I’ll never forget the first time I stumbled upon Seven Dials, on my way home after an excruciatingly long day of Econometrics at the LSE. The colourful patchwork of Neal’s Yard (a secret courtyard in the heart of this area) was just the mood-elevating lift my weary spirits needed. I’ll even go so far as to admit a feeling of elation, at having discovered this hidden gem in the thick of West London!
Since then, I’ve never lost an opportunity to cut through the associated network of streets which sit sandwiched between Covent Garden and Soho… And over time, the area has become my go-to for anything and everything.
It’s where I’ll head to when craving the comfort that only a sesame-studded Jerusalem bagel or equally, a truffle ghee kulcha can provide. It’s from where I’ll embark on a culinary adventure, exploring the wild beauty of the British countryside and quite possibly scoff my body weight in macarons, doughnuts and dark chocolate seasoned with basil and Persian lime. There’s nothing lovelier than a shot of retail therapy in Seven Dials either, or a subtle makeover in this discreetly-fashionable beauty hub….
Whether you’re just passing by or planning a dedicated visit, here are my top picks of things to do, eat and shop in this prolific pocket of London…
A quick trip back in history might be in order to put into context, Seven Dial’s distinctive layout of intercrossing streets.
The area was laid out by an MP, Thomas Neale, in the early 1690s. More than just a parliamentary figure, he was a formidably influential character who also served as Master of the Mint and Groom Porter (with the latter role enabling him to control access to the Monarch!), launched England’s first lottery and dabbled in entrepreneurial ventures (including a new method of raising shipwrecks).
Seven Dials came to be when Neale was given an undeveloped tract of land in central London (one of the last of its kind). He rather savvily laid it out in a series of triangles to maximise the number of houses, as rentals at the time were charged per foot of frontage (rather than per square foot of interiors)!
Neale envisaged Seven Dials to be the one of the city’s most fashionable addresses. It was a vision which alas, didn’t immediately manifest and the area briefly fell into disrepute, frequented at one point for its gin shops! It was never short of intriguing idiosyncrasies however, with Dickens famously noting in “Sketches by Boz”,
“The stranger who finds himself in the Dials for the first time…at the entrance of Seven obscure passages, uncertain which to take, will see enough around him to keep his curiosity awake for no inconsiderable time…”
Over three centuries later, Seven Dials’ survival has seen it transform into a trendy hub, dominating foodie bucket-lists and brimming with sassy secrets of London’s stylish set.
It’s unsurprising to learn that over two-thirds of businesses in the area (spanning restaurants, theatres, offices and shops) are independently owned with the investment group who oversee the area, prioritising offbeat and unique brands which are not as easily found elsewhere…
Today, Seven Dials home to boutiques such as Tatty Devine, where you can watch as your Name or Speech Bubble Necklace is laser cut and hand-finished on the spot. Chances are you’ll snap up a statement piece of jewellery from their limited edition collection too, created in collaboration with artists, musicians and even cultural institutions such as the Tate and Stonehenge.
Other cheer-inducing impulse buys in the vicinity include the likes of outrageously over-the-top iPhone cases at Skinny Dip (think liquid glitter, pineapple silicone and all sorts of other bling) and crazily-colourful presents for your feet at Happy Socks – a Swedish retailer which epitomise a kitsch take on the Scandinavian ideals of hygge.
Modish international designers such as Club Monaco and Kit and Ace have also been quick to find homes on Monmouth Street, a locality which has attracted luxe beauty brands like Miller Harris…
… There’s a story to sniff out with each of the fragrances elegantly lining the shelves of this quintessentially English boutique, from Tea Tonique – conjuring your first cup of tea on a free morning – to Coeur de Jardin, capturing the the essence of a well-tended English garden in the heat of day.
My favourite has to be L’air de Rien. Fittingly translating to “nonchalantly,” the sexy expression of the iconic style of Jane Birkin is evocative of dusty libraries, old books, leather armchairs and we’re told Birkin’s brother’s hair!
Across the road at LVMH-owned Fresh, you can take a seat at the ‘kitchen table’ as you learn about the beauty brand’s apothecary-inspired products. Highlights include a Sugar Lip Bar, a Gift Bar, a Sensorial Bar and even a Love Bar where you can write a mini love letter to the brand!
Since its origins, Seven Dials has also been linked with alternative medicine, occultism and astrologers who were drawn to the sundial and symbolic star layout of the associated streets.
Its history and heritage paved the way for homegrown brands such as Neal’s Yard Remedies which introduced their unique repertoire of natural remedies, skin and body care in the eponymous Neal’s Yard in 1981. The company’s simple tree symbol is representative of its focus on both inner and outer beauty, with the tree’s roots symbolic of the homeopathy and herbal tinctures offered here… I recently popped in to replenish their mirarcle-working wild rose beauty balm, but left armed with a tincture to sort out my bout of insomnia!
