93 Feet First

Right around 2001, it seemed that the whole of Brick Lane had completely transformed.  Back in the early 90s, the East End neighborhood sometimes referred to as “Banglatown” (see “curry houses” in “eats” for more information) used to be Set of Drifter Doug’s favorite place to visit on a Sunday morning.  Sifting through tons of second hand junk and clothing from courtesy of “rag and bone men,” it was like going back in time.  Rough ‘n ready, sure, but real.  Then suddenly, at the dawn of the “New Millennium,” the transformation and gentrification of Liverpool Street and Brick Lane began.  Today, highly commercialized, you might be fooled to think the thoroughfare had always been a hotspot for must-eat restaurants and burgeoning nightlife.

93 Feet East was one of the first venues to open after this transformation, and it remains today as one of the better improvements for fun-seekers (if not original residents who probably loathe the increased sound decibels).  With several bars and an outdoor area, what makes 93 Feet East a safe bet is its versatility.  In the mood for beats or some thrashing?  The 93 Bar has wooden bench seating that doubles as a dancefloor for DJ sets, while 93 Live stages shows from new and established acts such as Kaiser Chiefs, the Bombay Bicycle Club and even Radiohead.  (Film screenings and fashion shows are also often on tap.)

How about a romantic date?  Check out 93 Gallery, a more intimate setting that may just be the perfect place to hold your Londontown reunion, or other such special occasion.  Hungry?  You can always head out to the heated courtyard for BBQ Vegan burgers, “Corn on Hub” or grilled aubergine with halloumi cheese!  Yumm...  Set of Drifters tip:  Make sure to try 93 Feet East’s signature cocktail, a sweet concoction of vodka, strawberries and fizzy pop!

If you are in the mood for dancing while visiting London, we would certainly recommend checking out their website to see who is spinning.  Currently, there’s no one!  Apparently, a recent police raid in January 2013 threatens the venue’s closure!  If the dust has settled by the time of your visit, 93 Feet East is usually open Tuesday through Thursday from 5:00 PM until 11:00 PM and Fridays and Saturdays from 5:00 PM until 1:00 AM.  Sundays sees 93 Feet East hosting their weekly “Fuse” rave parties from 3:00 PM until 10:30 PM.  Expect to hear a smattering of house, indie and electro tunage.

93 Feet East - 150 Brick Lane, London  E1 6QL, (011) 44 20 7770 6006, http://www.93feeteast.co.uk/ 

Searcys St. Pancras Grand Brasserie/ Champagne and Oyster Bar

Wow!  What a difference a few years can make.  In the decades since WWII, St. Pancras (International) Station had become a haunting shell of its former 1868 glory, the kind of place where you’d definitely need to look before others creeped.  Happily, and no doubt in anticipation of the recent London Olympics, busy St. Pancras underwent a huge overhaul in 2007 that saw £800 million worth of improvements to the grand Victorian structure once deemed the largest enclosed space in the world!  (Just look at that roof; it only took about 18,000 panes of glass to complete the restoration.)  

One of the shiniest gems to emerge from this gentrification is Searcys St. Pancras Grand Brasserie and Champagne and Oyster Bar located inside right inside the terminal!  The epitome of upscale, Searcys feels like a throwback to English nobility with over-the-top opulent styling and a tongue-in-cheek nod to champagne’s hoity-toity history.

For our quick lunch meeting, we chose the cozy, overstuffed sofas that suggested some bygone era personal study!  But don’t worry.  The vibe is far from stuffy.  Knowledgeable and friendly staff chatted with us about their 17 different varieties of Grand Marque available by the glass, and suggested pairing options from Chris Dines’ menu, the highlights of which included an Inverlochy salmon and cream cheese bagel sandwich and a seafood platter with British rock oysters, razor clams, lobster, brown shrimp, crab and cockles.  Très chic!

A mix of formal and casual seating options makes Searcys the place to refresh before heading off on the Eurostar to other fabulous ports of call.  (Translation: great people watching!)  The Brasserie is open daily at 7:00 AM, and the champagne flows all day long until close.  Look for special tasting events on their website, and don’t miss “Bubble Hour” from 6:00 PM until 9:00 PM when champagne cocktails, appetizers and bottles of bubbly are yours at discounted prices.  Set of Drifters tip:  Live jazz music awaits your Sunday Brunch at Searcys St. Pancras Brasserie from 1:00 PM until 4:00 PM!  Swanky.

