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Monthly Archives: July 2016

Restaurant: Tonkotsu, Mare St
Time: Saturday evening
With: Wist
Stand-out dish: Tonkotsu Ramen
Notes: Late night table, so the restaurant was quiet. Pretty decor, and friendly staff. One of a few locations. We both ordered ramen (mine Tonkotsu, Wist’s seafood) and a selection of sides. The crab korokke were gooey and tasty, and the three Mochi icecream flavours were dainty little morsels, but my ramen was the best dish of the night. Creamy and fresh, with a deep pork undertone.

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#3. Leysian Mission, City Road
Having lived in Old Street for three or four years, this building only crept into my consciousness around twelve months ago. Inside, the great hall is long gone, filled in with plush Old Street apartments. But the outside is still magnificent, and it’s topped up with a beautiful green dome sitting proudly on top. The words Leysian Mission are still visible at the entrance: a constant reminder of what this building was originally built for – a helping hand for the East End London slums.

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#4. Smithfield Market, Farringdon
Perhaps my favourite building in London. My wife and I even had our wedding photos taken underneath one of the wrought iron caverns. Victorian grandeur at its best; with cathedral-like loading bays and ornamental metalwork. The market is one of the few places in zone 1 that has resisted white collar urban renewal, but all that may change once the Museum of London moves in, in 2021.

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Nairn’s London #23
The Ritz

THEN: The overwhelming thing about the Ritz is not ostentation or even luxury but a deep quiet. Through the swing doors is another world from Piccadilly. The tempo gently winds down; the long corridor, the space and the unhurried waiters seem to have come out of a dream. Money here does not buy a multiplication of gadgets but deep wedges of privacy. At the Ritz they are enclosed by decoration in eighteenth-century French style of the utmost delicacy and discretion, done from conviction and not fashion. The outside is just the same: polite and respectful but never obsequious. Mewes was French and elderly, Davis was English and young, and they made admirable partners.

NOW: I doubt The Ritz has changed all that much since Nairn wrote about it. Calm, quiet and private: it’s still very much a sanctuary for those that need it. The long corridor still runs from end-to-end, with a staff member positioned every few metres; each of which shot me disparaging looks as I hadn’t donned a tie for entry. A bastion of old England.

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Nairn’s London #2
St James Palace

THEN: Like many other places in London, you have to play this by ear. The eye won’t help you much in an organised, Hampton-Court sense. The courtyards are ordinary, deliberately casual: the red tunics and bearskins are no less military than at the Palace but seem here to be just doing a job, semi-casually. Tourists come in accidentally, perhaps sidetracked from the Palace and The Mall by the thought of a cuppa. No hope of that this side of Piccadilly, this is the underside of a monarchy, an equivalent to the garden side of Buckingham Palace which no ordinary person can ever see. And not only of a monarchy: we would have been a republic long ago if this passion for discreet authority, understatement and privacy were not part of the essence of most Englishmen. It is not so much one note in the English scale as a key signature.

NOW: A building I must have skirted past one hundred times, without acknowledging properly. Much like the Tower’s ravens, you sense this is the Royal family’s true stronghold: forget Buckingham Palace, without this one, the crown would fall. No red tunics or bearskins on display when I walked past – a great pity – as their colours would have lifted the brickwork’s warmth on what was a dreary wet day.

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Nairn’s London #24
The Wellington (corner of Strand and Aldwych)

THEN: Extraordinary-ordinary; comfortable and quietly elegant and what every pub or street should be and isn’t. The amazing thing is that this has happened in the last few years. A recent redecoration has realised potentialities which have been lying fallow for half a century. Two bars have been thrown into one: usually a fatal step, here essential to give an overall shape. The distinction between the bars is still made by a couple of steps; everything else is made really new, but quietly, so that you can register the difference without noticing it. Good stuff behind the bar (a Free House), spirited Irish girls to serve it; more truly up to date than the most trumpeted pub rebuilding.

