If you’re familiar with things like power checking, tax loopholes, and the way a Maserati feels in fourth gear, then you don’t need this guide – you can afford your bad taste. If you’re a philistine with a tin ear, a corduroy tongue, seasonal allergies, and a general indifference to those moments – a cloud passing long enough to turn a green leaf golden, a certain shiver when all the elements of a night, a flavor, a temperature, a wavelength, Blood Alcohol Content, add to something greater than the sum of those parts – when life becomes, somehow, art, then neither will you have any use for this. But if ye’r an average punter like me: read on.
Like any cultural capital, London offers an embarrassment of delights for any epicure possessed of a little pocket change and a fluency in bus and subway routes. So much is this the case with London that one couldn’t squeeze all juice out of this city given a whole lifetime and a busload of Magic Bullets. There are near-infinite combinations of sights and tastes to take in even in 24 hours, but I’ve decided to put together – actually based on four days of “research” in the city – a sketch of one day balancing an average punter’s pocketbook, comfort, and gastronomical enjoyment in the city.
So, you have one day in London: sorry, but you’d better skip the full country breakfast of puddings bangers rashers eggs mushrooms fried tomatoes brown bread coffee rye toast croissant pain au chocolat streaky bacon a baked potato and a Guinness. You have a city to see, and you can only manage a to-go coffee and something sweet to kick you off, so stop at Covent Garden’s Monmouth Coffee.
Friends warned me about a queue but things moved quickly on the Friday I stopped by. The coffee will not disappoint. I admit that I rarely order a latte – sugar in coffee is a crime, milk of any consistency is an ignorant frivolity, an affectation – but for some reason I did order a latte at Monmouth and it was the best I’ve ever had. The best latte of my life made me wish I’d ordered a double espresso. Selah.
But you, average punter, will need something to get you going. For the sweet-toothed, try a brownie – Monmouth’s are of the fudgey variety, and mine so precisely hit the mark of fudge-brownie perfection that it banished all my reservations about that dessert-class and settled, at least for the afternoon, the fudge/cake brownie debate. … If that sounds too rich, try a brioche – and hit the road.
If you have a taste for pageantry, you can catch the changing of the Buckingham Palace guards around 11-11:30 by hopping a bus across town. The wait is long; the ritual is inscrutable and anticlimactic; foreign children will use your body and the bodies of your companions if you have any as a jungle gym. I found myself wishing that silk suited buffoon Michael Bay would redesign the ceremony, on commission from the Queen, or, more likely, Charles, and add some fire jets and explosions. By the time the guard-band began a flaccid rendition of “Thriller” I was hallucinating, seeing the Miami Dolphins stream through the open palace doors, through a line of highkicking cheeleaders in microskirts and enormous bearskin hats. But no matter. Others find the National Gallery boring, while I could have spent several hours wondering whose Venice was the more evocative – Francesco Guardi’s hazy, deliquescent dream, or Canaletto’s vision of lapidary precision? – but to each average punter his own. I visited London on vacation with my family: we compromised, as shortly you’ll see. Wherever you spend your morning, you’re going to need lunch … and for that I recommend Soho’s Ceviche Peruvian Kitchen and Pisco Bar (not far from Monmouth, if you need another cuppa).
I started with Sakura Maru, tiradito of salmon cool and spicy, which seemed so fresh that human hands never could have touched it. It was soon evident that we’d be splitting every dish; we moved on to Corazón Mío, skewered beef in strips tender and thin, dressed with corn enormous and chewy as if from some planet with heavier air, lesser gravity.
The pork chifa tequeños were delightfully spicy, crisp without skimping on the meaty delivery. The cheese and chard tequeños, in contrast to our predominately spicy dishes, were surprisingly sweet, with a tongue-tip tang only at the tail end. Somewhere in here our waitress arrived with my pisco sour, Ceviche’s signature drink. Egg-white cocktails demand an occasion or a well-paired dish – and the Ceviche version is an appropriate companion to just about anything on their menu (along with plenty of water – though the restaurant charges by the table-bottle, an abhorrent, inexcusable Euro-practice). C’s sours are light but heartily foamy; the first hints of sour hit when the drink breaks through the foam head, followed by a booze kick big enough to bring a smile, before the sour taste returns to tickle your tongue (and stomach).
