Wilton’s Music Hall: Head East for Entertainment

Looking for an evening’s entertainment or a quirky cocktail? Look no further.Tucked away between Tower Hill and Aldgate Stations is a hidden gem of an establishment: introducing Wilton’s Music Hall.

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If you think that all of the city’s best theatres and show venues are in the West End, think again. Despite the majority of musicals centring around Soho and Covent Garden, and perhaps the more ‘serious’ plays taking place at the National or the Globe, there are plenty more hidden away, off-West End performances that are equally, if not more, mind-blowing. If you look hard enough, a short walk from the Tower of London will show you one such place: Wilton’s.

For a spectacular venue that, yes, may lack the light up signs and the overpriced merchandise that is synonymous with London shows these days, the unique Wilton’s Music Hall is definitely worth a visit. Having started out in 1839, this Grade 2 Star listed building is still going strong today after some recent renovation, and as one of the oldest grand music halls in the world, hosts a variety of top-class acts and entertainment.

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On first glance (when you have finally located the place having walked down several side streets), Wilton’s may not strike you as a fabulous night out. But step inside, and you could be mistaken to think you have been transported back to the era of music halls and gin dens. Low lighting, subdued hues and cosy décor meets a thoroughly relaxed vibes to create one of London’s best-kept secrets.

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The Mahogany Bar and upstairs Cocktail Bar serve up some exceptional and inventive cocktails amongst the usual beers, wines and softies for the drivers. Hearty pre-show food, courtesy of The Gatherer’s, is available, with local Brick Lane Beigels and the likes of chicken scratchings on the menu.

Recently, I was lucky enough to see one of the stunning performances that Wilton’s hosts – this one was a play cum cabaret cum musical and was gripping from start to finish. Titled ‘City Stories’, the show told four individual love stories set at different points in time, but all based in our beloved London. Exceptional music accompanied the drama thanks to one (very talented) woman and her piano, who also happened to have written the score.

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This, alas was only a two-night affair, but the constantly changing  programme of events is just why Wilton’s is so fantastic. From jazz bands to plays, cabarets to comedy, the variety in entertainment coupled with its one-of-a-kind atmosphere makes Wilton’s Music Hall the ultimate fusion of venue, entertainment, drinks and history.

The Ship Tavern: a Gin Den in Central

An old-school pub with a fabulous gin selection? This place has got it covered….

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Step outside Holborn Station, and head towards the Wetherspoons, that reliable, cheap, generic chain where you can pretty much guarantee to get a drink that won’t break the bank. Aim for this vaguely satisfactory but not hugely awe-inspiring establishment, and then just before you get there, step off the beaten track. Take a left down an admittedly dodgy looking alley and you will find a beacon of Real Pubbiness staring at you in the face: The Ship Tavern.

On a weekday past 5pm, there are crowds of savvy city workers who know of this hidden gem hanging around outside The Ship, but don’t let that put you off from venturing inside. In fact, see it as a sign of The Ship’s success as a Proper Pub. This is a cosy place to have a decent pint or a civilised glass of wine; an unpretentious inn which has not submitted to the Gourmet Gastro-Pub overhaul that many seem to go for these days (although, admittedly, the food on the next table looked pretty decent). What is particularly special about this place, though, is their crazy selection of gins. This is not the sort of place where you can simply ask for a G+T. If you do, be prepared to answer to a barrage of interrogations – which gin, which tonic, and which additions to your beverage – you’d like, and make you wish you’d gone to the bar with more of a rounded gin-based knowledge. Of course, you could just go for the gin of the day, which so far has not disappointed.

It is much more exciting, however, if you peruse the gin list and choose from the large selection of different gins with various additions, to see what takes your fancy (from experience, though, this may take a while). I opted for the ‘Brockmans’ which was served with sliced strawberries, blueberries and blackberries – a wise choice if I do say so myself .(I would have taken a picture of the impressive drink, but it is a testament to how good it was that I was distracted in the drinking of said drink rather than joining in on the ‘fashionable’ trend these days of instagramming/snapchatting anything that passes ones lips).

Whether best served with orange peel, grapefruit wedges, fresh berries or various herbs, these people know what goes best with each gin, and advise this on the list (and then go ahead and adorn your drink). Served in gorgeous wide glasses, these are, I reckon, some of the best gin and tonics on offer in the city. If you want to bag a table in the office rush, however, I’d keep this gem a secret.

http://www.theshiptavern.co.uk/

 

 

 

Brunch at The Black Penny, Covent Garden

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Brunch is one of those fabulous concepts that makes you feel somewhat sophisticated without the need for dressing up, parting with huge amounts of cash, or forfeiting an early night. Perhaps that is why the popularity of the breakfast-lunch convergence has increased significantly over the past couple of years: Instagram is now awash with Prosecco selfies and pancake snaps destined to make anyone munching on a solitary bowl of cornflakes green with envy.

A visit from friends, not so au fait with the ways of the big city, seemed like the perfect opportunity to get on the brunch bandwagon. Having had a lovely coffee date in The Black Penny a few weeks back, I decided to revisit this gem of a spot to see what mid-morning offerings they provided. So on Sunday morning, we trekked the onerous 5 minutes to Great Queen Street, where the fairly covert café is situated.

