FROM THE WILDS OF MANHATTAN
Marylebone & Me
Contrary to popular belief, London is filled with great values, if you know where to look. The first is the excellent transportation system—which you can see at work as soon as you arrive at Heathrow Airport. The Heathrow Express is an extremely efficient train that will whisk you and your wheelie directly to Paddington Station, Central London, in about 20 minutes. You can buy the ticket ahead of time online. And if you’re an Internet junkie like Desk Jockey, you may perhaps score a deal to ride in the first-class car—which features complimentary copies of the Financial Times and the latest British financial magazines (not that you’d actually read them of course).
The second excellent value in the transportation category is the series of deals you can get if you ride the London Underground (or subway to New Yorkers). One-, two- and multiple-day passes are available to English and non-English alike, which will save you tons of money—as well as time spent queuing up behind tourists whose understanding of English is well, somewhat inferior to yours.
A lesson the New York City transit system could take from London’s is the clarity of communication in the Underground. Electronic signboards may be found in every station, telling you precisely (to the minute) when the next train to your destination will arrive. This way, you are not taking your life in your hands, peering over the edge of the platform and imagining that a train is approaching when it is not, or trying to listen to the garbled announcements made over a tinny loud speaker system, as is the case in the typical New York City subway station.
A little helpful advice for those who take the Underground: you had better be fit, and perhaps invest in a few spinning or Pilates classes before you arrive. While there are many large stations where you can transfer between lines, you may often walk for several English miles underground before you actually reach your line. And, oh, forget about the gleaming, swift escalators of New York, Washington, D.C, or Chicago. Passengers frequently ascend and descend the levels of the Underground the old-fashioned way: walking up stairs. Remember that?
Entertainment in London: Gee, that looks familiar!
In the 1980s, Desk Jockey used to visit the West End of London to see the plays that would eventually come to the States. This would allow him to say, “Oh, I saw that production in London.” (See Desk Jockey’s “Ah, but did you see the London production?” piece, also available on this Web site.)
However, if you’re an avid theatergoer bound for London these days, you may have a sense of déjà vu all over again. Virtually every musical or drama there has already played for several years in New York, including “Jersey Boys,” “Wicked,” and “Hairspray.” (Note: this does not include “Priscilla,” a musical based on the movie “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and which is distinguishable by the large, rhinestone-encrusted, high-heeled shoe on its West End marquee.)
To New Yorkers and other well-traveled individuals, thus, it would seem nothing less than absurd to see an American play in the United Kingdom. Thus, Desk Jockey suggests you aim high and pay a visit to a venue you can’t get in Your Town, U.S.A: namely, the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.
Even if you recoil at the thought of “opera” and bewigged Valkyries, please be advised that you can also be entertained by a symphony orchestra, a tenor, an acting troupe, or even a ballet company in the Covent Garden opera house. Desk Jockey heartily recommends the last option. To see the Royal Ballet perform “Swan Lake,” at which only the most hardened churl will scoff, is to see, on a good night, greatness.
Restaurants and Bars in London: not too much collateral damage to your wallet
Some tourists’ idea of entertainment (including Desk Jockey) also includes wining and dining at fine metropolitan establishments. Desk Jockey favors those restaurants in London whose maitre d’s would faint at the very mention of “fish and chips.” He has, in no fewer than six visits to London, found excellent non-English cuisine, specifically, Indian, Asian, Greek, and Italian (see Desk Jockey’s London Faves at the end of this article)—many found with the help of his dear friends, the Zagats. And while the restaurants he recommends are top dollar, the pound may not always be top pound when you are there, which makes these enchanting cuisines taste even better.
Most unusual is the marriage of traditional English pub ambience (e.g., wood paneling, dartboard, beer-induced camaraderie, and old photographs) with Thai food. Desk Jockey discovered such a pub in Kensington (or “Ken” as the Brits call it) and found the pad Thai more than serviceable and the price less than extortionate.
As for pubs and such, Desk Jockey normally recoils at the thought of rubbing elbows with red-faced, loutish individuals, or drinking warm beer and belching afterwards, so he personally prefers bars at swanky hotels or in smart new restaurants, preferably managed by Gordon Ramsay.
Where to stay in London (hidden gems)
Many Anglophiles in New York read the Financial Times newspaper on the weekend, if only to reassure themselves that there is still value in the printed word. The FT often contains excellent recommendations on restaurants and hotels around the world; in January, one of their writers recommended the Durrants Hotel in Marylebone (that’s pronounced “Marley” to rhyme with “barley” which is an ingredient in those aforementioned warm English beers.)
Marylebone is a bit off the beaten track, which is part of its charm. Not far from Oxford Circus, it is a quiet residential neighborhood that is home to several embassies; Wallace House, an excellent free museum housing eighteenth- and nineteenth-century artwork; as well as a charming downtown, complete with Terence Conran restaurant.
