Travel GETTING THE BEST OUT OF LONDON

When a city has as much to offer the traveler as London does, no planning is better than over-planning. Every walk is a journey of discovery, every day an adventure – and every visit to a charming little restaurant is a potential brush with ptomaine poisoning. As Samuel Johnson put it: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

The good doctor might have added “for those who can afford London,” but, thanks to the falling pound, your travel dollar will go further in London today than in other Western European cities.

What follows is not a master plan for travelers but simply a personal catalogue of small slices of the best that London life has to offer.

Best Armenian Restaurant: The none-too-subtly named Armenian Restaurant, on Kensington Church Street, modestly claims to serve “the finest and most traditionally authentic food this side of the Euphrates.” I hate to agree with such cheekiness, but the claim is accurate.

Best Arts Section: Although all the big national dailies have decent arts sections, the best is probably in the Financial Times, Britain’s somewhat better-bred equivalent of the Wall Street Journal. Pithy, knowledgeable coverage of literature, theater, film, music and the graphic arts. Also an excellent source for concise international news coverage.

Best Bookstore: Would have to be Foyles, a sprawling, multistoried browser’s paradise, on Charing Cross Road in the heart of the bookshop district. Everything from rare first editions to hard-to-find current titles.

Best Bootmaker: There are many first-rate custom shoemakers in London, But none is finer than Tricker’s, on Jer-myn Street. Once they’ve made you a pair of shoes, they keep your foot pattern on file, so overseas orders are no problem.

Best Bowlers: These and other gentlemen’s headgear come from James Lock & Company, on St. James’s Street, where the firm has been covering the elegant but often empty heads of the upper classes for several generations.

Best Changing of the Guard: For my money, it’s not the bear-skinned Redcoats stomping about at Buckingham Palace but the equestrian ceremony at the Horseguards, Whitehall. In addition to the glimmering armor and sleek, black steeds, a dramatic element is the occasional narrow escape from drowning of small children caught in the line of fire of horses who have drunk too deeply at the morning trough.

Best Chinese Food: Soho now teems with good Chinese restaurants, many run by and catering to the large emigre population from Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. One of the finest is Lee Ho Fook, with locations on Gerrard, Mac-clesfield, and Wardour streets. Everything is first-rate, from spicy stone crab with ginger to blander, more conventional Mandarin specialties.

Best Church: As a less-than-devout Deist, I prefer that beautifully restored baroque gem, St. John’s, in the center of Smith Square. Services are kept down to one a year – that for tax purposes – while the rest of the time the church serves as a concert hall, with “licensed refreshments available in the Crypt before the concert and during the interval . . .” Pace, Bishop Laud.

Best Cigars: Dunhill’s walk-in humidor in a lavish Jermyn Street building has the best-preserved selection, but a smaller firm, H. Simmons in the Burlington Arcade, is not to be sneezed at (see also, Snuff).

Best Club (Boringest): For outstanding preservation work in keeping alive that rare old species, the Classic Club Bore, you cannot beat The Traveller’s, on Pall Mall. Originally set up for gentlemen who had completed the Grand Tour, it retains most of its grandeur but little of its panache.

Best Club (Stuffiest): Begun as a political club with strong ties to the Tory Party, the Carlton, on St. James’s Street, is still tighter than right, and, most of the time, stiller than still.

Best Club (Richest): The oldest families, largest fortunes, and biggest names gravitate to White’s, founded as a gambling club in the eighteenth century and still the most exclusive bastion in clubland. Only massive carnage among the ruling classes during the world wars succeeded in whittling down the waiting list to manageable size. As far as I know, there’s only one American member, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

Best Curry House: If you like Indian cuisine, London is paradise – there are literally hundreds of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladesh restaurants, large and small. A very simple, very good Tan-doori specialist, modestly priced, is Aakash, a few blocks from the National Portrait Gallery. For a gaudy, Disneyland setting, with turbaned flunkies and a Wide selection of entrées, try Veeras-wamy’s at Regent and Swallow streets.

Best Drunken Journalists: No shortage of these in London, but the most entertaining are to be found at two Fleet Street pubs. If you prefer beer and spirits, try the King & Keys. For winos, there’s El Vino, a more pretentious but equally Hogarthian spot, once the fluid begins to flow.

