Man, it had been a minute since we’d been to London. If 2003 was a minute ago. You can see how young and adventurous we were in my Part 1 and Part 2 reports from drunken London. This, though, was a different time. A different story. Slowly coming out of COVID and loaded down with Hipster Jr. and Hipster Jr. Jr., we were not the same duo we were some nineteen years ago. No, we were an American family on a European adventure. Albeit one that was kept to one single English city on one group of island nations. Which — if one of our hosts was correct — can be summed up as British. Or the UK? Yeah, I still can’t quite wrap my head around that whole thing.
So why London again? Considering we’ve never been to Italy or Spain or any number of other European nations? Well, mainly because we speak the language, might be able to find something that resembles a burger and Hipster Jr. is an Arsenal fan. That’s all there was to it, honestly. I suppose we wanted to ease the kids into Europe and not like go full Prague on them. And we’d been to Dublin not too long ago. And, honestly, I feel like both kids have some anti-France thing going on. Not sure why, but we could feel them bristle at the idea of Paris. Despite the fact the food there is clearly superior. Because food is mostly what Ms. Hipster and I care about. Next time, Italy.
Apparently we’ve become those people who just don’t stay in hotels anymore. And, honestly, that’s just fine. Ms. Hipster is a wiz with Vrbo. Issue being Vrbo doesn’t really do London. So we turned to Airbnb. And you know what sucks? Airbnb. Not the service, I guess, but the people who run properties through that site. For the umpteenth time every joint she booked on Airbnb ended up canceling on us. To this day we’ve never been able to actually successfully book an Airbnb. So she next turned to some service called onefinestay. Get it? The nice part is, she booked and they honored our reservation at this completely serviceable and roomy apartment in what we understand to be the pretty posh Fitzrovia neighborhood of London. I liken it to Flatiron, or maybe Gramercy in NYC. Kind of a mixture of commercial and residential, but in more of a corporate than familial way. Our apartment certainly felt more like corporate housing than warm and homey. But it was just fine and had plenty of space for the four of us. Also, we’ve become accustomed to staying in apartments, and I’m not certain going back to hotels as a family will feel right. The privacy and ability to come and go as you please without having to worry about maids and doormen and other guests just feels better. Sure they don’t make the beds, but who cares?
As usual, here was our itinerary:
Dinner (after getting in late in the evening from the US) McDonald’s I know. I know. But it was late enough after getting into the apartment, having the OFS dude run through all of the things we could and couldn’t touch, and then settling in and realizing the kids were still hungry that there wasn’t really anything else open. I tried to resist, but I am in charge of foraging. This, sadly, wouldn’t be my last walk over to this McDonald’s. Past the office buildings, the odd homeless encampment and into the bustling, roiling late-night beacon of American whatever that was filled with what I can only assume were college students. And maybe just some drunk young people. All of whom were well-behaved, but clearly in search of some grease. The ordering was all done through these giant touchscreens and everyone just kind of mills around in this rather small take-out-only space waiting for their grub. So, does it taste the same as the US? Absolutely not. The buns are all wrong. Too dense and not at all as Nerf-y as the US’ version. The meat — like everything else in England — is too well done and not seeping that grease that the “good” McDonald’s have perfected. And the drinks are prepared sans ice. Which I supposed gives you more soda, but robs you of the one thing McDonald’s does better than almost everywhere: the fountain Coke. The fries are similar-ish, but certainly not as good. Oh well.
Breakfast Black Sheep Coffee – Great Portland Street Ms. Hipster got a smattering of pastries and coffee from this shop, which is apparently a chain of around 60 shops in London. I feel like a bunch of them are either in or near underground stations, which is smart. This one was essentially in the small Great Portland Station, which was a stone’s throw from our apartment. I’m not sure what were expecting, but when the two of us crowded in to pick up the goods, we pretty much took up the entire space. The two hipsters working the place were incredibly pleasant and sweet. Which was pretty much the default in our time in London. So, not New York. I think the food was serviceable, as were the Americanos we got. I’d say it’s like, um, Gregorys Coffee. A geographically limited chain that tries to keep it mellow, serve a little food and give you a decent cup of joe.
