Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Breakfast Club, Rufus Street, Hoxton, central London

Just off hip Hoxton Square, this branch of The Breakfast Club is a sprawling cafe housed in an old brick warehouse with large sash windows. Next to the door is a completely-bandaged mannequin astride a knackered old bike. With the stereo playing American Pie and other folksy music, The Breakfast Club feels part mid-west diner and part British living room from the seventies. The flooring is a mix of chequerboard lino and wooden floorboards, while the furniture includes venerable leather armchairs, uncomfortable wooden benches and school chairs, surrounded by ancient televisions, fading family photos, a parasol and large bar decorated with big plastic letters and seemingly random photographs, notes and newspaper clippings. Despite the cool, but probably contrived, ambiance, the trendy young blokes waiting on tables make a real effort to be friendly. There is also free WiFi and an appealing brunch menu. The Big Breakfast smoothie, served in a tall glass, apparently contains strawberries, bananas, oats, honey, yoghurt and milk. It is thick, nourishing and enjoyable, which it should be for £3.75 a glass. Attracting arty types, laptop-toting freelancers and local builders, The Breakfast Club resonates with the Hoxton vibe. 7/10

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Fino Restaurant, Rathbone Street, central London

A smart tapas restaurant housed in an air-conditioned basement, Fino is a good or bad choice for lunch on a hot, sunny day, depending on whether you want to talk business or soak up some summertime atmosphere. The contemporary and slightly soulless decor is predominantly blonde wood, the clientele mostly middle-aged business people and the service friendly, but unobtrusive. The most eye-catching features are the large bar, lined with scores of wine bottles, the high-backed benches and the modernist lighting. There is an extensive range of tapas starting at a couple of quid for some tasty and refreshing pan con tomate up to a ribeye steak for £21.50, while the specials can include roast suckling pig, langoustines and lobster. The platter of cold meats, such as chorizo and cured ham, is a bit of a disappointment for £12.50. Among the seafood dishes, a plate of three sizeable baked sardines (£7.50), served complete with bones and heads, goes very well with the delicious and creamy olive oil mash (£4.50). The courgette flowers, stuffed with a creamy cheese, are also a bit special, but pricey at £7.80 each. Bottles start at about £20 on the long, illustrious and very Iberian wine list, but there is also a decent selection available by the glass or half-bottle. If money is not an issue, a good summertime choice is the 2007/08 Veigadares (AlbariƱo) Adegas Galegas (£45 a bottle), which is crisp yet rich. 7/10

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Sacred Cafe, Ganton Street, central London

One of several appealing eateries in a pedestrianized stretch just off Carnaby Street, Sacred Cafe has shutters that open right across the front, so you can sit half-inside and half-outside. The paintwork is mostly the color of coffee beans, while the tabletops tend to be small white discs with barely enough room to perch both your laptop and your brunch. Many of the seats are trendy soft, brown cubes, but you will probably be more comfortable on one of the wooden chairs. The light menu (soups, salads, sandwiches) is scrawled across a blackboard behind the bar. There is good, but expensive, coffee, with a large Americano costing £2.50. For about a fiver, you can get scrambled egg livened up with spring onions and feta cheese. Served with a small pile of toast and butter, it is a delicious combination. But you may find your enjoyment curbed by cigarette smoke wafting in from tourists sitting at the outside tables. 7/10

Monday, 12 July 2010

Pacific Heights, San Francisco

It is well worth the steep climb up to this scenic and aptly-named neighbourhood. As you rise, you'll have eye-catching views of the bay and the city down the ruler-straight streets in San Francisco's grid pattern. Pacific Heights rises to 370 feet above sea level and its two small hilltop parks provide sweeping vistas over both the eclectic architecture of downtown and out to the brooding former prison island of Alcatraz, squatting in the water opposite the Golden Gate Bridge. Well-kept and ornate one hundred-year-old buildings painted in pastel colours give Pacific Heights itself an air of prosperous gentility. Upmarket Fillmore Street, the neighbourhood's focal point, is lined with quirky boutiques, cafes and restaurants. 8/10 

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Clift Hotel, Geary Street, San Francisco

Stylish and understated on the outside, flashy on the inside, the white-brick Clift Hotel is only a couple of blocks from Union Square and Market Street, San Francisco's premier shopping district. Even when the sun is shining outside, the large foyer and adjoining lounge area, with leather armchairs, is dark and gloomy. You can only just make out the centrepiece - a surrealist giant chair, which is the kind of thing you expect to find in Barcelona's hip hotels. Trying to be glamorous, but bordering on the seedy, the Clift's dark bar is staffed by waitresses in cocktail dresses, charging a hefty $8 for a bottle of beer. The decor in here and the adjacent grandiose restaurant is an opulent mix of velvet and leather. For the buffet breakfast ($26 a head), at least, the night-club style ambiance is all a bit over-the-top and oppressive, leaving you craving daylight. Instead of the buffet, you can also order some hot dishes, such as the slightly greasy corn beef hash ($12), but coffee will cost you another five bucks or so.

Poky, dated and basic
The Clift's bedrooms have paper-thin walls enabling you to clearly hear conversations next door, but they are tastefully decorated in light, pastel shades. As well as big and comfortable beds, the rooms are equipped with safes, irons and ironing boards, a large desk, flat-screen television, bathrobes, an array of lamps and just about anything else you might need. But the view from the window is likely to be a brick wall and the en-suite bathrooms can be a bit poky, basic and dated, while wired or wireless Internet access is a pricey $15 a day. Still, if you can get a discount code, the Clift's rates are good value for largish rooms in such a central location. 6/10

Friday, 2 July 2010

The Grove, Fillmore Street, San Francisco

One of the most alluring places to chill out on upmarket Fillmore Street, the Grove has some uncomfortable outdoor benches well-placed to catch the evening sunshine and a rustic, stylish and much more comfy interior. The big windows ensure the mishmash of wooden beams, distressed leather armchairs, wooden floorboards and massive stone chimney breast are soaked in daylight. You queue at the bar for both drinks and food, which is fairly simple fare, such as soups, salads, sandwiches and enormous moist, tasty cookies. For less than $8, you can get a bowl of decent chilli with a dollop of sour cream, served with a little packet of crackers. The chilli's flavours are pretty good, but it can come lukewarm. There are several beers on draught, including the Czech stalwart Pilsner Urquell ($6.50 for a pint) or you can get cold bottles of Mexican beer. Some of your fellow customers will be on laptops, taking advantage of the free WiFi, but you only get 30 minutes online for every $5 you spend. Fashionable, but no-frills, the Grove tends to draw a relaxed local crowd, mixed with a sprinkling of tourists. 8/10