NOW: Now a Nicholsons, I fear that many of the edges that prompted Nairn’s favourable review have been sanded down over the years. The steps up to the second bar remain, and there are subtle design differences in cornicing between the two spaces, but the pub is no longer remarkable. Nonetheless, a perfectly decent boozer, with a variety of beer taps and gins. The spirited Irish girls must have been working a different shift when I visited.

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Nairn’s London #5
Law Courts, Strand

THEN: Just as the Houses of Parliament killed Barry, so the Law Courts put an end to G.E. Street. There was never enough feeling to go round, and it was concentrated into one stupendous room. The rest of his practice – all the outside, all the country churches of the 1870s – was clever, heartless, hack-work. Nothing but duty would entice you through the main entrance, yet inside it is all different. The Great Hall is a superb room, useless only by those legal definitions of architectural function which recognise merely the visible part of the iceberg. It seems as though Street has knocked it back into the thirteenth century through sheer will, the kind of endurance that confounds medical prediction: ‘he shouldn’t have lasted the night out’. And there it is, magisterial in all the good senses of the word: ordered, compassionate, direct and to a huge scale. It is a funny way to get to greatness – Beethoven’s way in the Ninth Symphony, and in human terms the hardest, most meritorious way of all. Every word of this is wrung out against my own inclinations, for I hate what Street did by pretending to himself that he was sensitive and understanding: so this may be the truest entry in the book. There is a good deal more in the Law Courts, including a bar, the unlikeliest local of all, and the courts themselves – stuffy Dickensian rooms where lawyers argue endlessly through civil actions whilst their principals are miles away.

NOW: I’d wager this is one of the most beautiful buildings in London. The entrance is dark and foreboding: a colossal mass that somehow manages to pull focus onto its small front doors (an effect not unlike Alfred Hitchcock’s dolly zoom.) Once you’re through security, and inside, the building is awe-inspiring. The Great Hall is magnificent. I imagine when the balance of evidence is on your side, this space only serves to embolden you. And when you know you’re guilty, its scale intimidates you until you’re near breaking point. Other highlights include the Bear Garden (a room so called because the volume of lawyers in there, discussing last-minute case revisions, prompted Queen Victoria to describe it like ‘a garden full of bears’) and the first floor balcony (which currently houses a costume exhibition.)

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Restaurant: Japanese Canteen, Middlesex St
Time: Friday lunchtime
With: Wist
Stand-out dish: Nothing. I’d have to say the TsingTao.
Notes: Slow-moving queue out of the door; a busy lunchtime venue. Long parallel benches and tables. Draught beers were off. And somehow, they only one cold bottle of beer, as the fridge was broken. Ordered chicken katsu donburi, pork dumplings, chicken chili fried rice. Hectic service – they brought us the wrong food twice. Food was very average – watery dumplings and dry rice.

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1. Avery Row, Mayfair
A slither of a walkway that cuts diagonally down from Brook Street; this pedestrianised street has all the bustle of a village high street, but it’s slap bang in the middle of Mayfair.

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2. Sweetings, Mansion House
A lunchtime institution within the City, offering tasty olde-english seafood courses. An unusual layout within, with service offered by a personal waiter trapped between table and wall. The building wraps around a corner, giving it similar powers to that of a fly bottle trap; a welcoming entrance but distant exit. For that reason, you’ll find yourself in here for hours on end, without clocking the time.

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Nairn’s London #6
All Saints, Margaret St

THEN: To describe a church as an orgasm is bound to offend someone; yet this building can only be understood in terms of compelling, overwhelming passion. Why boggle, when there are a hundred ways of reaching God? Here is the force of Wuthering Heights translated into dusky red and black bricks, put down in a mundane Marylebone street to rivet you, pluck you into the courtyard with its harsh welcoming wings and quivering steeple. Outer and inner doorways show you in, within a few inches of each other; both flowing over with ornament – nothing was too much trouble for the beloved. Inside, Butterfield had to rely for decoration on other men’s intensity of feeling, so it is pointless to look closely at the walls; but the proportions and transfigured gilded violence of this unexpected Heathcliff burn through any artificiality. The violent selfless love carries you up with it, just as the serenity of Bevis Marks lifts another part of you to the same end. Butterfield never repeated this – how could he? – and his passion set iron-hard, unapproachable, altering his pupil’s drawings in ink so that they had to do them all again. Perhaps he met too many portly bishops; perhaps there is no way but death to discharge an experience as violent as this.

