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On Location: Skylon (South Bank, London)

Having recently waxed lyrically about the neo-gothic splendour of St Pancras station, it’s a trip south of the Thames to the very 1950s Royal Festival Hall, and in particular, the bar at Skylon. As you might expect, there is a Modernist twist to the bar, and that retro feel of “the future as seen from many years ago”, which I am rather fond of.

First of all – the name. What is a skylon? The name is taken from a futuristic sculpture that used to grace the Southbank. It was installed as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, and the logo and coasters recall what it looked like – a long cylinder, tapering in at either end. It was installed in a way that gave the impression that it floated effortlessly in mid-air.

While the original is long gone, the name now lives on in the bar. There has even been a campaign to get it re-built – so who knows, it may yet come to take its place again in skyline. It might look rather at home with the London Eye, the Gherkin and the Shard.

The “view of the future from the 1950s” theme runs through the decor – sleek seating banks and lounge chairs that have the vague air of a UFO about them. One of the things that I love about this place is that it benefits from being a large space with windows along one side – offering fantastic views across the river to some rather grand buildings, and the BT Tower hovering in the distance. All very serene by day, but at night, like in so much of London, the view really comes into its own. Sitting in the bar with a sophisticated drink, mellow lighting and the city by night – it’s great.

While Skylon is a good place for a drink, I was – unusually – there in the early afternoon, and in the mood for a cup of tea and little something sweet. As you can see below, the sleek “50s futuristic” look continues even down to the napkin holder and the bespoke chocolates. I loved these touches. They looked good in their brown-and-bronze colours, and I think this might finally have explained why so many of the more ghastly 50s and 60s buildings in London are brown – it probably looked rather nifty back in the day!

Tea arrived – a cup of Assam, which is my favourite, and in a decent china cup. It makes a difference. I like the strong flavour and intense colour, and yes – I spoil it all with a dash of milk. I’m British – it’s what we do!

However, tea was only half the story. I had anticipated that my “something sweet” would end up being some sort of standard fare – a chocolate brownie or a cupcake. But no. No, no, no. Skylon came into its own, as it had a rather intriguing item at the bottom of the menu – a selection of four mini-desserts. For a tenner. Frankly, it had to be done.

I’d gone for those, and when they arrived – well, see below, but wow! Proper dainty little dessert-like cakes. They looked absolutely beautiful – perfect and brightly coloured, the reds and yellows contrasting with the deep blue Japanese plate.

This little selection comprised a dark chocolate cake with dark chocolate cream, a raspberry and passion fruit cake, a pear, caramel and chocolate mousse  and a fruit cheesecake. A good selection, a nice balance of fruit and chocolate, and quite frankly – perfect to share between a few people if you’re after a rather informal but still swish express afternoon tea. Each was delicious in its own way, and it was nice to have quite a bit of variation in flavours and textures. Like a gastronomic mini-tour through the world of cake.

So…would I go back? For sure! I know this place for drinks, and it really does offer a unique view of the river and the site by night, making for a perfect place to meet up before going for dinner. However, I’m also pleased to have discovered that this place offers a simple alternative to a full-blown afternoon tea, so you can assuage the need for a little something sweet and a cuppa without going overboard. A real gem.

Skylon, Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 8XX. Tel: 020 7654 7800. Tube: Waterloo or Embankment.

LondonEats locations map here.

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On Location: The Lido Cafe (Brockwell Park, London)

“South London” and “Miami Beach” are not terms that you would usually expect to find in the same sentence. However, there are times where you can get the feeling of being in the latter while actually being in the former, and one of those times is when you’re at the Lido Cafe in the lovely Brockwell Park on a warm, sunny day.

No, really! Sitting next to a 1930s-style building next to a bright blue pool, the sun beating down from a cloudless sky, a table laden with healthy brunch items and fresh fruit juices, you can just about imagine you’re lazing somewhere on South Beach. This is how we enjoyed it during the summer when we had a few warm weekends.

Anyway, that was all six months ago…I was there again yesterday, and let’s be honest – when it’s three degrees in London and you’re wrapped up in a thermal jacket, scarf and gloves, that Miami-vibe is not quite as obvious. But fret not – it might not feel like SoBe, but the cafe is thankfully still pretty darned good.

First things first is the building, which alone is worth a mention. At its heart is the lido itself – a large open-air swimming pool, which is great for a dip in summer. The structure is a 1930s construction (I lean towards calling it art deco in my naivety, but I get the feeling I might not be right on this). This all means the cafe is a large, airy space with lots of windows to allow light to flood in. It’s bright during the day and all summer, and as the sun does set, you catch glimpses of the sunset over Brockwell Park. As you can see, the look is quite simple and stylish, and very relaxed.

