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Between the just-concluded Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth and the Olympics (July 27 to Aug. 12), London is in full swing with new luxury lodgings and destination restaurants. With the continent still in economic tumult, there seems to be a reaction against conspicuous displays of wealth, and a return to traditional British grub reflects that — though a spate of chic new suites at the hotels serves as a reminder that the city attracts more Hollywood-bankrolled productions than any other territory outside North America. (One drawback: Given Olympics demand, fares for direct flights from L.A. — British Airways and Virgin are the top-shelf choices — are running at least 10 percent higher than a year ago.) The draw is not entirely because of tax credits and first-class facilities: After they run the numbers, studio chiefs and producers do not have trouble persuading talent to spend three months or so in a foreign city … if that city is London.
WHERE TO EAT
The 86-year-old Soho institution Quo Vadis (26-29 Dean St.) recently reopened under new chef Jeremy Lee with a menu that ranges from a smoked eel and horseradish sandwich to leg of hogget (mutton). “The chef is a fabulous film aficionado, and his cooking is superb, especially the salsify-in-filo-pastry starters,” says costume designer Lindy Hemming (The Dark Knight Rises).
In 2011, nose-to-tail pioneer Fergus Henderson — whose St. John Bread and Wine is a favorite of Gwyneth Paltrow and U.K. producer Paul Webster — opened the white-on-white 15-room St. John Hotel (rooms from about $660, 1 Leicester St.) just off Leicester Square with a 50-seat dining room where Coriolanus principals Ralph Fiennes, producer Colin Vaines and composer Ilan Eshkeri recently shared a meal. “They do bacon and beans. It sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how amazing it is,” says Eshkeri.
Even high-end hotel restaurants are going back to English roots, nowhere more decidedly than at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal in the Mandarin Oriental hotel (rooms from about $1,130, 66 Knightsbridge) on Hyde Park, where the likes of CAA’s Hylda Queally and Ryan Reynolds have been spotted. The painstakingly researched menu revives such centuries-old favorites as tipsy cake (spit-roast pineapple) and meat fruit, which looks like an orange but is in fact chicken-liver parfait covered in mandarin gelee. Says Denzel Washington, “It looked too good to eat, but I did, and it was fabulous.”
Steaks are topping menus around town as well. Will Clarke, founder of U.K. production and distribution company Optimum Releasing, likes his massaged English steak done medium rare (“It’s brain food,” he says) at Hawksmoor, where he has dined with The Woman in Black director James Watkins. The original (157 Commercial St.) is in grittily hip Spitalfields, and a third, Hawksmoor Guildhall (10-12 Basinghall St.), just debuted in the heart of the City. In 2011, Wolfgang Puck opened his fourth Cut (45 Park Lane), drawing Tom Ford and Kate Hudson with contemporary steakhouse fare such as Australian Wagyu sashimi with spicy radishes.
For more casual fare, UTA’s David Flynn likes Mexican eatery La Bodega Negra (9 Old Compton St.) in Soho, which shares its entrance with a sex shop and serves soft-shell prawn tacos to the likes of Keira Knightley. In the West End, MeatLiquor (74 Welbeck St.) epitomizes street-food cool. The burgers-and-skinny-fries joint, where Claudia Schiffer has been spotted, has set up temporarily in a parking lot behind Oxford Street.
WHERE TO STAY
Taste in haute cuisine might have gone humble, but many of the places most favored by industry players to bed down remain decidedly grand, including mainstays The Dorchester and Claridge’s (which Johnny Depp called home while in town for Dark Shadows). One ambitious new competitor is the Corinthia Hotel (rooms from about $690, Whitehall Place), which overlooks the Thames and Trafalgar Square. The $500 million investment shows in the Baccarat chandeliers. There’s a Harrods branch on the premises, and the contemporary rooms are “gigantic,” says L.A.-based Tobin Armbrust of Exclusive Media.
Boasting a 47-seat cinema, the Bulgari Hotel (rooms from about $770, 171 Knightsbridge) opened in Knightsbridge, London’s luxury shopping area, in April. The 85 rooms and suites, among the largest in town, induce calm amid a blend of English style and Italian heritage. The witty minibars resemble sumptuous travel trunks.
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are among those who have been spotted at the aforementioned 45 Park Lane (rooms from about $730), which James Lohan, co-founder of boutique-hotel guide Mr and Mrs Smith, recommends for its bespoke beds and art deco furniture pulled together by acclaimed designer Thierry Despont. All 45 rooms have views of Hyde Park. The executive queen rooms, advises Lohan, “are perched on the corner of the building for a double dose of leafy London.”
Who would have thought Belgravia, one of London’s poshest neighborhoods, would draw a sexy new hotel? It got one in February with Thompson Hotels’ Belgraves (rooms from about $515, 20 Chesham Place), which offers 85 rooms with an upscale bachelor-pad feel. Its Hix Belgravia restaurant offers a menu inspired by renowned chef/food writer Mark Hix‘s travels.
Entertainment types also still flock to three bright boutiques owned by the Firmdale group: The Soho Hotel (Paul McCartney is a fan), Covent Garden Hotel and Charlotte Street Hotel, a favorite of producer Christina Steinberg (Rise of the Guardians). “The decor is lovely across the Firmdale hotels, and the Soho has two really nice screening rooms — one big, one small,” says Lisa Wilson, an L.A.-based Brit who runs sales and finance banner The Solution Entertainment Group.
Perhaps the most convenient new offering when it comes to the Games is the Town Hall Hotel (rooms from about $330, 8 Patriot Square), located in a restored Edwardian-era council house less than three miles from Olympic Park in the Bethnal Green neighborhood. “The De Montfort Suite is a soaring room with arched windows and stained glass that was originally designed as the building’s concert hall,” says Lohan. Nuno Mendes, head chef at the hotel’s restaurant Viajante, can whip up dinner for up to 20 in the suite. Michael Fassbender has checked in, even though he lives nearby.
Of course, you always could rent your own mansion or castle through one of two trusted travel services, Loyd & Townsend Rose or members-only Quintessentially. The former’s start at about $46,000 and can be rounded out with a staff of housekeepers, chefs and chauffeurs. Tally ho!
Additional reporting by Simon Brooke
OLYMPICS: DON’T GET BUSTED SCALPING!: A 2005 law makes it illegal; the BBC caught an official on tape.
Tickets for many Olympic events — think archery and rowing — remain readily available, but seating for the opening and closing ceremonies is sold out. Unless you are on a corporate hospitality guest list, you’ll be watching them on the telly like everyone else. But certain high-interest sporting events for which general seating is unavailable can be accessed by buying a package deal. This is the first Olympics for which an official venue hospitality partner, Prestige Ticketing, has been appointed by organizers, and about a quarter of the packages remained unsold by the end of May. Hospitality packages (fine dining and beverages included) for the Aug. 5 men’s 100-meter final, one of the Games’ showcase events, were available for $7,000. Purchasers can use Prestige’s three-story temporary venue, located a javelin throw from Olympic Stadium. Prestige also has opened the process to allow high-end buyers a chance to buy individual packages, rather than the standard block of 10, for the Games.
Buyers who already have tickets but find themselves unable to get to the Games, beware: It’s a crime to resell tickets on the black market, with a fine of as much as $33,000 for each offense. Volodymyr Gerashchenko, the 66-year-old general secretary of the Ukraine National Olympic Committee, was forced to resign May 28 after he was filmed by BBC London news offering London 2012 tickets for sale on the black market. — S.K.
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