Describing London is a tricky proposition, largely because there are actually dozens of little Londons within the city limits, each shaped by its own cultural and communal quirks, and each subject to the city’s rat-a-tat approach to urban renewal. There can be few places on Earth with a more fluid sense of self. This fact is highlighted by our five locals, each of whom has a vastly different take on what makes their town a special place. As one of them tells us, even the layout of this ancient metropolis was a matter of chance rather than logic, which is why its hypermodern skyline looks like something that’s been tipped out of a bag.
Ben Bailey Smith, 41
Rapper, comedian, actor
In a recent webchat hosted by The Guardian newspaper, Ben Bailey Smith received lots of questions about show business, but none about the impact the 17th-century architect Christopher Wren had on modern London— which is too bad, as Smith has plenty to say on such matters, as in: “Without Wren, there is no modern London.” Smith, aka Doc Brown, has had a nomadic career—as a rapper, actor, comedian and children’s author. In real life, too, he is a wanderer. To celebrate his wedding anniversary a few years ago, he took his wife for a stroll along the Thames. “I’m a super geek about London,” he says. “Luckily, my wife is a bigger nerd than I am. Otherwise, I don’t think I’d have gotten away with: ‘Happy anniversary—let’s go for a walk!’” One of three children (his sister is the author Zadie Smith), Smith was born into a mixed-race family in northwest London. He spent much of his adult life in Hackney, so is no stranger to the hipster haunts of that area, but we won’t be going there today. Instead, we meet near the Tower of London, at St. Dunstan in the East, a memorial garden set in the ruins of a 17th-century church.
“This is my favorite place in London,” Smith says over the tinkle of a small fountain. “Somehow, out of respect, the plants grew to block out the noise. It’s where I come to clear my head.” Above us stands a Wren church tower, which survived a World War II bombing raid, and behind this the “Walkie Talkie,” a new skyscraper that’s often derided as an eyesore. “London is always going to grow and change,” Smith says of the building.
“People talk about tradition, but that is the tradition. London gets bombed, it gets rebuilt. It burns down, it gets rebuilt. You can’t keep this city still.”
We cross London Bridge towards Borough Market, an eating-and-drinking hotspot that’s been here for a thousand years, then head east along the river. At Hay’s Galleria—an old enclosed dock that now houses shops and restaurants—we stop to gaze at the huddle of high-rises across the Thames. The best observation I can muster is that it all looks a bit random compared to somewhere like Manhattan, but Smith—while following the same line—has a more thoughtful take.
He starts with Cheapside and Leadenhall, the city’s medieval markets. “For the traders, the real work started at the end of the day,” he says. “If you lived outside the city, good luck getting your money home in a cart. Those journeys wore the grass down to muddy paths, and these were eventually paved over. That’s why the layout makes no sense—it’s the result of people going home the best way they knew how. New York has a grid system, but London is built on the fact that this route suited Brian 800 years ago.”
We continue past Tower Bridge and into Shad Thames, with its beautifully restored Victorian warehouses and docks, the alleys between them crisscrossed with elevated iron walkways. “Look at that little bridge, these nooks and crannies,” Smith says. “This is my world right here.”
Our final stop is The Mayflower in Rotherhithe, one of the historical pubs dotting the waterfront here. Beyond the pub’s cozy interior is a back deck, which overlooks the landing steps descended by the Pilgrims as they set sail for the New World. “London is expensive and noisy, and people often ask me why I don’t live somewhere easier,” Smith says, looking out over the broad river. “But where else can you have a proper modern metropolis and yet so much history? Where else am I going to get all this?”
Poppy Chancellor, 31
It’s possible that there’s a Poppy Chancellor artwork hanging at Buckingham Palace, due to the fact that Queen Elizabeth II owns one. Chancellor—whose funky designs have revived the age-old art of papercutting to the point where she recently created a mural in edgy Shoreditch—reveals her unlikely royal connection over a burger at The Electric Diner, on Portobello Road in West London. She kind of hopes the commission ended up in a regal loo, she says, adding, “Heh.”