Searcys St. Pancras Grand  Brasserie/ Champagne and Oyster Bar - The Upper Concourse, St. Pancras International, St. Pancras, London  NW1 2QP, (011) 44 871 962 4968 ‎


coffee and sweets for the caffeine-addled

In case you hadn’t already noticed, your Set of Drifters are really more like a set of drinkers... of coffee!  In fact, it is rare when Doug makes it through a day without at least six or seven cups of the stuff (perhaps less if espresso and/ or cappuccino is involved).  The obsession started long ago, and perhaps saw its peak while Doug lived in London for 12 years beginning in the 90s.  So, who are some of his favorite caffeine pushers?  On a recent 2012 trip, the following parlayers emerged triumphant:

Bar Italia:  At one time in the not so distant past (even within the last 20 years), finding a decent “cup of ‘cino” in London could be a real challenge.  The exception to this, however, was always Bar Italia.  An almost 24-hour hangout located in the heart of Soho (they are only closed between 5:00 and 7:00 AM), Bar Italia has been serving up top-notch java since the early 1950s.  We’re happy to report, that quality has never wavered.

These days, the cozy coffee bar attracts its share of locals, expat-Italians and after-hours riffraff.  They come for the espresso of course, run through a classic Gaggia machine without a water filter to attract salts.  A secret blend of coffee also impresses, though we suspect what really sells this place is the “Bar Italia experience.”  Here, it truly feels like a community - a place where no matter how fast the times may change outside, you can always count on the warmth and generosity of the people inside.  Set of Drifters tip:  There are very few interior seats, so be prepared with warm layers to sit streetside under one of the heaters.  To be honest, it’s the best seat in the house to people-watch and network.  (And after a quick browse at Bar Italia’s website celebrity photos, there seems to be a lot of people-watching to do!  Who knows?  Maybe you will even make the cut!)

Bar Italia - 22 Frith Street, London  W1D 4RP, (011) 44 20 7437 4520, http://www.baritaliasoho.co.uk/

The Hummingbird Bakery:  Selling what are dubbed “authentic American cakes and desserts,” the colorful chain of Hummingbird bakeries is a safe bet if you are looking to get downright sinful.  Sugary everything is the name of founder Tarek Malouf’s game.  Since 2004, his goal has been to bring London simple, yet clever takes on such “American” classics as cupcakes, cheesecake and “Whoopie pies.”  His secret is really no secret at all.  Bake with care, as though baking at home!  Try something you like?  Then why not pick up one of Hummingbird’s many recipe books or iPhone apps?  They make perfect gifts for those looking to beef up their brownie and muffin repertoire!

The Hummingbird Bakery (Soho) - 155A Wardour Street, London  W1F 8WG, (011) 44 20 7851 1795, http://hummingbirdbakery.com/

The Hummingbird Bakery (Islington) - The Angel Building, 405 St. John Street, Islington, London  EC1V 4AB, (011) 44 20 7851 1795

The Hummingbird Bakery (Spitalfields) - Nido Building, 11 Frying Pan Alley, Spitalfields, London  E1 7HS, 011 (44) 20 7851 1795

Nude Espresso:  In need of some strong coffee on our February 2012 trip, we popped into off-the-beaten-track Nude Espresso during a stroll of London’s East End.  The kind of place you might miss if you blink long enough, we bet Nude Espresso is proficient in attracting in-the-know locals looking for high quality brews.  Their passion is obvious, from the bold, shiny on-site roasting equipment all the way down to their hearty breakfast and lunch menus.  Highlights include ricotta pancakes with roasted grape and pomegranate molasses and a zesty aubergine and roasted peppers combo completed with spinach, pesto and cheese!  Make sure to save room for dessert; Nude’s berry friands and carrot cake with lemon cream cheese icing are ridiculous!

Though beer and wine is available, let’s be honest; at award-winning Nude Espresso, it’s all about the coffee.  Check in on other “Nude Friends” Monday through Friday from 7:00 AM until 7:00 PM and on weekends from 9:30 AM until 7:00 PM.