NOW: As stunning today as it must have been then. Dark and foreboding brick on three walls create a quaint courtyard for pot plants and flaneurs. Set back from Oxford Street, the church offers a quiet and covert refuge for those needing an escape. Inside, it lives up to that description; when I visited there were around ten homeless people stretched out and asleep across the benches. Nairn described it as an orgasm. I’d be inclined to do the same, were it not for all the snoring.

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Nairn’s London #4
The Economist Building

THEN: The buildings on this site may interest only the 1960s, for this is where the angriest of Britain’s young architects were finally given their chance: it was ten years in coming, and the time-lag shows. But the space between the buildings is a permanent gain. At last, an architect has suggested and a client allowed that a highly valuable space of W.1. be treated imaginatively as part of London (those who flat-pave part of the site and put up a thumping slab on the rest are doing no better than the bad old cover-it-all boys.) The L-shaped area contains three hexagonal towers, one medium and two small. In the angle of the L is a showy eighteenth-century club Boodles; the rest of the space is open to the public – and it is not just ‘open space’: the levels enable you to squint out at a sloping St James Street, lord it over the side streets from under a colonnade, or just sit down on a stone bench. This is only the starting point for what could happen, like Whittle’s first jet, and nothing much will come of this particular example unless some activity can be attracted or allowed into the central space; but the idea has an enormous potential. Here is a kind of Saint-Denis, no more accommodating and no less pregnant than that other prototype.

NOW: A building that you would most definitely walk past today; the steps up are uninviting unless you’re in the know. The open space is calm, and the stone bench clearly a familiar spot for local lunchers. But as Nairn suggested, with no activity in the central space, the area is a bit of a dead zone, looking down sombrely onto the streets either side.

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Nairn’s London #3
Red Lion, Duke of York St

THEN: If I could keep only one pub out of the whole London galaxy, this would be my choice. It is not especially comfortable or especially atmospheric, but it strikes deeper than any other. All around the walls are magnificent cut-glass mirrors, the best in London, recently renovated so that they gleam as sharply as they ever did. And as the bar space is roughly square, wall after wall after wall is reflected in the real walls, a process which oddly enough reinforces the solidity. Nothing is fuzzy, but everything has incredible depth and compassion combined with brilliance. It is the spirit exactly of Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergere. It sees and feels everything, yet you are thrown back on your own resources, enriched. This is the opposite thing to the gentle, sentimental pub where you can wash your troubles into oblivion. If you had a problem, the Red Lion could not ease it, however much you drank; instead it would strengthen you. It is a place to walk out of ramrod-straight, reinforced by those proud, sparkling, arabesques.

NOW: Now a Fullers, it has inevitably lost some of the Bar at the Folies Bergere spirit. Nonetheless, the mirrors remain – and are certainly worth remarking on. The lunchtime light streams in, and they glisten contentedly. The bar sits proud at the centre of the pub, splitting the room in two. Ales on tap and the standard house spirits. The spiral staircase – up and down – is an interesting pub feature. But a struggle if you meet someone going the other way.

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Restaurant: Yoobi, Lexington St
Time: Wednesday lunchtime
With: –
Stand-out dish: Spicy tuna temaki handroll
Notes: Window seat looking out on busy Soho street. Tills were slow, but service was quick. Two rolls ordered – spicy tuna and citrus salmon. Both were delicious.Served with ginger and wasabi. Great lunchtime spot.

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