Old Blighty is always packing something new, making London not only a must-see but must see again-and-again. There’s a good reason Time Out Magazine (http://www.timeout.com/london), gay weekly QX (http://www.qxmagazine.com), and an infinite number of travel books, magazines, and websites require constant updating. To get your latest trip started, here’s a sassy roundup of some of the freshest things to do, see, buy, and stay at in 2010!
Theater-wise, Priscilla Queen of the Desert – The Musical (http://www.priscillathemusical.com) is the number one draw for LGBTQI(add other acronyms here) visitors. Adapted from the hit 1994 Aussie film (which should be on your must list) about a gender-bending trio – specifically, two drag queens and one aging transsexual showgirl – on a road trip from Sydney to an Outback resort, the show recreates almost every iconic moment and costume from the film, and often in clever ways – including the infamous ping-pong ball sequence.
The songs are drawn from both the film’s soundtrack (yep, it’s got CeCe Penison’s “Finally”) and Top 40 hits from retro disco to Kylie (sadly, no ABBA though – damn you Mamma Mia!). On a critical note, Priscilla’s weakest point is its dialogue, with most of the queen’s “zingers” so cliché they come across like Tired-Ass Drag Queen 101 (ie: “The more you drink the better we look!”). However, a couple of new additions, including a gigantic production number built around Donna Summer’s “MacArthur Park,” replete with dancing pastry, add to the dizzy queer fun. You certainly can’t miss the theater venue from the outside – a giant glittery shoe sits atop the marquee.
The stage musical version of Sister Act (http://www.sisteractthemusical.com) opened in June 2009 and has also proved popular, while March 2010 saw the world premiere of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Love Never Dies (http://www.loveneverdies.com), an all-new sequel to his Phantom of the Opera that takes place in New York’s Coney Island (Where else is a Phantom to go? The Continental Baths? Gertrude Stein’s? Sorry… I’m dating myself.). The last year has certainly been good to Thriller Live (http://www.thrillerlive.com), a Michael Jackson tribute which is as close as you’ll get to “This is It” these days without crossing over to the other side. You can book tickets for the above and many more productions through the very gay-friendly Keith Prowse website (http://www.keithprowse.com).
Just across the street from Soho’s popular thumping Barcode is tucked the discreet, elegant whilst casual Bocca di Lupo (http://www.boccadilupo.com), one of the hardest spots to secure a seat over the past year. A compact cream-and-almond toned venue where the bar is one of the preferred places to sit – because the cooks are busily at work right behind it in the tiny open kitchen – youthful Chef Jacob Kennedy serves up incredible, modern regional Italian fare. In fact, the region each dish originated is listed next to its prices, often in both a small or large portion size. Sample dishes include Rome’s Fried lambs brains & cauliflower; Piemonti’s Rabbit & pearl barley orzotto; and Abruzzo’s – and you won’t find this on a lot of menus! – Sanguinaccio, a sweet paté of pig’s blood & chocolate with sourdough bread.
Chef Kennedy, whom I was told is (ahem) “one of us,” chatted with a number of diners along the bar, myself included, but kept his eye firmly on his staff as they oiled up a grill and tossed on some fresh whole prawns, which sizzled from pale and grey to bright and pink, and meticulously composed plates before a waitress whisked them away. It’s beyond tempting to order a bunch of small dishes for tasting, and dessert is not to be missed, including the amazing Sicilian Chocolate & marzipan balls with rum & raisins.
While Gordon Ramsay had fallen out of favor with the UK media during my visit due to this or that snub or philandering, his Maze (http://www.gordonramsay.com/maze) restaurant, located in the Marriott Grosvenor Square, is beyond reproach – and uber-snazzy thanks to interior designer David Rockwell. Exec Chef James Durrant blends European cuisine with a hint of Asian influence (sample: Citrus spiced oxtail, wild turnips, horseradish and sour apple risotto; Devonshire rice pudding, spiced blackberry jam, clotted cream and blackberry ripple ice cream), and twists on UK staples, and the presentation is Wallpaper*-worthy.
Next door’s Maze Grill is a chic, airy take on New York steakhouses – bright, cool interior design and a dizzying array of chops and beef varieties (including Wagyu-style and Aberdeen Angus) and sides (Garlic fries, french beans & shallots, spinach with gruyere). There’s a 2- and 3-course “early supper” menu, for £18.00 and £21.00, respectively, available Sunday-Thursday at 6:30pm.
