Kelly Bishop gazes at sparkly butterflies and frees her wallet moths on a pre-Xmas trip to Carnaby
As iconic fashionista vistas go, there are few more enduring than 1960s Carnaby Street. Knee-high platform boots, Mary Quant mini dresses, Jackie O shades, big hair and Union Jacks. Broaden the style palette to wider Soho with its Bohemian, dive bar deliciousness and you have a recipe for subversive cool.
I grumble a bit sometimes about too many London brands coming up North but I’d welcome Kolamba and the aforementioned Bao like old friends if they made it to Manchester
Yeah I know, Soho has changed. Gentrification is happening everywhere. There’s certainly an argument to be had there but after the couple of years we’ve had, I’m firmly staying in the festive spirit. So I accepted a gracious invite to Carnaby to check out its Xmas shopping spectacle for 2021.
Where else better, really, for a festive Xmas shopping weekend than a trip to Soho and Carnaby? I didn’t catch a theatre show on this occasion but Soho is packed with theatres showing everything from Moulin Rouge to Dina Martina. If you’re more Van Gogh than Lloyd Webber, the national portrait gallery is nearby. If you’re into guitars, you can’t ignore Denmark Street - although it’s seriously under threat not just from developers but Brexit too, every shop we popped into seemed to be complaining about stock availability. There are world-famous wine bars and jazz clubs, every type of food under the sun (special mention to a lantern strewn Chinatown, still going strong) and plenty of clubs too if you want to pull an all-nighter. It’s buzzing, and that’s not just the sound of sex shop toy demonstrations, though if those do tickle your pickle, there are plenty around.
Carnaby Street is still the queen of shopping. On our short visit, we dove headlong into two adorable rock shops.
I want it all and I want it now
Perfect after a night at the opera, Queen: The Greatest immersive store is a kind of magic for Freddie and Brian fans. You can grab one of a huge range of T-shirts - including ever-changing limited-edition collabs from the likes of Champion, mugs, bags and er, guitar-print gym wear. There’s even a special limited edition Queen Rubik’s cube - that’s Dad’s stocking filler sorted. If you’re really a Queen machine, you can buy a signed Brian May signature guitar and it won’t even break the bank.
Over the road, there’s the Rolling Stones' RS No.9 which is sure to satisfy hardcore fans of the band as well as those who just love their classic, rock n roll, raspberry-blowing imagery. You can buy all the usual t-shirts (including some very nice vintage looking ones) but also everything from inflatable lips lilos to chocolate made by Ronnie Wood’s wife. Who says, you can't always get what you want? The guys that run the shop told us they had to pick up the chocolate from Ronnie’s house and he brought it out personally in his dressing gown. That’s service. We grabbed a pack for the office and it was sticky fingers all round. Surprisingly good quality for what could be seen as a bit of a gimmick. Another great shout for a Xmas pressie.
Shop til you drop on Carnaby street
It’s a cliché but there really is something for everyone on this street and around its (arguably more interesting) side hustles. Shop everything from luxe jumpers at Aubin to functional fashion made from ex-army parachutes at RAEBURN. There are, of course, vintage shops galore from the high-end want-fest of Annie’s Ibiza (a Kate Moss fave apparently) to the rummage party at Beyond Retro. Want mainstream? We were impressed by enormous, multi-floor Adidas and Just Hype stores. Looking for something a bit different for the metrosexual man in your life? Warpaint For Men does a range of men’s cosmetics including concealers, mascara and other subtle Insta-filter effect style products, if you’re a man or woman who prefers a bolder look, there’s always good ole MAC. Footwear steps out in a big way down here too with a queue for the Doc Martens shop, a VANS store with its own vintage trainer nerd lurking in the attic, and Mallet for the super stylish. There’s jewellery too from the likes of The Great Frog and Mor London.
All that shopping gets your tummy rumbling and the only problem you’ll encounter food-wise is a massive dose of FOMO. Where the hell to eat? We spent a small fortune at the OG Noble Rot, with no regrets, Vin Jaune chicken with morels is a must but beware it's very easy to go over your budget when you see the insane wines by the glass on the blackboard.
I Bao to great food in Carnaby
But there are options for all price brackets and tastes. The tiny Bao is always heaving, why? Because it’s fantastic. We’ve got all kinds of bao in Manchester but no proper authentic Taiwanese ones. Here you can try the classic with slow-cooked pork, coriander and sweet peanut powder. I bao to its creator - it’s perfect. I also tried an inventive pineapple soda with Yakult float. Like a hyper-modern take on the 50s ice cream float and better for your gut. I absolutely loved it. Bao has a Michelin Bib Gourmand too so that's a big clue that it's not just your average London chain.
