Sunday, 26 August 2012

No telephone, no reservations

It's always the same.  You read a review of a fantastic new restaurant, resolve to go and try it for yourself, forget about it for a couple of weeks, finally try to make a reservation and back comes the reply: 'Sorry, no tables until [insert ridiculously far away date here].'  So you go eat somewhere else and two years later the hot new place changes hands and pops up in the review columns once more with a new name.  And then the whole frustrating cycle starts all over again.  These places are the scourge of spontaneity and have a knack of making one feel horribly disorganised and uncool, just because you can't be bothered to wait four months to be able say you've eaten at [insert hot restaurant of the moment here].

But London has another option for the disorganised diner in search of cool; the 'no reservation' restaurant.  Inspired by a trend in New York, these restaurants have no bookings lists on clipboards, no online reservation systems, some even proudly declare 'no telephone' on their advertising.  (Where are we, 1850?  Are these places just too cheap to pay the line rental?)  Rock up to any of these places, from Pix and Polpo, in Soho to the Albion Cafe in Shoreditch, and you will likely be forced to demonstrate your devotion to their menu by waiting awhile for a free table.  But that's ok, these restaurants will be delighted to serve you plenty of drinks while you wait.  (We all know the bar is where the average restaurant makes its profit.)  As a business plan, it's genius.  And I know I'm being taken for a bit of a ride in these places; I am paying for the gimmick, paying, essentially, to queue.  But I find myself falling for these places.  I'm falling for their usually pretty tiny but delicious portions of food that make you think you can finish (and pay for!) more dishes than you can.  I'm falling for their (mostly) charming staff, with their slightly pretentious facial hair and pork pie hats.  I fell long ago for the distressed woodwork, the exposed bricks and the chipped tin plates.  And in particular, I have fallen for the peanut butter and jelly 'sandwich' at Spuntino.  For that desert of wonder I would queue forever.   
From the outside you wouldn't even know that Spuntino is there on Rupert Street in Soho.  No telephone, no sign.  The whole existence of this place is so stealthy it's like the owners don't even want to feed you or take your money.  Once you've found you way in however the welcome is usually warm, and the drinks appear pretty swiftly.  The carefully weathered decor suggests the coolest of New York venues, Manhattan's LES.  Depending on what time you arrive your wait for a table can be mere minutes or rather longer - go earlier or much later to avoid a lengthy queue.  (The whole place can only seat about 20 odd people at once, it is pretty intimate!)  But as soon as you're seated around the central bar, a large metal mug of freshly popped popcorn will land in front of you, and you can begin the task of deciding what to eat.

The dishes - in reference to the eaterie's name, the Italian for 'snack' - are small, designed for tasting and sharing (and over-ordering!).  They are however big on flavour; oxtail rigatoni, mackerel with saffron, truffled egg on toast, alongside classic comfort-food favourites like macaroni cheese and tasty little burgers, sorry, 'sliders'.  Staff seem pretty relaxed about you sitting tight for an evening and ordering more and more, tapas-style, although the waiting diners' hungry eyes may guilt-trip you into feeling like you should probably eat up and relinquish your seats.  Just make sure you leave space for pudding...the PB&J shouldn't be passed over for anyone, however hungry they look.
Spuntino on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Under the bridge

I am lurking, like a fairytale troll in wet running gear, beneath a bridge.  The rain pours down on either side of the arch, so hard it bounces back up off the surface of the canal.  As I watch, the towpath starts to flood in spectacular fashion.  I pause the app tracking my morning run on my iPhone and silence the pounding dance music that had been spurring me on for the past couple of miles.  Instead I listen to the sound of water on water, of water on gravel, of water on leaves.  I'm going to be stuck here beneath this bridge for some time it seems.
Two other runners shelter in the damp gloom with me, as does a tramp eating his breakfast.  We exchange friendly grimaces in recognition of our shared sogginess, and edge towards the centre of the underpass where the slicing rain cannot touch us.  On the canal next to us, a flotilla of tiny, beeping coots on a Sunday swim with mummy squeak to one another, huge raindrops plopping onto their neat little heads.  The odd hardened runner (looking like they're on the final leg of a triathlon, so wet are their clothes) powers through the bridge, making slow, splashy progress along the towpath.  White lycra plastered to one guy reveals a perfect Ken-doll six-pack beneath his shirt.  (Sadly he doesn't stop beneath my bridge to exchange training tips.)

The tramp, breakfast finished, is now making himself comfy, unfurling his sleeping mat and hunkering down beneath the dripping bricks.  Run-off swirls through the gutter running underneath the bridge, and the rain shows no sign of ceasing.  Beneath the next bridge along the canal - under which shelter more rain-soaked runners and Sunday morning walkers - a wide barge appears.  At the helm is  an elegantly clad amazon in a hooded oilskin and a brightly-striped maxi dress, beneath which pokes a pair of white DMs.  Between bridges her fellow bargee holds a large yellow umbrella up over her head, valiantly trying to keep the rain off her glasses as she mans the tiller.  As the pair pass beneath our bridge their greetings and pseudo-jolly comments about the weather echo around us off the curved walls.   

