Ahead of the two year anniversary of the Olympic Games, London based journalist and co-founder of Talk of the Town (a company specialising in entertaining tours of the capital), Kaye Holland, opens her little black book to reveal the best places to eat, shop and play in London Town
Where are you from?
I was born in Watford - the hometown of George Michael and erm, Geri Halliwell. Travel bible Lonely Planet once labelled Watford as the "kind of town that makes you want to travel." They weren't wrong: I escaped as soon as I turned 18 and spent my 20s living and working overseas in the UAE, Cayman Islands and China. But while Watford is a gritty city (you could never describe it as pretty), it always lures me back. I still have friends and family living in WD and if I've got a free Saturday and my beloved Watford FC are playing at home, you'll usually find me at Vicarage Road stadium cheering on the Golden boys.
What's the first thing you do when you get to London?
Grab a Flat White - I am a complete caffeine addict. Luckily for me, despite the fact that London is traditionally renowned for tea drinkers, the friendly bubble of coffee perkingcan now be heard all across the capital. Bar Italia is a Soho institution that has witnessed many fascinating glimpses of passing theatrical life. Situated opposite Ronnie Scotts, it's loved as much for the stories it could tell, as it is for its authentic Italian coffee. Caravan in the new Kings Cross development is another favourite and I love the newly opened Soho Grind - the sister to Shoreditch Grind (an East London institution). These guys also serve booze if you want something a little stronger than coffee beans...
What is your favourite hangout?
Oh wow - that's an impossible question! It largely depends on which side of the river I'm on and also the season. Right now it's summer and the sun is (unusually for London) out so I'm loving the rooftop terrace at One New Change. Confession time: I'm part of their 'Style council' so have an affiliation with One New Change but even if I didn't, I would still head up to the terrace which serves up spectacular views of the London skyline: expect to see The Shard, St Paul's Cathedral, London Eye and Tate Modern to name but a few London landmarks. You'll also find the fabulous Madison there. The restaurant gets rave reviews for its generously portionedBritish fare, but I prefer the more fun tapas bar where the emphasis is on small plates that lend well to sharing with friends (the sesame flat breads are to die for). Of course you can just drink here: top notch cocktails include the cheekily named 'Hot bitch martini' but in such stunning surroundings, it would be criminal not to try the Thai Chi– a champagne cocktail with cucumber, ginger, apple juice, lemon juice, vodka and a Lanson champagne top - right?!
What is your favourite restaurant?
I have to say that I am not very faithful when it comes to restaurants and rarely return to the same restaurant twice. I'm always forcing my friends to schlepp across town andtry the latest new opening; I'm sure I drive them bonkers. That said I do have a soft spot for Jeremy King and Chris Corbin's restaurants: their the dynamic duo responsible for The Wolseley, The Delaunay, Brasserie Zedel and the just opened Fischer's in Marylebone- the celeb hang out du jour. Closer to home (I’m a Harrow girl), I love Incanto - a wonderful Italian restaurant situated on the summit of Harrow on the Hill in what was once a post office. For lunch on the run in central London, I'll head to tibits - a Swiss vegetarian restaurant. Located in the heart of Heddon Street, it's a refuge from the madness of Regent Street and the food from head chef, Brian Mesmain, is incredible. I’m a veggie but even my most carnivorous friends agree! The colourful interior by the Designers Guild – one of the foremost luxury home furnishings brands in the world – is a further treat.
What was the last exhibition you saw in London?
That would be Matisse: the Cut-Outs at the Tate Modern. I’m not really an art aficionado (I wish I was but alas it’s a taste I’ve yet to acquire) but John (one of Talk of the Town’s co-founders and tour guides) dragged me along and I’m glad he did. The Cut Outs is an exhibition of the colour-saturated works Matisse made by cutting out shapes from pre-painted sheets of paper during the last 17 years of his life and the sensual shapes and vibrant colours makes for a visual feast. The exhibition runs until 7 September if any readers are interested...
What was the last gig you saw in London?
