Heading to London this festive season? Here’s a guide of what you can do
Following what has undoubtedly been a challenging 18 months, West End businesses are kick-starting a six-week campaign to shine a light on the exciting experiences that can only be discovered in the West End.
Only in the West End…. This Christmas aims to encourage Londoners and Brits to come together and celebrate the true joy of ‘in real life’ festive experiences.
From visiting Selfridges Christmas Market on the Mews or shopping at the oldest toy store in the world Hamleys to experiencing a West End Theatre show or iconic, quintessentially English Afternoon Tea at The Ritz London there is so much to see and do in the West End this Christmas. We tried out a few of the suggestions ourselves…
Over 1 million LED bulbs across London’s West End were lit on Friday 12 November in world’s largest Christmas switch-on
I’m always getting blisters at Christmas. Pounding the streets to fill five sacks for five children who return the goods on Boxing Day for the cash has an effect on the achilles and often leaves a bleeding heart. ‘Every year,’ my husband sighs. ‘Why?’ ‘It’s for the children,’ I defend. Not this year. This year, post-covid restrictions and pre blisters, it’s all about having a Christmas Experience while possibly picking up gifts along the way, and restricting endless miles to just one. If I am going to get blisters they’ll be Mayfair ones because that’s where I’m heading, with a pre-planned itinerary I’m going to stick to, which will save me retracing steps and allow me to sample the Christmas build up in comparative luxury and definite ease.
Lunch at The Avocado Show
I start the day on the edge of Mayfair at Princes Street. I’m starving and craving healthy food. Newly opened in London, I’m heading straight to The Avocado Show because this restaurant is about good vibes and ‘Pretty Healthy Food.’ I have heard the food is stunning and delicious here, made from nutritious and sustainable avocados, presented in all sorts of creative and different ways. Their aim is to serve avocados ‘ in every cool city in the world’ and, having opened only two weeks previously, I’m happy this has coincided with my Mayfair trip.
You can’t really miss the large, dusky pink benches outside that invite you into the restaurant where the pink colour theme carries on, or the arrangement of green finery that adorns the walls with a neon sign reminding you of where you are. It really is pretty. It’s also peaceful and comfortable and I like being here.
The lovely team at the newly-opened restaurant
I have a Poke Bowl of Truffle DeLuxe – Cajun chicken dressed in a creamy truffle mayonnaise topped with parmesan sitting next to edamame and pickled cucumber on a bed of sushi rice. Pretty normal. What lifts this dish is the crown of avocado in which it all sits, surrounding the dish as a perfectly sculptured work of art. I spend some time just looking at it, not really wanting to destroy the perfectly placed pieces in the pie. My companion has the Julio Caesar with crispy bacon and an avocado arranged like a fan across the top. We end up with the avocado ice cream and chocolate cone shaped wafer biscuit. Stunning and delicious? Absolutely. It’s a good start.
Blow Dry at Duck and Dry
‘Great hair,’ says Yulia Rorstram, the owner of Duck and Dry in North Audley Street ‘ is an instant game-changer.’ Indeed it is. A Blow Dry and Bubbles is next on the agenda and really the only part of the trip which is totally self-indulgent and something I really wouldn’t normally do. Until now.
The salon is bird-themed and fun. A giant birdcage greets you at the entrance for those Instagram moments, and a neon sign, ‘You Are Flocking Fabulous.’ Well, I’m not at the moment but hoping to be after I’ve had the wash and blow-dry. There’s something seriously soothing about having someone dig into the scalp and sinews of the neck and massage all thoughts of anything else away. Then comes the smell of plant-based conditioner as the warm air gently blows across the face, sculpting the hair as it is pulled and rounded and flicked, and pulled and rounded and flicked again. You lift the complimentary glass of Prosecco to your lips, you watch the lifting of the locks, you forget there is a world outside. I resolve to do this again, especially as my hair artist tells me he’s given me the Jennifer Aniston look. Jen and me. Same hair.
Duck and Dry
All good things must sadly end, and it was time to re-enter the world I had momentarily forgotten about. The Law of Sod raised its ugly head and I learned that even here in Mayfair it rains sometimes and no amount of scarf covering could protect the Jennifer Aniston locks from the onslaught of The Frizz. Dripping wet, bedraggled and crying from my bad luck, I didn’t look so Flocking Fabulous when I arrived at the next destination.
Drink at Mercato Mayfair
The development and regeneration of old banks and churches as alternative ways to provide community hubs has been happening for quite some time and it’s interesting to see the sensitivity under which such transformations are done. You need forward thinking individuals who energetically pursue concepts and plans with originality and creativity. The converted St Mark’s Church in North Audley Street is one such attempt. Behind its transformation lies a whole philosophy of sustainability that includes affordable food, artisan products and a grocery store selling seasonal produce grown locally in urban farms across London. More than that. It’s just a lovely place to be.
