Friday 14 June 2013

London's best bits - my top ten!

I recently posted about my favourite ten  places in Tel Aviv - my favourite city. Since then I have been giving some thought to what my London list would be. Having limited myself to just ten places, I have left out some real gems - and have been very strict about book shops and patisseries - as I could easily include six or seven of each! Here goes.

Having mentioned book shops, let's start with one. For the best book shop experience in London, I have to choose Foyles on Charing Cross Road. Established in 1904 and continuously in the hands of the Foyle family, this former dinosaur reinvented itself about a decade ago with a complete refurbishment, a total overhaul of the stock and a new approach to selling that was long overdue.

There are many stories about the strange regime of Christina Foyle, the former owner and matriarch of the Foyle family and her opposition to modern ways of working. This included the strange method of payment where having found a book you wanted, you took it to one of the staff who gave you a chit, which you then took to the ground floor, made your payment and then returned to the floor where you found the book to collect it and take it home.  I once heard one of the family members speak about the history of the shop and he explained that once a week, Christina Foyle, the former owner and matriarch of the family, would drive to London from her home in the country, collect all of the chits for the week and take them back to her home. Each chit bore the name of the member of staff who had sold the book and the week's collection was then divided out by four old ladies working in a barn. This system was used to pay the staff according to their sales - in cash the following week when Ms. Foyle made her return journey to London. Thankfully things have changed and as well as a fantastic book stock, you can buy music and films, have a snack and a coffee and attend an exhibition, concert or music event - usually for free.

Maison Bertaux - Greek Street, Soho by Yekkes

Maison Berteaux is just around the corner from Foyles, in Soho's Greek Street. Founded in 1871 this tiny but much loved patisserie has one of London's best window displays and as well as attracting tourists, has a devoted and often eccentric clientele. Sit in the downstairs room of the main part of the shop if you can and watch the drama unfold as people come and go in this tiny space, but for goodness sake remember to order before you sit down as otherwise you run the risk of incurring the wrath of some of the longer established staff! The selection of patisserie is excellent. My favourites include the meringues, coffee eclairs and various cheese cakes. There are also savoury pastries - the cheese dijon is spectacularly good. In addition to the staff and customers, the theatrical theme is played out with the eclectic display of handbills, photographs and well, tat, as well as occasional theatrical performances in the second room on the upper floor.

From Maison Berteaux, you can follow your nose to the best coffee shop in London which is less than a minute away from Maison Berteaux - the Algerian Coffee Stores in Old Compton Street. A relative newcomer compared to Berteaux, the shop opened in 1887. Unfortunately, you can't sit and drink coffee here but you can buy 80 different coffees from all over the world. The staff offer expert advice on what coffee will best suit your taste, including different blends and if like me, you don't possess your own grinder they will grind the beans for you. I like very strong coffee and usually buy either a super strong Bolivian or a coffee mixed with spices that reminds me of my travels. You can also buy over 120 kinds of tea as well as hot chocolate (including all the best Dutch brands) chocolates, sweets and mints whilst there are coffee mills and other paraphernalia indispensible to the serious coffee drinker. 

Algerian Coffee Stores - Old Compton Street, Soho by Yekkes

Many of my favourite places are in Soho, including Ronnie Scotts Jazz Club in Frith Street, again all of three minutes walk from Berteaux or the Algerian Coffee Stores. Established in 1959, for many people, me included, this is the best jazz club in the world. Until he died in 1996 aged just 69, Mr. Scott ran the club himself including introducing many of the acts, telling bad jokes, playing and sometimes throwing people out who wouldn't keep quiet during the acts. Come back Ronnie - there's too much talking during the performances these days.

I first went there in 1982 when as a student I came to London for a week as part of my course. Four of us made our way to Ronnie Scotts, scraped together the entry fee and ordered one bottle of the cheapest white wine between us - Laski Riesling. We made it last for a couple of hours whilst listening to the Buddy de Franco quartet. The waitress asked us several times if we needed more drinks and wasn't impressed with our request for a jug of water. We scraped up enough to order a burger and chips between us before the night ended. These days I am a regular. The music is always great. The drinks are still expensive, but where else over a few months could you here the likes of Lonnie Liston Smith, Avishai Cohen, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Mario Biondi and countless other leading jazz musicians perform? Its the best night out in London!

A little further west in Great Marlborough Street you can find my favourite London department store - Liberty. Now that's saying something. Remember this city is home to Selfridges (which I also love), Harrods (which for me is overrated) and Harvey Nichols so we are not short of fancy stores.

The store was founded by Arthur Lasenby Liberty and opened in 1875 selling ornaments, fabric and objects d'art from the Far East. Liberty had been working for another retailer for ten years and borrowed the then enormous sum of two thousand pounds from his future father-in-law to set up by himself. Much loved by Londoners and tourists alike and still famous for its Liberty print, the store has excellent ranges of both designer and mainstream fashion for men and women, a wonderful art shop, soft furnishings - including the Svenskt Tenn range from Sweden with some of Josef Frank's original designs, stationery, chocolates, jewellery and lots more. There is an annual sale of original arts and crafts furniture which is one of my highlights of the year - despite never having been able to afford any of the items - although I do have  a very nice reproduction Svenskt Tenn tray in my lounge! Even if you don't want to buy anything, its a great place to spend an hour or so just browsing.