Lunch The World’s End Finsbury Park This was Ms. Hipster trying to be a good parent. She Googled “Arsenal pub” and this is what came up. So she booked a table at the time of an Arsenal away game with the idea we would sit and eat a great pub lunch and watch Arsenal almost lose to some inferior opponent. Turns out that British TV can’t show three o’clock football Premier League games. It’s a national law presumably in place to make sure fans go to the stadium and don’t just sit at home getting drunk and throwing shit at the television set. Akin, I suppose, to our NFL blackout laws when there is no sellout at the stadium. But for every game, not just low-attendance ones. Luckily there was a cup game on (that didn’t involve Arsenal), so at least we got some soccer. And some fish ‘n’ chips. And some burgers and beer and all that you’d expect in a bar. The young bartenders could not have been nicer, continuously apologizing for not being able to show the game and offering to suggest some less-than-legal streaming sites we might find it on. Hipster Jr. is aware of those sites, for sure. It turned into a fun afternoon, as the bar filled up with mostly young people sitting all over the place, drinking and cheering on the game. I imagine it’s a damn good time when a team you actually care about is playing. The bar itself looks to have live music at night and the whole atmosphere was fun. Even though a Jehovah’s Witness proselytized to us about armageddon outside the pub (ironically called The World’s End) and how we would all be dead the next day (which was Easter Sunday) if we didn’t take Christ into our hearts, etc. We did not. And we’re still here. These people…
Dinner ICCO – Goodge Street The aforementioned dude who did the intro at our onefinestay apartment told us this was “the bomb pizza.” So how could we resist? Of course Ms. Hipster and I were dying for Indian food, but we have to feed children who eat absolutely nothing. A trend that would continue throughout our time. Hipster Jr. and I took a loooong walk to get to this place to pick up our individual brick oven pizzas. The restaurant itself is kind of a mishmash of a NYC pizza joint and a London interpretation of one. Again, lots of young people. Because, you know, bomb pizza. Most folks seemed to be eating in, as we were the only ones waiting for a to-go pie. There looks to be four of these places around London. I understand the appeal. Fast casual pizzas at a relatively low cost, served quickly and hot out the oven. Not dissimilar to the place we took out from in Montreal, Pizzeria Bros. I’m honestly not sure if the pizza was da bomb, though. It was just fine. Hipster Jr. Jr. didn’t rate it highly, however. Thing is, when you’re really hungry, it’s almost impossible to make dough, sauce and cheese taste bad. I think it was, weirdly, some of the better (and, by far, the cheapest) food we ate in London.
Day 3 (Easter Sunday)
Breakfast Pret a Manger – Great Portland Street I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Pret, but it’s suuuuuuper-Euro. Ok, maybe not. But it IS headquartered in London, and the first Pret we ever went to was all hungover during that aforementioned 2003 London trip. The coffee was honestly the best we had on the trip. Or maybe the second-best. The pastries were nothing special, but they did the trick. Muffins and croissants and the like. Again, it was right around the corner from our flat, so it was convenient and had the goods.
Lunch Tesco Express This Tesco Express is about as close to a bodega as you get in London. It’s just a small version of a supermarket. We stocked up on some meats and cheeses and bread with hopes of making a picnic lunch. We got a late start, though, and totally botched it. But, hey, we had grocery store sandwich fixins!
Activities The Regent’s Park One of the great things about the Fitzrovia location is its proximity to Regent’s Park. It’s like Central Park in NYC, but more topographically friendly. It’s a beautiful place to walk through on a sunny day. Filled with people and flowers and dogs and open fields filled with soccer, rugby and Frisbee. It’s well-maintained and clean and just lovely to stroll through. There’s even a zoo in there and groups of students doing outside class. The whole park is surrounded by fancy Euro buildings and there are food places inside at which to buy drinks and food and whatnot. It just feels set up for people to enjoy. It’s terrific.
Camden Market If you’re a tourist, I imagine you’ve come here. If you’re a tourist, you’ve probably found yourself following Google maps into a dead end on the wrong side of a canal in some sort of Trainspotting-ass looking neighborhood. But with like Audis and BMWs parked all over. And this stencil mural that I’m sure it probably not a Banksy, but it seemed like the prefect inconspicuous place to stick it.
But then you round the corner and all of humanity explodes into what first feels like Canal Street times five. Real sneaker stores. Fake sneakers and jerseys and every manner of “fashion” on crowded sidewalks. All leading to this outdoor mall of sorts selling knick-knacks and trinkets and homemade soaps and knit stuff. Booths of engraved stuff and glass stuff and leather stuff. So many people. And in the middle of all this, tons of stalls selling different foods and drinks. We walked around, bought a couple little things and then bailed before being swallowed up by the crowds.
