Live tweeting a quiet night in Kilburn

It’s been a busy evening on Twitter. Naturally, I have a search set up for “Kilburn” in my timeline and from late afternoon it seemed that every other message came from someone suggesting that riots were going to kick off in Kilburn.

It became increasingly hard to determine fact from speculation from deliberate fanning of the flames – whether for fun or for more sinister motives.

Finally, I began to get more convincing sounding reports, many from people I know and trust, that said there wasn’t much happening. It became clear that there was a substantial police presence, and that shops were closing… although it was approaching 6pm, so some were closing anyway. Around 6.30pm someone tweeted that all the banks were closed. No kidding.

There began to be more reports of small groups of young men mooching up and down the road, some with masks. Initially skeptical I refrained from retweeting this, but eventually I was convinced. Several people were doing trawls of the entire High Road to see what was happening – after all Kilburn High Road is a mile long – and reporting that there was no actual trouble. Then there were solid reports that police were stopping some peole and shortly after the Guardian’s Simon Rodgers tweeted that 20 people had been arrested in Kilburn.

I’m willing to trust the Guardian, so lets assume this is true. The Guardian’s rolling riot coverage read:

Kilburn, in north west London, has also seen trouble reports Simon Rodgers. He says there have been 20 arrests near Kilburn High Road. Youths are roaming around the area, Simon says.”

This seemed a fair reflection of the situation, and was clearly chicken feed compared to the serious situation in Hackney, Peckham and Lewisham.

Unfortunately, the Guardian then tweeted this:

Follow LIVE #LondonRiots updates as trouble spreads to #Croydon #Kilburn and #Birmingham

Of course this got RTd to death and suddenly perfectly sane people were understandably concerned. Of course the news moved on, nothing at all happened in Kilburn, and the Guardian carried on talking about the serious problems in Croydon and Clapham. Is it too much to expect a follow-up to say that Kilburn was calm? I know the journalists are stretched, so maybe it is too much. This isn’t meant to be a Guardian-bashing post anyway. But it’s indicative of the challenge journalists and responsible tweeters/bloggers have in trying to be up-to-date with events while not falling for seductive sounding “breaking news” tweets. People like to give their false reports authenticity… “my aunt says…” “a colleague rang me to say…”, etc. But it’s fairly easy to weed those out.

Harder to unravel were those messages from people I know who hear something from someone they know and – in a commendable effort to be helpful – ping me to keep me up to speed. With so many people tweeting though, one isolated report without a picture is to be taken with a large pinch of salt. In every single case, further investigation revealed that the reported fact simply wasn’t true. Many were either misunderstandings, or nuance was lost in the brevity of Twitter, or it was the product of over-active imaginations. But each one gets retweeted, especially when it’s written by someone with a lot of followers, before there’s a chance to contradict it and the whole thing starts again.

Part of me wonders whether it’s worth doing this – I’m under no illusion that fighting (with some very able allies – thanks to Julius_Geezer in particular) all the misinformation has any impact on what might happen, but it does seem worthwhile to allay people’s genuine fears.

More importantly, I would much rather be spending an evening trying to counter some misinformation than writing about looting, arson and general thuggery in the neighbourhood. In the parlance of the day, stay classy Kilburn.

Burritos Juan or Burritos When

Last night a group of whampers decided to combine a night of comedy at The Good Ship with a test of the new burrito joint that’s opened directly opposite, Burritos Juan.

It’s only been open a couple of weeks and was empty when we arrived. From the front it looks a bit unprepossessing, but inside is perfectly pleasant with a few tables and chairs leading to the counter at the back. There’s camouflage netting on the ceiling and fake brickwork wallpaper, but the overall effect is perfectly decent.

It would be fair to say that they weren’t geared up to the sudden arrival of eight people, but we were warmly welcomed by an Argentinian girl replete with enormous comedy sombrero. She took our orders, which were all pretty simple. The menu is basic: they have tortillas, they have fillings. We ordered. We sat. We waited.

I sent a couple of tweets.

We waited some more.

There were three of them behind the counter working away, perhaps not at the breakneck speed one might expect from a fast food establishment. Then something happened. I don’t know what. But it was clearly very funny as they were suddenly in hysterics. We assumed they’d dropped something, but they didn’t tell us what was quite so funny. It was hard not to laugh along anyway, although our growling stomachs and the impending kick-off of the comedy were tempering our good humour.