Windows up above the canal look blankly down, behind them more sensible, dry Londoners read Sunday papers and eat croissants.  As the pounding rain begins to slow a fraction I realise I am totally sodden, a few miles from home and suddenly slightly envious of the cosy croissant-eaters.  I should really start heading back.  So I strike out from my bridge, turning back the way I've come.  Moving very slowly and gingerly over the streaming cobbles, feeling the rainwater sloshing into my trainers.  Eyes on the ground judging the deepest parts of the puddles, occasionally ending up ankle-deep with a misplaced stride.  A enormous grin spreads across my face for some reason, I'm enjoying the novelty of this torrential run; it's me against the British weather, and whilst I can still run I'm winning.  

I make it back to Camden Lock in time for another particularly heavy deluge, and, surrendering my victory, duck in to a branch of Starbucks for shelter and something hot and liquid to warm my soaked self.  I loathe this particular caffeine-peddling chain; it is a reflection of just how bad the weather is that I am happy to seek refuge in here.  Both the service and coffee are decidedly substandard but the cappuccino holds off the sodden shivers until I begin to splosh my way home.  With the contents of a cloud held in my clothing.   

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Stratford's Olympic Park: the heart of the action of London 2012

A brand new postcode had to be created for Stratford's Olympic Park.  It's that big.  Covering two and a half square kilometres of East London, the Olympic Park has been several years and many, many millions of pounds in the making.  Whilst Olympic and Paralympic events are taking place not only in several locations across London but across many other parts of the UK, the Olympic Park is the focus of the action.  The site contains eight different purpose-built sporting venues, from Zaha Hadid's Aquatics Centre to the swooping, Pringle-shaped velodrome, and the peculiarly shrink-wrapped basketball arena to the enormous main Olympic Stadium, last seen as the backdrop for Danny Boyle's phenomenal opening ceremony.  It also contains the Orbit; a...well I'm not quite sure what it is...a scalable sculpture, a pointless folly, an expensive exercise in self-glorification undertaken by its designers?

Whilst many tickets to watch events within the Olympic venues have reportedly been selling for up
to thousands of pounds a seat, there is a cheaper option to soak up a little Olympic spirit.  For a mere ten pounds you can buy a ticket for access to the Olympic Park in Stratford, to potter round the place, sink a celebratory drink or two, and marvel at the extraordinary new architecture, even if you aren't allowed to take a peek inside.
The ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture
When you arrive into Stratford station the pink and purple-clad Olympics volunteers that have popped up all over the city (sometimes in the most unlikely, least Olympic-related places) are waiting to welcome visitors to the site, indicating which way to go with big foam fingers, booming at the crowds through megaphones from atop tall, lifeguard-style chairs.  Waves of visitors bustle towards the Stratford Gate entrance to the site, wrapped in their countries' flags, with patriotically-painted faces.  Yet more Olympic volunteers line the path, shepherding the ticket-clutching crowds into an encampment of white tents in which each park visitor is X-rayed and security-screened, somewhat unnervingly by seried ranks of members of the British Armed Forces.  But once cleared and allowed entry to the park, the cheerful hectoring lessens.
Visitors at 'Park Live', sitting on all the pretty, painstakingly-planted flowers
The Olympic Park is a surprisingly beautiful and green place.  The River Lea flows slowly through the middle of the site, wide, grey and patrolled by an emblazoned 'Rescue Team' in a life-boat should anyone attempt any impromptu water-sports.  In the middle of the river, towards the top of the park, is mounted a pair of vast screens, courtesy of some (one imagines) pretty sizable sponsorship from British Airways.  Here, at 'Park Live', those visitors without tickets to the venue events, or even those in possession of such tickets but with a break in their schedule, sit on two high grassy banks before these enormous television screens, watching the goings-on in park venues like the Copper Box or the Aquatics Centre, or even further afield out in Greenwich and across town in Earls Court.  Even three days in however the glorious banks of wildflowers planted around this area were looking a little squashed, as demand outweighed allocated lawn space.  Beer-sellers with cool-bags move between reclining groups, proffering the omni-present Heineken (spot the Olympic sponsor).  The whole thing has something of a relaxed, festival-ish atmosphere.  
Weirdly, located in a country where queuing is a pastime in which its people are unchallenged international champions, the Olympic Park had almost no queues at all when I visited.  Sure, there were thousands of people around but someone seemed to have done all the necessary sums so there were also adequate toilets, food outlets, programme-sellers and volunteers ready to point you in the right direction of anywhere you couldn't find.  The necessary number of benches, alas, was sadly severely under-estimated, maybe in a bid to keep the people flowing around the site.  Alongside a range of suitably international cuisine stands, sits the world's largest McDonald's (a proud achievement for London there), and a vast store rammed with London 2012 merchandise, featuring the ever-creepy Wenlock and Mandeville, the official mascots of the Games.  A stack of painted shipping containers props up a glass box in which BBC sports reporters discuss the medal table, the shock of a disqualified competitor, and the staggering achievements of US swimmer, Michael Phelps, against the backdrop of the impressive site.
And after an evening exploring the park with many thousands of other sports fans, you might expect a horrendous crush when leaving.  But amazingly, after being channelled out into the huge Westfield Stratford shopping centre, the crowds disperse.  As I headed back into the city sometime after 9pm on the night I visited the site I found off-duty athletes browsing the shops, their park identity passes slung around their necks.  Down at the grandly-named Stratford International station (claiming the 'International' from its direct line to St Pancras, and its Eurostar service to mainland Europe), I found an Javelin train waiting to whisk me back into Zone 1.  Within mere minutes there I was, spat out amid the chaos of nightlife in the middle of London, with the Olympic Park feeling like a whole other world.

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