Dinner Jones Family Affair I’m still a little unclear how we found this joint. Ms. Hipster booked us a blue hair Easter dinner at this pre-theater steak restaurant. It seemed a little like they were surprised to have diners. Apparently they didn’t bake any new bread for the occasion, as the basket we got was just straight up stale (despite touting it on the menu). My drink — something called an “Old Almost Fashioned” that involved Wild Turkey 81 Bourbon and Rum — was decent. The calamari was actually really good, the sides (including something called Dauphinoise Potatoes) were decent and my steak actually wasn’t too bad. I was honestly expecting them to cook it gray, but they produced a perfectly pink medium rare steak. Yeah, the place is kind of weird. We sat in the front, across from the bar, but that’s just kind of how the place it set up. I suppose being a mostly pre-theater establishment, they’re used to turning tables relatively quickly. But, shit, this was Easter. We’re taking our sweet time. Anyhow, it was much better than I thought it might be given the bread (which can sometimes be the mark of a well-healed establishment), the oddball decor and the fact the English like to burn the shit out of everything. But, no, it was actually a good time. The name is still stupid, though.
Drinks The Cock Tavern (Fitzrovia) I’d dare to say this is a pretty classic London pub. Also, it’s fun to say “I’m going to the cock!” It’s funny because it’s also a rooster! Anyhow, like most London pubs, this is a one-beer-maker joint. This one happens to be Samuel Smith’s. Which means that the only brand of beer you’ll find here is — you got it — Samuel Smith’s. Which to us Americans, with our free market bars and love of microbrews, is just plain weird. To this one, at least. So, we’re limited to a handful of beers on tap from the same manufacturer. That’s cool. Because, hey, I don’t drink a ton of Samuel Smith’s. And it’s not like I couldn’t sample all of them and get sick of them in the span of one evening. That aside, the bar is very old-school. What with its gothic wood and tile floor. Brass taps and old pub tables. It’s quintessential. All that and a very nice bartender makes for a very pleasant evening.
Day 4 (Bank Holiday)
Activity Emirates Stadium Tour As I’ve mentioned, Hipster Jr. is a huge Arsenal fan. We would have loved for him to be able to see a home game at The Emirates, but unfortunately there are no weekday games. So the second best thing was to get a tour of the stadium. And that shit is cool. You get a little audio thing and you literally get to walk all around the stadium. Sit in the chairman’s seat. Sit in the players’ and coaches’ seats down on the field. Go into the locker room and touch their stuff. Go to the press room. Walk out of the tunnel to the field. Stand on the edge of the field. There were times where we wondered if they meant to let us go where we got to go. You get to take some fun photos with trophies and whatnot. And, of course, the gift shop and museum and the whole nine yards. It was a great experience and hopefully one that he won’t soon forget.
Lunch Cabana Brasilian Barbeque – Covent Garden This was a desperation play. We were starving and there just wasn’t a lot to chose from. Was this a good call? No, not really. Was the music horrendous? You betcha. This seemed like a pretty common theme. Londoners don’t like good music. They like cheesy music. Bad music. It’s weird. It’s either that Euro electronic stuff or like rancid wedding music. This had both. The food had promise in spirit. But not in execution. The service was slow. The food was slow. My chicken skewer was saltier than anything on this earth has the right to be. The rest of everyone’s meals were uninspired. Hipster Jr. Jr. only eats burgers, but I’m not certain that worked for her. I think Ms. Hipster said her drink way okay, I guess. This is what happens when you don’t plan.
Shopping Denmark Street Hipster Jr. Jr. doesn’t care about much, but the girl does love her bass. She’s a lefty and enjoys, for whatever reason, shopping for guitars just to see and play whatever lefty instruments she can find. Denmark Street is a famous strip of instrument stores, so this seemed like a perfect opportunity to make her happy. I can’t lie, I enjoy it too. And I enjoy her enjoying it. We spent most of the time in Wunjo Guitars playing a fretless lefty Warwick bass. Not a single soul bothered us. Like most places in London, the shops close on the early side (it was also a bank holiday) and they don’t mess around with stragglers. We were in another shop and they practically threw people out. Cool block of music, though.