Only 5 minutes from Holborn station, past the gaudy fronts of various chains, The Black Penny revels in its subtlety. In fact, many people, as I did at first, walk past it without batting an eyelid; the few tables outside, black frontage, and small sign reading ‘The Black Penny’ could easily go unnoticed by a passer-by headed for the lights of Covent Garden. But the hidden vibe, the feeling that you’ve come across a city secret, is part of this café’s charm.

Rustic décor, and an immediately inviting counter of freshly baked goods means that on entry, the café feels homely yet cool, quirky but comfortable. Those wise ones who have realised this are already sitting down enjoying a fry up and a latte or a croissant and a cappuccino. What also has drawn a good few punters in is the ridiculously good offer of Prosecco: have brunch at this café and a glass of bubbly is only 1p. Yes, you read that right – ONE WHOLE PENNY. Clearly playing on the namesake, and that is no bad thing.

The coffee, I have to say is second to none. Smooth and almost chocolatey, this is a million miles from a bitter filter or your more usual Sunday morning Nescafe. It really is noticeable when you have a Proper Coffee like this; you start to doubt the authenticity of a Starbucks latte and realise this is what the real stuff is meant to be like.

Sweet-toothed Friend opted for French toast with caramelised apples and ricotta, whilst Savoury Friend chose the chorizo baked beans with goat’s cheese and an egg. One for a classic, poached eggs on sourdough was my brunch of choice, and a fabulous one at that – simple, yet so easy to get wrong. Here, however, it was so right. We agreed that The Black Penny was perfection on all three fronts. Price-wise, this is as good as you’ll get for a stunning brunch, fabulous coffee and a quirky independent café in central. Expect to pay £10-12 for a delicious mid-morning fuelling that will last you till late afternoon.

Despite not making the most of the Prosecco offer, brunch here is available until 4pm at the weekends, and a post-midday glass of bubbles may indeed feature in the coming months. Service is fantastic – utterly efficient, ridiculously friendly and that manner which makes you feel not only like a customer, but a valued friend. The Black Penny is made all the more appealing by the fact it is on my doorstep: it’s basically my local, and I will indeed be frequenting this coffee haven a lot more for my caffeine hit. Whether you make a special trip of a weekend for brunch here (definitely worth it) or are in need of a sit down and a cuppa when negotiating the streets of Covent Garden, (step away from the Pret), The Black Penny should be firmly penned in your Black Book.

http://theblackpenny.co.uk/

The Cross Keys, Covent Garden – A Proper Pub

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This man, this white-shirted individual making his way into The Cross Keys, has the right idea. He’s after a pint in a Proper Pub, and that’s what he is bloomin’ well going to get… Follow his lead, people.

When I stumbled across it on one of my walks through the awesomeness that is Covent Garden, its clear to see why ‘The Secret Garden’ came to mind when I saw  The Cross Keys. The flowers and plants on the pub front immediately caught my eye – in the city centre, a bit of greenery is always welcome – and the fact that it is slightly withdrawn from the crazy tourist part of Covent Garden, made me want to try out this boozer.

If you’re after a pub that’s a little off the beaten track, and usually a fair bit quieter than the ones on the main drag or right by the market, The Cross Keys is indeed a winner. The inside feels a little like a fairy glen: eclectic objects hang from the ceiling and fairy lights are draped throughout. The drinks on offer are pretty varied and at a reasonable price, especially for this part of London (expect two drinks to set you back around £8). This is a real find (not to blow my own trumpet) and I would put this little gem on your ‘To Do Booze’ list asap.

The Cross Keys, 31 Endell Street, London WC2H 9BA, http://www.crosskeyscoventgarden.com/

SACRED, Carnaby Street: A chain-free caffeine hit in Central

Carnaby Coffee

Fuelling up with a Flat White

Fuelling up with a Flat White

Stepping off the tube at Oxford Circus is an ordeal that occasionally requires therapy. The crowds of tourists, taking selfies outside Topshop; the steel pan musicians, providing a soundtrack to the street; the Hari Krishna’s parading with their instruments – this is a flippin’ busy place.

Rather than negotiate the heaving throngs of people, or barge your way into a shop/cafe of your choosing, I suggest wandering down Little Argyll Street, which will take you to the (hopefully) quieter, and (definitely) cooler Carnaby Street.

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See – they do alcohol too!

Don’t be lured in by the Starbucks or Pret which grace the beginning of this iconic street: hold tight a few minutes longer and turn down Ganton Street, making your way to the haven that is Sacred.

Granted, a caffeine hit here may set you back a few more pennies than your usual latte at a chain, but it is most definitely worth it. The coffee is rich and velvety, the decor cool and quirky (take a look downstairs…), and they even do cocktails if you’re feeling truly traumatised by your brief foray down the Street of Streets. In fact, I bet their Espresso Martini is something else (note to self: try this next time).

Friendly service provides a welcome change to other cafes you may frequent, and the fact you can sit outside (should this British weather ever offer some relief from the cold/wet) means that this little gem is a perfect stop off.

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Q: Is it a bird, is it a plane? A: No, it’s a leaf (obviously)

If coffee’s not your thang, their loose leaf tea selection and incredible antique teapots are an experience. If tummies are rumbling, there are various nibbles to be had (I’ve been reassured their tapas board is a winner). Sit back, delight in the SACRED atmosphere, take in some proper coffee, and try to pluck up the courage to tackle the busy streets.

*disclaimer: PTSD therapy not supplied following a trip to Oxford Street