Best Emergency Depot: Whatever it is that you may need in a hurry – from a few head of livestock to a tube of moustache wax – Harrod’s, on Brompton Road, will not only carry it but will offer a wide choice. Truly the universal provider – for a price.

Best Grill: Despite close competition from the Connaught, the Savoy, Claridges, and several chop houses, the best grill in London is at the new Berkeley Hotel, in Knightsbridge. Even Queen Elizabeth has been known to pop in for a snack with friends. Elegant but never flashy.

Best Guidebook: Functionally, stylistically, and on the basis of its inspired mixture of erudition, zest, and canny street sense, there is still no beating David Piper’s London, originally published in 1964 but subsequently updated as part of the Fodor companion series.

Best Hotel (Prestigious): Claridges, on Brook Street, remains the home of visiting monarchs, celebrities, and heads of state, not to mention well-heeled semi-divine ones.

Best Hotel (Conservative): For many British, and some tradition-minded American visitors (including, among others, William F. Buckley Jr.), London’s finest is still the staid, well-run Con-naught, on Carlos Place. Unchanged – except for improved comfort, plumbing, and lighting – since Edwardian days.

Best Hotel (Small): With a perfect central location, but tucked away on quiet Bury Street, is the 54-room Quaglino’s Hotel Meurice. Excellent service in an adjoining restaurant and nightclub under the same management. This is where the Duke of Windsor and naughty Mrs. Simpson used to cut the rug. Offers the food and entertainment advantages of a large deluxe hotel as well as the atten-tiveness and intimacy of a small one – all within a few minutes’ walk of Fleet Street and Chelsea.

Best Men’s Clothes: There are too many first-rate custom tailors on and around Savile Row to single out one. Travelers with smaller budgets and contemporary tastes will find a wide selection at Marks & Spencer and easy-to-fit cheapskates will be delighted by the bargains at the various branches of Dunn & Company, where the designs may be a little frowsy but the materials are British woolens at their best.

Best Mutton and Roast Beef: My choice is Simpsons, on the Strand, where Doctor Watson occasionally dined with Sherlock Holmes, and where the quality of the meat is sometimes matched only by the sogginess of the truly British vegetables – grim studies in olive drab. Still, if you like saddle of mutton, this is the place. Don’t forget to tip the carver.

Best Morning Constitutional: No matter where you walk in London, you’re bound to stumble on something interesting. For a serious moming constitutional in good weather, the ideal spot is Hyde Park, preferably near the winding Serpentine, alive with ducks, rowers, horsemen, women, and just about every imaginable breed of dog, peacefully coexisting. If it’s Saturday, avoid Speaker’s Corner, a farce kept up mainly for tourists, where the speakers are often deranged Baptists.

Best Obscure Museum: Because it is a little out of the way – adjoining the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, near the Thames – the National Army Museum, with its lavish displays of armor, uniforms, paintings, weapons, and militaria dating from Elizabethan days, is often missed by visitors to London. There are dozens of pleasant pubs in the neighborhood, and the area teems with pink-faced, red-coated Chelsea pensioners, some of whom aren’t above haggling a free drink in return for real or imaginary tales of their heroics in the trenches of Flanders. Worth an afternoon’s outing.

Best Oysters: Wilton’s Oyster Purveyors, on Bury Street, has been the place for oysters, Scottish salmon. Dover sole, and game in season since Edwardian days. The proprietress, herself a fixture for more than a generation, sees to it that the highest standards – and highest prices – are maintained. If feeling particularly pinched, limit yourself to half-a-dozen oysters and a glass of Hock, and revel in the atmosphere.

Best Picnic Hampers: As it was in Henry James’ time, so it is today – for visual appeal, tastefulness of selection, and sheer edibility, no one prepares a better picnic hamper than Fortnum & Mason. Provisions for a small jaunt into the countryside or boating on the Thames.