We also ordered Causa Santa Rosa, a potato and avocado dish topped with bright beetroot – a cool, refreshing break from the meat-and-cheese dishes. The potato was surprisingly light, the avocado airy, the Seussian colors a delight (and there was a spicy corn sauce, for anyone who might find the dish too bland). Talia’s favorite was the Baile de gallina, like a Peruvian update of a British pot pie, a flaky crisp-like pastry with fine-whipped yellow potato filling and chicken bits for flavor – kalamata olives and egg were a welcome surprise, elevating the dish above its rustic roots.
This pisco bar/fish kitchen offers brilliantly fast service – you could easily order the whole menu in a kind of Lotus-eaters trance, asking for a new dish each time the waitress arrives with your last. (And the wait staff will cajole you into ordering more. You might think you regret it, but you don’t.) (If you do feel bad about being pressured into ordering more, note that it’s very easy to steal other people’s orders at Ceviche.) Despite the bustle atmosphere achieves an ideal low-key brightness and the decor busy without being distracting – even with the rapid service you never feel hustled or harried. If I were to do it all over again, I would have saved the potato-avocado-beet dish for last, a cool-down … and ordered more pisco sours. These might be a bit egg-rich and heavy on a stomach full of salmon-avocado-pork-chicken-beet-potato-cheesecurd-salsa, but they do pair well…the sour is perhaps better for an early evening meal, with the sun beginning to descend, than a late lunch.
Ceviche rates high – but mostly for the quality of the dishes. The presentation is “beautiful,” as my mother remarked – but not beautiful enough to justify £9 for two bottles of water.
You’re stuffed, now, and you’ve worked up a modest afternoon buzz from the pisco sours (keep ’em coming, you’ll tell you waitress; and she will) – I don’t care how you spend the rest of your afternoon, but I’d walk off both the buzz and the spicy-sour bellyfull in the nearby British Museum. But one could spend half a day (or a fifth, if you want to be strictly mathematical) in any of the major galleries (and one could easily waste a quarter of a day pingballing between them) – but one could also spend a full sunup-to-well-past-sundown shopping and perambulating, hitting brassy big-box Oxford Street, charming Carnaby, Notting Hill and the overwhelming Portobello Market (at its best on a Saturday, the antiques day, crammed with tchatchkes and treasures alike). If you choose the latter option, you’ll try one of the crepes served up streetside.
If you do have late-afternoon crepes on top of a Ceviche lunch, you really won’t be needing a full dinner, fish and chips or a mince pie. If you are still famished, grab some trad food, maybe Bag O’ Nails or The Albert, both iconic pubs near Bucko – although you don’t care about the history, you glutton. Eat your chips and get back out in the city.
If you do end up licking cod grease off a plate, you have greater gastrointestinal capacity than I do – I’d have had a light bite, a crepe or a food-truck waffle, and hit the British Library, before it closes, if possible. Entry is free, and and their displays are worth a quick visit: handwritten Beatles lyrics, pages from DaVinci’s notebooks, gorgeously illuminated Bibles, Ramayanas, Qurans. The museum is currently displaying the Magna Carta; you can see it for a small fee.
But let’s backtrack: If you chose the British Museum, you may walk back out to find the afternoon fled and the evening stirring. (If you don’t, you probably rushed it, you philistine. I wondered while walking past their marbles – What if the Greeks had body image issues similar to ours, and in fact the models for their Ganymedes and Poseidons were actually paunchy, flabby, and varicose in a less attractive way? Selah.) Back on the streets: Yellow-vested punters will be crowding pint-fisted outside pubs, the streetlights will begin to stand out against the cooling sky. No matter where in London you find yourself (remember I’m just your food-and-drink guy), this is the cocktail hour; and while the city is home to plenty of bartenders and creative menus to satisfy and surprise you on this front, I’d head back into Soho for one or three drinks at The Society Club, a quiet “members’ only” haunt for lovers of rare books and odd liquors, high fashion and fashionable lowlifes, and all things twentieth century, generally speaking.
The Society Club crowd offer (… to themselves, I guess?) “The best of all possible things.” They’re also nice enough to open the door to non-members – or at least they opened the door to me. We waited a first laughably then uncomfortably long time for our drinks, but this gave me an opportunity to wander the small shop: books on display included a first edition Trainspotting, an early edition of Ezra Pound’s collation of Ernest Fenollosa’s manuscripts, and several Bukowskis. (Members pay something like a £250 fee, and get £150 to spend on books.) Meanwhile I listened to the only other customers – one, a portly Spaniard with hair halfway between Weird Al’s and Aragorn’s, and a young man in a felt hat who looked a bit like Pharrell. The Spaniard was ostensibly trying to take the latter’s picture; he occasionally raised a camera to his eye, but I never heard the shutter click. The two had just met. By the time we left, they had made (nebulous) plans to fly to Vancouver the following morning.
