Browns, Cardinal Walk, London Victoria

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Victoria Station and its surroundings have changed dramatically in the last couple of years. It is now full of pedestrian areas and buildings made of glass and steel. Cardinal walk is probably one of the oldest of these but still fits nicely into this environment. The décor and the ambience of Browns matches this well too, it is set over two floors, all glass. The restaurant is on the first floor so if you get a table by the window you can watch the world go by as you eat.

Their Pinot Grigio is good, although at over £8 for a large glass, it needs to be. They have a reasonable selection of beers and the cocktail list looks impressive although we did not try any. The service was good, our waiter was friendly and helpful, but he wasn’t really that busy, so maybe he should have picked up on our indifferent response when he enquired how the food was.

The thing that let them down was the food. The fish pie was ok, but I expect better than that when I pay over £15 for it. The only way to tell the difference between the different fish was texture, the overall effect was bland and the potato topping was runny. The steak sandwich was also all right, no butter on the bread – just mayo, but the chips were only slightly hotter than luke warm and they didn’t have any English mustard. The side order of onion rings contained four rings!

I wanted to like this place because I have enjoyed other restaurants in this chain in the past. With such a large choice of places to eat around Victoria now, average food will not get repeat business.

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Motel One Manchester-Piccadilly, Manchester

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Motel One is about as handy as you can get if you arrive in Manchester by train. It is directly across the road from Piccadilly train station. The rooms are quite small, but they are cleverly laid out and well appointed. The windows are big, so even on a grey day the room feels bright. The bathrooms are new and modern and the shower is excellent. The bed is big and comfortable, all rooms have free wi-fi that is efficient, the code only works for 3 items though – so if you are as gadget fuelled as we are, you may have to sweet talk the reception staff into giving you more codes.  Motel One is German hotel brand and the TV comes with many European channels as standard.

The breakfast is good, but continental only, it is not included in the price and not particularly great value in a part of town that is full of great brunch venues. Head to Hilton Street which is less than a ten minute walk away and has a number of interesting cafes, including  The Pen and Pencil, 57 Hilton St, Manchester which we really liked.

Also, you need to be aware that, despite its name, Motel One, does not have a car park, so you are at the mercy of private car parks if you have driven to Manchester and parking in town is not cheap. Having said that, central Manchester is a great city to walk around and public transport is pretty good, so a car would not be essential for your time here.

The bar on the ground floor is decorated in a modern European style; flash furniture and muted colours, pleasant enough to sit and have a drink in while waiting for friends. The music is at a nice level for conversation and they have pleasant bar staff.

Overall, Motel One Piccadilly is a very good budget hotel, right in the heart of town and I will happily stay here again next time I come to Manchester.

The Albert Square Chophouse, Manchester.

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This restaurant is very centrally located – in a beautiful solid brick building, on the corner of Albert Square. The entrance is up a few steps to a nice bar space with a mixture of sofas and chairs. The restaurant is downstairs, it looks impressive as you descend, an industrial sized room filled with fully set dining tables, booths and banquettes. The windows are set high and the kitchen is open and visible from the dining room. The walls of both floors are lined with photos of Manchester luminaries, some recognisable others less so.

The menu is traditional British. The corned beef hash cake is a great starter, meaty and comforting. I had a rib eye steak and it was flavourful and tender, one of the best steaks that I have had. The steak and kidney pie was reportedly great too, done in the old fashioned way with suet in the pastry.

The wine list looked good, the house rose was excellent. They have a full bar, so the selection of beers is good too. The service was friendly and helpful. It is not a cheap restaurant, but everything they do is high quality, so definitely a meal to sit and savour. This is a venue for a night out, to enjoy the evening and chat after.

We ate early, 6pm, so we managed to get in without booking, but it was quite full by the time we left, so I would imagine it would need to be booked if you wanted to eat at a more popular time.

We thoroughly enjoyed it and will be back next time we are in Manchester.

The Pen and Pencil, 57 Hilton St, Manchester

pen-and-pencil-3The Pen and pencil is a great venue for breakfast/brunch. It has very social tables with benches that can easily accommodate 8 people. The menu is a little different to the usual breakfast/brunch fare, although there are some breakfast type things on there, the eggs benedict are very good, I was told. We were there on a Saturday and Sunday morning around 11ish, it was busy without being rammed.

The music is just the right level, low enough for you to discuss the night before, but loud enough that you don’t notice the ringing in your ears! The service is good, the waiter was able to describe every dish very well and seemed genuinely interested when he enquired whether we were enjoying our food.

The smoothies are interesting, I loved the “Welcome to Americana” – peanut butter, banana and a little chilli! I am told the “Salted Caramel” is good too.  I also recommend the ‘Nduja baked eggs, warm enough to clear your head after the night before. The “Eggs Pen and Pencil” is good too, really good hollandaise. They do a “Bottomless Brunch” for £40 where you can eat and drink as much as you like between 10am and 1pm. That sound like it could get messy!

