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London. Wonderful to visit. Unbearable to live in. Getting from A to B takes about 2 hours, and that’s if public transport is all working according to plan – which it probably isn’t. It’s enough to drive any self-respecting Amsterdammer running to the nearest bike shop, begging for two wheels to put themselves out of their misery. (You can cycle in London, of course; it’s just a bit scary.) But it’s all ok because when you’re on holiday you generally have the luxury of time (make sure you’re nowhere near the Waterloo & City line between 8 and 9 am), and you’re probably hanging out in the centre of town anyway. And by the centre, I mean places you can get to on the Circle line.
Food for the hipsters…
Brunch at Grain Store, King’s Cross
The last time I was in King’s Cross (over a decade ago), it was seedy-underbelly-meets-enormous-traffic-jam. When I popped out of the station this time around, the place seemed to be largely pedestrianised and full of young professional families pushing strollers and shouting at little Isabella to get out of the fountain.
And right across from one of these fountains, in a converted train depot, were two popular brunch spots: Grain Store and Caravan. We got a table at the former, and ordered the kimchi and minced pork pancakes with peanut sauce, spring onions and coriander. It was fresh and satisfying and just what my hangover ordered. The beetroot and grape juice I ordered at £4 for a wine glass of wannabe red seemed a bit steep, but the flat whites were approved by the Antipodean I was brunching with. Plus, the interior has that sort of airy industrial chic that’s perfect for first-time parents trying to maintain a semblance of a social life – there’s a lift up from the station and plenty of buggy-space around the tables.
Lunch at Boxpark, Shoreditch
Next on the hipster radar is surely Shoreditch: seemingly the birthplace of all things hip in London (although now rapidly being usurped by other areas of town – like King’s Cross). Cue Boxpark, which sort of looks like a tiny section of the Highline in New York (well, mostly because of the fact that it’s above ground level and you have to walk up stairs to get there) but then lined with food stalls. Housed in container-style accommodation, we tried out Boxpark residents Porky’s BBQ, the Duck Truck and the Athenian, but there were dozens more foodie purveyors we could’ve chosen. Whichever you opt for, you take your food to communal tables in the centre of the indoor-outdoor structure, order a drink, and chow down. We liked the Duck Truck’s pulled duck with hot sauce and hoi sin, but were less impressed with Porky’s BBQ meats (especially the pork – which is a shame given the name). We also made short work of the Athenian’s halloumi box with salad, chips and various different sauces. As you can see from the photo, it was a veritable feast – it’s a wonder those hipsters stay so skinny…
Drinks and snacks for professional types…
Aperitif (or after-work drinks) at Gordon’s Wine Bar, Embankment
With a couple of hours to kill, I kidnapped my work buddy and forced her to drink wine with me. She wasn’t exactly unwilling. I knew I was heading to Covent Garden later, so Embankment seemed like a suitable spot to stop for a drink – handily located close to Waterloo on one side and The Strand on the other. Gordon’s Wine Bar has been around for ever (I used to drink here back in the day when I lived in London) and serves both visitors and locals well – especially professionals seeking some grape-based relief after a hard day’s work. Grab a table outside or in, order a bottle of something cold and wet, and kick back for an hour or two.
Cocktails and Italian food at Polpo, Covent Garden
Two glasses of wine down, what better to move onto than cocktails? I headed up to Polpo – an Italian restaurant-cum-bar serving small sharing plates; they have several locations, and ours was the one on Maiden Lane. I particularly liked their elderflower martini, which was just on the edge of dry vs. sweet.
I always get confused between the words polpo (meaning octopus) and polpetta (meaning meatball); but they had both so why choose? Both were tasty – the meatballs in a rich ragu, and the octopus in a citrusy salad with fennel and chilli. We also liked the rabbit pappardelle and the mini-pizza with gorgonzola and prosciutto.
Food for the globally minded…
Tacos at La Bodega Negra, Soho
Those of you who have followed my blog for a while know that I am endlessly in search of tacos. But who’d have thought that I’d meet one of my best taco matches so far in London, of all places? I discovered La Bodega Negra on the Twilight Soho Food Tour that I did with Eating London (disclaimer: I work for them, so this was – ahem – business, not pleasure) and am now desperate to go back. We tried two tacos: a more traditional pork mixture served in a corn tortilla with pico di gallo; and an off-the-wall prawn taco served in a raw daikon shell with guacamole and spicy mayo. Both were bloody amazing!
Dim sum at Opium, Chinatown
London has one of the largest Chinatowns in the world, so it’s a shame (and a little weird) that I rarely go there. While most of its restaurants are fairly loud and proud in their frontage, Opium is a cocktail and dim sum bar hidden up a flight of stairs, with just a small gold plaque announcing its existence. Again, I only discovered this because of the food tour.
Once inside, you can sit down to tea (try the smoked lapsang souchong – it’s like drinking a BBQ) or something stronger. Try also the crab and samphire dumplings – subtle, soft and steamy perfection.
For more information on the London restaurants and bars mentioned: