Charlotte was Both

Food and Shelter in London

Let’s take a break from the day-by-day – even though we only have a day and a half left – and talk about two basic human rights: food and shelter.

Shelter first.

Here’s the apartment where we stayed:  It was great. Good location, superb, responsive, generous owner/manager, and of great quality.

I had mentioned before that I had considered a hotel or B & B for this trip. A hotel because there are some good values to be found in London hotels, and a B & B because I thought that would be a fun experience.

In the end, though, it came down to space. The price was right on this apartment, and I knew at the end of the day, having two bedrooms would be invaluable.

Let’s talk about location.

Trying to figure out where to stay in a place that you only know on paper, and barely that, is a challenge, and has high potential for disaster. I’ve been very lucky every time I’ve attempted it, although the Madrid place was probably the most problematic, because of noise. Next time (if there is a next time) in a large city where nightlife starts at 11 and goes to 4 in the morning even during the week….I’ll make sure I’m in a purely residential area, if possible. Sheesh, those Spaniards.

This morning, I looked at the “wish list” I’d made on AirBnB for London, and I was hugely relieved that I hadn’t gone for most of them, for most of them were far to the west – and I had bookmarked them because they were less expensive, and that’s why. Sure, the Tube and the buses go everywhere, and we indeed could have gotten where we needed to go, but where we were – 25 minute walks from the British Museum in one direction and Trafalgar Square in an another, and 5 minute walks from two Tube stations that had good connections to everywhere, and five minutes to good bus lines – much better.

With this apartment, there were restaurants everywhere around, including a great fish-n-chip shop two doors down. Two good grocery stores three blocks in two directions. Although I will say that the city groceries I found in London were all smaller than those I’ve found in Italian cities and towns, where you go in the ground floor of a grocery embedded in the middle of a city block and find that it just goes on and on and on, and down another floor, too.  Perhaps there were larger stores around, but I never found them. Not that I was looking very hard, but it did impede my souvenir shopping, since a lot of my souvenirs are always foodstuffs.

Anyway, the flat was immaculate, sharp and cunning. In the photo of the kitchen below, the cabinets on the far left enclose the dishwasher (bottom), fridge and freezer. The oven is next to it, and the silver panel above the oven is the cutlery drawer. To the right of the sink is the combined washer-dryer. And out the window, there’s a lovely patio – I’m envious of folks who will be renting it this summer (and it’s booked through the summer already) – what a lovely space that will be at the end of the day.

Now, food:

(I have photos of some of it, but not all, partly because I do  try to model some decent behavior at times, and not photographing All The Food helps…)

I admit that given a choice, my preference is for food that emanates from the Mediterranean area, from the Middle East all the way around to Spain. Northern European and English/Irish/Scottish food just doesn’t interest me, generally.

And judging from the number of pizza places, Greek and Middle-Eastern restaurants in London…some people share that view!

But we would eat some English food! We would eat Indian! This was going to happen!

Now, the great thing about eating in London, in contrast to many of the other places that we have traveled in Italy, France and Spain, is that, as a large, cosmopolitan, diverse city it is much more amenable to American eating habits and values, aka informality and convenience.  It’s not common, even in larger cities in southern Europe (in my limited experience), unless you are in strongly tourist-dominated areas – to find restaurants open all day, without interruption, and to be able to, say, get dinner at 5 or 6 o’clock without feeling like an unsophisticated freak. This is just not a problem in London. There is food everywhere, restaurants are open all the time, and you can even find places that, for example, serve breakfast all day.

There’s a lot of cheap food, too.  Many, many takeaway places featuring relatively inexpensive foods of all types, from Asian, to (of course) American fast food to sandwiches and meat pies.

Oh, and this is huge. No stupid fruity “Coca-Cola Light” in England. Nope – the real thing – solid, metallic-tinged Diet Coke. Thank you. 

We didn’t do any fine dining on this trip, not that we ever really do. We probably missed a lot of opportunities, but such is life. The one thing we didn’t do was eat at an Indian restaurant – I had Indian twice from food stalls, and it was excellent. I also didn’t have a pint in a pub – the one time we ate in a pub it was the middle of the day and I didn’t feel like drinking, and I didn’t really want to go drink by myself….Anyway, here’s some food talk:

Perhaps it is born of a childhood eating Swanson’s Chicken Pot Pies as a “treat,” but I do like meat pies. I tried three levels of pie:

Super quick at Gregg’s. This was good and cheap! I could live on them for a while if need be.