What drew Desk Jockey to Marylebone and the Durrants Hotel, though, was the deal. The hotel was offering special weekend prices, including full breakfast, that were absolutely irresistible considering the already favorable exchange rate. That daily breakfast, which would test the mettle of many a truck driver in the United States, was so bountiful that Desk Jockey and C would not need to eat until dinner (Hence, even more of a deal.)
The Visual Arts in London
As for museums, the sheer number equals, and perhaps surpasses, New York’s collection of establishments (to which Desk Jockey defensively replies, well, the Brits did have a 500-year head start.) The Tate Museums (both Modern and British), the National Gallery of London, the Saatchi Collection, and the Victoria & Albert Museum invariably offer a range of prestigious shows for every taste. Unfortunately, admission is not “one-price-pays-all” as it is in New York, so be prepared to pay for each show individually. However, this is not something to quibble about when you are viewing extremely well-curated shows featuring the works of Picasso, Van Dyck, and the Objectivists—often all in one day.
All museums take credit cards, which is a good way to keeping some cash on hand, and which is even better considering the exchange rate for credit cards (Desk Jockey suggests you see your credit card statement a month after you return if you don’t believe him.) Not to mention the frequent flyer miles you’ll earn from charging your admission ticket (Notwithstanding C’s objections, every dollar counts if you want those “free” tickets someday.)
The weather: oh well, you can’t have everything.
Desk Jockey and C. had occasion to visit American friends who were on overseas assignments in London. Most were excited about the opportunity to work abroad, and reported they took ample advantage of England’s proximity to Europe. But they shared a complaint about their new home: the weather. Rain was almost a constant in London, and overcast skies were practically a given. It is also, on average, somewhat colder in London than it is in New York, so 60 degrees Fahrenheit (which was the average temperature in London when Desk Jockey was there) is considered “London Summer.”
New Yorkers have never felt like Americans, quite frankly. (One wag in recent memory referred to Manhattan as a “small European island, located off the coast of New Jersey.”) They are correct of course and that is why so many New Yorkers swoon over the plummy accents of their English co-workers—despite the fact that a number of these individuals may hail from less-than-distinguished provenances in England.
However, the dry wit and inherent graciousness of the British get Desk Jockey every time. Provincial New Yorker par excellence, he is the biggest sucker for everything English. Those tidy row homes with their chalk-white flower boxes, especially beautiful when dappled by a rare beam of English sunshine! The tiny appetizing store on an upscale block in Belgravia that nobody knows about (except Monocle magazine perhaps.) Finding deals on dress shirts on Jermyn Street, a short walk from Savile Row. Jogging around Hyde Park and circumnavigating the Serpentine. Strolling through the City (the financial district) on a weekend where one is in sight except meager-looking protestors of the G-20 conference. All small moments that make this British Isle almost, yes, almost as enchanted as the Isle of Manhattan.
Is Affordable England gone for good? Meh.
Since Desk Jockey’s trip to England several months ago, unfortunately, the pound has once again strengthened against the dollar. And while it isn’t the 2-to-1 ratio of 2008, it isn’t at the under-$1.50 exchange that made a drink at the Connaught Hotel lead to two drinks, either.
Rather than wait for another favorable rate, however, Desk Jockey recommends getting to England while the getting is relatively good.
It isn’t New York, but on some very rare occasions, that can be a good thing.
Desk Jockey’s London Faves
Bocca di Lupo, 12 Archer Street (Italian)
Gordon Ramsay @ Chelsea Hospital, 68 Royal Hospital Rd (Modern British/French)
Cinnamon Kitchen, 9 Devonshire Square (Indian)
The Providores and Tapa Room – 109 Marylebone High Street (Spanish)
Chutney Mary – 535 Kings Road (Indian)
Benares – 12a Berkeley Square (Indian)
Churchill Arms – 119 Kensington Church Street (Thai)
Pearl Restaurant & Bar – 252 High Holborn (English/French)
The Connaught Hotel, Carlos Place
Claridge’s, 49 Brook Street
The Dorchester Hotel, 53 Park Lane
York & Albany (Gordon Ramsay hotel bar) 127-129 Parkway
Durrants Hotel, George Street, London (www.durrantshotel.co.uk)
August Cosentino is a professional writer who cycles passionately, eats discriminately, attends theatre religiously, Facebooks constantly, and as the photo indicates, is as good to his mother as he was to his father who passed away in 2012. He lives in Manhattan with his two carbon-fiber bicycles, and G.
ARTICLES BY AUGUST COSENTINO
AIRMAIL – From the Wilds of Manhattan
The End of the Bucket List
Fifty Shades of Pain: Cycling the Pyrenees, One Mountain Pass at a Time
Go West Young Desk Jockey
Greece: It’s a Riot
How Many Facebook Friends Are Too Many?
Marylebone and Me
The Sandwich Generation: Eldercare and Me
Scandinavia, The Great Escape
Welcome to the Jungle: Is Mad Men Really About Advertising
Work Like Wall Street: Earn Like Main Street