The guy working there dashed out the front door, returning a minute later with a large pack of Doritos, which we were given as a peace offering. We’d now been waiting more than 20 minutes.

Then he dashed off again. What had they run out of? Tortillas. Fairly key ingredient.

Finally, our burritos were ready. They had somehow taken almost 45 minutes despite all the ingredients sitting in containers right under the counter. We were all starving and wolfed them down. They weren’t very big, but they did taste ok. I’ve had better but I’ve also definitely had worse, and to be fair, we probably hadn’t seen the place at its best. We went to pay (£3.50 for a burrito, 50p for a soft drink – cheaper than most shops) and they commented that we’d eaten them very quickly. I expect we were supposed to savour every mouthful but hunger and time were against us and 45 minutes of work disappeared in about 4.5 minutes of eating.

I would definitely give Burritos Juan a second chance, but not with a large group of people unless I called ahead. This might be tricky though as the business cards have an address but no phone number. There’s a lot of competition on the High Road for fast food, and these guys will need to be slicker if they want to become a fixture – they have a big advantage in being the only Mexican place around, I really hope they make the most of it.

Ariana II – review of Kilburn’s Afghan restaurant

The welcome from Wali at Ariana II is extremely warm. It’s quite hard not to think of all the clichés of the famed generosity of Afghan hospitality at this relative newcomer to the Kilburn High Road. Ever since Time Out gave it a glowing review, it has piqued the interest of NW6ers so it was time for whampreviewers to give their verdict.

The menu is long, and grilled meats and aubergine feature prominently. We eagerly accepted the suggestion of sharing a variety of starters and very soon the table was full with bread, houmous, a Russian salad that tasted a lot better than it looked, an uneventful Afghan salad, some rather nice Ashak (vegetable-filled steamed dumplings) and – of course – some fried aubergine. A small dish of fiery sauce came too. “Does this go with anything in particular?” asked Hazel? “Everything – it goes with everything” beamed our host. And indeed it did, being hot enough to more or less kill any more subtle flavour.

Main courses arrived and there was much kerfuffle as starter plates and main courses fought for space on an increasingly cramped table. Service throughout was very friendly – our waitress in particular endeared herself to the table – but a slightly slicker system might result in less plate juggling by customers. It feels like a culture clash between the Afghan dastarkhan spread of food and the modern European desire to eat separate courses – as well as the physical constraints of a restaurant in Kilburn (one with very clean toilets as Jennifer pointed out).

The grilled meat main courses mostly came with rice either plain or served as a pilau (brown rice offered as an option) and a salad. My own dish was from the Afghan specials list. Muntu is another steamed dumpling dish, this time filled with a very spicy lamb mixture. It was really delicious – the spiced meat cutting through the mild sauce and yoghurt dressing – another dish where taste far exceeded presentation.

Verdicts on the various plates of grilled meat were generally positive although there was a sense of disappointment that the flavour of these dishes didn’t really stand out from what you might get at a decent kebab place even if the cooking was certainly better and more consistent: one chicken dish described as “surprisingly succulent”.

Matt reckoned that if they “sorted the salad out” his lamb shank dish would have been a really good meal, referring to the rather unexciting tomato lettuce and cucumber on his plate.

We didn’t order vegetable sides, but I think I would if going again – I would have liked something green with my dish certainly. None of us were vegetarians, but actually there is a reasonable selection of vegetarian food even if most are billed as side dishes.

We again took a selection of desserts – including a ras malai made by our waitress’s aunt and that Jayanti declared “exceptional” (having already said it was one of her favourites), some baklava and another yoghurt-based dessert. All were good.

Cardamon coffee was described as “really good” and there was much appreciaton for the tiny persian rug coasters for the mint tea teapots. It was time for the bill. It’s worth pointing out here that Ariana II is a bring-your-own-bottle restaurant. There is a decent wine shop two doors away though, so this is no great hardship but did have a big effect on the bill compared to previous reviews. So, including service but excluding wine we paid £18 each. There was still and sparkling bottled water on the table, which we drank but realised later we hadn’t been charged for – whether deliberately or not, I don’t know.