A Cornish pasty from …The Pasty Shop. I got it in one of the train stations – can’t remember which.  A pasty is a meat pie – it was very large, obviously handmade, and super hot. Really, an entire meal.

On Saturday, we had lunch in this pub in Knightsbridge. We had just survived the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert and people were starving..and I wanted to make sure we got to the scheduled and advertised 3:30 tour of the Martyr’s Shrine at Tyburn Convent, and there it was.  I had the British Beef and Ale pie, which was, again, obviously fresh and hot and substantial.

We had fish and chips twice. The first was in the café at the Tower of London, and the second time was at this place near our apartment. The quality was excellent both times. Neither of my boys are fish eaters (except for shrimp) and both insisted this is what they wanted  – and both liked it. As one observed, the fish is so very fresh that it doesn’t taste fishy at all (they had cod) and it has a very light and (in his words) “almost bland” flavor.

By the way, in that second meal and the place near our apartment, we overheard a hilarious conversation between a perhaps 5-year old boy and his father out for dinner, which got our attention first because the little boy was very loudly relating some sort of butchering process – perhaps not fish because it included legs, but perhaps it’s wishful thinking, First you chop off its HEAD then you chop off its TAIL and then you chop off its ARMS and then you take out its STOMACH…all this followed by the eating of the meal, cleverly made into a race by the dad, with the little boy gobbling down his food, insisting the whole time, “But I want to be the WINNER. Eat slower, I want to be the WINNER.”

Lots of hamburgers. Everyone likes hamburgers, and as long as you make sure no one is going to slather any odd sauces on your meat and they are going to actually cook it (the first time we ordered a hamburger in France we had to send it back for some more time on the grill. For any time on the grill) –  you are generally safe, too. So they had burgers at a few places over the week:

This French place – very winning staff of French young people, and the burger was okay, but probably the weakest of the lot.

They both had burgers at the pub in Kensington, which they liked.

The winners, in their mind, were the burgers from Honest Burgers, a British chain.

(By the way, Five Guys does have a London presence, and it’s a strong game they’re playing. When we would walk by Five Guys, the line would be out the door, generally.)

Pizza, once, at this: it was fine, and cheap.

Nando’s twice – I see that the chain does have a US presence – in Illinois, Maryland, Virginia and DC. Perhaps you’ve been to it. It’s very good, and really fills a gap in the US market – good, flavorful chicken that isn’t breaded and fried.   The chicken dishes center around a Mozambique-by-way-of-Portugal rooted sauce – spicy, but not too much if that’s what you want. We ate their once just because it was there, and we needed nutrition, and the second time, they requested a repeat visit.

Breakfast twice – not as often as I had anticipated, just because we couldn’t get ourselves going early enough most of the time. The first was at this place – recounted here – and the second, Sunday morning, was at a chain called Patisserie Valerie – the boys got Belgian waffles and bacon, and as per usual, we forgot to specify “streaky bacon” – which is more like our bacon. “Regular” bacon is more like ham (not quite like Canadian bacon…). But it was still good.


We ate from market food stalls a few times:

Borough Market, which really is great. I talked about it here.

Greenwich Market, discussed here.

And we got a couple of things – Chicken shawarama – from a market set up along a road near our apartment.

Coffee: I don’t drink coffee, but my 12 -year old (!) does, and the one he really liked was from a British chain – Caffe Nero – which I see has established a bit of a footprint in Boston. He said it was really good, and I liked the atmosphere of the place.

Our last night, we ate at an Italian restaurant down the block. Trattoria Monte Bianco is quite small, and it seemed as if on that Saturday night, there were as many people working as customers. The menu is limited, but it was really excellent food. We had the salumi/fromaggio plate, the boys split a paparadelle with Bolognese sauce, and I had ravioli stuffed with various meats, and a really excellent wine. Lovely people working there, fresh, homemade food – and of course, my favorite meal in London was at an Italian place…

So there you go.  I’ve left out various noshes and snacks along the way. Probably not very adventurous and not very helpful if you are a foodie, but just know that if you want to be adventurous in London, you certainly can be, and if you want to go familiar…you can do that too, and it’s just fine.

Oh, and of course, this is the central culinary focal point of any trip outside the US for us: