London’s financial district and the surrounding neighbourhoods have become the hippest parts of the metropolis. BRIAN NOONE reports on the transformation of the British capital
This summer it was announced that London’s most notable icon, Big Ben, will spend the next four years in silence as it is dismantled and cleaned. That the procedure comes during a particularly changeable period in the nation’s history, and that the costs associated with repairing the Victorian tower have already doubled, is something of an apt metaphor for the challenges the UK currently faces. But the regenerative project also offers occasion to reconsider the metropolis as a whole – what it is and what it wants to be.
The answers, at least in part, can found by looking east, where the capital’s centre of gravity has been shifting in recent years. It is a hip, dynamic and remarkably urban cityscape, a place that brings together London’s collection of villages into a genuinely cosmopolitan melting pot of offices, restaurants, hotels, bars, shops, galleries and museums.
A generation ago, that would have been absurd: the City (with a capital “C”, the banking district that sits upon old Roman Londinium) was defined by stodge, both culturally and gastronomically, while the eastern fringes of the City – Shoreditch and Spitalfields – were so decrepit that in the 1970s, an acquaintance was told he could not buy merely one Georgian-era townhouse in Spitalfields, he had to buy multiple at absurdly low prices to prevent the street from falling into squalor.
He did buy them, and now the properties are worth millions of pounds each, surrounded by a neighbourhood that has flourished in kind. Take Andina, which sits just up the street, one of Lima- native Martin Morales’s four Peruvian restaurants. He opened the first in Soho in 2012, followed by two out east in 2013 and 2015. “Shoreditch is now the second city centre of London,” Morales explains. “It is no longer a microcosm of creativity; it’s the heart of the creative industries.”
Other London restaurateurs agree: Yotam Ottolenghi, whose Mediterranean-infused cookery has achieved cult status, recently opened his largest restaurant to date in Spitalfields in part, he says, because “we were hoping to attract a real mix of customers…the atmosphere is always really buzzing.” And Robin Wright, whose Wright Brothers seafood restaurants across the capital have become the go- to spot for oysters, was attracted to the revitalised Spitalfields Market itself: “Having previously lost its way, there has been a really ambitious and exciting vision for the market,” he says. What started life as a fruit and vegetable market in the 19th century “is now really vibrant and I feel has regained its mojo”.
The sense of reclaiming the past can be seen inside the City, too, where the two most significant hotel openings this year have revitalised exceptionally handsome heritage buildings: The Ned in the former Midland Bank, an Art Deco jewel, and Four Seasons Ten Trinity Square in the heavily ornamented Port Authority building, both of which, upon entering, command a reverence that few new-builds can hope to achieve.
And yet the City is also a place of creative destruction. It has seen waves of regeneration over the past centuries, dating back to Roman bathhouses and Christopher Wren’s designs that followed the fire of 1666, a cycle that has led contemporary Londoners, like their predecessors, not to be precious about preserving anything second-rate. It is why the last decades have seen skyscrapers grow into a small forest in the City, why seven more buildings taller than 150 metres are currently rising amid scatterings of cranes that hover over smaller projects in progress, and why deep underground, below the Tube, Europe’s largest infrastructure project, Crossrail, is extending a new rail track out to Heathrow Airport by way of west London, making the metropolis still easier to navigate.
One reason west London residents, as well as musicophiles from across the globe, might now be drawn east is the return of one of Britain’s national treasures, Sir Simon Rattle. The conductor has been at the fore of the Berlin Philharmonic, one of the world’s premier orchestras, since 2002, and he has returned to the country of his birth this year to helm the London Symphony Orchestra.
Such is the dedication of the City to the arts that Rattle’s return is also the occasion for a relaunch of its artistic programme: the Barbican Arts Centre, not only a brutalist masterstroke but also one of the world’s largest complexes of its kind, combining music, art, theatre and cinema, will add a Centre for Music, whose showpiece will be a new concert hall for Rattle and the LSO, while the Museum of London will expand significantly in its new home next to Smithfield Market.
With these as pitch posts, the City is seeking to further magnify its appeal through the Culture Mile initiative, named after one of the area’s monikers, the Square Mile (the City is approximately that size). Working alongside local institutions such as the Whitechapel Gallery and the forthcoming Museum of Photography, it seeks to turn the City into a major global cultural destination. “What’s changed in recent years,” Sir Nicholas Kenyon, managing director of the Barbican, told Centurion, “is the desire to draw all this history, innovation and achievement together so we work in a more coordinated way to present our activities to audiences, and to animate the spaces in between our buildings and create a sense of welcome.”
Walking the winding byways and alleys of the City, amid architecture both old and new, it’s easy to recognise that animation and effervesce everywhere you look – from the taverns spilling out onto the pavements to the increasingly popular co-working spaces and the eateries that are winning global accolades – and to know that despite the hands on the face of Big Ben standing still, London is moving forward into yet another new era.
Move over Mayfair: the most talked-about openings in London this year centre on the City. Right at its heart, next to the Bank crossroads that dates to Roman times, The Ned (thened.com) is a 252-bed hotel-cum-club set in a former bank by the Soho House group with a roster of all-star restaurants and a members’ club that sold out subscriptions before opening. Not to be outdone, The Curtain (thecurtain.com), backed by the NYC-based team behind the Gansevoort hotels, also opened this year on a smaller scale, combining hospitality and a members’ club with two standout eateries, the rooftop Lido and Red Rooster, the second incarnation of the Harlem hotspot by chef Marcus Samuelsson. A stone’s throw away, both Shoreditch House (shoreditchhouse.com) and Boundary (boundary. london) have upped their games in response, largely cosmetically, while the brand new Nobu Hotel (nobuhotelshoreditch.com) has introduced a stripped-back Japanese flair to the district in its 148 rooms, alongside the capital’s third iteration of its namesake restaurant. Just north of the Tower of London, Four Seasons Ten Trinity Square ( fourseasons.com/tentrinity) is still trying to hit its stride in what might be the grandest hotel premises in all London – the former Port Authority building – while one of the restaurants inside, La Dame de Pic, is already right at home: Anne-Sophie Pic’s first venture beyond Continental Euope continent has just earned the French chef her seventh Michelin star. In 2018, the City is also primed to welcome Vintry & Mercer (vintryandmercer.com), a 92-key hotel that gives a nod to the guilds that have dominated the Square Mile for centuries, pairing au fait décor with a trio of eateries.
RAISING A GLASS
The subterranean dens of iniquity and down-at-heel pubs haven’t all disappeared – what’s the fun in that? – but the generation of Square Mile cocktail bars and clubs means there are few better places in London to unwind late into the night. Take City Social (citysociallondon.com): perched high above the Square Mile, it features some of London’s best views alongside excellent libations and shares a space, should you desire, with the Michelin-starred, Jason Atherton- run restaurant of the same name. Another bar with nibbles to hand, 7 Tales (sosharulondon.com) is a slice of Tokyo nightlife, set below deceptively casual izakaya-style eatery Sosharu. The mood at Merchant House (merchanthouselondon.com), meanwhile, couldn’t be more different, as the on-trend menu, heavy on gins and rums, including a number of vintage bottles, is served up by supremely knowledgeable bartenders who can trace the story of every spirit. And while drinks at Merchant House may be themed by era, both The Gibson (thegibsonbar.london) and Worship Street Whistling Shop (whistlingshop.com) are entirely dedicated to throwback atmospheres, the former to Edwardian elegance and that the latter to brick-and- copper Victoriana. In Shoreditch, Nightjar (barnightjar.com) has been the standard-bearer since opening in 2010, frequently counted among the world’s best bars with superb drinks and live jazz. Its recently opened sister establishment near Smithfield Market, Oriole (oriolebar.com), offers a different vibe, more cabinet of curiosities than sophisticated speakeasy, and is similarly diverse in its musical guests, which range from jazz to Caribbean calypso. At discos, music leads the way, so the top spots tend to skew a bit young: try multi- genre dance mecca XOYO (xoyo. co.uk) and the Underground carriage- topped Village Underground (villageunderground.co.uk), or for a tropical ambience there’s tiki-themed Kanaloa (kanaloaclub.com).
