High (street) Expectations in Kensington
Tall Stories: The evolution of the restaurant scene in Kensington
The evolution of the restaurant scene in Kensington & Chelsea
Surviving the winter months in London is like playing hopscotch blindfolded in a forgotten minefield, or championship bowling in cotton socks against Phil Mitchell. One way or another you’re going to get hurt. Disrupting office parties that secretly began as lunches, meme-led, firework like WhatsApp groups and absurdly collecting annual catch ups as if they’re going out of fashion, is all a part of the artful game of keeping the Christmas cheer going. It can be warmer than a blanket made out of magnesium soaked stars or as cold and bleak as losing your wallet and keys on the long, drunk stumble home – either way, the yule tide wraps you in all its alcoholic glory for the good, at least until dawn or until the credit card bill comes through.
January tip toes through the door with big bright judging eyes, making you feverishly review all your recent and dubious life decisions. And all of a sudden, we start to look at ourselves in a different light. Improving, evolving, mending, sorting, cleaning. It all gets dotted, ticked and crossed in the longest month of the year. We lose friends, co-workers and loved ones to the January vortex. While the cats away the mice will play, and it is their city for a few short weeks. London is quieter, the world feels just a little different, peaceful and still. Especially with everyone hiding inside for fear of breaking their self-inflicted dry state law in their own home with a strict curfew. Instead of fixing myself this year, pig-headily forgetting that I’m skipping the mirror at most opportunities for the shock of not recognising the tubby man standing in front of me I decided to have a good old look at what, how and where I was eating – it was bad, really bad. Read all about it here. This was the catalyst which got me thinking about my local options in good old west London. Incredibly spoilt for choice, but where in Kensington is independent, walking distance, tasty and not a total rip off.
Kings Road, Chelsea 1990
Thinking of my spoilt days of youth; I get lost in my own thoughts of being rosy cheeked and toasty at cocktail parties in the late winter months when I think of Kensington. The gin stained, smoke filled bars of yesteryear were the days I learnt the ways of surviving in London. I was initially led by a beautifully rambunctious, but deadly foghorn of a girlfriend, who knew her way around Chelsea like the back of her Tiffany encrusted hand. Well heeled, well pronounced and bouncing on her pedigree toes she whisked me to places where I, nor my allowance, could ever imagine we could go. We never stood still. For months, maybe years. It was all a blur. From lurking around tennis clubs, to getting chased out for smoking in basement bars, to trying weird fruit like avocado; she taught me the right way to do the wrong things with style. Brunch wasn’t called brunch back then; it was just an early lunch without food and champagne that got swished down until dinner. The poaching of eggs was always an afterthought, that slowly became a never thought, and instead turned into cocktails at dinner. Clumsily in love, peacocking around town, Harrods shopping and hopping into black cabs as if it was nothing, fuelled with the freedom and fun of being lost in London for the first time.
There are countless stories of howling at the moon, but one evening we found ourselves inside Blakes Hotel in South Kensington – there is a mysterious bar in the basement, it is like walking into thick, black ink. So sticky not even your darkest secrets could find their way out. And that is all I will say, as that is the way it should be. Sometimes secret places need to be experienced, not explained. No need for photos or flowery context, it is fantastic in every single way and you should visit.
Image of author.
Zipping into the oldest members club in London, and now hot-shit mini super club, Raffles, for a champagne popping postcard of memories. Lightening bolted flash bulb moments that you wish were captured on film – you wish you have that polaroid in your hand, so you could treasure it forever. Showing the future kids of how young and dumb you looked, surrounded by hair-raising fashion choices and timeless stares. But no, they’ll have the bloated, bleary eyed university Facebook photos to review and chortle over. Unfortunately, not the ones where we looked like we were in a feature magazine. Putting those forlorn scandalous stories I shouldn’t share on ice, I whip back to my point.
Bursting into to Vingt-Quatre (or VQ) the 24-hour diner (now with sites all over) at 6am for waffles, chips and a bottle of Smirnoff was a monthly affair. Nursing the hangover in a hotel bar by Sloane square and then waking up face down on someone’s balcony was the new-norm because honestly, the day does that to you when you live off predominantly cigarettes, gin, lime, poached eggs and hollandaise.
