I was talking to a colleague and we realized we had been in London at the same time in late 2019. Then I checked this site and found I never got around to documenting the trip, so here goes…
We woke up very early to get to the airport because we had decided to take the daytime flight to London. Our basic reasoning is that we’re going to lose a day anyway and we reduce jet lag by traveling all day. We landed at Heathrow at 10:30pm, took the train to Earl’s Court, and walked the last few blocks to the Hotel Xenia, our home base for the next few days. After checking in, we enjoyed a nightcap in the hotel bar and then went to bed.
We slept in, partially due to arriving so late the previous night. We had breakfast at the hotel (thanks to Virginia’s Marriott status) before walking out for the day. We spent much of the day meandering in museums – first the Natural History Museum and then the Victoria and Albert Museum. We hadn’t been to either before and enjoyed taking them in at a leisurely pace. In between, we wandered up and down side streets in Kensington and Knightsbridge.
We completely missed lunch and instead had tea/coffee and cakes at L’Opera coffee house on Brompton Road. It was nearly empty and we couldn’t quite figure out why — the food/drink and service were both quite good. We walked back to the hotel afterwards to prepare for the day’s main event: dinner at The Fat Duck. Heston Blumenthal’s flagship restaurant has been one of the world’s top restaurants for many years and had been on our “to do” list for at least a decade.
The trip to Bray was a little… tense? anxiety-inducing? Our plan was to take the Tube to Paddington to then take the rail to Maidenhead, getting a taxi from there to the restaurant. We were able to do all that, but it was not smooth.
- The Tube was unexpectedly delayed getting to Paddington.
- We ran for the ticket machines to find them very busy (Friday night), so we got in separate lines. The person ahead of me was incredibly indecisive, so I waited while seemingly every other line flew by.
- After finally getting our tickets, we bolted for the train, which was thankfully a few minutes behind. However, it was very full so we had to run up several cars to get a decent place to stand.
- The station at Maidenhead has a tiny parking lot and the line for cabs was ridiculously long. We headed to the street and hailed a cab there, pretty flagrantly against the rules. The cab driver was very nice, though, and got us to the restaurant on time.
We were shown to our seats and we were just grateful to have made it. We were there for the new Fable Tree menu, which the restaurant describes as:
The Fat Duck will mark the festive period by bringing to life the story of Christmas in a wondrous experience revolving around the focal role played by the Christmas tree. Evolving from the story of Heston’s childhood holiday journey, The Fat Duck will devote the entire experience to a celebration of Christmas and the stories that revolve around it.
The story begins in nature where seeds turn into a Christmas tree following its journey from the woods in to our home, we explore our connectivity with nature, the symbolism of the tree and the emotional connections between friends and family during a special time of the year.
I’m not sure I can adequately describe the experience. The food was exquisite, the wine pairings were outstanding, and the spectacle of the Fable Tree was entirely unique. Needless to say, we were extremely happy to have made the trip.
Despite our having taken the day flight to London, we weren’t sleeping all that well. We eventually roused ourselves and got moving. The first stop was a walk to Notting Hill and the Portobello Market. We didn’t stay all that long, especially as we were hungry and needed to find lunch. We ended up at Hereford Road for their set lunch menu of mushroom soup/crispy pork belly with mustardy greens, roast quail with sprout tops, and peach jelly with quince/warm rice pudding. It was excellent; the only hiccup came at the end when their credit card machine wouldn’t work for us (or anyone). I ran out for cash so we could pay and move on.
We rode the bus back to the hotel to freshen up and then took the Tube to Leicester Square for the evening. We started with something we’ve never done in all our trips to London: we saw a movie. In particular, we saw Knives Out, which I’d been looking forward to for months. We’re both armchair mystery buffs from Agatha Christie onwards, so this was right up our alley.
After the movie, we split dinner into two parts. Part one was at the Cork & Bottle, a celebrated wine bar in Leicester Square. Virginia had been there before but I hadn’t, and I was so glad we went. I found a bottle of wine in their “last chance” basket on the bar, and we had that with crispy goat curds and duck liver pâté. We walked a few streets up to DUM Biryani House for our mains — lamb biryani and mango fish curry. It was a tiny hole in the wall and we sat way in the back — perfect all around.
Finally, a good night’s sleep! We took our time and had a late breakfast at the hotel before heading out. We walked up the Kensington High Street to Knightsbridge and stopped in Harrod’s to look around, having never been in London this time of year. It was fully decked out for the holidays and packed with shoppers and tourists. Virginia picked up a sausage roll to go in the food hall before escaping the madness. We found our way down to the underground level and into a small café for two excellent coffees from Kenya and Costa Rica in a much more relaxed setting.
Warmed up on the inside, we continued our walk from Knightsbridge to the West End for our first theater of the day: Ian McKellen on Stage at the Harold Pinter Theatre. We had seen Sir Ian many years ago as King Lear and were excited for this show. He opened with the booming theme from Lord of the Rings and a dramatic reading of the scene between Gandalf and the Balrog, before tossing the book aside to tell us about how much he is not a Tolkien superfan. From there, he spent the first half reflecting on his childhood and relationship to the theater. He came up in the generation after Olivier and Gielgud, alongside Judi Dench, Albert Finney, and Derek Jacobi. As great as that was, the second half was even better for we Shakespeare enthusiasts. He walked on stage and pulled out a book caddy holding all of the plays in the canon, and then asked the audience to call out the name of a play. He’d then pull one from the caddy and either perform a bit of it or comment on his experience seeing or being in it. My favorite was Troilus and Cressida — “I have nothing to say about this play” (frankly, neither do I).
After the show, we went for an early-ish dinner at Salt Yard, a restaurant Virginia found in her research. Our thinking was that we’d have appetizers there and go to another restaurant, the Lady of the Grapes, a few hours later. So we shared ham/cheese croquetas; truffle/ricotta agnolotti with mushrooms and chestnuts; picata squash with blue cheese, pecans; truffle macaroni cheese, paired with glasses of vermouth and an Italian white wine.
Onward to our second theater experience of the day: John Finnemore’s Flying Visit! Virginia discovered his radio serial Cabin Pressure 6-7 years ago and we’ve been hooked ever since on pretty much everything he’s done. A few weeks beforehand, I had seen he was doing one extra show and managed to get two of the last remaining tickets. The show was a staging of sketches from his radio program John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme, featuring the full cast. It was so much fun and a great complement to the joyous show we’d seen earlier in the day.
Unfortunately, the show ran a bit long and we couldn’t make our reservation at Lady of the Grapes. So we canceled and walked from Bloomsbury to Soho for dinner and a cocktail at Basement Sate. We headed back to the hotel but not yet to sleep. Virginia was due to work on the East Coast on Tuesday and a snowstorm was forecast for Monday afternoon, which meant she couldn’t take our planned flight home to Chicago before going back east. Instead, she had to get on a different flight direct to the East Coast, which took some time to sort out.
We were up early for the only time this trip. We had breakfast and, in the spirit of Richard Ayoade’s Travel Man, shared our favorite parts of the trip. Virginia’s new flight was earlier than mine, so I walked her to Earl’s Court station and we said goodbye there.
On my own now, I took the Tube up to Bloomsbury and had coffee at Seacole Social near the university while I waited for the British Museum to open. Though I fully endorse James Acaster’s take on the museum, they had a temporary exhibition on the myth and history of Troy that I was interested in. I wandered the museum a bit before going into the exhibition, which was well designed and curated.
After leaving the museum, I walked around a bit before getting on the Tube and heading to Heathrow for my flight home, another wonderful time in London in the books.