Nude Espresso (Brick Lane) - 26 Hanbury Street, London  E1 6QR, (011) 44 7804 223590, http://www.nudeespresso.com/

Nude Espresso (Soho) - 19 Soho Square, London  W1D 3QN, (011) 44 07738 734 019

Patisserie Valerie:  A treasured London stand-by, chances are slim you’ll miss passing by one of Patisserie Valerie’s 50 or so locations during your trip.  Now, normally, we’re not so keen on chain establishments, but when they offer such history - and high quality - we’re happy to make the exception.

Founded in 1926 by the Belgian-born lass who gives the cafe its name, the original Patisserie Valerie was the first “continental bakery” to make a splash in London.  Some 85 years later, the brand is still going strong.  Why?  Perhaps it’s the great attention to detail infused into Valerie’s cakes and pastries, delectable breakfast, lunch and dinner options, and some of the finest tea and coffee in town!  Like PizzaExpress (see “eats”), Patisserie Valerie prides itself in offering a unique experience dependent on each location.  So try one.  Try a few - knowing that you’re in for tasty goods, and at good prices!

Set of Drifters tip:  Try the grilled croissant with gruyere cheese béchamel and mushrooms, and for lunch, the Mediterranean Lasagna with oven-roasted vegetables, basil and tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese!  At Patisserie Valerie, handmade ice cream and shakes also impress!  Opening hours at Patisserie Valerie vary depending on the day of the week.  Check their website if you are on a time crunch; though a safe bet is that most locations are open 9:00 AM until 9:00 PM.

Patisserie Valerie (Soho) - 44 Old Compton Street, Soho, London  W1D 4TY, (011) 44 20 7437 3466, http://www.patisserie-valerie.co.uk/cafe-soho.aspx

Patisserie Valerie (Marylebone) - 105 Marylebone High Street, London  W1U 4RS, (011) 44 20 7935 6240

Patisserie Valerie (Spitalfields) - 37 Brushfield Street, London  E1 6AA, (011) 44 20 7247 4906

Soho watering holes

Having lived in London for over a decade, Set of Drifter Doug has compiled more than a simple list of local haunts he deems “MUST-worthy.”  It just so happens that many of his favorite watering holes are found in Soho, the eclectic centralized enclave that served as Doug’s stomping grounds for the majority of his “Big Smoke” epoch:

Freedom:  The Freedom Bar was one of the first gay friendly, café/ taverns to open in Soho.  I can remember hanging out for coffee shortly after they opened and seeing Marc Almond of Soft Cell hanging out behind the bar.  (He’s actually one of the co-owners.)  Years later, I ended up holding a club night here, and eventually hosting an EP launch in their cool basement digs.

During a recent trip in 2012, I was happy to see Freedom was still in business.  If you’re looking for a place to meet up with your gay and straight mixed couples, this spot offers one of the most friendly and relaxed vibes around.

Freedom - National House, 60-66 Wardour Street, London  W1F 0TA, (011) 44 20 7734 0071, http://freedombarsoho.com/

Friendly Society:  Opened at the dawn of the 2000’s, the Friendly Society was one of those great little gay bars that proved the perfect place to gather a gang of people.  Truth be told, the watering hole actually attracts a very mixed crowd, thanks in part to a colorful ‘n quirky subterranean environment that welcomes with oddly-sized fishbowls and gnomes!  For the most part, the music is also pretty good, a notable change from nearby bars like the Village and Escape.

Friendly Society - 79 Wardour Street, London  W1D 6QB, (011) 44 20 7434 3805

We also recommend:

Coral Room at the Bloomsbury Hotel – The Coral Room 16-22 Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, London WC1B 3NN, +44 20 7347 1221, https://www.thecoralroom.co.uk/

Trader Vic’s Restaurant and Boathouse Bar (inside the London Hilton) - 22 Park Lane, Mayfair, London  W1K 1BE, (011) 44 20 7208 4113, http://www.tradervicslondon.com/contact.php

Aqua Shard (inside The Shard Building) - Level 31, The Shard, 31 Saint Thomas Street, London  SE1 9RY, (011) 44 20 3011 1256, http://aquashard.co.uk/

St. Moritz Club - 159 Wardour Street, Soho, London W1F 8WH, (011) 44 77 1835 2595, http://www.stmoritzclub.co.uk/history