At some point in anyone’s fabulous life, one MUST make a pilgrimage to London’s West End. Chock full of shops, eateries, theaters, and of course bars and clubs, the West End can offer an amazing cultural experience to anyone from any walk of life. One night, as I adopted a fake British accent to eschew a suitor at a bar, it dawned on me that while I profess to adore London, I had never actually BEEN there! My whole life I had indulged myself in Brit culture only from the safety and convenience of my tiny New York “flat”, telling myself “I LOVE LONDON!” but never actually experiencing it for myself.
Well I don’t know if it was my unwitting reveal as a fraudulent Brit (turns out you can’t fool actual Londoners with a faux-Cockney accent, gov’na), or just a quarter-life epiphany, but I had to experience London for myself, as a proud gay man. And let me tell you – they really know how to treat you well across the pond!
First of all, the journey across the Atlantic was not your typical hop, skip and a jump. I had heard so much about British Airways and their high standard of service that I was excited to try it out for myself. Not only did my seat fold out into a full bed (!), but after being offered glass after glass of Sancerre and bags upon bags of nuts and sundry treats (warm cookies!), I was just about ready to catch a wink in my little personal pod.
The 6-hour flight went by like a breeze, and I’m glad they made it so comfortable, because I certainly needed the sleep on the red eye if I was to be able to stay awake for my trip! The flight attendants were friendly and very accommodating, and let me take this opportunity to publicly apologize for asking for seconds on everything. (Side note: on the way back, I was so wired that I couldn’t sleep and instead took full advantage of the Video On Demand service with my own personal TV and remote).
Definitely check out the new renovation of British Airways’ Terminal 5 in London – who knew you could get massages and facials in an airport?! It’s really a beautiful space and there’s no nicer terminal I’ve ever seen.
After my arrival at Heathrow, I was ready to drop off my bags and check into my hotel. I wanted to be right in the middle of the West End, because I had done my research and knew that it was situated right in the midst of the best shopping and nightlife. My hotel was right at the top of Regent St – the Langham. Judging from their website, I was prepared for the gorgeous architecture and entryway; what I was not prepared for was the exceptional service! I arrived in my room and there was a fruit bowl that seemed to replenish itself whenever I left the room. The bathtub was HEAVENLY (I spent an inordinate amount of time both in the bathtub and the King-sized bed, both of which made me not want to leave the room at all). While the Langham offered me unparalleled lodging and food (5 restaurants in the hotel alone!), my mission was to explore the city, so I left my little chamber of opulence and set out to start my journey on the streets.
First stop was Paxton and Whitfield, a world famous cheese shop with 130-200 different cheeses in stock at any given time. For a cheese shop, the place didn’t smell bad – but some of the cheeses did! In particular, I tried one called “Stinky Bishop”, which even the cheese monger admitted smelled like gym socks, but tasted rather unlike a gym sock. I much preferred the more traditional Montgomery Cheddar, but there is a cheese for everyone there (the royal Queen’s palate is probably a bit more refined than this Queen’s). Cheeses are also available to order by mail online all year, especially during the holidays.
Next stop was the incomparable Fortnum & Mason. You’re probably seen their famous teas scattered around at various speciality shops, but in this original location (they were founded there in 1707 to sell tea), they had more tea than I could fathom ever drinking. Their goal is to be the place where you can find things that you won’t find anywhere else – things like Rose Petal Jelly, or custom robin’s-egg-blue Hunter boots (which I desperately wanted but could not fit in my bag home). For me, the highlight of Fortum & Mason was the ice cream parlor on the second floor – such a cute little area and the ice cream was to die for. The whole place is like stepping into a quirky little boutique, but large and multi-floored.
Lunchtime! For a nice bite, I went to this beautifully modern and artistic restaurant called Sketch. Not only is this a great little lunch place, but it transforms into a nightclub with video-lined walls. One of the best parts of it is the bathroom area – each individual stall is in an egg-shaped pod. Kind of indescribable – think Mork and Mindy meets Sleeper meets… a bathroom? It’s worth it to go just to use the loo!
After a rejuvenating lunch (and champagne, oy!), I headed to Selfridges. This is a department store unlike any department store I have ever visited. It constitutes 6 floors of clothing with 20 restaurants, a concept store, a museum and even a dentist! This brings me to an important point: shopping in London is not an in-and-out kind of experience; you can spend an entire day in a store like Selfridges and not experience the whole store. There is truly something for everyone – from inexpensive to million-dollar jewelry and a VIP personal shopping area. Even the coat racks in this store are artful! I walked out of the store in a daze because I could barely grasp the enormity of the gargantuan store and experience I had just walked through.
