“And do let us know if there is anything I can do for you,” says my personal footman, after introducing me to my room for the night. “We want to spoil you.”
I want to be spoiled, I cry, after which he asks me when I would like my complimentary cocktails delivered. ("7.15pm please," I sniffle).
I'm in The Goring's Royal Suite, an aptly named two-bedroomed penthouse that emanates Englishness through and through. It's the same suite that Kate Middleton stayed the night before her wedding to Prince William, and it's easy to see why: it's furnished with mahogany panelling, a bottle of Bollinger on ice, a baby grand piano in the diningroom, rows of antique books I really shouldn't be trusted with, and endless royal touches. The guest toilet – for there are three in the suite – is panelled with same silk wallpaper that adorns the throne room in Buckingham Palace. I see what they did there.
Downstairs, the Michelin-starred Dining Room has a frequent visitor in the queen, who gave the hotel its Royal Warrant, an official seal of approval, and there’s an unsubstantiated rumour that an underground tunnel links it with nearby Buckingham Palace.
So while the €9,600 price tag on the Royal Suite may not be for everyone, its lavish double rooms, starting from £450 (€514), are more manageable base for a weekend experiencing London as the royals do.
Far from being holed up in their many palaces, family members mingle with the masses, and following in their footsteps is a guarantee of quality.
A rule of thumb: The queen and Prince Charles's presence is a sure sign of traditionally English touches, while the patronage of the younger generation – especially soon-to-be-married Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, whose courtship took place across London – suggest contemporary high-society haunts.
Sure enough, Harry and Meghan met at Soho House, the plush members’ club and hotel in the heart of London’s nightlife, frequented by movers, shakers, celebrities and international musicians. Knocking on the famous No 76 door won’t get most of us very far, but having roped in a pal/member into showing me around, I’m assured Dean Street Townhouse, its sister restaurant-bar open to the public and located next door, offers a similar buzzy ambience. It’s all the better with its 1920s accents, and extensive cocktail menu mostly served in weighty, diamond-cut glasses. In the dining area, there’s a smirk to be had when their well-heeled clientele sit down for Dean Street Townhouse’s refined twist on English dinners: think mince and potatoes, pork chops and fish pie.
For dishes as served to the royals, look for restaurants that use cuts from Aubrey Allen, official meat suppliers to Buckingham Palace. The English Grill at the Rubens Hotel, whose owners are also responsible for Co Mayo's Ashford Castle, are a fine example. Opulence isn't the word for this restaurant: it's draped in red, gold and mahogany, with an extravagant menu that features a €5,600 Pomerol Petrus wine from the owner's collection, and Kobe beef fillet, which comes as a €70 slab of succulent perfection. It's a meal that's indeed fit for a king.
On the hunt for a royal dessert, Violet Cakes in Hackney should be your the first port of call. They've been appointed with making Harry and Meghan's wedding cake, an organic lemon and elderflower tier decorated with fresh flowers. In the east London bakery cafe, there's plenty more seasonal, organic treats offer: chocolate hazelnut scones, red velvet cupcakes and Chocolate Devil Cake are all justified on holiday.
Plan well in advance, and sweet treats can be enjoyed as part of The Ritz’s afternoon tea, an indulgence particularly enjoyed by Prince Charles. The only issue is weekend sittings need to be reserved at least six weeks in advance. For the less organised, an afternoon tea at nearby Fortnum & Mason, founded in 1707, is an excellent alternative which needs a couple of weeks’ notice. Afternoon tea – a three-part concoction with tea refills aplenty and an extensive menu of bubbles for something stronger – is served in the duck-egg blue fringed quaintness of the Diamond Jubilee Room. A few floors down, the department store’s food hall doubles as the palace’s supermarket; a gawp around the gastronome’s playground reveals premium foie gras, tasting packs of raw London honeycomb, and inventive jams like tangerine and cardamom marmalade, and damson and claret preserve.
No weekend in London is complete without a few hours of shopping. Happily for the royals, high-end streets like Piccadilly, King’s Road and Bond Street are minutes away from the palace. To get suited and booted, Benson & Clegg on Piccadilly Arcade are the official suppliers of cufflinks to the palace, though they specialise in tailormade suits, fitted while patrons enjoy a whiskey or two. “Our bespoke suits start from €4,500 but you can get luxury cloths too,” says cutter Oliver Cross in his first-floor workshop. “I’ve made suits that are scented with orchid, or with diamond chip woven into the cloth itself, or made from khullu, the premium fibre collected when a yak rubs its coat on a tree.” Which sounds . . . extravagant.
Crossing Piccadilly, continue shopping at Penhaligon’s, the royals’ official perfumerie. Gender divisions are ignored in the store, adorned with beaux-art touches, so you’re free to pick the scent that suits you best. Hedging my bets, I opt for the library of 10 travel-sized bottles for €33, and a complimentary silk handkerchief sprayed with an 11th scent. If I was stuck, their Harrod’s branch also offers a personalised service where a chosen base note is mixed onsite with handpicked signature essences to create a custom-made scent. They also offer a service to create a perfume from scratch, for those with time (eight months) and money. Lots and lots of money (€40,000).
While in the area, one might peek into Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle's favourite shops around King's Road: they've previously visited Heidi Klein, Whistles, Warehouse and Peter Jones, a luxury department store.