Where & what to eat
The magical folds of Neal’s Yard also cosset an epi-centre of thrilling drinking and dining destinations.
Truth be told, I could quite easily spend all day here, starting with a late breakfast at 26 Grains, where just the one helping of the cafe’s almost-too-pretty-to-eat porridge would never be enough.
Lunch might be a light yet vividly-textured affair at Salad Pride or involve exemplarily thin-dough pizzas by the slice at Homeslice. The cult pizzeria also offer a mammoth 20″ inch form, with helpful “half and half” option if you can’t decide between the enticing flavours on offer.
Dinner could entail a more raucous, sense-tingling journey along The Barbary Coast leading to Israel. Practically every dish here at The Barbary is a thing of joy – from the Jerusalem bagel (studded with sesame seeds) and Naan-e-Barbari which double as a medium to sop up the lusty starter-dips, through to the wonderfully-naughty knafeh for afters (my nominated entry in the Mayor of London’s #MyLondonDish campaign).
Most recently, I experienced the wild beauty of the British countryside at Native – a rustic restaurant, fashioned entirely from homemade elements.
Their menu spans land, fish and vegetables, exuberantly showcasing seasonally-foraged Foods and Game through an unfathomable assembly of flavours… Vadouvan and dukkah were a terrific test on my taste buds when it came to a plate of marinated and blow-torched sand carrots; while bitter herb velouté and Wye Valley asparagus were just two of the knock-out elements complementing Dorset crab.
In the event that you’re too full for dessert, there’s a rather intriguing selection of petit fours to whet your appetite too. Think caramelised honey truffles, beetroot marshmallow fluff, white chocolate and bone marrow (yes, really) caramel and Kentish wood ant fudge… I’m told the ants (yes, really!) add a deliciously lemony flavour to the fudge!
Tearing myself away from the Yard, I also discovered my new fix for inherently-comforting Indian food at Talli Joe. Helmed by chef Sameer Taneja (previously at Michelin-starred Benares), the relaxed all-day restaurant majors in small plates as varied as the vast diversity of India’s myriad of regions and sub-cultures.
The focus on home-style cooking (just like in your Indian mama’s kitchen) shines through with an endearing warmth, and we found several reasons to revisit from the truffle ghee kulcha and Kathal biryani (made with jackfruits), to the gajar halwa. The milky carrot pudding is unlike any other version of this Indian sweet which I’ve had before, thanks to the use of purple heritage carrots and nutty speckles of peanut brittle. And to top it off, there’s cutting masala chai and nostalgia-invoking Parle G biscuits!
Wine o’ clock / Cocktail hour
If you’re looking to whet your whistle, Compagnie de Vins Supernaturels in Neal’s Yard remains a top spot for drinking wine in the summer sunshine.
I’m also partial to the charms of Casanova and Daughters – a Sicilian deli in the Yard which quietly supply high-quality antipasti and olive oils to some of London’s finest private members clubs (now you know where to go when next craving the olives from Annabel’s). The neat line-up of jars and tubs here provide plenty to hold your attention – the oregano and basil flowers being a particularly potent delight – as you sip on the eminently drinkable glou-glou (roughly translating to glug-glug!) wines!
But if you’re in the mood to dive into a summery cocktail instead, the window-facing seats of Monmouth Kitchen or Balans Soho Society are always an idyll spot to start at!
All the treats in play
Of course it’s not really a TFD-approved guide if treats to placate one’s thirty-two sweet teeth don’t have their place… And Seven Dials has always delivered so marvellously well in this regard!
The macarons at Pierre Herme are always a good idea, while Bread Ahead’s inimitable brand of filled doughnuts are a marvellously-sticky affair sealed with crunchy homemade honeycomb.
Rococco Chocolates have an outpost too, with their bright and airy shop lending the perfect backdrop to learn the backstory of the the darkly-mysterious cocoa bean, followed by a chocolate tasting like none other.
In the space of just one afternoon: I developed a taste for white chocolate tinged with cardamom; discovered that I quite liked basil and Persian lime as a seasoning in my nightly dark chocolate; and learned that chocolate and cheese make a fantastic match when paired correctly (try a hardened sheep’s cheese with their sea salt, almond and rosemary milk chocolate if you don’t believe me!)…
Perhaps the true charm of Seven Dials is its uncanny ability to surprise, thrill and delight each time through a mood-lifting experience celebrating the simple pleasures of life.
I can’t wait to see what my next visit entails….
If you have any tips and recommendations for me, please do share in the comments below or by tweeting me @FoodieDiaries.
This post was written in collaboration with Seven Dials. All views expressed are mine and mine alone.