The Perfect Modern Hotel
What makes One Aldwych so perfect? • Sophisticated design and furniture with clean, sexy lines in chic colors like plum and gray. • Managing director Gordon Campbell Gray and his emphasis on service, which the staff delivers without a hint of hip-hotel attitude. • The lobby bar, a dramatic open space with exuberant sprays of flowers and an always-lively tableau vivant, from actors appearing in the latest West End hits to business types from the City. • Views over Waterloo Bridge. • And memorable suites like number 410, which has its very own gym. Rooms, $480-$1,380. At 1 Aldwych; 800-223-6800, 7300-1000; fax 7300-1001; www.onealdwych.com.
Fay Maschler Recommends: J. Sheekey
The historic restaurant J. Sheekey has survived quite nicely the departure a few years ago of owners Jeremy King and Christopher Corbin (who also owned Le Caprice and The Ivy). But then there was always less hoo-ha about who went here, a staff more steeped in the old ways, and a kitchen that could be relied on to treat its first-rate ingredients with the care they deserve. The warren of small rooms still has its photographic tributes to stars of the stage as well as a collection of English portraiture. The menu is dedicated to fish and shellfish, cooked simply, traditionally, and well. Dinner, $125. At 28-32 St. Martin's Court; 7240-2565; fax 7240-8114.
The Opera Sans Valkyries
For a look inside the Royal Opera House without a ticket, come for lunch, a drink, or a backstage tour. Ascend the spectacular glass-vaulted Vilar Floral Hall by escalator to the bar, restaurant, and covered terrace with a great view of Covent Garden Piazza. The tour may let you peek into rooms where workers dye fabrics in vats, seamstresses create costumes, artists paint sets, and wigs and tutus await their moment—as well as into the beautiful red, white, and gold auditorium itself. If you're lucky, you might catch a Royal Ballet or opera rehearsal in progress. Covent Garden; tours, 7212-9389; roh.org.uk.
Isn't He Romantic?
Mad, Bad and Dangerous, opening at the National Portrait Gallery November 20, would be worth a visit if only for the title. Exploring the life, times, and notoriety of Lord Byron, it was co-curated by Fiona McCarthy, whose new biography of the poet comes out the same month. Among the highlights are Richard Westall's 1813 portrait; another of the poet in Albanian dress by Thomas Phillips (usually hanging in the British Embassy in Athens); and the original costume, which our Romantic Englishman brought back from his first visit to Greece, in 1809-1810. St. Martin's Pl., Trafalgar Square; 7306-0055.
When you can't face hotel room service or going out to eat, this outfit will deliver a dozen different types of cuisine from more than 100 of London's smarter establishments, as well as fine wines and Champagnes, right to your door. Call 7644-6666; www.roomservice.co.uk.
The Exeter Street Bakery became a West End hit the moment it opened in March for its great Italian breads, white pizza, and delicious little foccacia sandwiches to pick up before showtime. At 15 Exeter St.; 7379-1881.
A Great West End Hotel
From the moment you check in—at a desk framed by proscenium arch and stage curtain—you know you're in the West End. But the Covent Garden Hotel is memorable on many fronts. Kit Kemp, who with husband Tim owns the city's most stylish small hotels (others are reviewed throughout Black Book), mixes coziness with panache: wood-paneled walls, marquetry desks, plaid and bold-striped fabrics on sink-into couches. We particularly like rooms 201 (Cate Blanchett stayed here during the filming of Elizabeth) and 304 (with its rooftop views). Rates, $340-$920. At 10 Monmouth St.; 800-553-6674, 7806-1000; fax 7806-1100; www.coventgardenhotel.co.uk.
Sophie's Choice, Nicholas Maw's new opera, has its gala, white-glove and fox-fur world premiere on December 7 at the Royal Opera House. Austrian mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager stars, Trevor Nunn directs, and Simon Rattle conducts. At Covent Garden; 7304-4000.
Part restaurant, part shop, part showroom for a collection of great fireplaces, this is like no other place in London. Sink into the squashy sofas, order a glass of white wine, and contemplate the aesthetics, not to mention the arty clothes for women, candles, briefcases, pottery, and vases like the ones of Murano glass (from $355). At 36 Great Titchfield St.; 7580-5333.
—Lucia van der Post
A Proper London Pub
Two of our favorites: Covent Garden's Lamb & Flag $ (33 Rose St.; 7497-9504), a characterful place with wood paneling and narrow stairs that reflect its 1623 origins; and The White Horse in Fulham (1-3 Parson's Green; 7736-2115), with a fine wine list and a good selection of cask-conditioned, or "real," ales.
So what's so great about British cheese? Find out at Neal's Yard Dairy $ (17 Shorts Gardens; 7240-5700), which stocks dozens of the finest British and Irish varieties. The extremely helpful staff are happy to let you nibble your way around the famous names (Cheddars, Lancashires) and many styles (goat, hard, soft, unpasteurized, washed-rind). • Tucked in among the fine men's tailors along Jermyn Street you'll find Paxton & Whitfield (93 Jermyn St.; 7930-0259), in business since 1797. Here another impressive, extremely well edited selection of cheeses—about 200 of them—awaits the aficionado, from nettle-coated Yarg produced on the Duchy of Cornwall estate to the finest organic Stilton.