Back on the shopping spree and Lazy Oaf with its bang on trend emoji-inspired jumpsuits is always fun, on a similar note there’s The Ragged Priest too, keeping the flickering flame of indie alive. If you want to venture outside the main Carnaby zone, you’re a trot away from Liberty and its multiple floors of in-your-dreams haute couture. The building itself is enough reason to pop in though. Escalator and strip light lined megalithic flagships of high street giants like H&M, Zara and TK Maxx are there too if you want them.
People watching and Pinot
As the sun goes down, our thoughts turn to wine. The gorgeous little wine bar Antidote occupies a perfect corner spot for people-watching. Pull up a tall stool in the window, order a glass or two and watch the world wander by, necks craned and eyes sparkling at Carnaby’s butterflies as they start to glow in the dark. The sparkling 2D and 3D butterflies (there are 600 in total) flutter down Carnaby and all its side streets and they really do make for a fairytale vibe. Hundreds upon hundreds of people stop for selfies under the famous rainbow arches.
It’s buoying to see tourists and locals getting festive and enjoying a semblance of real life again - if a little cautiously, still. I needed some twinkly lights in my life. Like many, these months do rain a few shovels of ice-cold SAD on my parade. This little trip has definitely been a tonic.
But it's not over yet. It’s chilly, so we go to tropical Sri Lanka for tea. Another cuisine not really repped much up North. Kolamba is a real treat, the busy team can’t do enough for us, even if they do look thin on the ground as so many restaurant staff are these days. We absolutely love a hot butter cuttlefish starter with one of my favourite seasonings: nutty curry leaf, balanced perfectly with chilli and lime. Standout mains include some messy king prawns and a chunky monkfish curry with classic Sri Lankan flavours of coconut and lime leaf. I grumble a bit sometimes about too many London brands coming up North but I’d welcome Kolamba and the aforementioned Bao like old friends if they made it to Manchester.
Late night drinking and a rooftop bar
We squeeze into next door’s Ain’t Nothing But A Blues bar for a swift double Elijah Craig bourbon and a warming negroni. It’s absolutely packed to the rafters. If it’s pre-covid style up close and personal good times you’re after, you’ll find them here. You might not be able to see the band through the crowd of boogying revellers but you’ll hear them - live music is always on at this long-standing independent.
More or less rocked out, we rest our weary heads at the very rock n roll Karma Sanctum Soho hotel. Our shabby chic bedroom is comfy and quirky - and comes with a whole load of room service options that can be added to your bill if you want to go full David Lee Roth. Think whole bottles of Jack, gin and vodka, tubes of poppable crisps and even toiletry bags with hard rock style prints. We pass on all that and instead go upstairs to the patio heated rooftop bar where “rockstars” (well, Charlie from Busted is a regular) rub shoulders with mere mortals - there’s even a hot tub if you like a bit of human soup. We just enjoy a few beers and a brief chat with its CEO, gregarious music biz professional Mark Fuller.
Breakfast of champions at Dishoom
A late breakfast is required the next morning and it’s a familiar one for us. Inspired by India’s Iranian caffs, Dishoom is well known and loved up North but it’s nevertheless a treat to visit one of the OGs in the capital. The Soho one is gigantic - but still has a queue outside morning, noon and night. We get stuck into the classic bacon and egg naan with chilli sauce and a Big Bombay belly buster of a fry up with Iranian spiced scrambled eggs. A side dish of fresh fruit and yoghurt packs in a couple more of our five a day and all this is washed down with a few cups of signature chai. A big breakfast sets us up for another day of rifling through sale rails and soaking up the Crimbo vibes.
To paraphrase a wise one: When you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life - and I never want to tire of either. Sparkly, camp as Christmas Carnaby, you stole my heart and I will be back soon, hopefully with my mum in tow. You’re never too old to be treated to a shopping splurge by your ma and Carnaby's not just for Xmas.
Thank you for the invite, Carnaby London.
Carnaby: the details
Queen: The Greatest immersive store is at 57 Carnaby street til January 2022 (or you can buy online)
RS No.9 9 Carnaby Street, London, W1F 9PE is open all year
We ate at:
Bao 53 Lexington Street, W1F 9AS
Kolamba 21 Kingly St, London W1B 5QA
Dishoom 22 Kingly St, Carnaby, London W1B 5QP -
Noble Rot 2 Greek St, London W1D 4NB
We stayed at Karma Sanctum Soho 20 Warwick St, London W1B 5NF rooms start from around £265 a night for a double.
Trains to London from Manchester take just over 2 hours and if you book early enough, you can get a return for just over £50 - midweek is always cheaper.
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