Best Place for Americans to Pay Respects: A brief, all-purpose pilgimage to No. 11 Hertford Street in Mayfair. Besides being the home of the great Georgian comic playwright Richard Sheridan, 11 Hertford also housed General John Burgoyne. Much more than George Washington’s perseverance or Lafayette’s heroics, it was the sheer incompetence of Burgoyne, the British commander at Saratoga, that made American independence possible. Say a prayer in passing, stranger, and thank God for the Peter Principle.

Best Porcelain: There are larger china shops, but none has a better selection of new and antique porcelain, English china, crystal, and glassware than Leather & Snook, on Piccadilly.

Best Pipes: Good pipemakers and tobacconists abound in London, but for an outstanding selection of antique carved meerschaum and amber pieces, as well as the best in modern briars, try Wm. Astley & Company Limited, on Jermyn Street.

Best Postcards: Forget about the usual trite scenic view and the changing of the guard, and try the gift shop in the National Portrait Gallery, at St. Martin’s Place just above Trafalgar Square. Hundreds of color and black-and-white portraits from British history to choose from; you’ll probably be able to spot at least one comic look-alike to match most of the men and women on your mailing list.

Best Scampi: For mammoth steamed scampi, served cold in the shell with a delicate mayonnaise sauce, try Frank’s, a smoothly-run, family-owned Italian restaurant on Jermyn Street. Wash the scampi down with a bottle of dry Asti Spumante and then help yourself to some first-rate veal Marsala or fettuccine alia carbonara. The fresh pineapple is perfect for dessert.

Best Snuff: Admittedly, snuff is an acquired taste, and even devotees fall into one of two factions. Those who prefer the more elaborate, aromatic varieties of snuff will want to patronize Smith’s Snuff Shop, on Charing Cross Road, which also stocks a selection of antique snuff boxes and modern French pieces carved from rosewood. For the aficionado of the more straightforward, plain blends of old English snuff, there’s Fri-bourg & Treyer, at the Haymarket.

Best Spot for a Quick Snooze: Would have to be in the Morning Room of the stately Reform Club, on Pall Mall. From 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. and from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m., this sedate chamber lies deathly still except for the odd snore or snort, and the soft footfalls of club personnel taking the pulse of veteran members, who just may have dropped off into something deeper than sleep. Decency demands that you at least pretend to read a newspaper for a few minutes before nodding off.

Best Tea for Two: The Ritz Hotel, once one of London’s finest, may have lost some of its splendor, but it’s still a delightful place for an elaborate afternoon tea. You never know who you may run into – it could well be Sir Harold Acton visiting from Florence, or the New Yorker’s Michael Aden Jr., over from the States. Gracious service in a lavish setting.

Best Turtle Soup: If you nap at the Reform Club but wake up in time, enjoy a bowl of the incomparably clear turtle soup, a culinary tradition dating from the days of Alexis Soyer, the club’s first and greatest chef, and a delicacy enjoyed by William Makepeace Thackeray in the last century.

Best Umbrellas: The true English umbrella is a bit heavier than the foreign article and has a large brass or gold catch – none of your tinny, automatic rubbish, sirrah! – a substantial polished moluc-ca, briar, or leather-covered handle and brass-tipped wooden point. The best umbrella frames are all made by Fox, and one of the finest retail dealers is Swaine Adeney Briggs & Sons Limited, on Piccadilly, which also stocks all of the trappings a proper gentleman will need for hunting, shooting, and fishing. Remember that for most of the year in London an umbrella is a necessity, not an ornament.

Best View: On a clear day you can almost see forever from the new Post Office Tower, on Maple Street. It’s 580 feet up and provides a breathtaking panorama of London.

Best Vulgar Architecture: For brash bad taste on a massive scale, there’s no surpassing the new American Embassy, bumptiously overshadowing everything around it on Grosvenor Square. Even the statue of FDR in the middle of the Square seems to intentionally shy away from it, gazing instead at the Georgian facade of the Britannia Hotel, which recently housed one J. Carter, late of Plains, Georgia.



Well, there you have it – one man’s odd, arbitrary list of the most enjoyable things that London has to offer. If you enjoy them half as much as I have, you will doubtless agree with the late Sir Noel Coward that’’ London’s a place that your heart can embrace/If your heart is free and prone to be/Receptive to delight.”

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