London, 15 years later…
by James Bradey, operator Liquid & Larder Group
Going back is always a strange feeling. It adds layers to memories and confusion to timelines. Over the years I’ve visited London more times than I can remember. From my initial backpacking days, to weekend trips while living in Edinburgh to check out the latest bars; living and working there for several years, to more recent trips with the family, catching up with old friends. Strong memories intertwine and overlap, but one thing remains the same, London has such a strong sense of place. It has always been a dynamic city and always will be.
London really does have something for everyone and it seems to have burst back from COVID-19 with renewed energy. The best venues tap into London’s rich history and connection to place. On hot summer days, countless pubs spill jovial punters out onto the street which is a thing of beauty, where you hear the clink of glasses and good times before you turn the corner. Old delis like Il Camino in Soho showcase their established histories built up over the years, having seen all the changes and characters along Old Compton St. And newer places, like The Ned, have managed to recreate and pay homage to it. Tapping into the existing character of their surroundings and giving old buildings new life and purpose, which is not easy to do.
The best venues tap into London’s rich history and connection to place. On hot summer days, countless pubs spill jovial punters out onto the street which is a thing of beauty, where you hear the clink of glasses and good times before you turn the corner. Old delis like Il Camino in Soho showcase their established histories built up over the years, having seen all the changes and characters along Old Compton St. And newer places, like The Ned, have managed to recreate and pay homage to it.
London, like other iconic cities, can be hard to enjoy. How do you know what to prioritise when it all looks so good? How do you manage to check out all the latest places to eat and drink, see a gig or a show, hit the shops, the sites and museum and not miss something amazing? Back in my bartender days you pretty much went where you knew the crew. But now, after 3 years of COVID lockdowns, the first challenge was what to do and where to go on a 5 day trip to the capital.
Whenever I am travelling, or for that matter whenever I’m trying to determine what to do or where to eat or drink, the first thing I look for is authenticity. Places that excel and deliver what they promise and, as I’ve mentioned before… do what they say on the tin! In London, I was looking for things I can’t get at home in Sydney. My tastes and style centre around product forward dishes or drinks, not overly worked, fussy or fancy. This doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate process, rather I don’t want to see 15 different processes and ingredients which detract from the star of the show.
So, what are the top highlights from my trip?
Kicking things off with my love for great Indian food from my time living in the UK. I headed straight for Gymkhana in Mayfair around the corner from my old stomping ground at Mahiki. Set in an old colonial, Raj style venue, we went for lunch and started with a signature G&T simply spiced with house made bitters. These were fantastic, but the ice cold Cobra lager served in a pewter tankard was exceptional. With the finessed curries that followed, I wouldn’t recommend going anywhere else.
The aim of this trip had been to spend more time in areas of London I’d not previously experienced, but as a creature of habit, I ended up back at Borough Markets having a pint of Porter and oysters and whelks at Wright Brothers, which was just delicious. This was followed by a buttered old fashioned at Hawksmoor Spitalfields, still one of the best signature cocktails going around, and a late night trip to Calloo Calley for a nightcap. I’ve had countless nights out here over the years, and whilst it is looking a little tired, we had a ball. I’ve got so much respect for those much loved, older venues and left thinking about ways to ensure my venues similarly keep on going.
You also can’t do London properly without having a few Timothy Taylors outside on the street of the local pub. This is what sets London in the summer apart for me; the ability to simply enjoy the weather and have a drink outside without any hassle. For a city with more traffic restrictions to reduce car traffic than just about anywhere in the world, somehow they manage to navigate punters drinking in the middle of the road. Just great.
A random highlight of the trip was catching up with some old mates who were involved with Cocktails in the City (https://www.cocktailsinthecity.com/). To me, events like this typify why London feels so dynamic. Cocktails in the Cities is a collaboration of 20 of the best bars, teaming up with their choice of brands, set in London’s largest private gated garden in Bedford Square, just around the corner from The British Museum. Like a mini festival, without the mud. Just a chilled vibe, live music, people dancing, great cocktails and food trucks out in the open with the sun setting overhead.
We stayed at several different boutique hotels, the highlight of which was The Ned. It’s an impressive venue, which manages to keep its charm despite its size. It’s funny how the things I now look for in a hotel have changed. I’m a little long in the tooth and can’t continually overindulge without putting in the work. Today’s hospitality worker is much more health conscious than I was when I first started and for me, whether it’s starting the day early, hitting the hotel gym, or enjoying a little pampering, these are requirements for me to enjoy my other indulging. At The Ned I enjoyed my first Hammam since I was 21, getting scrubbed clean by some overly vigorous Turkish fella in Istanbul. I have to say The Ned’s spa treatment was far more relaxing!
After a few scoops in the sun we had a cracking dinner at a little place called Lisboeta. A self described ‘Love letter to Lisbon’, we were lucky enough to sit in the window counter, the best place to watch the world go by. Again, as is my favourite style, food and drinks were simple, produce forward and cooked over coals. We started with an aperitivo of white port over ice, with some jamon with pork fat, paprika butter and sourdough. Grilled mackerel on toast followed, with some lightly cured amberjack with red onion and bacalhau with sweet corn. The standout dishes were the scarlet red prawns seasoned with piri piri and thrown over the coals. Can’t say I know much about Portuguese wines but a chilled bottle of 2020 Nat Cool Red & White field blend from Arribas Wine Co. went down a treat with the sweet and juicy prawns.
Although we had plans to check out a few more places that night, like all good operators, Lisboeta managed to twist our arms into staying longer than we had planned. The Abade de Priscos, a set custard made from egg yolk & pork fat with port wine caramel was so damn good, I think my heart stopped!
Last but not least, and really, the star of the show, had to be Brat. There are always venues you hear about overseas that carry a hype and usually fail to deliver. Brat was so good, we ate there twice. Shoreditch has been ‘cool’ for decades and continues to evolve. It’s the perfect backdrop for London’s latest venue which embraces Basque style cooking over coals, and shows how bloody good simplicity can be when it is really embraced. And as my wife keeps telling me, “the natural look is hard”!
We started with a couple of Oyster Shell Martinis; slightly salty, clean vodka based martinis, simply licked with lemon, sensational. Don’t tell any of my mates I went for vodka but after years of drinking Dirty Martinis I feel I have reached a suitably filthy stage and need purification.
The food was excellent. Seasonal, simple and cooked to perfection. But the real charm was the buzzing atmosphere, where the open counter bar and hearth area made it feel like we had been invited into someone’s house party above the pub downstairs. London has this vibe at the moment; like fuck Covid, fuck Brexit, the sun is out and let’s live life to its fullest as we dont know what may happen. And Brat exemplified this. So much so we went to the other Brat a couple of days later. Brat x Climpson Arch is a more pop up style, outdoor BBQ venue which we thoroughly enjoyed on our last night before checking out The Ezra Collective and Kamasi Washington over the Bethnal Green.
Five days in London is certainly not enough time to see and do everything. But, as anyone who has kids will tell you, if you have been gifted child free time, you’d better make the most of it. I left London for the upteenth time feeling energised, enthused, relaxed and excited to get back to Sydney and hopefully impart some of the influences I have just experienced into our own venues.
I understand life has been tough for a lot over the past 3 years in Australia, with the fires, floods and COVID-19. But with our lives and livelihoods centred in hospitality, it’s in our nature to seek enjoyment. Not just for ourselves, but so we can provide great hospitality to others. And with the world now open, what you gain from travelling and experiencing dynamic cities such as London cannot be replicated. So bust your arse, set aside what you can and get back out there.