You are in no doubt when you walk in that you are in an old place of worship because the owner has worked around the original designs and included them in a 21st century setting. Nothing has been demolished or sent off to the local antique market, so there is much to look at as you wander through the different food stalls, following the path of the Nave on the ground floor and in between the magnificent arches of the first floor. It’s busy and buzzing with groups of people enjoying the artisan fayre. They are planning to have Jazz evenings here soon and for that, I will definitely return. The basement crypt, with beautiful Gothic arches and interconnecting stone chambers, has been transformed into a wine cellar, microbrewery and a place to host cooking classes and events. One stone chamber exhibits Italian fayre – large glass jars of pickled this and that, massive cheeses and hams hanging from iron hooks. The hams and field farm produce theme are recreated in the blue wallpaper adorning some of the arches in the main corridor. This regeneration is harmonious and well thought out with aesthetically pleasing Mediterranean taste amidst Gothic origins. Ernesto, the eager and knowledgeable sommelier, is happy to talk you through your choice of wine. ‘Know the liquid,’ he tells us, ‘know the wine…..it’s all in the memory.’ Sure is, Ernesto. Thanks for the memory, Mercato. Looking forward to the Jazz.
- SEE ALSO: Christmas lights switched on across London
The Beaumont Hotel
Perfectly placed on a quiet garden square, close to the boutiques and galleries of Mayfair, St. James and the West End, is the fine Art Deco building that hosts the Beaumont Hotel. This is five star luxury that most of us will experience only a few times in our lives – but experience it you should, if you can. It is privately owned and independently run with just fifty rooms so it’s smaller than others and I think this makes it a more intimate and personal experience. I’d already met one of the Doormen earlier when I was in the wet – look stage after the blow-dry. I hadn’t checked in yet and was running past the hotel looking for the Mercato Mayfair and asked him for directions. ‘ Would you like to borrow an umbrella, Madam?’ This – and he didn’t even know I would be staying there. So – intimate, personal and welcoming to all, guest or not.
The room was so luxurious. Champagne on ice, chocolates, snacks, playing cards, books. I wanted to stay awake all night so as not to waste one moment of the surrounding opulence – but I had to sleep after my long day. I fall into bed, recreating the TV advert when an air hostess falls from a plane and is suspended on the clouds in fluffy, white pillowed, pure comfort. That was me, in my bed in the Beaumont.
I think it’s human nature for most of us when we stay in a hotel to start to wonder what belongs to the hotel and what you can take away with you. Warned by my companion, who happened to be one of the recipients of the aforementioned Christmas sacks, to be on my best behaviour, I slipped a sheet of embossed velum paper and an envelope into my bag so I could display it on my desk at home. Honest, Your Honour.
Dippy eggs in the Gatsby Room the next morning ended our stay. We didn’t make use of the courtesy car which can take you anywhere within a mile, but we did let them look after our bags for the day so we could keep popping back and forth. I didn’t want to leave.
James Bond 007 Bollinger Bar
We’ve booked in here at 5 O’Clock for a swift glass of Bolly before going on to eat. I say it so casually, as if it’s a regular occurrence. It’s not, and the fact I am expecting to see people dressed up in dinner jackets, bow ties and diamonte dresses exposes my naivety. The bar is located in the historic Burlington Arcade. With gold leaf walls and bespoke brass and marble furniture, it’s a touch of Mayfair luxury. The only stand-alone branded bar in London, it is the first Bollinger 007 Champagne bar in the world. A must see, must experience, part of the Mayfair trail with not a dickie bow in sight.
Dinner at Haddon Street Kitchen
Tucked neatly away in the corner of Haddon Street sits Gordon Ramsey’s sleek brasserie that features all-day menus and airy modern spaces in which to eat them.
I’m not looking for anything original – what works, works – and I always feel comfortable in an industrial, let’s leave the pipes uncovered, sort of environment. I don’t have to mind my Ps and Qs in such surroundings, which I suppose is just one of the many gifts Ramsey has bestowed on this particular venture.
Gordon Ramsey’s Haddon Street Kitchen
It’s the middle of November and I want to sit outside, which I can do because the Terrace is set up for people like me with efficient heaters and seating arrangements. Covid possibly had positive outcomes on the way we behave and the way we care for others in our fragile community. For Gordon, it allowed him to talk the council into allowing him six feet of extra space in the outside terrace so more people like me can be entertained outside, originally during times of self-distancing and masks, but still in situ now. It’s a great area, completely covered by black awnings and made to look like a country kitchen with bright cushions and pots of herbs on the table. More importantly, there’s an actual menu you can hold in your hands and pore over for ages without having to faff around for your phone or your apps or your charger because your battery’s gone flat. It’s the small things that matter.