Overall, it was an enjoyable experience. I’m not sure Whether Ariana II has quite enough to lure West Hampsteadites down to the High Road just for the food. But, if you find yourself hungry in Kilburn,  want something a bit different and like friendly service then this restaurant should definitely be on your shortlist.

Thanks to reviewers Jennifer, Hazel, Susan, Jayanti, Peter, Alex, Jon, and Matt

Food 7.0
Service 8.2
Value 7.4
Overall 7.4
Good for: aubergine
Bad for: clutterphobes
214 Kilburn High Road
T: 020 3490 6709

Cock Theatre closes for good

Earlier this week, the popular and very highly regarded Cock Tavern Theatre in Kilburn was forced to close temporarily when it was discovered that the pub above which it operates didn’t have a licence for “upstairs entertainment”.

It was hoped that this could be resolved quickly using a series of Temporary Event Licences while a permanent licence was sorted out. But Adam Spreadbury-Maher, the artistic director, announced today that the theatre would have to look for new premises after discovering that complying with Brent Council’s Health & Safety requirements regarding the fire exits would be prohibitively expensive. Quite whether the risk was really that great is no doubt moot. At my recent visit, I can’t say that I noticed the stairs were especially steep or narrow. UPDATE: The Independent has more detail on this story.

All performances have thus been cancelled and the theatre is in the process of trying to reimburse people while it moves to new premises.

It does seem hard to believe some sort of compromise could not have been reached, and instead Kilburn loses another high-quality arts venue.

First time at The Cock

Kilburn’s Cock Theatre – fresh from its victory at the Olivier Awards – is currently staging back-to-back Tennessee Williams plays as part of the centenary celebrations of his birth. As a bit of a fan of TW (due in no small part to the smouldering tension between Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – one of the more inspiring A-Level English texts we did), I thought this was the perfect opportunity to visit this pub theatre for the first time to see I Never Get Dressed ’til After Dark on Sundays.

The play came to a close a couple of nights later, so I’m not planning to review it here (although if I was, I’d be saying it was a good production of one of Tennessee’s weaker works (it was unpublished in his lifetime)). I’m more just saying that it’s a great small theatre and its reputation is already so strong that you need to grab tickets fast when they come out. It seats only about 50 people (although some turned out to be cast members).

What at first amused me, and then slightly depressed me, was that as people arrived – many clearly not regulars in Kilburn – they rather huddled by the door looking a bit terrified of the locals rather than just heading over to the bar (which gives discounts once you wave your programme around) and saying hello. Perhaps the locals don’t look that welcoming, but within… ooh… five seconds of ordering, my neighbour Seán had introduced himself, shaken my hand at least twice, and told me not to mind him, he was just a drunk Irishman. Which he was. But a very friendly and harmless one.

So if you do head down to the Cock Theatre, please try and spend some money in the Cock Tavern as well and don’t create a rather frosty divide between “theatregoers” and “pub dwellers”. From my experience of living in Dublin for a bit, some of the most unlikely looking people in pubs are far more fluent in Beckett and Joyce, than many so-called fans of the theatre are in Shakespeare or Pinter.

Tonight I’m going to party like it’s 2011

I know, I know, it’s not even Christmas yet, but some of you lovely people want to know what excitement is on offer on New Year’s Eve in the neighbourhood. And who am I to stand between you and a continuation of your borderline alocholism.

In West Hampstead, The Gallery is having an 80s themed party. “Think ‘Back to The Future’, neon spandex, sweat bands, big hair and classic tunes!” Sounds more like a Fame tribute party to me. But remember people, “Fame costs, and right here’s where you start paying”. £20 to be precise (+ booking fee if you buy via View London).

Sister bar The Alice House is having a Masquerade Ball. “The venue will be styled with a traditional Victorian theme, cupcakes, masks, prizes at midnight, DJs and an early breakfast.” Tickets for this one are a slightly eye-watering £22 – the excitement kicks off at 9.30pm and goes ’til 4am.
The Mill Lane Bistro is having its first ever New Year’s Eve party. “There will be live performances, music, drinks and lots of dancing!” The bistro promises large discounts on drinks and “lots of punch”. Tickets bought in advance (£8) include a free drink and the chance to win a bottle of champagne. E-mail . Or pay £12 on the door (no drink included).