Hilton Street is a trendy side road about 5 minutes away from Piccadilly Gardens and even less from the rail stations, you will know you are getting close when you start seeing street art dotted around the walls. If there is a group of you and you are staying in separate hotels, it is the perfect place to meet your mates the following morning! Recommended!

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TT Liquor, Kingsland Road, London E2.

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When you approach TT liquor, it appears to be a remarkable off-licence. Which, of course, it is. It has hundreds of different types of bottles of alcohol arranged neatly on wooden shelves around the perimeter of the shop. However, (this is where you impress your friends with your in-depth knowledge of hip and trendy London hangouts!) go through a wooden door at the back of the store and you arrive in a hallway with wooden stairs up and stone stairs going down.

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Upstairs are rooms where they hold cocktail making classes, wine tasting evenings and other events. I have to say that I haven’t tried these yet, but they sound like they should be fun. If you go down the windy, stone staircase into the cellar there is a small speakeasy type bar set up with tables, chairs, and a bar, set along a brick lined wall, this bar holds only about 10 or 12 people.  Apparently, the building is a conversion from an old police station, and so, off this room are some smaller rooms that used to be police cells, these are now  private, old fashioned snugs, set up for individual parties.

 

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The cocktails are good, there is large selection of many different types. The bar staff are helpful and knowledgeable, they will advise you on what you might enjoy. The noise level is low, so your conversation can be heard without shouting, but of course, should the evening become a little more raucous, later on, you will be in a semi private room and not disturbing other customers.

I do understand those of you who say that the last thing the world needs is another new bar in the Shoreditch/Hoxton area, but this one does bring something different and despite the number of bars there already, this is a good and innovative addition.

I have to say that we had a great night in TT Liquor, I loved this bar and I will bring friends here, whenever I come back to this part of town.

 

The Devonshire, Balham High Road, Balham, London

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There are very many pubs in Balham and the competition is fierce. The Devonshire has many things going for it. It is huge, so it is very good if there is a big group of you who wish to meet up. It has a large back garden with cabanas which are nice in summer when it does barbeques. It is an old Victorian looking pub that hasn’t been messed around with much, so it still has a quaint old English pub type vibe going on, despite its size, this makes it a good place to bring visitors to the UK, for a typically British, Pub Sunday Roast.

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We have eaten here a number of times, both for Sunday lunch and in the evening when it also does food,  and it has always been pretty good, not cheap but reliable. We met with a group of friends, 10 of us, for Sunday lunch. The food was okay but the service was dreadful. Our waitress told us that we should use her for table service rather than go to the bar for our drinks. We promptly ordered and then watched them sit on the bar for 15 minutes until we went and got them ourselves. The place was busy but it wasn’t packed. I saw others complaining about the service too. The problem with ours was that it was slow and very offhand.

The food was slow to arrive, and there was another 15 minutes between the first person being served and the last. This did not ruin our meal as we did not stand on ceremony and everybody ate when their food arrived. The root vegetable pie was very nice, if very cheesy. The sausage and mash was pretty good, but the roast beef was not as good as we would have expected. The wine list is ok and both the house white and the house rose were enjoyed by the group.

As we waited to order our last round of drinks and get the bill, our waitress was nowhere to be found. I asked the manager to find her, but she was unable to and eventually brought the bill herself. As I paid, our waitress appeared. the manager just looked at me and rolled her eyes.

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This is a worrying state of affairs for a large pub in an area where there is a surfeit of good eating opportunities.  Although the Devonshire is a pub which has a number of good points, I suspect we shall be trying a different one next time.

The Bush Theatre, Shepherd’s Bush, London.

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The Bush Theatre has just had a big refurbishment. The first thing you notice when you arrive on a warm sunny evening is the new terrace and bar. It is the perfect place to meet people, as it catches the evening sun before the show begins. Inside, the bar area is sparse and pared back, there are not many places to sit here, but this is well designed to keep the area relatively clear, because as well as the terrace there is also the library room, a bright, airy seating area with books on the history of theatre on the walls.

The Bush has a tradition of putting on innovative and challenging new shows. There are now two theatre spaces, the main theatre holds 180 and the smaller studio 80. The main theatre is flexible with its set up and on the evening that I attended the stage was in the centre. It was set up as a house and we had to walk around the back of the house, past the back door and pink flamingo, to look in the front room. Every seat has an excellent view and your proximity to the performance makes you feel a part of the action.

They have some great pricing offers, one clever one is the “Count me in” deal – where you pay £10 in advance for the show, but your seat is not allocated until the day of the performance. The front of house staff and the bar staff are friendly and helpful. The Bush Theatre is a lovely asset to the local area and I look forward to returning many times in the future.