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Side step: jam-jar cocktails at Alice House, West Hampstead

17 Sep

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When I grow up, I’m going to live in Hampstead. That’s one of my many ambitions, and while I can dream and hope that one day, some day, I’ll own a house in this endearing pocket of London, for now I’ll just have to be content with visiting.

I usually go up to Hampstead Village – for coffee on a cold day, for banana and nutella crepes at La Crêperie, for the lively, outdoor beer gardens on those unusual balmy summer evenings (no longer), and on my latest visit, to explore Hampstead Heath and get a breath of fresh air.

West Hampstead, however, I’d never been to. Until last week to visit a friend who had just moved to the area.

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We went for drinks, and while there were quite a few options just walking from the tube, The Alice House was recommended and the outdoor decking area drew us in. It wasn’t a particularly warm evening, but the heaters did the trick and I’d recommend going before winter really draws on.

We ordered jam-jar cocktails which had spoonfuls of jam in and were very sweet, but that perfectly suited my tastebuds. I had the gin cocktail with Victoria plum jam and a splash of lemonade, followed by the tequila concoction with blackcurrant jam topped with ginger beer. They were very, very good and very easy to drink.

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The place itself is a restaurant-cum-bar, and a mix of modern and tradition. The interior has cool exposed brickwork and little light bulbs hanging from the ceiling that reminded me of fireflies, but also old wooden flooring and comfy leather chairs. The clientele was slightly older and quite sophisticated, in keeping with the area, but it still felt pretty relaxed and just what we wanted for a quiet night.

The details:

Location: 283 West End Lane, West Hampstead tube.

Opening times: Mon-Thurs, 9am-11:30pm. Fri-Sat, 9:30am-1pm. Sun, 9:30am-11pm.

Prices: cocktails from £6.75.

For the drinks menu, click here.

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Side step: cocktails and stand-up comedy at Simmons

9 Sep

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King’s Cross used to be an area you passed through, but in the past few months its seen a massive rejuvenation and has become a destination in itself.

While new haunts like Plum & Spilt Milk have arrived on the dining scene, and old gems like Shrimpy’s Bar pop up during the summer, there are a few rough-around-the-edges places that still have that distinctive, original King’s Cross feel about them.

Simmons Bar could be classified as one of them. We went on a Tuesday night as they do free stand-up comedy in the very dark basement, but that won’t stop you from being singled out and picked on…particularly if you arrive late.

The comedy is open to everyone and I’m going to skim over the quality in keeping with the purpose of my blog (things worth doing). As it’s open to everyone, it can be a little hit and miss (quite a bit of toilet humour in one act), and most of the audience seemed to be part of an amateur comedian gang.

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So why you SHOULD GO… the cocktails come in retro tea pots, so you don’t feel that guilty for having cup after cup on a Tuesday night when they’re served out of something from granny’s kitchen. The bar also has an impressively long happy hour until 9pm on most days, including Friday, and drinks are a steal.

Simmons itself is very quirky and has mismatched decorations that all add to the retro charm – wooden school desks complete with graffiti, bunting and royal memorabilia hanging on the walls (including a photograph of Prince Charles and Diana), lampshades of all shapes and sizes lined up in no particular order, comic book strips that double up as wallpaper… oh, and you can’t miss the massive diamante disco skull that twirls from the ceiling in the middle of the room.

The music doesn’t particularly match the setting, of course, but does take you back to the 90s. Expect tunes from Shaggy, Sean Paul and the like.

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The details:

Location: 32 Caledonian Road, King’s Cross tube.

Opening times: Thurs-Sat, 4pm-3am. Sun-Wed, 4pm-midnight.

Happy hour 4pm-9pm, Sun-Fri.

Prices at this happy time: Beers, wines, spirits from £2.50. Two cocktails for £10. Tea pot cocktails for £15.

To visit the website, click here.