I was thoroughly exhausted from my first day of shopping, but I could not let the evening end without attending a West End theater production. What better show to see than Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, here made into a full-fledged musical with hundreds of costumes and no shortage of heels. Anyone who has seen the 1994 movie will understand that this show is ALL about camp and over-indulgence. “Priscilla” refers not to one of the drag queens but to the BUS they take on a road trip, and on this show, they actually have a full-sized bus onstage, replete with moving wheels and a cut-out side to see the interior. It is truly an amazing production and if you’re looking for a really GAY time, look no further. (And actually, you could even join the hardcore fans and dress up in drag to see the performance, which would make the experience that much more meaningful)
Day two: I’m ready for more shopping! I started at Alfred Dunhill – now they DO have a Dunhill store in New York where I live, but this was no normal store, this was one of the 4 “Dunhill Homes” in the world (the other 3 are in Asia). This establishment contained not only the retail space, but also a Gentlemen’s Club with a movie theater, humidor, salad bar, barber and a “Discovery Room” where they sold some interesting items such as surfboards and custom leather goods. Built in 1793, the store was a picture of old-world luxury – classic styles but with a modern and new feel. As it was explained to me, this Dunhill Home was “an oasis of calm in the middle of Mayfair”. If I had more time, I would have loved to watch a movie in the theater, but I had other stores to visit!
I made my way to St. Christopher’s Place, which was a charming little enclave with a fountain and live music. Surrounded by little boutiques and cafes, it was a nice little area to go people watching, or to just relax on a lazy day. I ate lunch at a great restaurant called Carluccio’s. With no pretense, this restaurant was bright, airy and delicious. The pastas were amazing, not to mention the wine.
After stuffing myself full of pasta and wine, I made my way to Regent St. – the “mile of style”. Filled with both chain stores and one-of-a-kind shops, Regent St is home to Hamley’s (huge toy store), an Apple store in a converted temple, and countless name brand shops.
One notable shop I spent a considerable amount of time in was Liberty. Housed in a Mock Tudor façade, I was immediately drawn to what could seem like a typical department store. However, it becomes clear that it is not a typical store – Liberty is committed to discovering and nurturing new designers. This gives it an interesting dichotomy: new designers housed in a mock old-world building.
It was already 5pm, and even though I knew dinner was swiftly approaching, I had to make a stop into Penhaligon’s, the world renowned perfumerie. Walking into this store was a great escape from the hustle and bustle of the busy thoroughfare of Regent St. They pride themselves on using all real essential oils and keeping their signature fragrances the same over time. They also offer a “Fragrance Profiling Appointment” where they will custom-make a fragrance tailored to your own tastes and desires.
My olfactory senses satisfied, I headed to eat dinner at the Argentinian Steakhouse Gaucho on Swallow St, right next to Regent St. They are famous for, not surprisingly, their “grass-fed” steak and other Latin American favorites such as ceviches and sausages. All of the beef comes directly from Argentina (I’m not as sure about the beautiful cow hides lining the walls as decoration, but my best guess would be that they are from Argentina as well!) Not only did I have some of the most delicious and tender steak of my life, but the waitstaff completed the experience by bringing my raw meat out on a cutting board and explained what I’d be eating. It was interesting seeing the cuts of meat they would prepare for my gustatory delight, although I think I preferred eating them to looking at them.
Sufficiently stuffed, I headed down the street a bit to Below Zero, the famous ice bar. The gimmick with this place is that everything is made of ice and it is FREEZING in there. The first sign that you are in for an interesting experience is when they throw a huge fur-lined parka on you with attached gloves to enter the bar. Even the glasses were made of ice! I could only spend about 10 minutes inside there before I felt too cold to function, so I headed back into the “warm” part of the bar, where I finished my night.
After two days shopping and fine dining in London, I was convinced: this city really WAS as amazing as I had been telling everyone. If you get a chance to hop across the pond and experience the West End, take it! And leave plenty of space in your suitcase. And of course, bring plenty of money!
For more information, check out “Visit London” – they have information specifically for gay travelers like us via their new “Only In Gay London!” campaign. There you can find the newest and hottest events, restaurants, bars and general culture-dom in London.
Also, find out what’s going on in the West End specifically from the New West End Company. They’ve got all the best info to guide your shopping and culture pursuits around London’s hottest ‘hood.