Chancellor grew up in nearby Shepherd’s Bush, and has been coming to Portobello since she was a kid, tagging along with her parents—the actor Anna Chancellor and the poet Jock Scot—who were part of the area’s close-knit creative community. She recalls doing screechy impersonations of the peacocks in nearby Holland Park, an activity that would invariably result in a visit to The Grain Shop, a takeout spot that has been in operation for decades. “If I was being difficult, my mum would get me cheesy pasta there and I’d calm down,” she says.
The Electric Diner—along with the century-old Electric Cinema next door—is run by the superhip Soho House group, which points to a wider change in the area. While you’ll still find plenty of old-school businesses here, there is also a growing legion of glossy cocktail bars, gastropubs and restaurants. For Chancellor, this is all part of the neighborhood’s rich pageant. “Everything comes together here,” she says.
“You can get food, go to the pub and buy your clothes right next door. You literally never have to leave Portobello Road.”
Certainly, the essence hasn’t changed. Portobello is still the only place in London where, within the space of a block, you can pick up a Louis XV mantel clock and a yam, serenaded by an a capella quartet performing Devo’s “Whip It.” The old energy is here, fueled as ever by the ethnic mix—Moroccan, Portuguese, Caribbean—but also by the clamor of commerce on the milelong market.
“There’s something about the place—the shouting, the smells— that I love,” Chancellor says as we stroll past stalls selling cricket balls, door knockers, fossils and hand-drawn inspirational posters. “I was brought up doing this. It’s what my mum and I did on weekends. I remember stopping at a stall selling glass jewelry and asking her if I would own a diamond one day and she said, ‘I’ll get you one now!’ Those are special memories.” She gestures at the crowd. “Look: You have kids going home from school and fashionistas in their 80s. It’s amazing.”
Chancellor’s thing with her dad, who died in 2016, was to stop by the Rough Trade record shop. “He’d bring me in to stop me listening to Britney Spears,” she says. “Everyone knew each other. I remember when my dad passed away, I went in and asked if they’d let everyone know. It’s that kind of place.” We enter the shop, whose walls are decked with posters for prog rockers and punk bands, to find the clerk discussing Boz Scaggs with a customer: “Now that was definitive ’70s music.”
Our next stop is One of a Kind, a storied vintage clothing store that Chancellor—who has an exuberant sense of style—adores. “It’s like a museum,” she says. “I come in here to be in awe.” She whirls around grabbing items from the racks: “Leggings with feathers on the end! Ooh, a red bodice!” She also enjoys rooting among the jumbled garments at Portobello’s edgier northern end, next to the street-food market. “The guys lay their stuff out and I become obsessed. I love scavenging.”
Finally, we come to The Grain Shop and Chancellor stops to peer through the window. “Oh! That man’s getting the cheesy pasta! She’s spooning it in! I can’t look!” She runs inside to discuss the matter with the elderly woman behind the counter: “I’ve been eating your cheesy pasta for 30 years!” The woman smiles and replies, “You don’t look old enough. Must be the pasta.”
Ryan Chetiyawardana, 34
Bartender and nightlife impresario
Ryan Chetiyawardana, aka Mr. Lyan, has only lived in London for nine years, but he has made his mark. He opened his first bar, White Lyan, in Shoreditch in 2013, and followed this a year later with the Thames-side bar Dandelyan. Both have since won a slew of awards, but Chetiyawardana seems unmoved by the name recognition a “World’s Best” will get you. His White Lyan is now called Super Lyan, and Dandelyan is being reopened this month as Lyaness. The question is: Why?
“I’m a big fan of being scared,” Chetiyawardana says from a mustard-colored booth at Cub, a cocktail bar-restaurant he opened in 2017 next door to Super Lyan. It was this adventurous streak, in fact, that first brought him to the East End. “Back then, the people we get in now might not have come to this area,” he says. “It was raw, and there was an idea that it was dangerous. There’s a fine line between edgy and stabby.”