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Step Nineteen: all-day drinking at rooftop bar, Frank’s Cafe

18 Jul

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The legendary Frank’s Cafe is back for summer, and it isn’t just any old rooftop bar.

Six levels up a disused multi-storey car park you’ll find Peckham’s famous watering hole which offers some of the best panoramic views of London.

The surrounding area may not be pretty to look at, but the city’s skyline with iconic landmarks like the Shard, the Eye, the Gherkin and more, looking romantically dusky at sunset, make the trek to Peckham worthwhile.

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Given the nature of the space, there’s room for hundreds of people to stand, sit and drink comfortably without getting all hot and bothered.

The bar area does get busy though – you’ll probably have to wait around half an hour for drinks as we did, and the beer did temporarily run out at one point, but be patient.

Wooden tables and benches line the bar where you can have snacks like olives, hummus, barbecued plantain, or for the more adventurous, ox heart kebabs.

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If you want a comfortable seat, arrive early, but if you’re happy to sit on the ground as most people do, there’s a lot of space to choose from.

The decoration is minimal – a random car parked in the middle and a colourful sunglasses display in another area, but you’re really going for the 360 degree view of London.

Frank’s Cafe is open all day (day drinking, yes please), and I’d suggest arriving before 6pm to avoid the queue to get in, especially on these roasty weekends.

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The details:

Location: 95a Rye Lane, Peckham Rye overground.

Opening times: Wed-Sun, 11am-11pm.

Prices: average £4 a beer/cider/glass of wine. Food from £3.

Just opened and here to stay until the end of summer.

For the menu, click here.

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Step Thirteen: ahoy matey! Try these fish and chips

27 Mar

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There isn’t really much reason to go down an alleyway behind Holborn tube station, on a weekend when you’re not in the area for work, and when it’s blisteringly blizzard-like outside.

But as my parents were in town, which happens about once every two years, and wanted to go for “a real pub laaanch” and “good feesh and cheeps”, we decided to take them to The Ship Tavern.

The pub downstairs is usually rammed, especially on week nights. But upstairs the Oak Room dining room gives you more room to breathe.

The pub and restaurant combo has been around since 1549 and true to its name, it definitely feels like you’re in a ship’s tavern. The place is full of history and character. The restaurant has dark wood furnishing, old, rusty candlesticks, a crackling fireplace, glass lamps and red, quilted booths. And with the snow pounding outside it felt like we were hibernating away in the middle of a storm at sea.

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The fish and chips were exactly what we were after. The fish was cooked in ‘1549’ real ale batter but didn’t taste too greasy, and the tartar sauce had the right amount of zangy-ness. Warning: the portions are massive, none of us could finish.

For the rest of the menu, click here. But you can also order from the Saturday and Sunday brunch menus.

The details:

Location: 12 Gate Street, Holborn tube

Opening times: Mon-Wed 11am-11pm; Thurs-Fri 11am-midnight; Sat-Sun noon-10pm

Call 020 7405 1992 or visit their website here to book.

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Step Nine: cook your own steak on a hot volcanic rock

9 Feb

Usually I try to avoid going out in Leicester Square, but Salvador and Amanda’s restaurant is an old favourite that I’ve been meaning to blog about. To enter you snake down the stairs which open up to a red-themed restaurant with low cande light, wooden huts and quirky décor you’d imagine in Salvador Dali’s house.

As a Spanish restaurant, most people go for the tapas and there’s a lot to choose from. You want to pick two or three dishes per person and share between you. I’d definitely recommend the grilled tomato bread drizzled with olive oil, green peppers with sea salt, red tuna carpaccio, king prawns in garlic, mini pan-fried chorizo from Leon and…well, the list goes on. You can’t really order wrong.

This time round though, we scrapped the idea of sharing and looked further down the menu to the Chuletón de Ternera a la Piedra. “Sizzling seared rib-eye steak on the bone, served on a hot volcanic rock” was the description. Did we want juicy, tender, meaty chunks of steak to cook on a sizzling hot-stone slab, on this cold winter’s day? Yes. We were instantly sold. And as you can see from the photo, Salvador’s didn’t disappoint.

