Secret London

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions

It’s been a summer like no other in the capital, thanks to the triumph of London 2012. Yet while all eyes have rightly been on Stratford this summer, there’s good reason – now that the action is over – to steer your gaze towards West London which is home to some hidden gems. Here, Rachel Howard – author of Secret London – shares a few of the west’s best unconventional establishments with CD-Traveller readers.

869 Harrow Road, Willesden, NW10 5NG
020 8964 4873
Open Mon–Thurs noon–10pm; Fri, Sat noon–11.30pm; Sun noon–9.30pm
Transport Willesden Junction rail or tube

Centro Galego de Londres

Stretching from Edgware Road to Willesden, Harrow Road is one of those dreary expanses of no man’s land that Londoners drive through in a hurry. But there are a few nuggets of culinary brilliance lodged between the pound shops and fried chicken joints. On a particularly desolate strip, where Harrow Road tails off into Harlesden, this cosy social club is where Galician expats gather to gossip over giant portions of authentic Spanish food.

It doesn’t look like much from the outside. But pull up a stool at the tapas bar and there’s an unmistakable air of Mediterranean bonhomie, from the generous glug of Rias Baixas to the bulging basket of bread and butter. Through the kitchen hatch, you can watch the chefs slicing fluffy mounds of boiled potatoes to turn into a moist, melting tortilla – a treat that’s often thrown in free with your first glass of wine.

At the handful of tables, stocky Spaniards tuck into enormous plates of paella and steaks the size of skis. I prefer to sample as many dishes as possible from the selection of fantastic and fantastically cheap tapas. Despite several visits with equally voracious friends, I haven’t managed to try everything. However, I can wholeheartedly recommend the pulpo con cachelos (boiled octopus and potatoes dusted with rock salt and smoked paprika), pimientos de padron (flash-fried baby peppers that will occasionally blow your head off ), and chorizo al vino (punchy garlic sausage cooked in Rioja). Seafood is a Galician speciality and my prawn-loving pals go crazy for the gambas al ajillo (garlicky tails of king prawn).

Downstairs are two larger dining rooms that appear to be trapped in Spanish suburbia circa 1980 (napkin fans, random folk art, trophies from the resident football club, Deportivo Galicia, founded in 1968 like the Centro Galego itself ). On Friday and Saturday nights, diners are entertained with (deafening) live music. One evening in August, I stumbled upon a traditional festival, with revellers in horned helmets playing the bagpipes. Apparently, this raucous ritual commemorates Galicia’s Celtic roots.

The best time to visit is during a football match featuring any Spanish team. Crowded into every corner are extended families in football strips, men chewing over tactics between mouthfuls of monkfish stew, anxious fans knocking back Estrella beers. The whole place erupts whenever the Spaniards score and if the right team wins you’ll be hugging and dancing with strangers. I can’t wait for the next World Cup.

1 Shepherd’s Bush Green, Shepherd’s Bush, W12 8PH
020 7348 8968 •
Open Mon–Thurs 7pm–closing time varies, Fri, Sat 7pm–3am (sometimes 4am), Sun 7pm–12.30am; ope“n from 9pm Fri, Sat in June, July and August
Transport Shepherd’s Bush tube


The East End may have got all the attention (and some pretty dubious “regeneration”) in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, but London’s first Olympics were held at the opposite end of town in Shepherd’s Bush. The 1908 Games were supposes to be staged in Rome, but when Vesuvius erupted in 1906 the Italian authorities pulled out and London stepped in. A stadium was hastily erected in 10 months, named “White City” after its white washed steel and concrete structure. The stadium was demolished  in the 1980s to make way for a BBC Media Centre but the public toilets built to service spectators streaming out of Shepherd’s Bush underground station have survived.

Between times a subterranean snooker hall, in 2002 Tammi Willis and Colin Welsh converted the Edwardian loos into “an independent beat bunker” that hosts live music, comedy, cabaret and club nights. In the middle of a traffic- clogged junction, the inconspicuous entrance is next to the war memorial on Shepherd’s Bush Green. (Look for the fairy lights wrapped around the railings.) Downstairs, it’s dark, a little damp, and slightly dingy, but the energy is warm and positive (although the loos are pretty shabby for a venue that started life as a public convenience). The club is members only, but a free pay-as-you- go membership on the door gets you and four guests entry, subject to any admission charges.

Ginglik is a Cantonese martial arts term meaning “explosive power”. Every Monday night, the space is used for Wing Chun classes for wannabe Bruce Lees (which explains the armless wooden dummy in the bar). Otherwise, the line-up covers all bases – Balkan DJs, a Japanese theremin orchestra, the best of London’s buskers. Paloma Faith, Paolo Nutini and Ellie Goulding all performed at The Big Secret, a weekly showcase for emerging singer/ songwriters, before they became famous. The fortnightly comedy nights have also introduced some big names to the scene. Robin Williams even put in a surprise appearance before performing at The Royal Variety Show.

On a recent comedy night, the MC took one look at the crowd and snorted: “You’re the most white, middle class audience I’ve ever seen.” That was nothing compared to the next act, the brilliantly offbeat Lou Sanders: my friend was laughing so hard, Sanders accused her of being on poppers.

(Hopgood Street, W12 7JU; 020 8811 2807;
This Phililippino karaoke club gets wild at weekends, when it stays open until 3am.

For two more quirky corners of West London, don’t forget to log onto CD-Traveller tomorrow!

Extract from Secret London: Unusual Bars & Restaurants by Rachel Howard (Jonglez, £12.99)

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