I went to Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park a few weeks back and had a blast. Traditionally I’ve not been a fan of festivals in the UK - who wants to spend two hours queuing for a beer or sleeping in a soggy field with a few thousand fellow festival goers, all of whom you can be sure will want to use the 10 toilets at exactly the same time the next morning? - but Wireless was a great day out. John Newman, Outkast (their first UK appearance in 13 years), 80s sensations Salt-N-Pepa, Sean Paul and Clean Bandit all performed before the headline act - Hawaiian crooner, Bruno Mars - took to the main stage for a huge performance. On the theatre front, I saw All My Sons at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (a steeply raked auditorium slap bang in the middle of one of the capital’s prettiest parks). Arthur Miller’s breakthrough play about a family confronting the cost of capitalism remains just as relevant today as it did when it was written nearly 70 years ago.
What is your earliest London memory?
I remember travelling into town with my Mum, Dad and brother one January - I must have been about six. We went to Trafalgar Square which is famous for the hordes of pigeons that frequent the area. Mum had told me that the pigeons land on your head and I didn’t like the sound of that so insisted on taking my cycling helmetup on the train and wearing it as "protection" from the pigeons. After we’d ticked off Trafalgar Square, we went to watch the Chinese New Year celebrations in China Town. I loved watching the lively parade and the acrobatics, traditional dance, theatre and song recitals and trying the traditional food but then disaster stuck... We lost my younger brother in the crowd... My parents went into a blind panic, but thankfully we FINALLY found him standing next to a policeman. Later, during our teenage years, when Keith (my brother) was behaving like Harry Enfield’s creation 'Kevin the Teenager’, I wished we hadn’t...
What have you discovered recently in London? Brixton - I kid you not. Kensington and Chelsea has a certain picturesque charm and East London – in the aftermath of the Olympic Games – isn’t without its appeal, but when all is said and done they are… well London lite. A little bit vanilla, if you like. If you want to see the real London – the capital in all its magical multicultural glory – Brixton is where it’s at. David Bowie was born in Brixton, former Prime Minister John Major grew up there and singer La Roux still lives in the area where West Indian food stalls sit beside chi chi bars. And despite the fact that Foxtons (the estate agent we all all love to loathe) has opened a branch in Brixton and there’s a Waitrose on its way, the area’s strong sense of community remains intact.
What would you do if you were Mayor for the day? That’s easy. I’d make the London Underground run 24/7 or at least until a much more civilised 2 or 3am. This would eliminate the need to make a mad dash across town for the last tube, endure a long journey on a battered, beer soaked night bus or an expensive cab ride home. London is no Cinderella: it doesn’t shut down, when the clock strikes midnight. Neither should the tube.
What are your top tips for tourists? Try not to succumb to the self imposed yet inescapable pressure of the ‘checklist’. You know - the one that demands you visit every site, every museum, every monument that you’re supposed to. Adjust your expectations and in doing so you’ll discover places - little streets, small independent shops - that you might not otherwise had done because you’d have been so busy trying to see everything you thought you had to. On a practical note if you’re travelling around by tube, avoid doing so before 9.30am and between the hours of 4-7pm - you’ll pay a premium during these hours and spend the entire journey squashed under sweaty armpits. Lastly - shameless self promotion alert - sign up for a Talk of the Towntour!
Where would you like to stay? I’m all about Airbnb - the San Francisco online marketplace which allows people to rent their homes or rooms to short-term visitors. It’s a characterful, affordable alternative to staying in an overpriced bland, beige hotel room. More than that, Airbnb can also help you meet Londoners and bring you closer to the local culture. I use Airbnb when I travel and it’s led to some great conversations and experiences. However if you are a hotel person, I’d recommend the luxurious Rosewood London. It’s not cheap (prices are as high as the Shard) but if you’re going to make the trip of a lifetime, you might as well do it in style! The hotel (which opened in October 2013) is housed in a beautiful 1914 Belle Epoque building that was once the headquarters of Pearl Assurance. Every conceivable luxury and comfort has been thought of - it really is impossible to exaggerate the glories of this place.
What is your guilty London pleasure?Selfridges. I’ll pop in for five minutes and five hours later I’m still there (this can happen). And preposterously priced cocktails with the girls in a hotel bar: right now Londoners are hanging out in hotels thanks to a slew of red hot and happening new openings such as Firmdale’s Ham Yard Hotel and Andre Balazs’s Chiltern Firehouse.
Thanks Kaye! To book a tour with Talk of the Town, click here