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It’s a restaurant that’s pretty flexible depending on your needs. Apart from dining for tapas and the sizzling steak, another selling point is their Happy Hour till 8pm, where house wine is £10 a bottle. On Tuesdays they have “Flamenco night” where you can watch flamenco dancers and guitar players. And on weekends you can bop round the back to cheesy and mainstream music on their small but inviting dance floor.

I’d recommend booking a table beforehand as it gets busy quickly, and if you’ve got a Tastecard they do 50% off food on weekdays.

To check out their menu, click here. And to visit their new branch that’s just opened in Bloomsbury, click here.

The details:

Location: 8 Great Newport Street, tube Leicester Square.

Opening times: Monday-Saturday, 5pm-2/3am

Price: tapas from around £5-10, steak for £13.50

Step Six: where to dine at 3am with a view of London

13 Nov

Are you an early bird or a night owl? At Duck and Waffle, it doesn’t matter.

The restaurant and bar are open 24/7, so you can go first thing in the morning for breakfast, during the afternoon for cocktails at sunset, or for drunken-dining after a night out.

But that isn’t the best thing . To get to Duck and Waffle, you zoom up to the 40th floor of Heron Tower, and dine with a sky-high view. Like the Gods.

We went for breakfast and as I’m not a massive duck fan, I steered clear of the eponymous signature dish and went for the safe nutella and banana waffles. My sister ordered the beans on toast, again pretty standard (a.k.a. boring), I thought. But the restaurant works on an eclectic ethos. They added bacon jam to the beans, inventively mixing sweet and savoury, and cooked the waffles deliciously soft and glazed the bananas in honey.

Check out the results. Beautiful. Almost unrecognizable.

Considering the location and kick-ass view of the gherkin, the menu is surprisingly good-value with breakfast ranging from £6 -15. Cocktails and drinks are a bit more, but you won’t be shooed away at midnight. During the day they serve sharing platters and main dishes such as mussels and rib-eye steak.

For the various menus, visit their website here.

The details:

Location: 40th floor, Heron Tower, near Liverpool Street tube station.

Opening times: 24/7

Booking in advance necessary.

Side step: a tipi on a rooftop called WigWamBam

10 Nov

Winter warmers: hot buttered rum and spiced mulled cider

The name of this pop-up may be memorable, but the idea behind the WigWamBam bar is even more of a gimmick: a bar inside a tipi, on a Shoreditch rooftop.

After climbing quite a few flights of stairs in the Queen of Hoxton, you’ll reach not just any old rooftop, but the entrance to a tipi. Venture inside and the scene you’re faced with is fairly Pocahontas-esque: smoke billowing around and upwards out of the tipi, and a massive grill cooking burgers, sausages and meaty legs and loins.

Each day offers a different meat but it’ll either be lamb, pork, venison or wild boar. I didn’t eat but the food did look pretty good.

What I can definitely vouch for were the winter warmers. At £4.50 each, you can warm yourself up with a spiced mulled cider, a hot toddy, a hot fudge toddy or a hot buttered rum. I went for the rum and yes I did see a few pools of melted butter floating around my drink, but that just added to the deliciously creamy and festive taste.

Word of warning, the tipi does get packed quickly so arrive early or be content standing. Or, head to the outdoor deck where you can sit round a campfire and toast marshmallows under the stars, and of course make use of the outdoor bar.

WigWamBam pop-up is here until March 2013 and hosts one-off events like Bonfire night, hence the sparklers. Find the detailed programme on their Facebook page by clicking here.

Location: Queen of Hoxton, 1-5 Curtain Road.

Opening times: Monday-Saturday, 5pm-10pm.

Side step: Detective Peel, help! I’ve lost my Nimbus 3000

6 Nov

Secret bars are all over London and have eclipsed standard watering holes. The problem is that everyone wants to be the trend-setter, the one to introduce the rest of the gang to ‘this really cool, like, secret bar,’ that it no longer remains a secret.