The vegetarian Mrs. Marengo’s (http://www.mrsmarengos.co.uk) bakes up some pretty awesome pastries and café fare as well as breakfast and lunch menu, traversing global cuisine, and the prices are darned reasonable. Get a mock duck and hoison wrap; mixed mushroom, porcini and ale pie with chips and mushy peas; and a Caramel, Chocolate and Macadamia Nut Tart. There’s a fresh juice bar if you’re feelin’ all fruity. Or juicy.
Incidentally, the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant professes to enjoy vegetarian food. “I’m a meat-eating vegetarian, really,” he’s noted. And if you want to try and spot/stalk him, try out two of his favorite restaurants. “My favorite restaurant is called St. John (http://www.stjohnrestaurant.com/) at 26 St. John Street in Smithfield,” he shares. “And Great Queen Street, at 32 Great Queen Street in Convent Garden for great English food.” The Telegraph even called it “manly” food. Rowwwrr!
Incidentally, it’s worth noting that reservations website http://opentable.co.uk (http://opentable.co.uk) is as popular there as it is in the U.S., offering many specials such as two-for-one deals.
Opened in May 2009, the Sanctum Soho Hotel (http://www.sanctumsoho.com) is so upscale and chic it could have sprung from Hustle, the addictive UK TV series about con men with impeccable taste (no doubt they’ll approach it as a location if the show continues). A fashionista and media type magnet, the Sanctum’s 30 rooms range in size from compact “crash pad” to 2-bedroom loft and are individually designed. Textures and visual flair rule – in one room the bathtub sat atop a glowing pool of glass pebbles, while cork wallpaper lined another’s walls. Even the door handles are blinged-out. It’s edgy, sexy, but also functional: each room boasts a Wii unit, Miller Harris bath amenities, a large minibar with booze and biscuits. There’s a screening room downstairs playing movies at all hours, a 24-hour rooftop lounge/bar, and an amazing ground level restaurant, No. 20. Head chef Gavin Austin’s seasonal Mod-Brit menu is not only delicious but the presentation is as elegant as it is playful – the scrumptious Baked Alaska came in the shape of a small Igloo.
To the West, across from the Royal Parks and Buckingham Palace, the 5-star Athenaeum (http://www.athenaeumhotel.com) underwent a nearly year-long renovation between summer 2008 and summer 2009. Shiny pearl walls and silvery branches decorate the lobby, and the rooms, which adhere to orange and grass or blue color schemes, fuse contempo chic with homey cozy. Some offer amazing views of the park, and you can spot the London Eye from the top floors. Rooms include a complimentary mini-bar (albeit booze-free), free wi-fi, a Nespresso machine and capsules, and Ren organic bath amenities.
The goodies and services continue, ranging from child-friendly games and activities to pointers for navigating the gay scene. Celebs certainly dig the place – Boy George, Heath ledger and Sam Jackson are amongst the names that passed through. There’s also a pretty posh restaurant, serving one of London’s best, most summery Pimm’s Cups (Pimm’s is a liquor best served with muddled fruit, cucumber and a generous helping of lemon-lime soda – refreshing!).
The sole UK property representing one of Asia’s finest hotel chains, London’s Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park (http://www.mandarinoriental.com/london) is always fabulous. Truly old school class planted firmly in the 21st Century. Their Park restaurant, which boasts a lovely outdoor patio overlooking Hyde Park during warm and clear weather (make a reservation specifically in the Park Terrace if you want one!) offers both Asian and Western specialties on its menu ranging from a superb Pad Thai to a gorgeous Beef Carpaccio topped with arugula and parmesan shavings. And the Spa is gorgeously modern.
Smacking of a boutique property rather than chain, The London Marriott Grosvenor Square (http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/londt-london-marriott-hotel-grosvenor-square) is a former townhouse located off a park – so it recreates that upscale townhouse feeling – and received a $40 million renovation. Every penny (or pence) shows. Calming cream, slate and white tones are everywhere, and the rooms feature rainfall showers, Aromatherapy bath amenities, and flickering faux fireplaces. 12 feature outdoor decks and garden space. Cool contempo art flourishes, like a wall of glowing fiber optics up a stairwell, to boot.
