(Grand Tour Part 7 of 7)
London’s Soho…the only place where you can see Imelda Staunton in a show, buy a latex body stocking, ogle rare books, and eat a fortune cookie within a 5-minute walking radius.
Our AirBnB proved more elusive than we expected. The address posted on the listing was not where we ended up and though the host said someone would meet us, no one appeared. We had to keep calling and calling, but eventually we landed in a small, yet serviceable flat in the heart of Soho, a galaxy away from Aldgate and Whitechapel.
Grumpy about the awkward shifting of apartments and hungry, I convinced John to make finding lunch our first priority tempting though it was to go into the “G-A-Y Bar” where drag queen nurses spilled onto the street to sing someone “Happy Birthday” in glorious harmony. Then, a block later, when we spotted the sign “vegetarian-friendly” and heard traces of Jim Morrison’s voice, we couldn’t resist crossing the threshold of La Polenteria. Our cheerful Italian waiter zoomed from table and table pausing only to proclaim his love of the Doors. That was it. All they played in the restaurant. We shared a fava bean and pecorino salad along with a bowl of polenta with burrata and roasted tomatoes. Everything fresh and superb!
We walked through a craft market on Dean Street and I had lemon curd ripple gelato. John admired some beautiful leather bags, but we made no purchases.
We took a short tube ride to Holborn, where the streets were so quiet not even old St. Etheldreda’s Church was open. The trip wasn’t entirely wasted, however, because we spent a lazy Sunday afternoon at the Craft Beer Company. From the ample draft selection, I enjoyed a cider and John a brown ale and later a porter. We bought a packet of crisps too, which so many pubs sell. It’s a custom I’d like to see here.
We walked back to Soho and took some time to rest. Later we began an evening of walking, eating, and drinking, the three things we like best. Near Piccadilly Circus, we stopped at the huge Brasserie Zedel. It looks like a typical Parisian cafe, but then you take the red stairs down, down, down to a lobby: jazz club to the right, Art Deco bar straight on, classic dining room to the left. We chose the bar for wine, a Calvados cocktail, and fries. The complementary snack? Popcorn. The Belgian waitress confessed that she dislikes when people ask her where she’s from; she’s been working so hard to get rid of her accent.
More walking: a vintage magazine shop where we bought silly postcards (e.g. Elvis in a Che Guevera hat saying “Viva Las Vegas”), a book store that was 50% art books and 50% naughty books, a comic book shop. We stopped in the “Pillars of Heracles” pub, decorated with framed pictures of Greece.
During all the walking, we’d been looking for dinner options. John spotted a taco place a while back, right by the apartment, and that’s what stuck with us. At La Bodega Negra, we sampled practically the entire menu: margaritas, a series of small plates — a tostada with radishes, a quesadilla, 3 pork and pineapple tacos for John, 3 mushroom tacos for me — and a little salted caramel ice cream for dessert. We dined on the ground floor level (apparently a fancier restaurant lies below) and had a great time listening to the dancey music, looking at all the posters on the walls, and talking with Martina, one of the servers who looked after us. She reminded me of Pilar in For Whom the Bell Tolls with her open-heartedness and vitality (some people just exude joy and life). In her husky voice, she told us that we ought to visit Argentina, where she’s from. So we shall, one day!
It was our second to last night and we needed to celebrate in grand fashion. We ought to have gone to a show, but it’s too fun walking around looking at buildings and people. Lured by the red lanterns across Shaftsbury, we went to Chinatown and looked for the Experimental Cocktail Club. Counting the building numbers, we’d come to the spot, but saw no sign. Could that be a doorman? Ask and you shall receive. He revealed a staircase, so we climbed it and entered a small bar with great big windows. The tables and plush chairs were low to the ground and we were lucky to find an open spot for John to enjoy his “Handsome Jack”, a riff on the Manhattan with rye, cognac, bitters, and byrrh, and for me to struggle with my Montresor, strongly flavored with mezcal (try as I might, I can’t get into it) and super foamy from egg whites.
Still somehow craving dessert, I spotted a window of Chinese sweets, including little cakes with fondant pandas and pigs. We bought a big peanut cookie to share and walked back to Old Compton Street. On the doorstep to the townhouse, two young women sat eating ice cream. We talked to them for a moment and learned that one was Estonian and the other Polish before climbing the stairs for a good night’s sleep.
On Monday morning — the last day of a two-week tour — gray skies greeted us as we walked to Covent Garden. I hoped for something like Borough Market, but found antique bric-a-brac and many closed shops instead. We breakfasted at Caffe Nero, the European Starbucks. Our walk continued to the Thames, where we visited Cleopatra’s Needle and Boudicca. The commanding statue of the Celt warrior queen now has a ticket booth underneath it, an unfortunate development.