Pubs and clubs
SW1 is also the place to be after hours, especially now celebrity favourite Mahiki has a Kensington outpost. Before their respective engagements, Prince Harry and Princess Eugenie were regulars in London's most exclusive clubs in the area. Raffles is the Lillie Bordello's of London, I'll say no more than that, and Geisha at Ramusake is a popular spot owned by family friend Guy Pelly, who organised Prince William's bachelor party. Nowadays, the younger royals are more likely to be seen in upscale bars like The Sand's End or Brown Cow in Fulham, owned by family friend Mark Dyer, and The Cross Keys, Chelsea's oldest pub, once frequented by Agatha Christie, Dylan Thomas, Bob Marley and the Rolling Stones, and more recently where Prince Harry celebrated his 31st birthday.
The morning after the night before, The royal parks are a peaceful place to nurse a hangover. St James' Park, Buckingham Palace's front garden of sorts, is the busiest but my favourite: cross the Blue Bridge, and its lake views of the palace on one side and London Eye on the other will cure what ails you. Plus there's entertainment from the brazen swans and squirrels who steal food straight out of people's hands.
Over summer, there's the option of outdoor cinema in regal surrounds: Kensington Palace and Hampton Court throw open their gates for relaxed screenings of films like Victoria and Abdul, The Greatest Showman and Harry Potter, offering a majestic day out.
When it's time to leave the fairytale of London, hire a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce or Bentley to drive to the airport – that's how to end a weekend of being treated like royalty. One could get used to this.
See Marie-Claire Digby’s guide to two of the latest Mayfair restaurant openings, and a hotel near Buckingham Palace with two interesting in-house dining rooms, here:
Dine with the in-crowd in Mayfair
Royal London is not generally where London’s coolest, most hip restaurants open their doors. But the rarefied environs of Mayfair and St James’s welcomed two hot new tickets in recent weeks, and despite the hype, they proved very easy to access on a recent weekend.
Ramael Scully, a longtime collaborator with Yotam Ottolenghi and previously head chef at NOPI, has his name over the door for the first time, with the opening of Scully in the swish new St James’s Market development. Here the Malaysian-born, Sydney-raised chef, is indulging his eclectic, world cuisine leanings with a menu that defies categorisation.
Pull up a stool at the open-kitchen counter, place yourself in the in hands of the chefs on duty, and enjoy the ride. Menu highlights include puffy, crisp South American corn pancakes called arepa, with eggplant sambal and bergamot labneh; early season tomato and coconut salad, green strawberries and tomato shrub; and pork belly, XO and cime de rapa. It’s sharing plates spot, with prices mostly in the £9-£20 range.
Arepa is the dish that will provoke a diner revolt if it ever comes off the menu here. The puffy pocket, fried to order , is dusted with corn powder and lime zest, and annointed with spicy sambal and soothing creamy labneh, in a cross-cultural marriage made in heaven.
Just a short walk away, on Heddon Street, off Regent Street, Nieves Barragán and José Etura have also struck out on their own, after long careers at the Hart brothers’ Barrafina restaurants.
Sabor (flavour in Spanish), combines tapas in the bar, with Segovian suckling pig the main offering at the upstairs asador, and a market menu at the counter.
Walks-ins were being accommodated across all three when I visited (in late March), as they were at Scully, which goes to prove that when you assume a new opening will be jam-packed, you might be just be incorrect.
Here, too, the open-kitchen counter is where you’ll want to be, perched in close quarters with the in-house fishmonger and the chefs turning out cracking dishes of regional Spanish seafood and shellfish (from the raw bar at the entrance), as well as grilled meats and vegetables.
Croquetas, of prawns and of piquillo peppers, pintxo of milk-fed lamb, and chicken oyster bocadillo, made with the succulent nugget of meat on the bird’s underside, not the shellfish, are the star turns on the bar menu, along with hand-carved jamón Iberico 5 Jotas.
Ella Canta, the upmarket Mexican at the InterContinental hotel, within tortilla tossing distance of Buckingham Palace, is an outpost of one of Mexico’s top chefs, Martha Ortiz.
The restaurant is famous for the gold painted grasshoppers that perch on the guacamole bowls, as well as being notorious for being described as “the worst restaurant I have ever reviewed”, by Giles Coren in the Times.
Harsh words Giles, and after a very good weekend brunch there, it gets my vote for seeing out a Mayfair gourmet weekend on a high note – and that’s without indulging in the bottomless margaritas included in the £59 cost of the 12-dish feast.
The hotel is also home to Theo Randall at the InterContinental, where the former River Café alumnus turns out rustic Italian dishes majoring in seasonal ingredients of a quality that just about justifies their exalted price tags.
Start your dinner with a barrel-aged Vesper – “Theo’s reinterpretation of the famous Vesper martini drunk by James Bond in Casino Royale” – three measures of gin, one of vodka and a dash of Lillet Blanc, and order the chef’s signature pasta dish, cappelletti di vitello, or fresh pasta stuffed with slow cooked veal, pancetta and Parmesan, with Amalfi lemon tart to finish.
If you are staying in the hotel, Randall will also be responsible for your breakfast. While most Italians break their fast only with a tiny coffee, his breakfast menu is a delight, especially the bruschetta di avocado, with Ryefield goat’s curd, from Co Tyrone, spread on toasted sourdough, under smashed avocado and topped with poached eggs and coriander.