This is my final London post based on my recent month-long holiday. I’d like to thank the authors of the fabulous London food blogs, whose reviews were fundamental to my wonderful experiences there. Their guidance was accurate and influential. I’d also like to thank some hyperlocal bloggers whose sites helped me choose where to stay and which areas to explore by foot. I recommend reading Spitalfields life, Fitzrovia news, Greenwich and London voices.
The rest of this post is about random observations. For example, the supply of chocolate in supermarkets. In my opinion, Tesco’s stocks better chocolate than Sainsbury’s. Travellers need to know this! Public space, or private space used as public space, is so different – buildings like cinemas don’t have foyers to wait in – you have stand out in the street. Space is at such a premium your comfort is not worth the rent.
And the curious case of buying condoms. I went into a Boots pharmacy to buy basics I had not brought with me – a razor, shaving cream, toothpaste, mouthwash and condoms. When I read the receipt later each was listed except the condoms, which were described as ‘chemist goods’. Why? Do they think the only people buying condoms are having affairs and must want to hide the evidence?
One thing you notice quickly on arrival in London is how clean a city it is. Staff are out sweeping the streets at all hours and street sweeping machines are driving around everywhere. Because of the pervasive CCTV, there’s almost no tagging or street art in the central London area. The walls are clean, the streets are clean and businesses seem to put their rubbish out neatly for collection. Compared to the dirty streets of Paris, for example, which seem covered in dog shit, London is impeccably clean: possibly even cleaner than central Melbourne.
One thing I found confusing about London restaurants is being able to determine whether a restaurant is part of a chain or an individual business. I usually avoid chains. Despite this I had a good cheap Thai dinner one night at Thai Metro in Fitzrovia, which looks like a chain but isn’t. Conversely, I had a good mid-price dinner another night at Med Kitchen, just off the Kensington High St, which looked nothing like a chain yet is one of four branches of this restaurant. It may be the case that the difference between the two is not as significant or as predictable in the UK as it is in Australia.
The higher up the imaginary scale of restaurant status you go, the stranger things get. From the absurd demand for a service charge on the bill for a single cup of coffee at Troupadour cafe in Earl’s Court to classy gastropubs and restaurants like the Harwood Arms in Fulham and Kitchen W8 in Kensington, the 12.5% service (albeit voluntary) is a standard feature on the bill. It appears designed with the English psychology in mind – less than thrilled diners are likely to avoid confrontation, pay it and grumble later.
I thought everywhere charging more than about £15 for a meal add it to the bill, but it is not as simple as that. Two examples altered my expectations of London restaurants: Launceston Place and 32 Great Queen St were just as sophisticated as those that added the charge to the bill, but were less pretentious, and did not assume I wanted to tip them. They allowed me to choose for myself, provided great service, and that made me feel like I wanted to.
Surplus attitude is a big problem. So many service businesses think they deserve more than what they make an effort to earn. At a trendy Vietnamese place called Cay Tre in Shoreditch, the waiter brought my main before I had finished my entree, then left my empty entree plate on my table while I ate my main. The bill (including the 12.5% service charge) came to £20.81.
I pulled out a £20 and gave it to him. He protested that I was not paying the full bill, and I replied that I was not paying the full service charge. He had done nothing to earn it and had treated me poorly. The look on his face! He wanted to hit me, or spit on me or something. You don’t get that in Melbourne. You might get gen Y laziness and indifference, but I can’t remember facing open hostility and such an undeserving sense of entitlement.
London makes you work hard as a visitor to enjoy the city, but I found making an effort in London was richly rewarded.