VQ Chelsea from vqrestaurants.com
The windswept days before Made in Chelsea, where the original Sloane truly reigned the streets of King’s Road – Air kissing girls with huge handbags that held nothing inside, men with ties tucked into top pockets and wild, waving collars haunt avenues and pubs that dotted around the borough. Charcoaled, cigar smoke stained memories of nights at Boujis. Crack baby shots and champagne flutes used as ash trays. Marble entrances with drinks that were always, always topped to the brim at moon lit open-plan parties that went on for days – there was and always will be a naughty undercurrent that runs through the Chelsea streets. The cliques and the crews evaporate over time, and that bar you religiously went to has been renamed yet again.
There will always be a new chapter that shines through to fill these places, re-birthing the Sloane for a new day. I hope. Some streets have not changed since the sixties – thankfully, architecturally trapped in time. But those scenes are rare these days, and as London swells outwards as well as up, new territories are being plotted and old spaces regenerated. The times be a changing. 151 the basement nightclub that’s interiors, staff and glassware hasn’t been touched since the early eighties will never change, that’s for sure.
Some would say these changes are for the better – the new ‘box office shops’ by Bay6, Portobello look great and a fascinating way of bringing independent retailers – and the Acklam Village Market is more popular than ever. And of course, Portobello will always be Portobello.
image from acklamvillage.com
But the colours, noise and joy of the area seems to have been lost of late just down the road. With Kensington High Street becoming more through-road than well-placed town centre. The goliath of Westfield that seems to grow larger daily, greedily swallowing up the market of browsing shoppers has meant the street has lost its colour. Its youth. Where did everyone go?
Once the area had the zesty pop of hippie and bohemian fashion at its doorstep. Kensington Market had the busy brilliance of Camden, but all on three floors. A sweet entrée to Portobello Market on the other side of the hill. From metal heads to ravers, from goths to new romantics, teenagers sprawled everywhere in acid tops to baggie jeans for decades. Swinging since the sixties, now replaced sometime in the noughties by a PC Warehouse Curry World thing. Two floors of appliances and quite literally no soul. When there isn’t even a WH Smith on the road, that’s when you know you’re in trouble. There is no such thing as an independent store on that road anymore, they’re all gone and that is a serious shame. Apart from ‘The Non-Stop Party Shop’ next door to the original Byron by Holland Park. I salute you.
Is it already too late for High Street Kensington?
Have the landlords and big-brand shops killed the soul of the commercial properties in the area?
Yet the restaurant scene remains strong. Stronger than ever it would seem. Staples such as Balans, Sticky Fingers and the Ivy Brasserie are always full, day and night - The pubs in the area stand strong too, probably held up mostly by the Daily Mail and Metro company cards but that’s a different story.
The late-night and bar scene still slowly bubbles away. Albeit with council and licensing restrictions, the resident’s wants, and needs being put first to the detriment of the cultural development of the area through music, food and drink. The good news for night owls is Bloom at 2a Kensington High Street has opened, their slick flower filled interiors remind me of an Alice in Wonderland acid flashback (in a good way) that will no doubt lead you into having some dark, neon lit fun until the very early hours. And the best roof top venue in London, the Kensington Roof Gardens is set to open sometime this year.
Looking deeper, Dishoom is a wonderful experience through and through. A new Megan’s has cropped up too, jam packed full of prams with proud pursed lipped mothers, and chirpy insta-girls followed by their slump shouldered boyfriends. Malabes too was absolutely fantastic – Sitting upstairs, getting lost in my own memories, watching the cars and couples rolls by, imagining what everyone’s little stories are as I waited for my friend to arrive. Over half an hour later she’s arrived and the food lands with a bang. We were cast off into a Persian adventure – taste buds on fire with indulgent flavours and crackling spices. Worth every penny, and every minute I waited.
Is the area becoming a little bit of a restaurant quarter?
image from melabes.co.uk
It seems the long term development plans are way, way ahead of me. Every possible delicacy under the sun is trading on High Street Kensington – you will be fully nourished no matter your pallet. There’s even a 24-hour McDonalds. With Whole Foods on one end, Maggie Jones and Balans in the middle, then Nandos with Malabes and Megans to finish. It’s a posh tongue twister waiting to happen, or a fantastic long weekend spent dining out on the local dishes, just a hat’s throw down the road. And I can’t wait to get my chops around them all.