On previous occasions, we’ve enjoyed breakfast here, and it’s pretty good – delicious pancakes, mushrooms on sourdough toast, exotic fruit juices (and – bonus – they serve Marmite with the toast if you want it!). However, on a chilly January day, following a long and bracing walk in the park (which offers some great views towards central London), we veered towards coffee and cake. We plumped for a slice of the tasty, lightly spicy carrot cake with a generous spread of cream cheese frosting, and a slice of orange, almond and polenta cake.

We hit the place just before it was time to collect toddlers form the local nursery, so it was pretty much kid central for around an hour. If you appear around 3:30, be quite prepared for a series of small child to appear behind you, to tug your clothes and then ask you questions. All part of the charm. And if you’ve got a couple of small folk in tow, this place is a pretty safe bet to make them happy, especially when the pool is open in the summer. You’ve also got the park outside if the energy from all those cakes needs to be burned off.

Finally, I just want to draw your attention to the funky wallpaper that adorns the back of the cafe. Amazing, isn’t it? I have a vague recollection that we had curtains like this at home when I was growing up. Ah, memories…

So…would I go back? For sure. I love this place – the 30s building, the bright, open space and the delicious food. It’s pretty much kid central, but just sit back and enjoy the ride. In summer, it is fantastic sitting outside by the pool, and there aren’t a lot of places in London where you can do that.

The Lido Cafe, Dulwich Road, Brockwell Lido, London SE24 0PA. Tel: 020 7737 8183. Brixton Tube or Herne Hill Rail.

LondonEats locations map here.

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On Location: Hive (Brixton, London)

Buzzzzzzzzz…let’s head South of the River. After making honeycomb, let’s go to Hive.

If you don’t live in London, the whole issue about whether something is north or south of the Thames might be a little surprising/irrelevant, but there is still a hard-core of people who are staunchly in favour of one or the other, and those souls will just point blank refuse to cross a bridge unless really, really forced to do so.

Lucky, then, that I am not one of those people. I was in Oxford Street to buy a new camera, and got chatting to a friend who suggested lunch in Brixton. After too much travel between London and Brussels, she was tired and did not want to come into town, so I headed down to her neck of the woods. A bit of umming and aaahing and we headed to Hive for a late brunch/lunch affair. More laziness than anything, as we do have a tendency to go there quite a bit when I’m in Brixton.

I have to say, I quite like it here. The atmosphere is relaxed, testified by the tables of mums with a kid in tow (one kid per mother, both engaged with each other, rather than just wall-to-wall screaming), or people sitting on their own reading the weekend papers over a late brunch. The decor is great too – the bee motif is picked up throughout the venue, and there is a lot of character from the shabby-chic details.

Now, the bad news: if you are a strict vegetarian, there is not a huge amount of choice. Typically one starter and one main, plus some options on the sides(*). However, while the choice can be limited, what I have eaten here has always been tasty.

This time, I had gnocchi with tomato sauce and pesto on a bed of roasted squash and aubergine. Simple, but just perfect. The gnocchi were cooked perfectly, still plump but a little chewy, and fried just enough to provide the merest whisper of a crisp coating, but without been oily or too heavy. The sauces were both good – the tomato was fresh, fruity and juicy, and the pesto was nice and fresh (so easy to get wrong, so extra credit for getting this right!). All of this on top of well-cooked aubergine and squash, which fell apart nicely on the plate. It was a nice, simple combination of flavours and textures which I thought really worked well.

In contrast, if (unlike me) you are a fan of eggs, then there is a decent brunch selection to choose from. My lunch companion chirpily informed me that these dishes were tasty, and I have to admit that they certainly looked and smelled pretty good. I might not eat them, but I can appreciate when they look good on the plate. Fortunately, there is also a nice choice in desserts and cakes – I plumped for a slice of orange and carrot cake, which was moist, soft and beautifully spiced with nutmeg and cinnamon.

So would I go back? In all honesty, I would not come all the way to Brixton just to visit Hive. However, this is nothing really against Hive, and when I am in this part of town, I think it has a sufficiently relaxed atmosphere with reliably good food and friendly staff(**) that it is a great place to potter about, read the papers and while away a lazy Saturday afternoon.

(*) In terms of sides, the chips are pretty darn good – and come in a rather nifty little container with a paper collar, à la the newspaper from the chippy in days gone by.

(**) Really, they are always super-friendly. Chatty when you are in the mood for that, but leave you in peace if that’s what you want too. Keep it up!

Hive, 11-13 Brixton Station Road, London SW9 8PA. Tel: 020 7274 8383. Tube: Brixton

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