Over in Kilburn, The Good Ship has its annual ‘don’t rip off the punters’ New Years Eve Party. Doors open at 7.30pm and DJs Robot & Dinosauro will see you through the new year with “a delicious feast of best of 2010, indie dance extravaganza, post-modern new wave romance, some dirty, filthy electro madness and club classics you forgot you loved.” Entry is £5 in advance, £7 on the night (although it usually sells out in advance). Email to reserve tickets.

The Betsy Smith lives up to its slightly kooky image with Cirque de la Nuit. “Expect acrobatic mixology and fantastical feats by performers including Caged Lions and Tiger Dancers as well as the most weirdest and wonderful clown interludes.” There are 2-for-1 cocktails (7-9pm), dance floor favourites from guest DJ Final Conflict and a 4am licence. Tickets are £10 in advance but £20 on the night.

The North London Tavern is holding a Mad Hatters Dinner Party with Mock Turtle soup, Queen of Hearts Tart, a White Rabbit terrine, Warm Pigs Belly & Roast Dodo. Bookings on 0207 625 6634 or . Prizes for best costume and the bar is open until 2am. There’s a cover charge on the door for non-diners, but no tickets are available in advance. Am finding out the cost [watch this space]

The Westbury hosts “The Nextmen with their up-tempo, hip hop beats. Four hands, four decks, four times the fun! Assisting in the musical mash-up will be DJ Vadim with his eclectic vibe, enlisted by the talents of The Westbury’s favourite residents.” Doors open at 8pm, but get there any time before 9.30pm for a free cocktail. Buy your £20 tickets here.

Anything I’ve missed, please add into the comments, or mail me.

Midsummer [a play with songs] at The Tricycle Theatre: review

Midsummer was a hit at Edinburgh. It is actually set in Edinburgh at midsummer and is simply a story of boy meets girl, or rather girl meets boy. The girl is a divorce lawyer, the boy a petty criminal. Over the course of the play they let us look into their lives as 35 year-olds. They don’t especially like what they see, but we love them. We cannot help but love them.

It is an astonishingly good play. David Greig’s script (he also directs) flows effortlessly and convincingly from appropriate dialogue to poetic musings. Attempts to do this jar in many modern scripts, but never once does it seem out of place here. The staging is great – there’s no interval, no set changes, and definitely no fourth wall. With just a bed and a few props, the cast of two work their magic. Yes, just a cast of two. At times they each morph into other characters – which sounds odd but works brilliantly. I can’t recall seeing a production that plays so smartly with the suspension of disbelief yet never once disengages you from the unfolding drama.
The two actors are faultless. Cora Bissett perhaps has the edge, but it’s really unfair to split them. Matthew Pidgeon turns “Robert… Rob… Bob… fuck” into a tragic hero on a par with the best. These two are a double act and utterly convincing. Over a drink after the play I tried hard to think of faults with this production and struggled to find one.

Throughout Midsummer there are musical interludes penned by Gordon McIntyre – it is after all “a play with songs”. These work rather well – rather like music in a TV drama, except here it’s the cast that sing and play guitar. Again, sounds a bit odd – works like a dream. Seems a bit Dennis Potter doesn’t it. Well, he was brilliant too.
I can’t recommend this highly enough. It is both hilariously funny, utterly engaging and incredibly moving as the characters come to terms with what they are doing with their lives. And it’s on our doorstep. Go and see it. 
Midsummer runs until January 29th at the Tricycle Theatre.
There’s even a singles night on December 21st (midwinter, geddit)
*Disclaimer: I received a free ticket courtesy of the theatre

Barraco review: A little bit of Brazil in Kilburn

Barraco will never be somewhere that picks up much passing trade. From whichever way you approach it, it takes a leap of faith to believe that there’s going to be any commercial businesses at all, let alone a half-decent restaurant serving up a slice of Brazil on this residential back road.

As this was to be the last #whampreview of 2010, I decided that I would abandon the famous hat from which names are plucked and everyone would be able to come. Thus it was that 12 of us squeezed into the street-level ‘front room’ of Barraco, which sits somewhere between a restaurant and a café. The kitchen is a few steps below, and there’s also a large back room for live music, parties and presumably those occasional very busy nights.

Which this was, for we were sharing a rather small space with a party of including actor Joe McGann. Barraco isn’t your obvious celebrity haunt, nor did it seem quite prepared for two large groups who had both booked. Some judicious rearranging of tables happened and the beers and caipirinhas began to flow.