Today, the area, and Shoreditch in particular, gets slated for being a little too popular, due to a flurry of hip new restaurants, bars and clubs, along with galleries, fashion retailers, design studios and boutique hotels. “It has become more mainstream,” Chetiyawardana allows, “but there are still a lot of eyes on this side of town looking for trends and new ideas. We have maintained that edge.
We’re not trying to be Mayfair.” With this, he leads me outside onto streets that, even on a Tuesday evening, are heaving with people.
The thing that first distinguished the eateries that opened here, Chetiyawardana says, was a willingness to buck convention. “Fine dining is meant to conform to certain principles, but places like The Clove Club challenged that.” Clove Club waiters, for example, do not rush to the table to top off wine glasses (it’s DIY), while the pared-back decor calls to mind a smart canteen rather than a high-end restaurant. This spirit endures, Chetiyawardana says, in new spots like Mãos, from Michelin-starred chef Nuno Mendes, where diners sit around a stark communal table, or eat in the kitchen.
The sheer variety of restaurants, too, sets the area apart. “You’ve got the Smoking Goat [regional Thai food] next to Brat [Basque]. You have Rochelle Canteen, which serves classic British dishes revived in a wonderful way, and Two Lights, which does playful takes on American food. Then you have the curry houses and bagel shops on Brick Lane. It’s just this incredible cross section of London life.”
We end the night at The Clove Club, where we get a procession of small dishes—tart of Cornish spider crab, Scottish-style pork tacos— along with several equally inventive cocktails. “These guys opened the same time I did,” Chetiyawardana says. “We were this band of oddballs trying to do something different, and out of that something beautiful emerged.”
Ravinder Bhogal, 38
Chef, author, restaurateur
The menu at Jikoni isn’t easy to pin down. “People think it’s going to be crazy fusion food, but it isn’t—it’s about influence,” says chef-owner Ravinder Bhogal, watching as I spoon beetroot chutney onto a venison samosa. Born in Kenya to Indian parents, Bhogal grew up in southeast London, and her food is indebted to all three cultures—along with the stuff her mother used to make. “She was a fabulous cook, and she would get almost jealous if we ate out,” she says. “She felt she could do it better, and she probably could.”
Jikoni opened in Marylebone in 2016, and garnered immediate critical acclaim. Bhogal had already made a name for herself by then—as an award-winning cookbook author, TV presenter and instigator of several foodie pop-ups around London. A former fashion journalist, she had no formal training as a chef, and attributes her success to the fact that “I love eating.”
Though it took Bhogal two years to find a site in the area, there wasn’t anywhere else she wanted to be. Butting up against frenetically fashionable Soho, Marylebone provides a small pocket of peace and civility amid the clamor. Its streets are lined with lovely Georgian houses, but it lacks the moneyed swagger of nearby Mayfair and Fitzrovia.
“There’s a wonderful community spirit,” Bhogal says. “It has this village feel.”
This is not to say that there is a lack of energy here. Marylebone High Street is peppered with cool and colorful shops, including a Conran Shop, a Paul Smith boutique and Daunt Books, an oaklined Edwardian store with a huge travel section. “This is the shop where I spend the most time,” Bhogal says. “It makes me believe in bookshops, and books.”
Then there’s the outsized food scene. Just steps from Jikoni, you can go modern British at Roganic, global fusion at Providores, Mediterranean at Blandford Comptoir, organic at Daylesford, Japanese-with-a-twist at Dinings, and pretty-much-anything at Carousel, which hosts an ever-revolving roster of global chefs. “It’s everything from Italian to Buddhist monk food,” Bhogal says. “This week they’re doing Mexican vegan.”
Top of the heap is Chiltern Firehouse, Nuno Mendes’ fabled eatery attached to the hotel of the same name. Even this rarefied spot, though, has hooked into the local spirit. “They’ve been wonderful with me,” Bhogal says. “I’ve had so many guests come in and say the Chiltern sent them.”
