“Oh, I love London society,” exclaimed dramatist Oscar Wilde. “It is entirely composed now of beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics. Just what society should be.” Perhaps he should have added—and endless numbers of wonderful places for them to idle away time.
What follows is a whimsical, itinerant list of some of the favourite haunts of India’s rich, from dawn to dusk, and why these places remain an eternal lure.
In keeping with the zeitgeist, the thing to do for the evolved rich Londoner-for-the-summer is to arrive in the morning to a juice bar so enlightened that it even provides meditation pods. The month I was writing this, the author and meditation teacher guiding the meditation process was suitably one-word named—Light. In chic Chiltern Street at Marylebone, the Yeotown Kitchen even encourages customers to experience a moment of mindfulness even as their order is prepared: ‘Breathe in for four, hold for four, and breathe out for four.’ The superfood smoothies are called Generosity (chocolate protein smoothie: almond milk, cacao powder, cashew butter, dates, avocado, lucuma, mushroom complex, maca, cinnamon, and vanilla extract) and Enthusiasm (immunity smoothie: banana, blueberry, turmeric golden blend, goji berries, pineapple, coconut milk, black pepper, dates, and ice). You could also choose a normal, non-superfood smoothie like Grace (strawberry, banana, pineapple, orange blossom, vanilla, coconut milk, and ice) or Sincerity (banana, cacao, avocado, spirulina, peppermint extract, dates, coconut milk, spinach, and ice). Nothing like a reminder of core moral and ethical values along with your morning juice.
If you are a classicist about breakfast, you go to The Wolseley. ‘Piccadilly’s Shining Pearl’ at 160 Piccadilly began as a car showroom, became a bank, and then one of the most iconic breakfast places in a city of iconic breakfast spots. What architect William Curtis Green built as the grand showroom of Wolseley Motors turned out to be a damp squib as the cars didn’t sell that well, and the company went bankrupt. Barclays built an impressive bank branch there until in 2003, Chris Robin and Jeremy King took it over and built London’s first grand café there. From the fine china to the silver cutlery and the starched linen, The Wolseley is that disappearing thing, the quintessential Viennese café. The kind of place where you can have fried haggis with duck eggs in whisky sauce liver or devilled kidneys with crispy bacon for breakfast and gush on the snails in garlic butter. Where coffee, of which there are 13 varieties on offer, comes in a silver jug. Which serves a smoked haddock kedgeree for breakfast. Where one can order a Wolseley Imperial: mandarin napoleon and cognac in long espresso and hot milk topped with chocolate and whipped cream. If you are given a table anywhere near the door, you are, of course, not a regular. The late A.A. Gill, the only food critic worth reading in the last 50 years according to me, wrote a book about breakfast at The Wolseley. Enough said.
Presumably, if you are a regular inhabitant of central London, you know that the thing to do is look out for that slightly out-of-the-ordinary experience and the place. And when you are too lazy to brave the crowds of Piccadilly, then the place to slip into is the Ottolenghi at Motcomb Street in Belgravia. It is tiny, there are no reservations, and the seating arrangement at the back of this mainly takeaway shop is petite. But if you visit enough, you can get the manager to sit with you and curate a personalised breakfast menu from the season’s produce especially for you. Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi brought in the best of Mediterranean food to the London breakfast scene including pools of fresh hummus in even fresher olive oil and shakshuka, eggs baked in tomato sauce. Ottolenghi was Mediterranean modern long before it became fashionable to declare the vegan joys of hummus.
Or if you are Indian and want to taste what the global Indian can do, go try out the buttermilk pancakes of chef Vivek Singh at Riding House Café at Great Titchfield Street near West End. Yes, you read that right: buttermilk. Oh, and by the way, their kedgeree with smoked haddock comes with mango chutney.
Bellamy’s is where the Queen goes out to eat, when she goes out to eat—she came to Bellamy’s in 2006 and 2016, a frequent visitor by queenly standards. The mise en scène is that of an unobtrusive but elegant French brasserie. The table cloths are elegant and white, and no one goes to Bellamy’s to be seen at Bellamy’s. The name, suitably, is borrowed from a club in Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy and is also a pun on the French bel ami, or handsome friend. Eat the oysters with the house white. I do.
