Friday, 26 January 2007

Getting to know you part 1- On the buses

History tour:
Bus tours are a great introduction to the city

At 1,570 square kilometres, London is one of the world’s biggest cities. And it packs a lot of history into those square kilometres. The Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, even Harrods. It’s hard to know where to start. Which is where the many guided tours you can take come in. There are several out there. Bus tours, walking tours, river boat tours, even ‘duck’ tours (a trip in an amphibious Second World War DUKW).

Bus tours are, quite obviously, tours on open-top buses (usually, some might be closed top). There are two main companies – The Big Bus Company and The Original London Sightseeing Tour. They appear to be very similar according to my investigations, although I’ve only been on the Big Bus tour. Both include river tours, both offer online discounts, both have a choice of routes and tickets are ‘hop on, hop off’ and last for 24 hours (Original’s last for 48 hours until 28 February). However, Big Bus offers a free walking tour (which is definitely worth taking) and costs slightly more.

What traffic: The congestion charge has made bus tours a much more pleasant journey

The tours have pre-recorded commentaries in a variety of languages, as well as live English-language commentaries. The English one is best, if you get the right guide. But that’s where the ‘hop on, hop off’ facility comes in useful. If your guide isn’t entertaining enough, you can always get the next bus. I got off at least two buses before happening across the perfect guide – a very funny Northern chap who had us waving at the billionaires in Knightsbridge and drolly pointed out that Westminster, at “only 1,000 years old,” was the new part of London (compared to the City, which dates back around 2,000 years).

Big Bus doesn’t seem to offer the walking tour I did any more, but it does still have a selection of three. The Ghosts by Gaslight one looks interesting. The one I chose was a Da Vinci Code tour. It maybe wasn’t the best if you hadn’t yet read the book and planned to, because it gave the end away. But for those who had read it, or didn’t mind too much, it was great. Basically a history lesson dressed up as a walk through a popular book/film, the guide (a lovely man with a big umbrella so we could recognise him) was incredibly knowledgeable. His familiarity with both the book and London’s past was impeccable – though he was at his most gleeful when pointing out one of the book’s many ‘adaptations’ to London’s geography and history. Alexander Pope, for example, didn’t preside at Isaac Newton’s funeral – he wasn’t even invited.

The bus tours are a great way of scratching London’s surface. They take visitors around all the best-known landmarks, while teaching you about some the lesser-known history. A wonderful introduction to the city. And say what you like about the Congestion Charge, at least it’s thinned out the traffic enough to keep these tours on the move.

Useful links:

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

What’s for dinner?

First things first, it’s time to dispel a very persistent myth – the unfounded belief that English cooking is terrible. It really isn’t. A look at the TV listings reveals a nation obsessed with food, healthy or otherwise. Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and countless others are fast becoming household names. And then there are the breadbin load of chefs who are celebrated for other reasons, namely their cooking – Marcus Wareing, Angela Hartnett and Ian Pengelly, to name just a few.

But don’t take my word for it. There are plenty of people, much more qualified than me, who agree. The good people at Michelin, for instance. There are 39 Michelin-starred restaurants in
London, including Gordon Ramsay’s eponymous establishment, a three-starred affair in Chelsea. Other notable eateries include Alan Yau’s Hakkasan, the only Michelin-starred Chinese in the country. Then, of course, there are the young guns – Ramsay protégé Angela Hartnett, Tom Aikens and Vineet Bhatia come to mind. There is a grand total of 45 Michelin stars in the capital, that’s more than you can see in London’s skies on an average evening.

The World’s 50 Best Restaurants does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a list of the 50 best restaurants in the world, as voted for by more than 500 notaries from the world of fine dining. The UK has six entries; only France and the US manage more, and with a much bigger landmass. Just one of the six is outside London – and quite frankly Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in Bray is in a gastronomic world of its own.

I don’t know if these restaurants live up to the hype. My budget doesn’t stretch that far. And neither, I suspect, do those of most visitors to London. Although if you do have your heart set on star-rated dining, the lunch menus are usually much more affordable.

But eating out doesn’t have to break the bank, here’s my rundown of some great places that will please your bank manager as well as your taste buds. First up is the Chelsea Kitchen (King’s Road). You’d be hard pressed to spend more than £30 on a meal for two, and that’s including wine. What’s more, it’s pretty good. A mozzarella salad brings a large plateful of freshly prepared lettuce, tomato, cucumber, beetroot, carrot and loads of juicy cheese. Hot dishes are just as good and you can get a decent bottle of wine for about £5.

Now we head east, and across the river, to Greenwich and our next restaurant – La Cucina di Soteri (Nelson Road). It’s a friendly, family Italian with great food at reasonable prices.

Benares (Berkeley Square) must be good – it’s been on Masterchef. I ate the best Indian food I’ve ever had here (and I’ve been to Brick Lane) and in some of the most stylish surroundings. Benares is one of the more expensive restaurants on my list, but it’s worth it. Staying in the Asian continent, next is Katana (Trafalgar Square). This is described as ‘pan-Asian’, meaning it borrows flavours from all across the region. The food is wonderful and the staff deserve a special mention for being fabulous.

From the elegance of Benares to the decadence of Blue Elephant (Fulham Broadway). The wooden floor of this Thai restaurant is a series of bridges and landings, beneath which flows a koi-filled lily pond. The bar is a gold-leafed reproduction of the Royal Barge. The food is equally splendid. Levant (Jason Court) is another exotic location, complete with rose petals, incense and belly dancers. Hidden in a courtyard close to Regent Street, you’d never find it unless you were looking, and it’s worth a look. The Lebanese cuisine is amazing, the set menus offer great value.

Pancakes, pancakes and more pancakes (with some waffles for good measure), that’s what you’ll find at My Old Dutch (High Holborn). Sweet or savoury, there are pancakes here to suit every palate. They’re huge, and much too good to save till Shrove Tuesday. Navajo Joe (King Street) is a Mexican restaurant that convinced me I don’t hate Mexican food. There’s a club downstairs for some post-dinner dancing, and an enormous selection of tequila to get you going.

But what about British food? I hear you cry. Well, I’ve saved that to last. Patterson’s (Mill Street) is a chic, minimalist, family-run restaurant just off the bustle of Oxford Circus. Its contemporary take on British cuisine is excellent, and in complete contrast to Simpsons in the Strand (Strand). Simpsons is traditional through and through – from its wood-panelled 19th century dining room to its roast beef and horseradish sauce. An old haunt of Winston Churchill, it was also where Holmes and Watson would treat themselves to a post-crime-solving congratulatory meal. And you can’t argue with Sherlock Holmes!

This, of course, is just a fraction of London’s restaurants. I hope you get the chance to visit one or two. If you can’t decide where to eat, or you want to find one of these (or any other restaurant you’ve been recommended) try logging on to, or These are all great sites where you can locate restaurants and read diner reviews.