Well I’m no different and although their first rule is the value of secrecy, I’m not going to be hush-hush about this one. Because let’s face facts, they want business at the end of the day.

Evans and Peel Detective Agency is so plain from the outside you’d easily walk past it. When we arrived we rang the bell and were greeted by a bark through the intercom: ‘Sorry who is this? What do you want? Are you sure you’ve got the right place?’ My sister had booked the table as required, and after giving her name we were buzzed in and walked down some shady steps.

The setting was properly old-school, and a lady in a big fur coat and thick-rimmed glasses sat at an old wooden desk. We shuffled in and stood awkwardly in a line in front of her. She was great at keeping in character, very stern and Trunchbull-like, which I wasn’t expecting at all so was just utterly confused at her bizarre customer service.

Bearing in mind that none of us knew what was going on, the conversation went something like this:

Trunchbull: ‘So why are you here again? What exactly have you lost?’

Sister: ‘My Nimbus 3000.’

Trunchbull: ‘And when did you last see it?’

Sister: ‘Last weekend, I think?’

Heej: (keen to get in on the role-play) ‘No, no I saw it a few days ago.’

Trunchbull: ‘And what colour is it?’

Heej: (clearly doesn’t know what a Nimbus 3000 is) ‘It’s turquoise and stripey and really long.’

Trunchbull: (leaping up and point-shouting at Rory) ‘And how do you think your Nimbus 3000 FEEEELS?’

Rory: ‘Ummm, pretty sad and lonely I guess.’

Trunchbull: (sitting back down again) ‘Yes, I’d expect so. Well let’s see if Detective Peel can take your case. Which door do you think he’s behind?’

There were a couple of doors and a bookcase. Obviously he was behind the secret swivel bookcase! (And obviously he doesn’t exist). We were led through to the ‘secret’ bar, prohibition-style, to a crowd of normal people totally at ease enjoying their cocktails, although I was still a little bewildered at the whole charade.

Trunchbull: (handing us menus and showing us our table) ‘These are your case studies. Please read them carefully before seeing the Detective.’

The first page clearly states the rules: the value of secrecy, ordering food with your drinks and most importantly, wait to be escorted out and leave the premises quietly as it is a ‘secret’ establishment.

The cocktail list isn’t that extensive, but they are creative and very good. Average price is £9.50 although you can order wine and beer too. For this part of town it’s regular price but what makes this ‘secret’ bar different is you’re paying for the whole acting experience at the start, which is so odd but so funny. Hats off to the Trunchbull, she played her part well.

Location: Ssshhhh, it’s a secret! Find it easily on Google – I’m going to make you work a bit this time.

Reservation: Booking online in advance is mandatory. You’ll have to give your name and ‘case study’ i.e. something you’ve lost. Oh of course, my stripey, turquoise Nimbus 3000!

Step Three: drink your way through London Cocktail Week

11 Oct

Seven days dedicated to quality booze, that’s what London Cocktail Week is all about.

Head down to Seven Dials where tastings, master classes, pop-up shops and cocktail parties have flooded the capital’s streets. Events run throughout the day in hotels, restaurants and bars and while some venues are ticketed, others are free to enter.

For the full list of events, click here.

There’s more on offer at the weekend, in particular the Rumfest at ExCel, ‘the world’s largest festival dedicated to the celebration of rum and rum culture’.

If you buy a LCW wristband from the pop-up shop at 15 Shorts Gardens, you can enjoy £4 cocktails at selected bars that have concocted drinks especially for the week.

On the Wednesday, I indulged in Tanqueray’s ‘Afternoon Tea’ in Shoreditch. It was, as you’d guess, a gin-themed afternoon that involved gin tastings, gin punch, gin cupcakes and even blending your own G&T with anything from rose to ginseng leaves.

The tastings were broken up with brief and entertaining talks on the history of gin.