Cool Britannia

Photography: M. FREEMAN/PHOTOLINK

The Aussie dollar hasn't been as strong against the pound for years, making this the perfect time to visit London. New restaurants, gastropubs and cafés are on the increase, British cooking is better than it's been in decades, and it's often affordable too. And while the hotels don't seem to be getting any cheaper following the global financial crisis (you're unlikely to find anywhere that feels like a treat for less than $250 a night), there are some ultra-cool options that won't break the bank. Here's our pick of five smart, affordable places to stay, plus five of the most happening restaurants in London right now that cost less than $80 per head for dinner - and that's including drinks and service. (At lunch, most of them are half that price.) So book your ticket and pack your brolly for a trip to swinging London.

HOTELS
Dean Street Townhouse
London addresses don't get any more central than that of this restaurant and hotel in the heart of Soho. The four-storey Georgian townhouse was refurbished at the end of 2009 by the Soho House Group, the private members' club behind, among others, the cool Shoreditch House. The look is timeless British, neither antique nor contemporary, with parchment-coloured walls, wood-panelling, seagrass flooring and Egyptian cotton sheets. The 39 rooms vary in size from really small through to tiny (not actually that tiny), medium (some of which have a roll-top bath in the bedroom) and quite large, with prices ranging from $160 per night if you book online well in advance, up to $500 or more for the best rooms. The service at reception can be a bit dizzy, but at prices like this it's churlish to expect five-star treatment. The attached restaurant and bar is a real media hot spot, filled with movers and shakers who flock here for the tongue-in-cheek menu of upgraded post-war British food, such as mince and tatties and treacle sponge and custard. There's even a high tea menu, which includes sardines on toast. 69-71 Dean St, Soho, W1D, +44 20 7434 1775.

Hoxton Hotel
If fashionably edgy Shoreditch in east London is to your taste, then Hoxton Hotel's location is perfect. It's a short walk from the area's many nightclubs and bars, Brick Lane is a 10-minute stroll away, and there will be more art events and happenings on this hotel's doorstep in one week than you'll find in a year in Woolloomooloo. The Hoxton Hotel is a huge, recently constructed building that makes a virtue of its industrial design and modernity. The 205 rooms are small but neat and functional, with well-appointed bathrooms and everything you need but nothing more. There's also a stylish and decent bar and brasserie on the ground floor if you're meeting or entertaining friends, though the area is chock-a-block with bohemian cafés and bars. Be warned that if you're planning to travel into the West End a lot, there is no easy or direct route from Shoreditch - it's a 10-minute walk to Liverpool Street station to get onto the Central Line, followed by a 15-minute Tube ride to Oxford Circus. Book online well ahead to get the best room rates. Standard double rooms vary from $100 to $330, though about $215 seems typical. The Hoxton also offers five rooms for $1.60 and five rooms for about $50 every night. These are released periodically, but you'll have to sign up to the hotel's fan club, and be very quick, to nab one. 81 Great Eastern St, Shoreditch, EC2A, +44 20 7550 1000.
 
Rough Luxe
Rough Luxe is a recent conversion of a Bloomsbury townhouse in an area next to King's Cross station that's already heaving with budget B & Bs. Its owners have set it apart from the rest by exercising an uncommonly good eye for design, which is manifest in the excellent use of colour and fabrics throughout. The faux peeling plaster and patina of age create a look of real character, and at times are evocative of the British Museum nearby. The least impressive aspect is the size of the rooms - in many of the nine rooms, the bed occupies most of the floor space, and the cheapest rooms have shared bathrooms. Despite this, Rough Luxe is good for location (the West End is 15 minutes away), and you are guaranteed not to find any polyester valances or ugly chintz in an interior that has been thought through down to the tiniest detail. The staff are friendly too, and the breakfasts well made. Standard rooms (with shared bathroom) start at $295. If you're travelling on to Paris or Brussels on the Eurostar, Rough Luxe is also very handy for St Pancras International train station. 1 Birkenhead St, King's Cross, WC1, +44 20 7837 5338.

Fox & Anchor
This Victorian pub near Farringdon's bustling Smithfield meat market was bought and modernised by Malmaison, one of the UK's leading boutique hotel chains, in 2008. The subsequent refurbishment retained the building's period charm while dragging the British menu and drinks list into the 21st century. The six rooms above the pub have been given a treatment that evokes the days of the Empire. Lead-glass windows, freestanding copper baths, soft cotton sheets and classic, understated colour schemes create an unmistakable sense of Britishness. St John restaurant is just across the street, and London's financial district, the City, and the Barbican arts centre are both 10 minutes' walk away. At weekends, the area comes alive with clubbers, as there are a handful of late-night super-clubs, such as Fabric, just around the corner. The City-edge location means rooms are cheapest on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, with prices starting at $185 on weekends and increasing during the week to $360 for rooms and $485 for suites. 115 Charterhouse St, Farringdon, EC1, +44 20 7250 1300.

The Orange
Last year's refurbishment by its new owners transformed this grand Pimlico pub into a very smart destination gastropub serving modern European dishes and lashings of real ale. On the second floor, there are four bedrooms, each lavishly appointed with marble bathrooms, huge beds, free WiFi and iPod docks. The look of both pub and rooms is understated and very English, with pastel tones, limed wood and bare brick featuring throughout. The immediate area - which real estate agents call "Pimlico Green" - is one of London's ritziest, packed with antiques shops, cafés and delis aimed at ladies who lunch. Elizabeth and Ebury streets have many gastronomic delights to explore, including the new William Curley chocolate shop and the London branch of famed Parisian bakery Poilâne. Knightsbridge (Harvey Nichols, Harrods) is 10 minutes away by foot, as is the new Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea, while just along the Thames in the other direction is the Tate Britain art gallery, with its ferry service to the Tate Modern. Standard rooms at The Orange start at $305 and you're guaranteed a good breakfast while staying here, though it isn't included in the room price. 37 Pimlico Rd, Belgravia, SW1, +44 20 7881 9844.