“The City is undergoing a food revolution right now,” says Laura Harper-Hinton, co-owner of Caravan Restaurants – and that might be understating it. For years, the last bastion of dismal British cuisine was the Square Mile, where fine dining amounted to little more than pairing expensive wines with overcooked meat. How times change. The City and its immediate surrounds now boast ten Michelin-starred restaurants, just two of which existed a decade ago, and the culinary creativity on offer spans the globe. Take Spitalfields, a slice of Shoreditch centred on the market of the same name on the eastern fringe of the Square Mile: there’s French fare at Galvin La Chapelle (galvinrestaurants. com) under the arched ceiling of a former chapel; superb seafood at Wright Brothers (thewrightbrothers. co.uk); stripped-back Portuguese casual plates at Nuno Mendes’s Taberna do Mercado (tabernamercado.co.uk); regional Thai specialities amid the neighbourhood’s defining warehouse aesthetic at Som Saa (somsaa. com); the third sit-down location of Mediterranean-minded Ottolenghi (ottolenghi.co.uk); Himalayan sharing plates at Madame D (madame-d.com) that even the conservative Michelin committee just commended with a Bib Gourmand; the flagship Hawksmoor (thehawksmoor.com), London’s favourite steakhouse; inventive fine dining paired with graffiti at The Frog
( thefrogrestaurant.com); and among many others St John Bread & Wine (stjohngroup.uk.com), the casual cousin of the original nose-to-tail eatery, St John, which is still going strong in its original location near Smithfield Market. Speaking of which: the area around the meat market – which is still in operation – is another dining must, from Italo- British standout Luca (luca.restaurant) and British New Wave diner Foxlow (foxlow.co.uk) to the small Venetian-style plates at Polpo (polpo.co.uk), the casual charm of Ask for Janice (askforjanice. co.uk) and the bounty of Hix Oyster & Chop House (hixrestaurants.co.uk), the first restaurant by London culinary titan Mark Hix. Inside the City, new developments are leading the way: earlier this year London’s second
Coya (coyarestaurant.com), a Peruvian hotspot, opened in the new Angel Court building; Jason Atherton has further burnished his London portfolio with another feted destination, Temple and Sons (templeandsons.co.uk), dedicated to all foods British; and the forthcoming Bloomberg Arcade will host Harper-Hinton’s sharing-plate Caravan (caravanrestaurants.co.uk), the wood-fired pizzas of Homeslice (homeslicepizza.co.uk) as well as Brigadiers (jksrestaurants.com), a new concept based on a traditional Indian Army mess from neo-Indian pioneer JKS, also behind Trishna and Gymkhana. Ambitious young chefs fresh from some of the capital’s top restaurants are coming to the area as well, from James Cochran EC3 ( jcochran.restaurant), the eponymous all-day British tapas eatery from the former Ledbury chef, to The Grill
at McQueen (thegrillmcqueen.co.uk), headed up by former Hawksmoor toques and continuing the carnivorous fare in its hip Shoreditch milieu, not to mention Cub (lyancub.com), which is a new project from drinks impresario Ryan Chetiyawardana, known as Mr Lyan, placing equal emphasis on food and liquid. Elsewhere in Shoreditch, The Clove Club (thecloveclub.com) and Lyle’s (lyleslondon.com), both focusing on British produce, have become Michelin- starred landmarks, while Peruvian Martin Morales’s Ceviche (cevicheuk. com) and Andina (andinalondon.com) have deservedly devoted followings, and Cantonese restaurant HKK (hkklondon. com) has both a cult following and a Michelin star of its own. Still to come, Hong Kong darling Duddells (duddells. co) is arriving in Borough soon, just across the Thames, and Bob Bob Exchange will bring the over-the-top Russian decadence of Soho’s Bob Bob Ricard (bobbobricard.com) toto one of the City‘s most celebrated new skyscrapers, the wedge-shaped Cheesegrater.
Centurion, Q4, 2017