Walking over to the restaurant for a drink, we stop at La Fromagerie, a produce shop whose cheese selection has risen to the status of celebrity. “I come in here just for inspiration and usually walk out much poorer—I can’t help myself,” Bhogal says while fondling an enormous lemon. She points to a glasswalled cheese room in the corner. “This is the inner sanctum. They have a truffle brie I would die for.”
Finally, we settle at the Chiltern’s elegant bar and talk returns to the village-y feel of Marylebone, which dovetails so nicely with Bhogal’s approach to running a restaurant. “We get to know our guests,” she says. “It’s like feeding friends.” And here, once again, you can see the influence of her mother.
“Cooking was her way to garner love and attention,” Bhogal says. “But you also have to love looking after people. The word ‘restaurant’ comes from the French for ‘restore,’ and we live by that. People sometimes come in looking stiff and gruff, then I watch them eat the food and relax. That is the most joyful thing.”
Deyan Sudjic, 66
Director of The Design Museum
Twenty years ago, Kings Cross was a destination only inasmuch as it contained two of London’s busiest rail terminals. Back then, the area was rough and dirty, and those who passed through tended to do so quickly. Towering above it all was the Midland Grand Hotel, a vast amalgam of turrets and spires, coated by “dust and pigeon [poop],” in the words of Deyan Sudjic, one of Britain’s foremost authorities on design.
Sudjic is speaking over a pinot noir at the Gilbert Scott restaurant, one of the smart venues in the once-derelict building, now the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel. The hotel opened in 2011, after a restoration project that not only saved one of the world’s great Gothic Revival buildings, but also helped revive Kings Cross. “Look at the love and effort that has been put into this,” Sudjic says, nodding at a gilt-edged arch. “This entire hotel was a labor of love.”
Sudjic, whose parents came from the former Yugoslavia, grew up in West London, at a time when the city was still rebuilding after World War II—just one of the transformative episodes in its 2,000-year history.
“One thing I like about London is the layering, brought about by countless changes,” he says. “I find that fascinating.”
Since 2006, Sudjic has overseen the hugely popular Design Museum, which in 2016 moved from its original premises, a former banana warehouse in Shad Thames, to larger digs in Kensington. He describes the old waterfront location as “a wasteland, with wild dogs on the street and the smell of spices in the air,” but he doesn’t mean this in a negative way. For him, the juxtaposition of old and new, genteel and tatty, is a thing of beauty.
Today, Sudjic lives in Camden Town, which is known for its teeming, trendy markets. His favorite London walk, he says, starts here (“amid the tattoo parlors and police helicopters”) and cuts through Regent’s Park (“the most sublime urban park anywhere”), before ending up on the streets designed by Regency architect John Nash. “I love the transition into all this splendor,” he says.
Kings Cross, subject to a renewal project that has restored treasures like the Great Northern Hotel, is a vivid example of the layering Sudjic enjoys. As we head from the Renaissance into the adjoining St. Pancras Station, he gazes up at the iron-fretted glass roof, which arcs 100 feet overhead. “There’s an extraordinary collision of architecture here,” he says. “It’s a wonderful way to enter the city.”
The latest development is the Granary Square and Coal Drops Yard complex, whose handsomely aged buildings once processed the coal that was delivered by barge on the Regent’s Canal. Today, the Victorian arches and warehouses house swanky retailers and indie galleries, along with destination eateries like the Coal Office, Sudjic’s local favorite—along with Caravan, a global-fusion spot, and Dishoom, which is inspired by ‘60s-era cafés in Bombay.
As dusk sets in, we pass an expanse of illuminated, synchronized fountains. Sudjic barely looks at these, but seems transfixed by an archway that leads to the murky canal. “You don’t want a place like this to be too squeaky clean,” he says, squinting into the gloom. “You don’t want things to be too perfect.”