RESTAURANTS
Hix
This smart new Soho restaurant from celebrity restaurateur Mark Hix has wowed British diners with its modern take on traditional British food and dishes. The "seasonal and local" mantra is, of course, observed, but chef Kevin Gratton looks to the future, not the past. Inventive dishes include a starter of salmon salad with chickweed (a native wild green) and shaved fennel; a main course of roast gurnard with surf clams and wild chervil; and a "dessert" of herring milt on toast. The room is a beauty too, with artworks from several leading Young British Artists, who you might also bump into in the excellent basement bar. Mark's Bar is a destination in itself and is run by a handful of London's very best bartenders, including the celebrated Nick Strangeway, whose specialty is British cocktails from centuries past. Dinner for two with cocktails and service at Hix shouldn't set you back more than $160, but be sure to book well in advance as this is one of the hottest London restaurants of 2010. 66-70 Brewer St, Soho, W1, +44 20 7292 3518.

Harwood Arms
Fulham is the butt of many jokes. It's the posh west London neighbourhood where City bankers prefer to invest their bonuses, thereby pushing house prices to stratospheric levels. But the appeal of the area is clear: quiet streets of attractive rows of houses, peppered only with the occasional corner pub. These days those corner pubs are nearly all gastropubs, and Harwood Arms is considered a prince among them, as it proved in January when it became the first London pub to gain a Michelin star. Co-proprietor Mike Robinson, as well as being a TV chef, is a keen hunter, so venison, hare and feathered game (when in season) all feature prominently. This even extends to the bar snacks; the venison Scotch egg, with the egg yolk runny in the centre, is one of the best dishes. Scottish salmon might be poached and served with sea purslane; even English snails might be used, to add character to an oxtail starter. The cooking's far superior to normal gastropub fare, as best illustrated by desserts such as the delicate apple doughnuts with spiced sugar and whipped cream. Although posh, it's still a proper English pub and you are welcome to just pop in for a pint of good real ale. You should pay about $135 for dinner for two people, with drinks and service. 27 Walham Grove, Fulham, SW6, +44 20 7386 1847.

Bull & Last
Hampstead Heath is just the place for a stroll when you need a break from the urban landscapes of London. And the Bull & Last is a suitable destination to reward the walker after the strenuous climbs of the Heath. Just past the Gospel Oak/Dartmouth Park exit from the Heath, this rusticated gastropub has a daily blackboard menu, listing the provenance of its oysters, cheese and meat. The kitchen takes its produce very seriously; they even make their own charcuterie on the premises, including a "duck prosciutto" which you can try as part of the charcuterie board. Flavours are robust and although anchored in Britain, some French and Italian influences creep in; there is, for example, a clafoutis pudding. Make sure you book a table because although the Bull & Last serves a fine pint of beer (there are several good cask-conditioned ales), it's really a restaurant disguised as a pub. You may be disappointed if you show up without a booking, and there is precious little space left for drinkers who are not eating. 168 Highgate Rd, Kentish Town, NW5, +44 20 7267 3641.

Albion
Terence Conran sold his restaurant group (Conran Restaurants) in 2006, but he must have had an itch that wouldn't go away, returning in 2009 with new business partners and another spate of openings. Albion is part of the Boundary project in Shoreditch, which includes hotel rooms (lovely, but just a bit too pricey for this story), a French restaurant, a deli, a rooftop bar and grill and this wholly British café. Being Conran, it's all beautifully designed in a tasteful, retro way. The menu has a spirit of post-World War II British cooking, turned out with care and aplomb by the kitchen. Dishes include obvious classics such as fish and chips, pies, sandwiches and fruit crumbles, but also more unlikely dishes such as oxtail in a steak and kidney pudding. Most main courses cost about $20, so a meal here is unlikely to top $35 per head. Best of all, Albion is open all day from 8am until midnight, making it the perfect place to drop by and recuperate after a stroll around Brick Lane and Shoreditch. Be warned that you may have to queue at busy times because the café does not take bookings. 2-4 Boundary St, Shoreditch, E2, +44 20 7729 1051.

St John (the bar)
St John kickstarted the revival of good British food when it opened in Farringdon in 1994. Many of the things it did then became a template for a whole generation of British restaurants, from seasonal cooking and unusual ingredients such as offal and foraged foods, to simple techniques and terse dish descriptions. It's still a wonderful restaurant, but the catch is that it's also much-loved by City traders in striped shirts, and the prices are hardly a bargain. The solution? Attached to the dining room is a busy, no-bookings bar, offering a wealth of snacks including signature dishes such as roast bone marrow with parsley salad and Eccles cake with Lancashire cheese. You can eat and drink well for under $35 per head. The bar is open all day, but get there early to avoid the crowds that descend later in the day. There's also an excellent selection of ales and French wines to quench your thirst, and sitting in the bar allows you to admire the architecture of this converted smokehouse (chef Fergus Henderson was an architect before he became a self-taught cook). 26 St John St, Farringdon, EC1, +44 20 7251 0848.





THE FINE PRINT

GETTING THERE
British Airways operates a twice-daily service from Sydney to London via Bangkok or Singapore. Standard return economy fares start at $2279. 1300 767 177.

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