I am not one for pampering - no fancy massage or spa treatments for me, but I wouldn't miss my weekly visit to the Ted's Grooming Room for anything. This Turkish barbers shop owned by fashion design mogul Ted Baker. Following a visit to Istanbul some years ago and a haircut and shave in a traditional Turkish barber shop he established one of his own on Theobalds Road in London's Holborn district. I pondered for some time before my first visit - attracted by the smells of balsam and lemon coming from the open door as I passed on the way to my gym which is just across the road. Finally plucking up the courage to go in a couple of years ago, I am now addicted. Once a week for a little over twenty quid I have my (not very much) hair cut off - a neat "zero" and my neck shaved.

But that's not all, you also get the flame treatment, where the barber lights what resembles a cotton wool bud dipped in alcohol and sweeps it across the ears singeing off little "unwanted" hairs. Remember not to move while he does this. It might be best to close your eyes if you are of a nervous disposition. A woman I once worked with told me that she had been to a hamam in Beirut and when relaxing after her massage, jumped off the slab when she saw the masseuse coming towards her with a similar flame. Terrified and not knowing that she was going to sweep it across her upper lip as many Lebanese ladies do, my friend's screams were greeted with hysterical laughter from the local women. After the fiery bit, things calm down with a bit of a head massage when they rinse your hair (in my case, head), then rub lemon into your scalp before covering it in a hot towel and giving a rigorous arm, neck and shoulders massage. This is one of my highlights of my week.

London has some of the world's best museums and galleries. Just think of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum, National Gallery, Tate Modern, Tate Britain, National Portrait Gallery and all of those specialist museums we have in our city. Regular readers will know I have a weakness for the Ben Uri Gallery in north London. Founded in 1915 and originally located in the East End, the Ben Uri is today housed in a small shop unit in St. John's Wood. The premises are inadequate and the location not central but the collection and the exhibitions programme are world class and easily put the gallery into my top ten of London's best bits! The permanent collection concentrates on Jewish art and has many highlights including works from the likes of David Bomberg, Simeon Solomon, Jankel Adler, Mane-Katz, Jacob Epstein and many more. In the last few years the gallery has also acquired works by Chagall, Soutine and Grosz. I have written about a number of the  temporary exhibitions here. The gallery is looking for a new, larger and more central home so that more of its unique collection can be displayed. In the meantime you can still visit the current Boris Aronson exhibition.

Whilst Foyle's is my favourite, I have to include at least one more book shop in my top ten. I am a pushover for travel books -  guides, maps, travelogues, the lot. London has two excellent travel book specialists. Daunts on Marylebone High Street has an amazing church-like interior with old wood panelling and literally thousands of books covering every part of the world. The breadth and depth of the stock is excellent with many books here that you would rarely see elsewhere. This includes histories and fiction from and about each country shelved together with the travel guides. Its another place to spend a very long time, drifting from one shelf to another and collecting lots of books to take home! Stanfords on Long Acre in Covent Garden takes the same approach to display, has slightly less stock than Daunts but is especially good for maps. They also have a small cafe. Both stores also have other branches. Its very hard to choose between the two but for the wider stock and unique atmosphere, Daunts is tops for me and makes it into my top ten.

I haven't listed any buildings yet. There are so many to choose from. I love the Gherkin and the Shard but as regular readers will know, modernism and art deco are my special interests. Again, London has some great examples of these genres but I have limited myself to just one and that's the wonderful Ibex House  near Tower Bridge. Completed in 1937 and designed by Fuller, Hall and Foulsham who were also the architects for the lovely Bonhams building just off Oxford Street, it is probably the largest surviving example of this style in the UK. Designed as an office block, it is still home to a number of companies and has a great Italian caff (yes caff, not cafe) on the ground floor, where behind the beautiful curved windows they serve "full English breakfasts" and other delicacies. I love the curves, layers and colour of this beautiful building that brings a touch of class to this part of Aldgate.

Finally, a touch of style. For my favourite shopping experience in London...or maybe the world...I go to the Yohji Yamamoto shop in Conduit Street just off Regent Street. Yamamoto designs ultra modern but totally timeless clothes for both men and women. His almost architectural garments are exquisite, usually black and always expensive. But worth every penny. The esteem in which Yamamoto is held is measured by the fact that his designs were the subject of an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum a few years ago. Best of all, his clothes can be worn by people of all ages including those of us no longer able to wear tight t-shirts! As well as selling great clothes, the shop has great staff who are friendly, helpful and extremely knowledgeable about the collections.

So that's it, my ten best bits in London - and that's without any of the theatres, cinemas or major museums. I have stuck to places that are still open or standing. Some of my all time favourites are no longer with us - the Astoria on Charing Cross Road, Jones men's clothes shop in Floral Street and most painful of all Tower Records at Piccadilly Circus. Perhaps the subject of a future post...

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My Soho

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And for more London pictures look here.

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