Breakfast Cafe Zilly Now this is a little hole-in-the-wall cafe that reminded me of one of those old-school egg sandwich joints in NYC. The ones with the coffee in the blue cups with the Greek shit on them. The small grill and the hand-written signs. You know the place. Your local joint you hit up every morning for that egg and cheese until you realize they know your name and you’ve gained like fifteen pounds. Zilly’s egg and cheese was the perfect little thing. They asked if I wanted butter on the roll, which I declined. I’m not used to the egg being “fried,” so when I bit into it, the yolk ran out all over the place. But, damn, it was good. The coffee was decent as well. I would definitely hit up this place again if we were in the ‘hood for breakfast.
Miel Bakery & Workshops Ms. Hipster wasn’t feeling the egg sandwich, so she went a couple doors down to a French bakery she’d been eyeing. She was in there for quite a while while I ate my sandwich balancing my coffee on a bike shelter outside. She always talks about how she worked at an authentic French bakery in high school and said this place was also super-authentic. I’m pretty sure she was ready to move to London just for whatever pastry she ended up getting there. I’m sure Hipster Jr.’s $1000 iced coffee was decent as well, but I imagine the gourmet whatever of it was lost on his Keurig-havin’ ass.
Activity The Tower of London I feel like I mentioned this in my last London trip, so I won’t go into it. But suffice it to say, you kind of have to do this when touristing in London. The Beefeater dudes who give the tours are funny and entertaining and so perfectly British. It also reminds you just how violent the history of this — and pretty much every — European country is. Here, just like all the stories we heard in Prague, they just love to rip people apart and put their heads on pikes to prove a point.
Dinner The Cock Tavern (again) We stopped in no less than five pubs looking to get something to eat. One said their kitchen wasn’t set to open for the first time until the next weekend. The others mostly looked at us like we had eight heads and either said they had some cheese plate or like an abbreviated menu that had like a cucumber sandwich and some beans and shit. Despite several of them advertising “classic pub food” right outside the front door. The dude with the not-quite-open kitchen said their sister pub, The Cock, has great food. Well, good, we’ve been there and know where it is! Turns out, however, that they too seemed surprised that someone wanted to actually eat in their establishment. Even though, again, they had a sandwich board right outside claiming to have awesome pub food. They sat us upstairs all alone in this ornate dining room and we got our fish and chips and Hipster Jr. Jr.’s burger. It really felt like we were putting them out. We should have gone somewhere else, but we were tired of getting burned. Speaking of burned, that’s pretty much how the burger went. The fish and chips were just fine. It’s a better bar than restaurant.
Drinks The Waterloo Tap Ms. Hipster’s friend (and mine) from college moved to London many, many years ago. Her live-in boyfriend and she were kind enough to host us a couple nights. Bringing us first to this joint. It feels a bit like a funky afterwork bar across from a large train station. The beer selection here was way more robust and way more akin to your typical American, NYC bar with a variety of beers on tap. The friend is in the music biz and she immediately apologized for the garbage music. She said it was usually pretty good. It was not this evening. She was right. Anyhow, it was a bustling fun place, but we moved on. And on the way, walked through this cool tunnel.
Scooter Caffè This reminded me of the coffee houses I went to in high school. Or like the much more twee, European version. Super chill and very, uh, literary feeling, this is definitely no your bro bar or anywhere you might bring a bachelor party. I honestly don’t recall what the music was, but it kind of needed to be The Smiths. Or some esoteric French antique music. I drank some bourbon and maybe a bottled beer. The bar is tiny and feels as much like an espresso bar as it does a bar bar. It’s an oddball place, to be sure, but I like it. It’s not big-person friendly, however. I recall going down what I remember as spiral stairs to get to the subterranean space in which we spent the majority of our time. Although that might just be me projecting. It’s like if the East Village had less of a rat problem and could seat people in the basement. And were willing to put a dirty Vespa in the window.
Breakfast Peyton and Byrne – Great Portland St. This bakery was literally in the bottom of our building. It didn’t look to be open the first few days due to Easter and whatever a bank holiday is. But, lo and behold, they were open and I could smell the coffee smell wafting out as soon as I exited our door. Nice. The nose-ringed woman working the giant espresso machine solemnly handed my my Americanos and we got some pastries for ourselves and the kids. I like the look of the joint and my coffee had that lighter layer on it that I associate with European coffee. Despite it just being espresso and hot water. I drink it black, like half of my tuxedo cat. Everything was pro, but I really needed to lay off the croissants. The kids ate without comment. Which is generally a good thing.
