Touring London's Fitzrovia Neighborhood
Published: December 2009
By Mark Ellwood
T+L charts the new and classic spots of England’s capital—from restaurants and hotels to shops, and more.
Just north of Soho, near bustling Oxford Street, sits central London’s hidden neighborhood: Fitzrovia. Home to louche, boho types in the late 19th century (the Pre-Raphaelites and Oscar Wilde lounged in its bars), Fitzrovia’s leafy streets are lined with Edwardian-era apartments, Neoclassical mansions, and onetime warehouses. It hasn’t always been so appealing: 30 years ago when my father, an artist, bought a printing works in a mews to convert into a studio, Fitzrovia had become a grubby, rundown area. Vendors sold cars from the streets, fashion companies used warehouses for wholesale showrooms, and the only landmark was the Transformers-like British Telecom Tower, looming over it all. But in recent years, it has undergone an astonishing, if discreet, revival. Tired of the over-gentrified East End, gallery owners eyed Fitzrovia for its cheap rents and soaring spaces. New restaurants, bars, and hotels soon followed. Madonna even bought a building just north of Oxford Street for Kabbalah’s British headquarters. Here, the places to visit now.
Though the area is mostly residential, there’s no shortage of great places to stay.
Decorated like a chintz-filled country house that Bertie Wooster might share with Anya Hindmarch, this shabby-chic 52-room hotel is filled with art curated by its co-owner, interior designer and collector Kit Kemp—from Roger Cecil abstracts to a contemporary mural by Alexander Hollweg. Like other Firmdale properties, it’s known for its Sunday night film club, which combines dinner with a screening in the downstairs theater, complete with comfy leather loungers.
Doubles from $410.
The 380-room property (unveiled by the Prince of Wales in 1865 and a current royal favorite) has just undergone a $130 million renovation designed to restore some of its storied grandeur. Ceilings were raised, flat-screen TV’s were added in all rooms, and a 50-foot underground pool was built in a former vault. Afternoon tea, British-style, is served daily in the Palm Court restaurant. Try the tomato-and-cream-cheese sandwiches and the lemon posset cups.
Doubles from $385.
Once a sleek furniture company headquarters, the Sanderson became a hotel in 2000 under the guidance of Ian Schrager and Philippe Starck. The team preserved much of its Midcentury charm while adding signature touches (note the Daliesque red-lip sofa in the lobby). Suka, the new Malaysian restaurant on site, was masterminded by New York’s Zak Pelaccio, and the 300-square-foot guest rooms feel surprisingly large, with offbeat flourishes like a Starck-designed rug riffing on Voltaire’s handwriting. The hotel’s best amenity, though, is a well-kept secret: the Japanese-style Courtyard Garden hidden in the center of the building like an urban oasis. It features a lounge with a wooden deck set amid restored 1960’s mosaics, rhododendrons, magnolias, and a man-made canal filled with white water lilies.
Doubles from $350.
The arrival of top-flight galleries over the last few years sparked Fitzrovia’s renaissance.
Gallerist Alison Jacques worked as a curator for the British School at Rome before opening her first London space in a Mayfair town house in 2004, but three years later decamped to a roomier 3,600-square-foot space in Fitzrovia. Jacques’s stable of artists blends the media-savvy and controversial (Ryan McGinley and Robert Mapplethorpe, whose estate she has managed since 1999) with pop culture favorites like Jack Pierson (known for his letter sculptures) and collage maestro Paul Morrison.
This brand-new five-floor spread opened last May in a Georgian town house that was once a brothel. The notorious, headline-grabbing gallery is run by Steve Lazarides, the onetime art director of London’s now-defunct SleazeNation magazine. He was the first person to print a poster by media-shy graffiti artist Banksy and helped make him a global phenomenon. (Brangelina and Christina Aguilera have bought Banksy works from him.) Lazarides is also known for prankish, punk artists with a wicked wit, such as Jonathan Yeo, who makes detailed collage portraits of politicians using cutouts from vintage porn magazines.
London socialite and gallerist Pilar Corrias—who helped start Haunch of Venison gallery, a branch of which recently opened in New York City—opened her namesake 3,800-square-foot space to coincide with Frieze Art Fair just over a year ago. Her roster includes Scottish conceptual artist Charles Avery and Berlin-based Keren Cytter, known for her narrative film and video installations. Through Miuccia Prada, a client, Corrias tapped Rem Koolhaas to reimagine a leather showroom as a gallery with 16-foot ceilings and moveable walls that accommodate monolithic artwork.
East End mainstay Stuart Shave deserted the Vyner Street neighborhood in 2008 for this 6,500-square-foot gallery, designed by architect David Kohn. You’ll find works here by talent such as sculptor David Altmejd, Canada’s erstwhile Venice Biennale entry, and figurative painter Nigel Cooke.
