Taxi Noir: Top 10 London Streets
What follows is a very personal and subjective survey of some of my favourite London streets. Seven of the ten are in Central London, while the last three are out of the centre, but well worth a visit. Ladbroke Grove can be adequately experienced in a car or on a bus, but it’s essential the other streets are experienced on foot. London’s a big city, but taken one chunk at a time it’s very walkable.
Waterloo Bridge is an uninspiring strip of concrete, but it provides the best view in London. On one side you have Westminster and the London Eye big wheel, on the other you have a breathtaking view of the City. In a heady mix of old and modern you’ll see the majestic dome of St Paul’s Cathedral (opened in 1710), plus the steel and glass towers of the City’s financial district. The view is particularly good at night. Ideal to visit if you’re going to the South Bank Centre on the south side of the river.
Monmouth Street is one of the nicest lanes in Covent Garden, with its cobbled thoroughfare lined with independent businesses. I always enjoy seeing the huge French flag at Mon Plaisir restaurant. It’s less touristy at this (northern) end of the Garden, and there’s little traffic until you reach the mini roundabout of Seven Dials. There’s a nice pub on Seven Dials and it’s usually uncrowded.
Little Denmark Street is Britain’s Tin Pan Alley area of music publishers (it’s debatable whether TPA originated in London or the USA). There are few publishers left, but sheet music is still readily available. Denmark Street is now known as London’s premier location for musical instrument shops. Try out Smoke on the Water on the shiny guitars, and marvel at the rare vintage instruments.
Gerrard Street is the flagship symbol of Chinatown with its pedestrianisation and Chinese gates, but Lisle Street feels more gritty and authentic. Lisle Street tends towards the smaller Asian restaurants and food shops. Food is Hong Kong-Chinese dominated, plus plenty of Vietnamese. The area’s restaurant scene is very competitive and offers good value for money. Customer turnover is Hong Kong-quick. The area’s Chinese restaurants are famous for the hurried “Soho Brusque” model of service, and you won’t be encouraged to linger of your crispy pork and rice.
Across from Chinese Soho into what I call “Dirty Soho” runs fabulous Brewer Street. This is Soho at its best, where smart patisseries and gourmet butcher shops mix in happily with the sex shops, gay bars and peep shows. It feels a bit un-English and edgy at the eastern end by Wardour Street, but the area is pretty safe and tame these days.
Nearby Carnaby Street is part of what’s now referred to as West Soho; a slightly more upmarket little corner of independent shops and small eateries. Carnaby Street is a small street with a big reputation. It’s reputation as a centre of cutting-edge street fashion disappeared with the 60s and was a travesty of its former self by the 80s. The street has slowly improved since. People still come here for 1960s mod, and 1970s punk fashion, and while it feels a bit frivolous and tongue in cheek, it’s an interesting and pleasant street to visit.
Jermyn Street runs parallel to Piccadilly, but it’s a quieter, more sedate, perambulation. The little area of St James is very upmarket; known for high class clothes shops, hatters, cigar merchants, caviar purveyors, yacht merchants, art and antiques dealers, and a few name restaurants. Jermyn Street specialises in clothes. Men’s clothes. Jermyn Street has a rather male feel. If you wonder where those eccentric upper-class types gets those pink or scarlet trousers from, it’s from here. Piccadilly Arcade is also fascinating. The silk pyjamas and tassled sleeping hats displayed in the windows aren’t price-listed. If you need to go and ask inside, you can’t afford it.
Hampstead High Street is the “village” high street of leafy, upmarket, Hampstead. It’s about as posh as it comes and it’s quite exclusive. Marvel at the house prices, have a look in some quirky independent shops. Pretend you live here and have a meal in a swanky bistro or characterful pub. The residential streets are well worth a look around.
Ladbroke Grove connects swanky Holland Park with edgy North Kensington. It’s not all beautiful, but it’s a fascinating street that changes its character all the time. The southern end around Holland Park is about as upmarket as it comes. A little further north you have the big houses of Notting Hill. Get off the Grove and have a look around the smart crescents. The street gets more edgy at Ladbroke Grove Station and continues into North Kensington, which is a diverse mix of rich and poor. Notting Hill (W11) and North Kensington (W10) were once seedy low-rent districts. You’ll see it in the mix of people, and in the state of the buildings. You still have the big houses, but some are clearly in a state of disrepair. Gentrification is almost complete in W11. Few people can afford to live here, but it’s unspoilt by progress.
King’s Road is the main thoroughfare in upmarket Chelsea. It’s known as a rich person’s shopping street, but there are also pubs and restaurants. The Saatchi Gallery attracts many visitors at the Sloane Square end. The whole length of the street is fascinating. Have a peek at the smart multi-coloured houses in the side streets, then look in an estate agent’s window to see how much they cost to buy. If you need a drink afterwards I recommend The Chelsea Potter.
That’s it for now. I’m sorry if I’ve missed out your favourite streets. My Top Ten change all the time, so your favourites are bound to turn up another time.