Spitalfields Market is younger and hipper today, and depending on the day sees different stalls featured – for example, Thursday is Antiques day, and Friday’s focus is Fashion & Art. Sunday is like a free-for-all, and the most bustling time to go. The nearby Old Truman Brewery (http://www.trumanbrewery.com) is an alternative-reality, indie version of Spitalfields (legendary record shop Rough Trade opened a sizable location here), and its Sunday UpMarket is crowded with cool graphic T-shirts and clothing (loved the Dr. Who-themed ties with silkscreened Daleks and Tardis), art, and pretty fantastic selection of vegan/organic/ethnic food. The main entrance is located by 146 Brick Lane.
London’s best kept secret for chocolate lovers is Artisan du Chocolat (http://www.artisanduchocolat.com). Hidden in Oxford Street’s Selfridges’ lower level is a small retail shop, while Notting Hill is home to an impressive standalone shop/café with an extensive menu including chocolate cocktails. Their distinctive chocolate bars range from single region (Bali, Costa Rica, Brazil, and more) to floral and other notes/ingredients like Violet, Gingerbread and Saffron (you can taste before buying). But the main reason to visit is the Sea Salted Caramels. Marble-sized dark chocolates, they contain a center of the most sublime liquid caramel, which come in a rotating number of additional varieties, including lemongrass and balsamic. These are guaranteed to please as a gift – bring them to a dinner party so you get to gorge as well!
The gay scene continues to pulse in Soho, around Old Compton Road, but the more alternative and hip are trekking to the East’s Shoreditch, North’s secret’s-getting-out-about-it Dalston, and South of the Thames’ Vauxhall hoods.
Shoreditch and neighboring Spitalfields/Brick Lane have really boomed over the past few years – both in daytime and nighttime activity – and there are at least a few queer/mixed weekly parties well worth a bus/tube ride. Now in its 6th year, Trailer Trash (http://www.clubtrailertrash.com) is one of them. However, the area is almost too fab n’ fresh – aside from longtime standbys, venues and businesses open and close, and relocate, faster than one can blog. Best to check the city’s gay magazines/websites’ weekly listings and word of mouth upon arrival.
Opened last Spring by the creators of Trailer Trash, Dalston’s mixed venue, Dalston Superstore (117 Kingsland Road.; Tel: (020) 7254 2273), is deliciously eclectic, and several nights are primarily gay. Sundays especially, at least for now.
Bears, and the sub-sub-genre of hipster bears, have all but planted a claim flag in Vauxhall as their home and party neighborhood of choice. The bars and clubs here lean heavy on the irony and retro kitsch, sometimes mashing up masculine beard culture with gender-bending and drag. Soho’s Barcode (http://www.bar-code.co.uk) has a more bear-centric sister club here, and there’s an Eagle (http://www.eaglelondon.com) as well.
Most of the nightlife is just steps from the Tube’s Vauxhall Station (bicyclists take note: don’t park your bike in the nearby tunnel – a handful of chained, cannibalized remains still locked on its posts are a warning sign of thieves’ having the hots for this spot). Saturday night party Duckie (http://www.duckie.co.uk) at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern (http://www.theroyalvauxhalltavern.co.uk) is a quintessential experience, sort of like BUTT Magazine gone dandy and come to life. Butches, queens, hipsters, twinks, it’s a real funky mix. Friday night’s Tonker (http://www.britishmusclebear.com) at the Eagle is straight-up bear, with plenty of rugby shirt and leather-clad manly men.
Want more fur? Saturday night’s XXL (http://www.xxl-london.com) is one of the world’s biggest (pun kinda sorta intended) weekly bear parties.
If you absolutely must stay in central London, or at least start with a cocktail there, check out the stylin’ Kudos (10 Adelaide Street. Tel: 0872 148 1412) near Charing Cross. And for the new lesbian skinny, check G3 Magazine (http://www.g3mag.co.uk).
Couch potatoes and homebodies, you can watch a lot of UK TV on demand, using BBC’s iplayer (http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer) and Channel 4’s 4OD (http://www.channel4.com). Sorry stateside TV queens – we can’t access the content here… but that’s just another reason to keep heading back to Old Blighty.
For more of what’s-what in London when you visit, check out our complete TripOut London Destination Guide.