In fact, sitting outside and watching the world go by with a lovely glass of Chablis is just the ticket at 5.30 in the afternoon. We are so happy doing that, and taking our time to read the menu, that we sit for an hour before we order. The restaurant is popular and even at 5.30 there are a lot of groups arriving and tables are being filled quickly. I chose the sirloin steak, with marrowbone and shallot sauce and broccoli with almonds. It’s all well cooked, presented nicely and I enjoy it. My companion has the crispy duck salad with mooli, ginger and a gorgeous orange and soy sauce dressing. Everything is just right, and everything is reasonably priced. A raspberry sorbet cleanses the palate, and because we don’t want to leave just yet, order another glass of Chablis. It’s that sort of place.
Lush Wreath Decorating Workshop
Rested after yesterday’s Bollinger and Chablis excesses, today starts with creativity and nice smells. Lush, in Oxford Street, has started a create – your – own wreath making service in the build up to Christmas. You can learn how to decorate and personalise a plastic-free winter wreath using fresh and locally sourced seasonal flowers and foliage. They’ve placed this in the much quieter basement area away from the bath bomb buyers upstairs. Good.
During each workshop, attendees are guided by Lush florists on how to decorate and personalise their own plastic-free wreath
Seated around a large table with loads of buckets of stems and firs and holly, coloured dried and fresh flowers, ribbons and bows, it is such good fun to build a wreath for the table or front door from scratch and see it evolve. Katie and Rob are there with you, providing more buckets of greenery and generally offering sound, artistic advice. This is something for all ages to do together that doesn’t involve a screen or monitor – just a good old pair of scissors and some vision. We loved it. Thank you, Katie and Rob.
Selfridges Christmas Market on the Mews
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a trip to an outdoor Christmas Market, and Selfridges have created a fine one at the Mews behind the shop. Created in collaboration with food market pioneer and founder of Street Feast, Dominic Cools – Latrigue, you can find everything you need to begin feeling Christmassy, and sample some of the capital’s greatest street food while watching Santa and his friends perform.
Selfridges Christmas Market on the Mews
The Helter Skelter is huge and the screams of laughter from excited children and parents reminds you that Christmas this year is especially about families being together. Walking around here is pure delight and I want to try all of the food from all of the food stalls and drink all of the drinks from all of the drink stalls. I can’t, so opt for a mulled wine and hot dog, followed by a sweet waffle. Remembering that I was supposed to pick up sack presents along the way on this trip, I buy some reasonably priced small gifts and a Christmas Tree decoration to pop on our tree at home to remind me of this time.
Afternoon Tea at Fenwick
Laden with bags from the Christmas Market I need serenity and calm, so head over to Fenwick for a cup of tea. That was the plan. Readers will have noticed I’m not good at culinary restraint, so I opt for Browns’ wonderfully indulgent Afternoon Tea which comes with a delectable assortment of savouries, warm scones with seasonal jams and irresistible mini cakes and puddings. The surroundings are peaceful and elegant. There’s something quintessentially British about a pristinely ironed, white tablecloth on which to have Afternoon Tea.
The tea arrives in white porcelain teapots and pours into white porcelain tea cups in a parabolic arch. It never tastes like this at home. The crustless sandwiches – eggy mayonnaise, cucumber, salmon and cream cheese – slip down nicely, but all the time you’ve had your eye on the scones and the selection of mini cakes, relieved there are two scones each and two of each cake so you don’t have to compromise or, heavens above, share. There is a plentiful supply. It’s really relaxing in here, away from the shoppers and hooting horns of Oxford Street and our conversation centred around how the large glass picture of 1920s women is being suspended on the wall next to us. It’s another world.
Pride and Prejudice (sort of)
‘Give a loose to your fancy, indulge your imagination in every possible flight….’ (Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen)
Showing at The Criterion in Piccadilly, I’m walking into this show not knowing what to expect because I have chosen not to read reviews about it. Seeing something new with a fresh perspective works for me. I suppose the ‘sort of ‘ in the title tells me that this particular re-working of the Austen classic will be a little different from others in some way. Crikey. When Mrs Bennet tells her daughter Elizabeth, ‘Being a f*****g smartarse is…unladylike,’ I know we’re going to have a bit of fun with this one. This ‘sort of’ musical (with well-known songs used to wonderful effect to enhance the depth of social commentary and tempestuous heartfelt love. ’You’re so Vain’ Elizabeth sings, snarling at Mr Darcy) is ‘sort of’ very good. It’s fun, raucous and at times absolutely hilarious. At other times the audience is silenced by expressions of acrimony, passion and love. Everyone will enjoy this one. Go and see it.