Activities Brigit’s Bakery Classic Afternoon Tea Bus London Tour This one was for Ms. Hipster. She wanted it. She got it. The kids? Not so much. It’s literally a tea on a double-decker London bus. You drive around and they give you coffee, tea, hot chocolate or whatever. With no bathroom onboard. So, drink cautiously. Along with that, you get a tray of finger sandwiches and other delicacies. Along with some puffs and pastries and whatnot. And, of course, more cheesy music. It’s fucking everywhere. Like a wedding from 1989. It’s bizarre — and remarkably loud. The kids didn’t eat much, but I’ll mess with a cucumber sandwich. Why not? The bus drives all around, which gives you a sense of London. Though I felt like the narration was a little off and I kept missing stuff. My head was not on a swivel, I guess.
Pediatric Urgent Care at The Portland Hospital Despite being only a few months from going away to college, Hipster Jr. is still technically a minor. So he is still a pediatric patient. Albeit a larger-than-usual one. After trying our hand at the NHS, we decided to have him walk across the street to go to this private hospital. Both he and Ms. Hipster had to test for COVID prior to entering. I think the doctor was surprised by the adult-sized patient brought to her. Two hundred and something dollars later, we were told he did not, in fact, have a sinus infection (he did) and were given a script for a steroid nasal spray of some sort. Thanks, that was a waste of time and money. Kids are expensive.
Dinner(ish) Smithfield Cafe This was an utter and complete shot in the dark. We screwed our eating with the bus tea thing. But the kids were starving because they don’t dig on finger sandwiches. Once again, we walked around after Googling stuff and found that every single place was either too weird, too closed or just wasn’t serving the food their site claimed to serve. This seemed to be the effect of COVID still lingering, but it’s unclear why it’s so hard to find easy food in London. So as a last-ditch effort, we looked to the health department underachiever, Smithfield Cafe, for some grub. The men sitting inside the tiny, grease-streaked space could only be described as “rough.” Shaved heads, franks and beans on their plates… It just wasn’t our crowd. But I got a couple burgers and fries from the little Asian man to whom I mostly spoke in pantomime over the tall counter. He took some frozen(?) fries from a bucket under the sink (or so it seemed) and a couple patties that looked a little more gray than they should from a small fridge. I think. Ultimately, we sat outside the station, the kids with their food in their laps, while we killed time before heading out to our next adventure. I tried one of the burgers and some fries. And, honestly, that shit tasted good to me. Cooked in front of us on a really small flat top grill, it tasted like your typical greasy spoon. Thumbs up to the friendly cook and his magical burgers. That, thank god, didn’t give any us intestinal distress.
Activity Serial Killers: The Blood and Tears Walk Okay. I’m not sure where to start here. Well, let it be known that apparently the most popular walking tour in London is the Jack the Ripper tour. We didn’t do that one. Instead we spread our luck across any number of serial killers (which also included Jack the Ripper) with a serial killer walk. Whatever that is. Turns out our guide has supposedly been doing this same tour for twenty-two years. And claims over 60,000 satisfied customers. My math isn’t so good, but that number seems unlikely. And who, you may ask, runs a serial killer tour? For over two decades. It’s almost exactly who you’d expect. An excitable Irish guy named Declan, of course. But, honestly, I’m not sure we knew what we were getting ourselves into. I think, perhaps, Ms. Hipster didn’t read the fine print before buying tickets. The tour was two-and-a-half hours, if not closer to three. That’s an insanely long time to pay attention to anything, let alone the meandering narrative of a dude who is really into murder. Plus my feet were killing me. And I was worried Hipster Jr. Jr. was going to just lie down on a park bench in the dark and go to sleep. She stuck it out. And, actually at one point solved one of mysteries that Declan said nobody ever figures out. Frankly, I had a hard time following some of his leaps in logic. Maybe I’m just bad with accents. Or maybe what he was saying made more sense to a twelve year old than an adult? Whatever the case, Hipster Jr. Jr., once again, proved she’s smarter than everyone. Even a dumb serial killer. The whole thing was super-bizarre and a little baffling at times. I liked Declan, and the dude is very passionate on his subject matter, but only some of the killers he talks about tie to the actual area in which we walked. I mean, over time, there can only be so many serial killers in one square mile or so. Right? Whatever the case, it was definitely memorable. I think a larger, more outgoing group (the other two or three couples with us were pretty shy) might have made for a more dynamic tour. One where our guide wouldn’t have had to try so hard to be entertaining. It’s certainly a fun part of the trip to recall, though, and I’m glad we did it.