From wallet-friendly lunches to late-night tapas, Fitzrovia’s dining spots run the gamut.
Best for lunch on the go This new (and exceedingly affordable) Tex-Mex restaurant is a favorite lunch place for local gallerinas thanks to the oversize burritos, made to order with chile-and-achiote braised chicken or grilled zucchini, chayote squash, and peppers; all the chiles and tomatillos used are sourced directly from a local farm.
Lunch for two $15.
Best for rubbing elbows with the locals This lovingly run café, tucked away on a quiet pedestrian side street, showcases the work of emerging photographers like Anne-Caroline Morice and artists such as Kate Macleod. Check out the menu scrawled on the chalkboard in front—a recent one included the BERT (bacon, egg, rocket, and tomato) sandwich and corn fritters with sliced avocado.
Lunch for two $26.
Best date-night spot A buzzing neighborhood tapas joint, this bi-level restaurant is rustic and romantic, decorated with deep red walls and wooden tables. The kitchen dishes up homey plates such as confit of pork belly atop rosemary-infused cannellini beans, or zucchini flowers stuffed with Monte Enebro cheese, deep fried and drizzled with honey. The well-priced wine list offers select reds and whites from Italy and Spain.
Dinner for two $100.
Best for gourmet browsing This sprawling shop is London’s answer to Dean & DeLuca. Head to the deli for coffee and croissants or to pick up a hamper for a picnic in nearby Regent’s Park. The restaurant serves hearty French-leaning food—the seasonal $50 three-course prix fixe, which might include steamed asparagus with hollandaise or chicken paillard with arugula, is a bargain.
Dinner for two $100.
Not surprisingly, most of Fitzrovia’s best shops cater to artists and designers.
Best for spotting art-world heavy hitters The place to find creative supplies in Fitzrovia, Alec Tiranti has been selling every material imaginable—clay, wax, rubber, glazes—as well as hardware, from kilns to modeling tools, since 1895. Beginners can browse the hundreds of how-to books and videos.
Best for drama buffs Come to this London outpost of the iconic New York publisher to browse an encyclopedic selection of plays, both classic and contemporary. It’s also a clearinghouse for underground theater events in the area—ask the knowledgeable staff or scan the poster-crammed notice board.
Closed on Sundays.
Best for design lovers Celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, the stately Heal’s interiors store is a British institution. Climb the stairs and check out the so-called Heal’s cat, a sinewy 1925 sculpture by Chassagne peering from the mezzanine. The family began as bed makers, but in the mid-1890’s, under fourth-generation chairman/designer Sir Ambrose Heal, the store expanded its offerings. It’s still the perfect place for browsing the best in British design, from glassware to throw pillows to fabrics.
Best for snazzy stationery Though there are now branches of this paper mecca across the world, the triple-decker Fitzrovia spot was the original Paperchase store, catering to artists in the area since the 1970’s. On the first floor, check out a vast range of cards, Pop-arty boxes, and one-of-a-kind printed gift wrap. Then move upstairs for professional supplies—paper in various weights, day planners, and dozens of types of pens.
Fitzrovia is studded with pubs, including new bars that cater to recent arrivals from the media and art worlds.
Named after a defunct British department store where owner Mark Holdstock’s mother once sold gloves, this closet-size basement bar is part 1920’s speakeasy and part English tearoom—floral wallpaper and killer retro cocktails (try the gin fizz or one from the innovative drinks list served Prohibition-style in teacups). The place is known for its monthly events, such as a swing music–powered Forties Blitz Party and gentlemen’s etiquette classes on tie-knotting and martini-shaking.
Drinks for two $22.
This classic pub is an ode to the 18th-century aristocrat Charles Fitzroy, for whom the neighborhood is said to be named. Until 1919 it was a café called the Hundred Marks, but once it morphed into a pub, it became the unofficial clubhouse of regulars such as Dylan Thomas, Nina Hamnett, and George Orwell.
Drinks for two $7.
This low-lit, wood-paneled basement bar—designed by Japanese firm Super Potato—looks like a feudal Japanese ryokan reimagined by Star Trek set designers. It specializes in the Asian spirit shochu: try it mixed with plum-infused vodka in a Plum Plum. The bartender’s Wylie Dufresne–like wizardry is also on show with blends such as a Bellini with pear-and-green-tea purée and a Hallo Kitty with rosewater, raspberries, and lemon juice.
Drinks for two $26.
Mingle with locals at this Victorian-era Fitzrovia bar festooned with BBC-related memorabilia—a nod to its location, a few blocks from the broadcasting studio. After work, the outside tables are filled with media and fashion types from nearby showrooms.
Drinks for two $10.
Mark Ellwood is a New York City–based freelance writer.