In London, Seven Dials has emerged as a chic shopping district
Share with others:
As usual, Dickens said it best: You will see enough in Seven Dials to keep your curiosity awake for a considerable amount of time. When he described the neighborhood in 1836, this was the dodgiest of London byways, dirty, dim and dangerous, whose most famous product was made in illegal gin shops.
Today, the district between Shaftesbury Avenue and Covent Garden (hang a left from the Tube stop) is a chic successor to Carnaby Street, with a choice selection of independent designers and retailers installed in tiny historic storefronts.
"It's so niche -- more than a High Street, not a Sloane Square or a Knightsbridge," says Susie Howard, who's guiding me along narrow Monmouth Street on a windy day this past March. "You can find anything from 5 pounds to 500 pounds" (roughly $7.80 to $780).
Looking for tattoo tights, this season's hottest Brit accessory? Try Miss LaLa's Boudoir, a girly boutique. Vintage bomber jackets? Mint is a goldmine. Custom-made perfumes? At Miller Harris, Britain's only female perfumer mixes everything from pine to tangerine. Beer? Please -- this is London. This little village even offers a hidden courtyard -- Neal's Yard -- with a landmark in Monty Python history.
Neal's Yard lies at the heart of the district Thomas Neal designed in the 1690s. Seven narrow roads converge at a monument adorned with six sundials. The reason for that mismatch is lost to history, but meeting at the Dials now means lounging on the steps surrounding the monument, dodging the cars, skateboards and bicycles racing around its perimeter and observing a 24/7 street scene.
The area is rumored to provide good hunting for celebrity sightings, though I didn't notch any of my own. Donmar Warehouse, steps from the Dials on Earlham Street, attracts A-list actors. The 250-seat theater has won 15 Olivier Awards; the current season will feature Derek Jacobi in "King Lear" this December.
A few blocks over, The Ivy attracts diners such as Madonna, Tom Cruise and Londoner Gwyneth Paltrow. The low-key and luxurious Covent Garden Hotel on Monmouth Street offers a second-floor lounge, so its famous guests can receive visitors in hushed privacy.
There's an international flavor to the Dials: North African cuisine among the cushions and curtains at Souk, northern Indian at Punjab, Portuguese at Canela Cafe, or Thai Square, whose dining room opens to a courtyard. Sweeping the street in front of Mon Plaisir, one of the city's oldest French restaurants, is Alain Lhermitte, whose family has owned the bistro since the 1940s. The place feels Parisian, with a zinc-topped bar and classics such as escargots and onion soup. Charles de Gaulle dined here in exile, and a few of today's patrons look as though they might have accompanied him. Monsieur Lhermitte is proud of his loyal clientele.
"We are a real restaurant, for real people," he says proudly.
After a Saturday morning at the British Museum (just a few squares north of the Dials), I find the shops along Earlham Street flanked by street vendors. Lou Reed's voice booms on the soundtrack from the open doors of Mint, where the casual shop floor features silk, floral and gingham shirts and '70s-era denim.
"We do grown-up vintage," owner James Wright explains. That means pristine leather bowling shoes for £48 (more than $75) or a well-cut jacket for £150 ($234). I scoop up a few vintage skinny ties -- a pink Rooster knit and a flashy repp stripe for the men at home -- for a mere £20 ($31).
For dedicated followers of fashion, Seven Dials has created an indispensable service: bag girls and bag boys in tight scarlet jackets, who can be booked as free guides to local shopping finds and who will indeed carry your bags. They can be requested online (www.sevendials.co.uk/bagboysgirls).
When the sun emerges for the afternoon, Seven Dials feels like a party. And Neal's Yard is the perfect place for a picnic. A dairy as far back as the 17th century, it still offers fresh foods and coffee bars and sets out colorful tables where patrons can linger.
The locavore star here is Neal's Yard Dairy, a famous purveyor of artisanal British cheeses. One whiff of its cool, pungent aroma gives me a yen for Colston Bassett Stilton -- the country's best -- but creamy Lancashires, Cheddars and dozens of varieties made from goat and sheep's milk are equally appealing. The cheesemonger now sells its products in the United States through Cowgirl Creamery and other vendors.
When Neal's Yard Remedies opened in 1981, its all-natural health and beauty products seemed like a flower-power fad. But its holistic approach was far ahead of today's New Age organic trend, and its signature blue glass bottles, a throwback to the herbal tinctures bottled by apothecaries of past centuries, are now sold from Japan to Dubai. The flagship shop here has added aromatherapy, acupuncture and massage to its retail offerings.
Above the brilliantly painted facades and flower boxes of Neal's Yard, a blue medallion commemorates a famous phantom. "Monty Python, Filmmaker, lived here, 1976-1987," reads the blue marker. It was actually Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin who rented a cheap office overlooking the square here, launching an enterprise that catapulted the sketch comedy troupe into stardom.
The Saturday nightclub scene begins to pulse toward midnight, as theatergoers and dancers converged. I opt for a late supper at Brasserie Max, the friendly ground-floor restaurant at the Covent Garden Hotel, and planned a shopping list for my next expedition to Seven Dials.
One thing's for sure: I'll need a bag boy.
First Published August 29, 2010 12:00 am