Activity Java Whiskers Cat Cafe Yes, you’re reading that right. We went to a stupid cat cafe. Turns out, it’s as dumb as it sounds. You know why? Because cats are cats and they don’t cooperate when you pay way too much money to drink coffee and pet them. The cafe itself is pleasant, but there are way too many people in a small space. Well, way too many people for the number of cats that are awake an/or available at any given time. I got in a total of zero quality pats in our hour there. And, again, this ain’t cheap. Hipster Jr. Jr., who was the engine for this adventure, spent her time looking around and under stuff for a cat to interact with. The rules say not to touch sleeping cats or try to pet cats who are clearly hiding. The issue? That’s exactly what 90% of cats do during the day. So you watch the two or three people interact with the available cats while you drink your coffee and hope that one makes its way to you. It’s awkward and not particularly satisfying. I’m happy that the place actually makes the cats available for adoption, but I definitely don’t think any of the other folks there were in the market for a cat. Especially the woman sitting at her table on a Zoom call with whomever. I enjoyed listening to her convo from short range, though. Not really. Anyway, interesting concept. Not so great in real life.
Lunch Stax Diner Yes, we went to what amounts to an American themed restaurant in London. It was in what I’d call a fancy food court. That sounds bad, but it wasn’t. It was a multi-floor kind of hall of restaurants and food joints. But classy. Honestly, this was the first place we walked by that wasn’t absolutely mobbed and seemed to have stuff the Jrs. would eat. It’s presumably named after Stax Records, which was a soul label back in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Kind of a funkier Motown. Anyhow, the decor is fun, the atmosphere musical. The menu is a mix of classic American stuff and Southern cuisine. Hipster Jr. got some hot wings he said were good, and I got an honest-to-goodness decent burger. One that I didn’t just tolerate, but actually enjoyed. Think Shake Shack.
Shopping Oxford Circus & Carnaby Street Yes, everything is more expensive in London. Even the Doc Martens. A store we spent quite a bit of time in trying on some boots with Hipster Jr. Jr. The staff was plentiful and the boots came out quick, but our sales person seemed less than interested in Hipster Jr. Jr.’s waffling. Also, UK sizes are strange and tricky when coming from the US. She didn’t end up with new boots (already having a pair she bought in the US), which was probably best since the prices were actually higher and the VAT just asinine. We did buy a few things at the Vans store. Because who doesn’t think of England when they think of Vans? And, again, with the VAT, we ended up spending exorbitant amounts on a couple t-shirts and a pair of shorts. Which we could buy at the local mall. But, hey, we have the story, right? Anyway, these areas are akin to the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica and maybe like 5th Ave in NYC. The latter filled with flagship stores and teaming crowds of tourists. Luckily the Vans store is as sophisticated as the kids get. And Ms. Hipster is not a huge fashionista. But I imagine those looking to peruse some Dolce & Gabbana or whatever would be happy.
Snack Amorino Gelato We wandered the streets looking for ice cream. Like a lot of our food searches in London, it almost ended in frustration. The few ice cream places we could actually find on Google were either closed, didn’t actually have ice cream despite advertising it or had a tiny selection that was actually mostly something not really ice cream. Then we stumbled upon Amorino. Which is apparently a weird, international gelato joint. Including tons of locations in the US. Including three in NYC alone. I had no idea. In any case, I didn’t get anything, but the rest of the family did. After the dude behind the counter formed their gelato into a pretty flower on their cones, they slurped it down and said it was actually very good. Who knew?
Dinner Nando’s Peri-Peri – Great Portland Street I had never heard of Nando’s before an episode of Atlanta this third season. In the episode, they’re in London, so I figured this was a British chain. Nope, it’s actually born out of South Africa and is in 30 countries. Including a bunch in the D.C. and Chicago area, weirdly. Growing up in LA, I’m a El Pollo Loco fanatic. Because that stuff is like crack. This is that, but instead of Mexican flavors, they mess around with peri-peri. Which is a Portuguese by way of Mozambique red chili pepper sauce that coats the grilled chicken. Otherwise, it’s the same equation. Grilled, juicy chicken and sides. No tortillas per se and with a bit more spice, but definitely on par. And, again, maybe I was just really hungry, but that shit was gooood. I understand why this place has acolytes. And, as far as I know, they’re less problematic than the crazies over at Chick-fil-A. I know that if I opened a franchise in my area, that thing would be a huge hit. Ah well.
