Thursday, 6 October 2016

London's Best Themed Restaurants

I'm a sucker for a gimmick, and if there's something London does well, it's a gimmick. Themed restaurants aren't new to London -- Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Cafe have been kicking around for a while, but most people have been there and literally got the t-shirt.

The Rainforest Cafe

Photo: Rainforest Cafe
Situated just around the corner from Piccadilly Circus, there's no doubt this one is a tourist trap -- but I've got a bit of a soft spot for it. Enter through the ground floor gift shop and descend the stairs to the restaurant and bar area, decked out like a rainforest, complete with tropical plants, animal displays and even themed furniture.

It's not all about the gimmicks though -- the Rainforest Cafe offers educational tours for children, where they can learn all about the rainforest, with profits going to charity.

The Rainforest Cafe, 20 Shaftesbury Avenue, W1D 7EU

Jamie's Diner(saur)

Across the road from The Rainforest Cafe, this brainchild of Jamie Oliver is another one for hungry tourists. The food doesn't come with the best recommendations, so if you've got a companion who fancies themselves as a food critic, perhaps dodge this one.  But if you're looking for American diner style food with a large dinosaur peering at you while you tuck in, this is the place for you.

Jamie Oliver's Diner, 23a Shaftesbury Avenue, W1D 7EF

The Disney Cafe at Harrods

Disney fans of all ages (and yes, I speak mainly about myself) will be enthralled by Disney's Wild West Cafe in Harrods. Situated on the fourth floor, it's a far cry from the rather more serious Georgian Restaurant next door. The food doesn't come cheap (burgers on the adult menu start at £17.50, and that'll be an extra £1 for your cheese, thanks) but you can watch Disney films including Toy Story while you eat -- and you'll be served your food by a Woody or Jessie lookalike.

Disney's Wild West Cafe, fourth floor, Harrods, Knightsbridge

Bubba Gump Shrimp Co, Leicester Square

Photo: Bubba Gump
The people who've seen the film get it. The people who haven't seen the film really, really don't. I've never been myself, but life is like a box of chocolates -- you never know what you're gonna get.
The menu focuses on food from the American South, but if you're not a fan of the humble prawn, fear not -- classic American food such as burgers features heavily too.

The walls are lined with shots, quotes and merchandise from the film (that's Forrest Gump, if you haven't seen it and don't know what I'm talking about), and of course, you can exit through the gift shop and get your hands on t-shirts, mugs and the like yourself.

Bubba Gump Shrimp Co, 13 Coventry Street, W1D 7AB

Photo: Circus London
Tuck into Asian fusion food with a side of circus and cabaret at Circus London, where cabaret restaurant meets cocktail bar.  Watch all manner of acts from contortionists to fire breathers from the comfort of your table -- or sometimes even on your table.

Circus London, 27-29 Endell Street, Covent Garden, WC2H 9BA

Photo: Cahoots
Just when you've had enough of the London transport system, your friends want you to go and sit in a tube carriage sipping cocktails all night. The difference being, this is a 1940s-style tube carriage. Cahoots in Carnaby carries off the Blitz spirit very convincingly, with plenty in the decor to keep railway and Underground enthusiasts happy too. The focus is very much on the cocktails, so foodwise it's basic sandwiches and snacks, except for Saturday afternoons, when afternoon tea takes the form of a 'squiffy picnic'. Spiffing. 

  Cahoots, 13 Kingly Court, Carnaby, W1B 5PG

The Aeronaut

Photo: The Aeronaut
**Edit January 2017: Due to a fire in the early hours of New Year's Day 2017, The Aeronaut is currently closed. Keep an eye on the website for updates.**

If you like your dinner or drinks with a side of fire-breathing, The Aeronaut is for you. The Acton pub has a Circus Room where performances take place while you eat. The pub garden is pretty impressive too, with wooden booths designed as coconut shys and other sideshow attractions -- it's enough to bring out the kid in anyone.

The Aeronaut, 264 Acton High Street, W3 9BH

Mr Fogg's Tavern

Photo: Mr Fogg's Gin Parlour

I'll be honest, this one remains a bit of a mystery to me. What I do know is that the three venues are based around adventurer Phileas Fogg, protagonist in Jules Verne's novel Around The World In 80 Days.
Mr Fogg's Residence in Mayfair is decked out as the home of adventurer, but for food, head to Mr Fogg's Tavern in Covent Garden, where you'll get sandwiches, salads, and the like. Finally, there's a gin parlour just around the corner from the Tavern. Well I'm not here to judge if you skip dinner and head straight for the good stuff...

Mr Fogg's Tavern, 58 St Martin's Lane, WC2N 4EA

The Medieval Banquet

This one's more of an experience than a restaurant, but if it's a theme you're after, it's got it. Get yourself dressed up in medieval costume for this theatrical dinner experience, and be entertained by Tudor-style knights, jesters and contortionists as you tuck into a feast that Henry VIII himself would be proud of; four courses, washed down with ale and wine.

The Medieval Banquet, St Katharine Docks, E1W 1BP

Tries any of these? Let me know what you think. Where have I missed? Let me know of other themed restaurants in the comments below.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

5 things I learnt from my day as a zookeeper

Anytime I return to London Zoo for press events, it's like my worlds are colliding. I worked at the zoo for a few years before starting at Londonist so I know my way around the place pretty well, and still have plenty of friends who work there. When I was recently offered the chance to try the Zookeeper For A Day programme, I was pretty excited to get up close to some of the animals. Here are five things I learnt:

There's all sorts of oddness going on in bactrian camels' mouths. For a start, they're rocking some sort of weird split lip. Plus, their tongues physically can't extend outside their mouths. No wonder they've got the hump.

Giraffes are freakishly strong. I've fed giraffes before, but there's a difference between allowing one to gently lick some pellets out of the palm of your hand, and going full on warfare with one of the gentle giants over a particularly leafy branch. Their necks are strong enough to disembowel a lion, so when you've got one end of a branch and they give the other end a tug, you're best off just letting go.

Colobus monkeys are extremely human-like. One of our activities was to feed the troop of colobus monkeys through the wire of their fence. Seven of us took on the troop of 15 or so of them, poking pieces of fruit though the wire into waiting mouths, making sure everyone got fed. The first thing I noticed was their human-like fingernails, as they held out their hands for food. It reminded me a bit of this. Then, one of them, politely but firmly, reached out and poked me on the shoulder, as if to say "excuse me, don't forget about me please". He got the biggest bit of food.

There's a secret basement below the Casson Pavilion (the building better known as the old elephant house, a place that most people will mention when sharing their memories of visiting the zoo as a child). Alright, so the basement isn't strictly 'secret', it just fascinates me because in my 5 years of working a the zoo, I never knew it existed. There's no reason I would have done - it's used as a food preparation area by the keepers. But once you get inside, it's fascinating, like a time warp. Vintage zoo posters line the walls, and the building's rich history as the elephant house is maintained.

The people of the zoo are just as fascinating as the animals. One keeper who I spoke to began his career when, aged 13, he used to visit the zoo on Sundays. Being short-staffed, the zookeepers let him get involved in cleaning up after the elephants. The rest, as they say, is history. He must be in his 50s now, so it was clearly a few Sunday afternoons well spent. (The zoo press team would probably like me to point out that health & safety rules - and a lack of elephants - mean that you can't do this now, so don't try. Also, the zoo is now sufficiently staffed that it doesn't have to rely on unpaid child labour.)

Read my full article about my day as a zookeeper here.