Secret London: part two

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

CAFÉ DIANA
5 Wellington Terrace, Bayswater Road, Notting Hill, W2 4LW • 020 7792 9606
Open 8am–11pm daily
Transport Notting Hill tube
Moderate (cash only)

Cafe Diana

“She always sat at the same table – right where you were sitting.” I’m convinced that Fouad Fatah uses the same line on all his customers. Unlike me, most of them are massive fans of this cafe’s namesake and erstwhile neighbour, Princess Diana. The paparazzi who lay in wait for the princess to emerge from would sustain themselves with tea and toast at this modest little caff, opposite the ostentatious embassies and oligarchs’ mansions lined up along Kensington Palace Gardens.  Diana herself even dropped in occasionally.

Fatah’s boss, Abdul Doaud, opened the café in 1989. “We came up with the name and five days later Princess Diana was in for a coffee. She brought the first signed picture of herself, and we just carried on.” Now the walls are plastered in portraits of “the people’s princess”: Diana in a splendid succession of 80s’ outfits, a montage of her changing hairstyles, Diana jogging, white water rafting, smiling coyly, a signed photograph with the café staff. There are three framed thank-you letters expressing Diana’s appreciation for the birthday bouquets sent to her by Abdul. Diana’s private secretary, Patrick Jephson, clearly had a florid way with words: “Though they mark the inexorable passage of another year, they are no less appreciated.” The final letter, a personal note from Diana – “I am deeply touched that you have thought of me in this special way”– is dated July 1, 1997, the month before her death.

Diana often brought princes William and Harry here for an English breakfast. “She was too normal – a regular mum. She said hello to everyone, always coming down to our level,” Fatah gushes. “And she always insisted on paying.” The café charges royally for distinctly plebeian fare –scrambled eggs, shish kebabs, toasted sandwiches, and chips with everything. I doubt the Princess ever indulged in “Diana’s dishes” such as deep-fried chicken escalope. “She looked after her figure, but she loved her cappuccinos and sometimes even had a croissant,” Fatah confides.

Diana fanatics from all over the world come here to pay their respects.“Too many, it never stops! I don’t think so they will ever forget her.” Apparently, Prince Harry recently pressed his face to the window, gazing wistfully at all the photographs. Now that Prince William has moved into his mother’s old digs at Kensington Palace, perhaps he and Kate will become regulars? “Oh yes, we expect him to pop in soon.”

BEL CANTO 12
1 Lancaster Gate, Bayswater, W2 3LG • 020 7262 1678
www.lebelcanto.com
Open Tues–Sat 7–11pm
Transport Lancaster Gate or Paddington tube
Moderate

If you love to hate AA Gill, the scathing critic of The Sunday Times, you might enjoy Bel Canto. Gill’s review of this operatic eaterie’s former incarnation in the City was so excoriating that it closed within months. Having tasted success with two similar ventures in Paris, owner Jean-Paul Maurel did not despair. Instead, he moved to a basement below the distinctly unglamorous Corus Hotel Hyde Park.“The hotel owner is my number one fan”, Maurel confides.

Pick your way through the glum patrons drinking lukewarm beer and watching football in the lobby. Downstairs, the decor is just on the safe side of kitsch: burgundy walls, soft lighting, headless mannequins in low-cut costumes. An expectant hush hovers over the dolled-up couples picking over a set menu of uninspired but respectably executed French standards. Like the waiting staff, wines are divided into mezzos, baritones, sopranos and tenors.

Between courses, the servers burst into arias from Puccini and Verdi. There’s a song every 15 minutes, which inevitably makes for some stilted conversations. It might be excruciating, except the singers are really rather good. Most of them alternate occasional nights here with performances on much grander stages. Weaving between the tables, graciously fielding musical or culinary questions as they hand over your beef fillet or apple tart, they seem to relish the opportunity to try out lead roles or rehearse for auditions before a live audience. Each night is different, with the diners’ reactions as varied as the repertoire. A concert pianist tinkles away throughout.

The crescendo comes with dessert. Singers toast each table with prosecco while belting out Brindisi from La Traviata. Their performance is so heartfelt that even staid Middle Englanders and bashful Japanese couples are persuaded to sing along with gusto.

Aimed at those who think opera is elitist or over-priced, Bel Canto makes for a slightly surreal, high camp but thoroughly entertaining evening. Just don’t take any of it too seriously. And come early – doors open at 7pm and the grand finale is around 9.30pm.

 

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

 

 

 

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