Cocktails are a bit expensive, in the £9-14 range – so, I admit, this isn’t exactly an “average punter” place – but the SC crowd aren’t snobs. Shell out for a well-made drink, and I promise, my next suggestion will be easier on the pocketbook. (Or ditch me, go to a Wetherspoon’s, and get perschnockered on £3 pints.)
I have a weakness for absinthe, and ordered a Laudanum – absinthe, Campari, Cynar, Amaro, Amaro Montenegro, and bitters, served in a chilled metal chalice with a straight shard of a lemon peel placed flat on top. Perhaps all the bitters would be a bit much, you wonder? Herbs and artichoke flavors infringing on the absinthe’s (challice-chilled) clarity of aniseseed? But the Laudanum was perfect. The seemingly overcompensatory everything-bitter-and-Italian-in-the-liquor-cabinet approach yielded a result remarkably coherent, a sip simpler than the sum of its parts. I pondered this while eyeing an early copy of Hidden Faces, Salvador Dalí’s only novel. (After the cocktails, it was out of my price range.)
After taking a Laudanum to the cranium, you might need something heartier to keep you on your feet. Now could be the time to get your fish and chips or pie. But, I recall an old Irish maxim I picked up in a Sligo pub: eights beers is a dinner – nine is a dinner and a drink.
Of course, they were talking about Guinness, which has no place among the 27 taps of rotating craft beers (nor on any shelf in the fully stocked fridge) at the Euston Tap. Just North of the British Museum and outside Euston Station, the Tap is a great place to recharge your batteries on a hot afternoon or recharge your b.a.c. as the evening slides into night. It’s also (as I found) an ideal place to sit, drink, and reflect while waiting for your train out of London.
The Tap is glorious on a sunny day. The upstairs (up an intimidating metal spiral staircase) will be mostly empty. Its leather couches and stools, comfortably seating 30 or so in the winter months, will be occupied by shy lovers, the weak-kneed who couldn’t snag a table outside, and patrons waiting for the bathroom. Downstairs the bar is breezy, fresh air and light coming through the tall open door – The Rolling Stones pop up in the mix often, among American R&B hits, afrobeat jams, and surprises from the mid-career Arctic Monkeys.
Something about the Anarchy Quiet Riot (Pacific IPA, 6.6%, £4/pint) said “London,” to me, so I started with that. The pint was a dim ruddy, old-furniture amber (not at all like the pale yellowy amber that trapped the infamous mosquito of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park). The flavor was (as advertised) hoppy, woody and warm more than grassy, with an IBU not at all overwhelming. The ABV is just high enough to be warming; you might notice notes of lamb and plant pulp.
So maybe after a few pints (or half pints – best leave your prejudice against hen-sized drinks at the door) you might want a snack. There are crisps behind the bar, but I recommend the Tap’s “Cracking Egg’ – a Scotch egg, light but deceptively filling, a pleasantly herby blend of sausage and breadcrumb fried around an egg cooked to (Scotch-style) perfection, white firm and yolk still runny. I paired one of these with a half-pint of Beavertown 8 Ball rye IPA (6.2%, £3.10).
Not as attention-seeking as some ryes, this mellow (but still straight-backed, full-bodied and muscular) IPA would have paired well with a steak and rosemary potatoes. Its bitterness clings to the roof of the mouth; the boozyness is pleasantly effervescent, definitely good to wash down a pub snack. Neither the egg nor the beer overpowered the other – in the 8 Ball I noted grapefruit and lemonrind; I watched with pleasure as it descended, leaving its soapy rye foamtrail down the side of the glass.
Finally, I tried the Kerval Plae Ale (5.4%, £5.40), colored like white grapefruit juice, hard Polish honey, and American wheatfields on some August 6-in-the-evening. A powerful mouthfeel lingers; the smell is faint, like cut grass, a beachside breeze (sans salt – think Lake Erie), with the almost tactile scent of the hops’ bitter particulates. The Kerval Pale would be refreshing for people not tickled by conventionally “refreshing” beers.
But now your trip must be coming to an end; you have to catch your train to some remoter part of Britain’s shrunken empire. I did, and failed even to cross the square to the Tap’s second half, a bar dedicated to craft ciders. Know that you’ve had some of the best (and most inoffensively priced) London has to offer – and, if you’re like me, you’ll be looking for your next ticket Londonward soon.