The Small Pleasures of Chelsea

Tuesday, 01 October 2013

The Small Pleasures of Chelsea

When it comes to grandeur, London rules the world with its stately hotels, famous dining rooms and internationally renowned department stores. Equally enticing is the smaller end of the scale, where you find intimate bistros, boutique hotels and independent shops. In this article, let us take you on an insider's tour of the more intimate side of London in one of its most appealing neighborhoods. Allow us to show you the charms of Chelsea.

On a map of London, you'll find Chelsea on the north bank of the River Thames, and south of Kensington. Through its history Chelsea grew from a medieval fishing village to become the residential spot of choice for the aristocracy and royalty in the 1500s. (This is why its main thoroughfare is called the King's Road.) By the 1800s it was famous for its artistic community, home to the likes of Oscar Wilde, Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) and Jane Austen. A new kind of artist flourished in Chelsea during the 1960s, when Mary Quant sold the first miniskirts and residents such as Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton made their mark on the world of music.

Today, Chelsea is one of the most affluent and beautiful boroughs of London. Stray only a few steps from any commercial street and you will find yourself in the midst of gorgeous residential neighborhoods, characterized by red brick townhomes and leafy green parks.

In one such nook of Chelsea is the exquisite enclave known as Cadogan, named after the family that has owned most of the area since the 1700s. And at 26 Cadogan Gardens, you will come upon the delightful Draycott Hotel. Enter its gracious front foyer, and you are instantly enveloped into the warmth of this elegant boutique hotel. The five-star townhouse hotel occupies three adjacent red brick Edwardian homes that have been transformed into a single property loaded with character and charm.

As a guest of the Draycott, you are made to feel very much at home. The staff has found that fine balance between the professional and the personable, greeting you warmly by name as you come and go, and inquiring politely as to your needs. The surroundings provide the sense of an English country retreat - the gracious drawing room overlooking a private park, the intimate library lined with banquettes and books, and the wood-paneled dining room. The thirty-five guest rooms range in size from large suites with kitchens to cozy singles under the eaves. The majority of the rooms are large doubles and small suites, and most rooms in the hotel come with a working gas fireplace.

It's not just the environment that makes you feel so welcome. Incredibly hospitable touches, available complimentary to every guest, include afternoon tea; evening champagne; and bedtime hot chocolate – all served in the beautiful drawing room. During these times you may sit quietly on your own or mingle with the other guests who have gathered from around the world. It's as though you've all been invited to a private event in an exclusive location known only to a small circle!

As secluded as the Draycott feels, it is in reality only steps from Sloane Square, the King's Road and Chelsea's best shopping and dining. On our first night in London, feeling slightly bedraggled from a night's travel and a day's orientation, our little group chose to dine at the local Italian restaurant 'Caraffini' on Lower Sloane Street. The host cheerfully seated us at a corner table, which afforded an excellent view of the spacious room. Watching guests and hosts greet one another with familiarity, we quickly concluded that Caraffini was a popular spot for local residents. This was a good sign! Our meal provided the perfect pitch of delicious comfort food. Penne Luganega with fresh tomatoes, pecorino, Italian sausage and fennel was piquant and flavorful; the insalata di rucola was a veritable tower of greens topped with Parmesan shards. After dinner, with smiles on our faces, we toddled back to the Draycott.

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The next day, fortified by a fabulous breakfast and incredible coffee at the hotel, we headed out to cover the length of the King's Road, one of London's most enjoyable shopping streets. Unlike the celebrated bustle of Oxford or Regent Street, and in contrast to the extravagance of Old Bond Street, the King's Road is a small-scale road lined primarily with small shops. Many of these shops are independents, and several are unique to London or Chelsea. One such example is the tiny Emmett shop, under the "E" at the far end of the King's Road. Opened twenty years ago by tailor Robert Emmett, the shop sells high quality 'off-the-peg' and custom-made men's shirts as well as accessories. Robert Emmett designs the shirts, and sources the fabrics from the best Italian mills. His trademark design, which has by now been widely imitated, is to make the under-cuff in a fabric that contrasts with the shirt fabric. Due to the exceptional quality, excellent value and unique design blending the traditional and modern in uniquely British way, Emmett Shirts has acquired an extremely loyal following. The men in our party – one in his fifties and one in his early twenties – both found Emmett shirts to suit to their specific and very different tastes. Thanks to a new online store, Emmett Shirts are now available in the United States and worldwide. If you can't make it to the lovely little Emmett shop in Chelsea (or one of the other two shops in London), then online is your next best bet to acquire one of these distinctively British shirts.

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On the way back along the King's Road, we visited more great shops including the British Red Cross thrift shop. This particular branch is known for its designer duds and in fact many local designers donate brand new end-of-line items to support the charity.

After a lovely tea with biscuits in the Draycott Hotel living room, and a long rest stretched out on the couch in front of the fireplace in our suite, we were ready for a full evening. Of course, it started with our complimentary champagne in the drawing room of the hotel. 

After the champagne, we left on foot and wound through the narrow streets of residential Chelsea to the Tom Aikens restaurant. Recently, awarded 1 Michelin Star (joining the elite ranks of only 8 restaurants in London), the restaurant is proud of its high standards of gastronomic excellence. Tom Aikens is anything but formal or stuffy. Freshly refurbished, the room's simple wooden furnishings reflect the focus on informal service and natural ingredients. A meal at Tom Aikens is virtually indescribable and truly has to be experienced. The artful presentation, innovative combinations and astonishing flavors are well beyond the realm of the usual. Our party of five sampled widely across the menu, and each plate was as intriguing and enjoyable as the last. The staff were most approachable and helpful, always pausing to answer questions or explain the complex ingredients if asked.

Walking home to the Draycott, we reflected on our two Chelsea dining experiences thus far – one an Italian bistro for locals, the other a world-class gastronomic adventure for foodies. We concluded that we loved them both, especially as they brought such contrast and diversity to our overall experience.


Over the next several days, we strayed all over London. We visited the glorious Victoria & Albert Museum; explored stately Somerset House on the banks of the Thames; prowled through antiques along Camden Walk in Angel; walked the enchanting streets of Highgate; ate in pubs and cafes.... All of it was fantastic and at the end of each day, we couldn't wait to return to our home away from home in the heart of charming Chelsea.