June 30, 2012
Best of British... Gieves & Hawkes bespoke attire in Savile Row. Photo: Alamy
Simon Horsford cuts a fine figure in London's West End, among bespoke tailors and clubby haunts.
In the 1920s, the journalist and travel writer H.V. Morton described London as the most masculine city in the world. Nowadays, that's unlikely to be the case in this constantly evolving metropolis but his observation inspires me to embark on an old-fashioned, man-about-town weekend.
It will be in the West End, will celebrate some of the city's traditions and crafts and, most importantly, will be thoroughly indulgent, taking in oysters, hat makers, shotguns, poker and a Turkish bath.
I begin at the compact St John Hotel, just off Leicester Square. Opened last year by the team behind Clerkenwell's famously retro St John restaurant, it is minimalist to the core and the menu contains blokey dishes such as bacon and beans and devilled pig's skin (Double rooms cost from £150 ($233) a night; see stjohnhotellondon.com).
The following morning, a wet shave seems the perfect way to kick off the day, so I make for Savile Row and Gentlemen's Tonic (gentlemenstonic.com), a snazzy barber's that occupies the rarefied surroundings of Gieves & Hawkes, once the home of the Royal Geographical Society.
I settle into an old-fashioned barber's chair as the entertaining Mark Nimki explains how to give the best shave and apply the "cutthroat" razor so skilfully that it feels as though I have a new skin. Next time I vow to have the Hemingway shave, which includes a massage and a Bloody Mary.
In the company of David Thompson, a Blue Badge tourist guide who regales me with tales of rakish behaviour among 18th- and 19th-century dandies, I then make my way towards Piccadilly past the Albany (designed as "chambers for bachelors" in the early 1800s) to elegant St James's Street, home to gentlemen's clubs such as White's, Brooks's and the Carlton. Lobb, the shoemaker, has been here since the mid-1800s and is a bastion of traditional craftsmanship (johnlobbltd.co.uk). There are about 15,000 maple or beechwood lasts on the workshop floor and it takes six to eight months to complete a first-time order, with shoes costing from £2800 a pair (more if they're made from crocodile, ostrich, kangaroo or even elephant ear - a step too far, I suggest).
A couple of doors away, James Lock, the hatter, has been around since 1676 (lockhatters.co.uk). Hat sales, I'm told, have been increasing in the past seven years, with felt trilbies and tweed caps being the most popular.
Next, I pop into J.J. Fox, the cigar specialist, which has been in business since the late 18th century (jjfox.co.uk). Unusually, you can smoke there, either in the upstairs sampling lounge or the tiny museum downstairs, which contains, among other items, a chesterfield sofa belonging to Sir Winston Churchill (who would get through eight giant cigars a day). I light up a delicate Tres Petit Lonsdale ("a good mid-morning cigar", I'm told) and think about lunch.
After exploring another of the street's treasures, the wine merchant Berry Bros & Rudd (bbr.com), and contemplating booking a tasting in the 300-year-old cellars, I wander along to the traditional Green's Restaurant and Oyster Bar, where I tuck into half a dozen (greens.org.uk).
For any country gentleman worth his salt, a shotgun is part of the essential kit. So I wind down Bond Street towards Holland and Holland, which has been making shotguns and rifles since 1835 (hollandandholland.com) and may help make you look the part, too.
Holland's technical adviser, Pat Murphy, takes me through the crucial process of "gun fit" (fitting a gun to the purchaser), explains the types of guns on offer and tells me why a pair can cost £190,000 (you realise why when you examine the engraving). But you have to wait two to three years for one to be made. As at Lobb, there are still people happy to splash out on such extravagances.
Such displays of wealth put me in need of a drink and since it is cocktail hour I head for the Connaught hotel, where the "head mixologist", Agostino Perrone, explains the thinking behind the perfect drink. His knack is giving a new twist to classic drinks and he serves me an invigorating gin martini with ginger essence and then concocts the best Bloody Mary I've ever had, using tequila.
After a heady taxi ride, dinner follows at the packed Vinoteca in Seymour Place (vinoteca.co.uk), inspired by the wine bars of Italy and Spain, which sets me up for the evening's main event: gambling.
London has a long and chequered history of gaming and at the Empire Casino you can gamble 24 hours a day (www.thecasinolsq.com). It is just shy of 11pm as I enter the poker room for a brief lesson in Texas hold 'em but the big and small blinds leave me bamboozled and I leave to try my luck on the main floor with roulette and blackjack. Unfortunately, it is not my night.
The following morning, after a bacon sandwich at the Riding House Cafe (ridinghousecafe.co.uk), I have an appointment at Sotheby's (sothebys.com). One of the better secrets of London is that you can duck into the auction house and view the exhibits of a forthcoming auction - and there's an excellent cafe, too. I have a preview of a contemporary art auction, with works by Gerhard Richter, Damien Hirst and Lucian Freud, all of which sell well a few days later.
Just up the road at Oxford Street, House of Fraser's menswear department has had a revamp, with a lounge (and a small library containing a copy of Debrett's Guide for the Modern Gentleman) where you can have a suit made up or engage a personal shopper (houseoffraser.co.uk).
It used to be said that a man was defined by his clubs and so for my final indulgence I visit the Royal Automobile Club on Pall Mall, founded in 1897, for an invigorating Turkish bath (massage treatments from £34 for 30 minutes for members and their guests; see royalautomobileclub.co.uk).
I leave reassured that London remains a city that really is anything you want it to be - and for one weekend I have enjoyed a lifestyle that even Beau Brummell might have appreciated.
- Telegraph, London