John and I parted ways to spend the next two hours as we wished. He window-shopped amidst the Charing Cross bookshops and I roamed the mammoth Victoria and Albert Museum, not knowing what treasure I would find around the next corner. Unlike so many museums of design and decorative arts, the V&A heavily emphasizes technique and its exhibits show not only fine examples of glass work or furniture, but also deconstructed pieces so that visitors can understand how seat cushions are made or how the joints of a chair fit together. Furthermore, the scale of the museum makes the displays jawdropping. With the museum’s endless holdings — porcelain from around the world, Asian textiles, sculpture from all periods, posters, one of Mick Jagger’s jumpsuits — you name it, they got — I could spend the rest of my life going to this one museum and find something new every time.
Photos from our separate exploits:
Our rendezvous: noon at Nelson’s Column. John suggested lunch at Notes, a cafe he’d spotted that he knew I’d like. I loved its art student clientele and we shared two delicious plates: a root vegetable and lentil salad and a mozzarella-pesto-tomato sandwich.
In perfect time we got to St. Martin-in-the-Fields for a free concert. I’d been hoping — romantically — for a group of madrigal singers. Instead, American engineering majors from a polytechnical institute gave a good performance and tried a bit too hard to get the audience to clap for a rousing folk song medley. To John’s and my disappointment, “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?”, despite having been on the program, was not performed. The elderly woman next to John, however, found ecstasy in their singing and her hands moved to some unspecified rhythm. Later when the choir had choreographed arm movements (flashbacks to seventh grade!), she too felt the spirit and raised her arms. Before the concert, John had overheard the woman’s remarks to the man on her right: “I once had a horse eat a carrot right out of my hand. I like carrots. I put them on salads.” That put him on alert and with each of her actions, he feared her harmless looniness more and more until he glued himself to my side so as to be as far away as possible.
After the concert, we stopped in Gordon’s Wine Bar, packed on the bank holiday. A surly woman poured our glasses and, hunching down, we picked our way through the narrow cave (literally) to find seats. We didn’t want to spend too much time in a damp, though atmospheric, subterranean bar, so after one glass off again we went to do some gift-buying.
Near Piccadilly, Fortnum & Mason, one of London’s oldest department stores, did not disappoint with its endless displays of mustards, jams, spices, biscuits, chocolates, chutneys, pates. I picked out items for friends, including Monica whom I challenged to create recipes around three spices. See what she did!
Tuckered out from the museum-going and shopping, John and I visited Liberty, a fabulous home goods store with a small tea room. He drank a Pimm’s Cup, while I had a cream tea, that is two scones and mango flavored black tea. A casual pick-me-up was just what we needed. Afterwards we looked around at the twee plates, impressive oriental rug room, and the furniture section with its modern masterpieces. I was sad to leave empty-handed.
Back at the apartment, we ran out of toilet paper and took the time to start organizing and packing our stuff. In the early evening we set out again for a ramble with the aim of ending up at Ronnie Scott’s, a jazz institution, around 8pm.
We walked back toward Trafalgar Square and shared fabulous macaroni and cheese at the Opera Bar, above the London Coliseum, home of the English National Opera. The bar carried only St. Peter’s on draft, which was fine by us. It’s good stuff and expensive back home.
As the sun began its slow descent, we walked through St. James’s Park to watch the birds in the fine drizzle. A young man with a terrible cough lurked about demanding change from passersby. We crossed the quiet streets to Pall Mall and looked in the windows of all the fancy men’s dress stores and cigar shops. I now know where Bertie Wooster buys his pajamas.
Slowly we made our way back north to Soho and then up the narrow staircase to the bar at Ronnie Scott’s, where Italian saxophonist Renato D’Aiello holds the floor from 8pm to midnight on Mondays. The whole band, especially the pianist, rocked — wrong genre, but you get it. Renato had a special guest come up to improvise a spoken word piece to “So What.” The improviser-actor had a voice like Joe Williams, expansive as the plains, deep as a canyon. For the second set, Renato introduced Kai Hoffman, an American singer who’s made a career doing swing music in London. Certainly she has a great voice — I could hear Judy Garland at times — but more than that she was an entertainer. Even her counting off the songs was part of the performance and she dressed the part all in red with a flower in her hair. We had a great night; I couldn’t tell whether I’d died and gone to heaven or not. Walking back down the stairs, we knew this was it. The end of the trip.
The next morning we left for Heathrow early. On the long Tube ride, John showed me an article about the perils of wearing contact lenses for too many hours each day. My eye had been bothering me still, since Cambridge, and fear mongering was exactly what I needed. (I’m still not back to wearing contacts. It’s allergies the doctor thinks!) We had a good breakfast at the Giraffe inside Heathrow, across from the duty-free store larger than most supermarkets. The flight was easy; we arrived back in steamy DC and sprung for a Super Shuttle. The lady driver spoke beautiful French into an earpiece. Even I could pick out words!
It felt strange to be home in our apartment. In the night, I awoke to use the bathroom and couldn’t remember which way to go.