Road
London SW3
Tel: 0207 352 7179
Reservations recommended

Photo of the cover of the 1982 "Official Sloane Ranger Handbook"