You could, of course, go instead to Jean Georges at The Connaught which chef Jean Georges Vongerichten has made one of the must-visits of the London scene, a unique place built with semi-private alcoves for intimacy, and a buzz which means that to be there is to be seen. The black truffle pizza gets lots of press but as a good Bengali, I have loved the salmon crusted with spices (coconut lime infusion with braised fennel), and if you merely feel like pecking, the egg toast caviar of brioche with caviar and herbs is just right. The Connaught is in the heart of Mayfair, so it could be a quick stopover for a bite between shopping or shenanigan-ing.
For quick drinks, there is the Fumoir at the Claridge’s at Mayfair is a perennial hotspot— try the Duchess (Bacardi Heritage, Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto, pomelo sherbet, saline solution, citrus); or if you need waking up, try the Coffee Boulevardier (Michter’s Rye, Antica Formula, Campari, amontillado sherry, coffee diamond).
Since the Michelin-starred Gymkhana shut after a fire, there are three Indian restaurants worth going to in London: Little Kolkata (must be my Bengali bias kicking in) on Shelton Street near Covent Garden, Lucknow 49 at Mayfair (providing the same quick break from the Mayfair gossiping or shopping to grab a bite that Gymkhana used to provide) and Kutir, across the road from the Saatchi art gallery.
At Little Kolkata, I usually ask for the Cashew Phulkopi (crunchy purple cauliflower florets, cashew nut puree, ginger and chilli sauce) followed by the Keema Khichuri (mince lamb, basmati rice and lentils) or the Venison Ghugni Pauruti (spicy venison mince, savoury lentils served with bread). If you are hungry, though, it might make sense to remember that Little Kolkata is a tapas-style restaurant with myriad small plates, so if you want a traditional two- or three-course meal, this may not be the place for you.
With a name like Lucknow 49, naturally the meats are succulent and flavoursome, and the quail dal is to die for, but I really like their Dum Bhindi (okra slow cooked with brown onion and tomato). It also has a fantastic Rasmalai (juicy milk cakes with alphonso mango), and the Aminabadi kulfi comes with the kind of cardamom lashing that I thought was only possible in old Delhi. Dhruv Mittal who runs Lucknow 49 clearly knows his just desserts. At Kutir, the thing to eat is the jackfruit kofta with spinach and the truffle khichdi (I am a truffle lover but if you are not, you can skip this). The guinea fowl biryani is likely to remain with you long after you leave—unless you tucked in a lot of the chocolate-banana dessert made with Valrhona chocolate and chilli.
The reason I am suggesting three options of Indian restaurants for dinner is not only because I love these, or that the audience of this magazine is primarily Indian but because London is one of the great global bastions for the best Indian food. Some would argue that, in fact, the very best Indian food in the world is available in London. Some would argue, even in London, for grander options like Dishoom or Indian Accent, but I believe it is the slightly lesser-known, slightly edgier places where all the non-touristy folks go. And trust me, if you do the touristy things, you are no Londoner— no, not even for the summer.
Two of my most beloved bars that one can slip into after dinner are the impeccable and evergreen Manetta’s and Blakes Below below the very swish Blakes Hotel in South Kensington, which is darker (often literally) and hedonistic than Manetta’s.
Tucked beneath the Flemings hotel in Mayfair and once made famous in the books of Agatha Christie, Manetta’s is a hideout not only for the art and culture elite (as it used to be in the 1930s) but also for spies (as Sarah Helm wrote in A Life in Secrets, “They met at Manetta’s. The kind of place she liked; It was lively but had quiet secluded corners”). There’s even a cocktail that I love there called Atypical Christie (Rémy Martin VSOP cognac, lemon juice, fresh basil, brown sugar and Graham’s 10-year-old port), or you could try another favourite, The Portrait of a Young Man (Woodford Reserve Bourbon, Xante pear liqueur, apple juice, lemon juice, passion fruit purée, fresh passion fruit, and cherry herring).
Blakes Below reminds me of the discotheque kind of bars I first encountered as a schoolboy in Calcutta (what was I doing at such a den of sin as a schoolboy is not the concern of this magazine or this essay). Wrapped in regal purple and burgundy, Blakes Below is the kind of place where you can nurse a single malt all night (meaning for as long as it is open, in this case, 1 a.m.) before a sultry live band. Often described as the hidden secret among stylish bars in London, Blakes Below is one of those places where even guests from the hotel above are charmed enough to pop in and stay the evening.
If you are lucky, you would be able to test out the Wilde theory that a man who can dominate a dinner table (or even a bar chat, maybe) in London can dominate the world.
(This story was originally published in the September 2019 issue of the magazine.)