McDonald’s (again) Yes, you read that right. Hipster Jr. was out when we got Nando’s and woke up complaining to be starving. By that point the only place open was McDonald’s. So out I trudged into the wind and dark. To get another oddly stiff, overcooked double bacon cheeseburger for my boy. I hope he enjoyed it. Though I’m sure he didn’t.
Breakfast Caffè Nero – Heathrow Yes, we had more coffee and more pastries for breakfast. This time at the airport. Thank god we walked miles a day or I might actually feel all those blueberry muffins and chocolate croissants. Also, buying candy in a foreign country is way more fun. They have like bubbly chocolate, which sounds better than it tastes. Anyway, Caffè Nero was your typical airport outlet and was just fine. We got to the airport three hours early. We didn’t need to. So we had a lot of time to sit and enjoy, I suppose.
The Airport – Despite being gigantic, Heathrow is pretty pleasant. There is a shitton of walking, but it seems way less crowded than Newark. Getting through security and getting around was actually pleasant. Even getting through customs was zero hassle. It makes our cramped US airports feel claustrophobic in comparison.
Getting to and From the Airport – Our flat was in central London. Apparently there’s a way to take a train to and from central London to Heathrow, but it seems daunting with two kids, luggage and an antsy travel partner. We opted for the incredibly expensive car service, which was arranged by our onefinestay host. The dude driving to the city had the most amazing mullet anyone has ever seen. He was a really nice dude, but his hair was just incredible. The guy on the way out was maybe a chimney sweep. But they drove large vans and we were comfortable for the relatively long ride. The traffic was never too bad, but they also don’t drive very fast. And the guy on the way out seemed to take one of those insane meandering paths through every town and village you could imagine.
The Tube – Unlike the NYC subway system, the London Underground actually makes sense. We never once got lost, the signage is great and the trains showed up exactly when they said the trains would show up. Hipster Jr. Jr. did get taken out by the door on our first ride when she hesitated too long getting on. It knocked her right on her ass. Those doors don’t mess around. The cleanliness — despite having cloth seats — was also impressive. Some of the train cars are more curved on the inside and I saw a guy almost get his head clipped off by the curved door while standing in the doorway. And then they have these wider, insane trains that have no partitions between cars. Like those bendy buses in NYC with the accordion material. It’s pretty trippy.
The Food – I’m not sure what our problem was, but we had an extraordinary issue finding available food. Granted, we were very limited in what we could eat given the kids’ limited palate. But even finding pub grub was difficult. I blame some of that on COVID and London’s slow move back into opening, but I’m also not sure Londoners care that much about food. Perhaps it’s just not the eating culture that we know and expect in this country. They seem fine with grabbing a sandwich at Pret and dashing. I didn’t even see the 1,000 salad and bowl places on every block you see in NYC. No carts. No trucks. We ended up eating a lot of junk from Tesco, because when in Europe candy and crisps are food.
The Weather – We have been told that London weather is terrible. It’s rainy and overcast and just generally gray and unfriendly. We must have done something good in our former lives, as the weather was absolutely perfect. Sunny and relatively warm every day. I know we got lucky, but it was pretty damn awesome. We were spoiled.
Testing – So, we had to test to get back on the plane. Every pharmacy seemed to offer testing that took several hours to get back to you and charged all sorts of expensive fees. We ended up getting a recommendation to go to The City & Travel Clinic. Each PCR test was 29 pounds. We walked over a few blocks from our flat into this posh-looking area, walked into a weird brownstone that was probably a private residence at one point, but now housed doctor’s offices, climbed some stairs and entered a tiny examination room. A very nice Indian doctor fella seemed confused by our arrival, but soon realized his computer calendar hadn’t synced and happily had us sit and take our PCR tests in an anteroom. All of which he declared negative way before the 20 minutes had elapsed for each. Seems this whole thing may be a bit of a racket. But, hey, I’m no doctor. He emailed the certs we needed to upload to United’s app and we were set to fly. Snip snap snip. Or whatever.