When you’ve ticked off Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and St Paul’s Cathedral, London’s lively and eclectic neighbourhoods are ripe for exploring. Melbourne travel writer Penny Watson has picked out her favourite haunts in her new handbag-sized book London Pocket Precincts, a guide to shopping, eating, drinking and hanging in the city. Here she shares her top picks from each precinct.
Independent British stores are hard to come by in the hyper expensive retail precinct of Covent Garden, so Tatty Devine, owned by two Londoners, is a bit of a find. The white shop facade nicely frames a showcase of happy-happy joy-joy jewellery, so frivolous and upbeat in colour and design it makes you skip a little. Choose from gorgeous glittery mirrored rainbow necklaces, star earrings and big red lipped brooches from the classics range. Seasonal lines have natty themes such as London Pride and feminism, or have a bespoke necklace made with your name sprawled across it.
Find out more: tattydevine.com
Since 2009, Reign Vintage has helped fit-out Soho’s boho peeps with second-hand garb that puts the awe back into wardrobe. The store Italian-based supplier ensures the stock is endowed with labels you’ll recognise; and it’s all expertly sorted with a fashionista’s eye into genres. Flick along hangers to find Armani jeans and Gucci T-shirts; and dig a bit deeper for pattern-heavy ’70s dresses by Pierre Cardin and checkered blazers by Ermenegildo Zegna. Shelves are dedicated to pumps, trainers and high-heels both worn-once and well-loved, and you can complete the look with leather belts and handbags. Reign will ship your collection back home.
Find out more: reignvintage.com
Word On The Water
This wonderfully eccentric floating bookshop, with roof-top jazz at the weekend, is a vision splendid. The 1920s Dutch vessel once plied these waters, but it is now moored permanently alongside the pavement on Regent’s Canal at Granary Square. The bookish (or merely curious) can duck down inside to peruse shelves lined with affordable pre-loved and new tomes, selected by bibliophile owners Paddy Screech and Jonathan Privett. Choose from adult classics, 20th-century hard-hitters, much-loved local authors, plus a stack of childhood favourites. A little stove heater, a leather armchair and the water lap lap lapping complete the picture.
Find out more: facebook.com/wordonthewater
Shoreditch & Spitafields
The English Restaurant
There was a time when England’s lack of culinary prowess would have turned gourmands off this place, merely because of its name. Now, with English cuisine having been taken up a notch (or three) the tables have turned. Located across the road from Spitalfields Market, The English Restaurant is a charismatic former pub with wooden chairs, shiny draft beer taps and wood-panelled walls across two levels of snugness. The traditional British menu boasts farmhouse pork terrine with homemade piccalilli and beer-battered cod with triple-cooked chips, but if you only have one dish, don’t go past the bread and butter pudding.
Find out more: theenglishrestaurant.com
Maltby Street Market
My Bermondsey friends insist locals don’t go to Borough Market since Maltby Street Market opened, but I say they’re a little bit spoiled for choice. Maltby Street is held in flag-festooned Ropewalk, a narrow laneway that runs along the neighbourhood’s rough-hewed brick railway arches. The combination of archway shops with speakeasy-style bars and a rolling line-up of curated food stalls gives the place a festive atmosphere. Head to Lassco for vintage homewares or Little Bird Gin bar for experimental G&T tipples. Food stalls including Waffle On for rhubarb and custard waffles, Gyoza Guys for crab gyoza and Herman Ze German for fat tasty sausages.
Find out more: maltby.st
There’s nowhere closer to the Thames than the swanky Sea Containers London hotel’s award-winning bar. It’s flashy, sure, and the crowd is good-looking, but you’ll get a smile at the door whoever you are. Settle into blue and green velvet and leather banquettes, next to shiny metallic squat tables and cushioned poufs and note the green marble bar. The mixologists are all about molecular gastronomy with an emphasis on botanicals and fruit. Try the Pantone Spritz, a Plymouth gin, cocchi rosa and bubbles drink that arrives with a dollop of black rice and coriander delicately balanced on rice paper atop the glass.
Find out more: dandelyanbar.com
I love it when a shipping container gets put to good use, so when about 20 of them are used to form a collective of cool in an otherwise disused space, I’m all over it. This kick-arse urban hive brings together cute little tailor-cum-clothes shop Make Do and Mend, Prohibition Ink tattoo studio, Kataba, a teeny shop making beautifully artisan Japanese knives and Container Records Store. Sidelining these hipster haunts is a feast of food: global sausages at World of Wurst, pizza at Made of Dough and Sicilian at Franzina Trattoria. On weekends from 6pm, it’s over-18s so expect tunes and tipsiness.
Find out more: popbrixton.org
Knightsbridge & St James
This small, internationally recognised gallery in a former tea pavilion in Kensington Gardens encourages third-graders, grannies and everyone in between to engage with modern and contemporary art, architecture and design. It succeeds because it is free, has only one interior exhibition at a time and the space is easily navigated. It’s also interactive. On my last visit, a project by Christo and Jeanne-Claude called Barrels and the Mastaba 1958–2018 saw an oversized pyramid of colourful oil barrels erected on the Serpentine Lake. Its hulk and apparent randomness were a talking point for people punting on the water or walk in the park.
Find out more: serpentinegalleries.org
If you only have one steak in London, have it here. This place specialises in dry-ageing, the evidence of which hangs, a little purple and gruesome, from meat hooks in the front window. Inside, the decor is a cross between butcher shop and Italian bistro, with a beef-cut crowded deli counter and white butcher tiles softened by wooden tables. Italian Fassone (cattle) beef is the specialty, and it’s hung to perfection for six weeks, allowing the taste and texture to develop. It’s melt-in-the-mouth stuff whether you have it as a carpaccio starter or as a rump steak drizzled with Ligurian olive oil.
Find out more: macellaiorc.com
2 Couverture & The Garbstore
In the Sound of Music, when Julie Andrews does that smiling, hands in the air, spinning around thing – that’s what I feel like when I visit this clothing boutique. Every dress, every jumper, every cushion, every handbag is selected for the artistic, aesthetic and tactile pleasure it radiates. You can walk around the two levels here in the kind of rapture you’d normally save for an art exhibition. Fork out for a floral jacquard skirt, a sheepskin coat, a smock raglan sleeve dress or a cashmere snood. Downstairs is The Garbstore, the men’s edit including plaid shirts, cotton flannels and special edition sandals.
Find out more: couvertureandthegarbstore.com