—G. D. and S. R.
Eating Way Out
Q. WHERE CAN I EXPERIENCE SOMETHING REALLY NEW?
A. The Sugar Club (21 Warwick St.; 7437-7776; $105) pioneered the Pacific Rim fad several years ago but rose above the genre and is now one of the most unusual, enjoyable, professionally run restaurants in Soho—though you may not know what half the ingredients on your plate are. The menu changes constantly, but you're guaranteed something interesting, always a surprise, and never dull. Lemongrass broth and kangaroo salad, anyone?
Picnic in a Box
The British climate doesn't lend itself to al fresco dining often, but the odd occasion can arise: a day at the races, opera in the park, a walk on Hampstead Heath. Most of the food halls (Selfridges, Marks & Spencer, Harvey Nichols, Harrods) carry a good selection of picnic baskets, but Fortnum & Mason (181 Piccadilly; 7734-8040) has two dozen different hampers. The grandest of these is their Sovereign basket for Christmas, priced at a heady $3,000 (yes, of course, it includes a tin of beluga!). But if you're in a hurry and want something simple, Basket Express (10 Nugent Terr., St. John's Wood; 7289-2636; www.baskets.co.uk) delivers anywhere in London the same day.
Best book on London
According to Ferdinand Mount, recently retired editor in chief of The Times Literary Supplement, Peter Ackroyd's London: The Biography is "a real historical travelogue of the city's criminal backwaters. Ackroyd gives you such feeling, such flavor, the real smell of London."
Fay Maschler Recommends: Hakkasan
Glamour and excitement have returned to Chinese dining in London. At the end of an unpromising little street off Tottenham Court Road, walk down incense-perfumed stairs into Hakkasan, a Christian Liaigre-designed space subdivided by dark wood screens and lit for intrigue. The exotic-hideaway atmosphere is strongest at lunch, when you can avoid crowds and a noisy bar scene. Then too you'll get the best from the kitchen: imaginative, elegant dim sum like steamed scallop shu mai and baked venison puff. The evening menu's sophisticated offerings include roasted silver cod in Champagne and Chinese honey; steamed Morinaga tofu with prawn and wolfberries; and Hakka vermicelli with dried shrimp roe and smoked chicken, served with a yellow-chive consommé. Dinner, $125. At 8 Hanway Pl.; 7927-7000; fax 7907-1889.
Soho | Holborn
At Your Service
Celia Clark, personal shopper at Liberty department store, considers herself a habit-breaker, encouraging regulars like actress Emma Thompson to try lesser-known labels (a Liberty specialty). Her private shopping suite, complete with a jazz soundtrack, is the best in London. At 210-220 Regent St.; 7734-1234.
A Beautiful Mind
A tour of Sir John Soane's Museum is like a trip through that eccentric architect-connoisseur's brilliant but obsessive mind. The collection of this discerning pack rat encompasses a pharaoh's sarcophagus, Hogarth's A Rake's Progress series, and architectural fragments by the thousands, crammed into a labyrinth of moody skylighted spaces. A world unto itself hidden behind the quiet facades of three Georgian townhouses, this autobiographical masterpiece explodes inside like a geode, full of mystery and wonder. At 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields; 7405-2107.
"Because I'm Irish and quite nationalist in my outlook, I suppose London monuments aren't always of the greatest interest to me. However, the architecture of Lincoln's Inn Fields, some of the Georgian townhouses in Spitalfields, and the Robert Adam houses in Mansfield and Grafton streets are really inspiring."
—DESIGNER AND ARCHITECT DAVID COLLINS
Fay Maschler Recommends: Lindsay House
You ring the doorbell to gain access to Lindsay House, a Georgian townhouse in the heart of Soho. Dining rooms with bare wood floors, gilded mirrors, and milky paintwork, evoking the faded gentility of grand Irish country houses, open off the steep staircase as it winds up through three floors. With unerring instinct, Irish chef Richard Corrigan's cooking pushes the boundaries of creativity, bringing together ingredients that may not have met before but get on famously, for example delicate sautéed veal kidneys with couscous, breast of wood pigeon with foie gras and pumpkin chutney, and rhubarb millefeuille with grenadine syrup. A London treasure, not overhyped but dear to the hearts of those in the know. Dinner, $155. At 21 Romilly St.; 7439-0450; fax 7437-7349.
Shock of the Old
One of the world's great literary discoveries occurred at Sotheran's of Sackville Street in the 19th century, when a staff member found, tucked away in the attic, a first edition of Shakespeare's poem "Venus and Adonis." And who knows—you still may find a surprise or two among the glass-fronted cases in this antiquarian book and print shop frequented over the years by Dickens (whose library Sotheran's purchased in 1870), Lewis Carroll, J. P. Morgan, and Michael Jackson. At 2-5 Sackville St.; 7439-6151; www.sotherans.co.uk.
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.