We opted for a selection of starters to share, including (at Lauren‘s request) frogs legs, fried yam, chicken gizzards, which I enjoyed, prawn rissoles and breaded cheese balls (“a bit Kerry Katona”, said Nicky). Perhaps the best starter was the grilled Brazilian sausages with onions, which really could be a meal in itself, and which Moya declared “divine”.

Barraco is unashamedly Brazilian. I’d certainly like to imagine that the ambience here is going to take Brazilians in London straight back to the land of samba. It’s not chic. We have bright plastic tablecloths, there are Brazilian flags and a large map of the country on the wall. There are cabinets full of brightly coloured packets of food. It’s bright. Very bright. It is the most common criticism of this friendly establishment. It’s not a place for a romantic candlelit dinner for two.

Most mains come with a choice of two sides – this is not a restaurant you’ll leave hungry. The tilapia cooked in coconut milk divided opinion – Jane was underwhelmed, Richard thought his was well cooked although it wasn’t that hot. Ria and Tom‘s white fish was too salty but, in Tom’s words, “respectfully cooked”. In fact, universally the food was deemed too salty.

Large bottles of what looked like brown sugar were placed on the table. It turned out to be farofa – a Brazilian seasoning – that only Mark tried.

The moquecas (a Brazilian fish stew) looked good and were “hearty” according to Moya. The rest of us went for steaks, My ribeye was a little undercooked in the middle, despite the waitress being insistent that I had it medium. It tasted good, but looked like it had suffered from freezer burn. The side of beans was really good – in fact a meal of just the sides would be quite appealing. Sarah E, Sarah W and Dominic also went for steaks, while Mark splashed out on the monster T-bone.

There was barely room for desserts, although that didn’t stop some of us from indulging from the offerings from the chiller cabinet.

I thought the kitchen and our very friendly waitress did a great job of getting all the food out quickly and all together with no mistakes (I think our service score below is a little low). Barraco would be great for a quick filling meal or for a group outing (but book in advance because it’s busy and small!) – it’s certainly a great part of the NW6 restaurant scene.

Food 6.5
Service 7.5
Value 7.7
Overall 7.1
Good for: farofa
Bad for: people on low-sodium diets
10 Kingsgate Place
T: 020 7604 4664
Barraco on Urbanspoon

Photos courtesy of Mark and Jane

West Hampstead’s witches and warlocks

Halloween is around the corner, but these days it’s more of an excuse to smear black lipstick on the rim of a cocktail glass than to knock at your neighbour’s door in the vain hope of receiving some Haribo (or a tangerine if they’re middle class).

So, you’re in your best Morticia Addams or Freddie Kruger costume but don’t want to brave the scary beast that is the Jubilee Line. You need Halloween action, but you need it local. What are your options?

Last year, sister bars The Gallery and The Alice House sensibly had their Halloween parties on separate nights. This year, The Gallery takes the lead with two consecutive nights of ghoulish partying at Gothic Horror Halloween on Friday and Saturday. The bar is open ’til 2am and the flyer says “Dress to kill (literally)”, which we can only hope they don’t regret on Sunday morning.

The Alice House meanwhile has a “Not so scary” Halloween theme on Friday and Saturday with prizes for best costumes. I’m not sure whether the prize is for the least scary costume…

DJ_Postscript will be pumpkin’ out the tunes (sorry, sorry) at The Railway on Saturday night from 8 ’til late, and The Lion also has a DJ lined up. A DJ too at the revamped Priory Tavern on Belsize Road, where they’ll be serving cauldron cocktails on Saturday, while on Sunday there’s face painting for kids and “devilish roasts”.

Head over to Kilburn and new kid on the block The Betsy Smith is hosting Fangtasia on Saturday from 7pm-3am. The blurb for this True Blood themed party says “be very nice to our vampire sheriff of the Kilburn district or punishments will be given!! People have been known to go missing….”. So, just an average night out in Kilburn then.

The Westbury has a Juicebox Halloween Party on Saturday from 8pm-3am. This night of “drinking, dancing and general tomfoolery” is free before 9pm, £3 from 9-10pm and £5 after 10pm. Or free at any time if you come in fancy dress. Although quite who decides what’s fancy dress and what’s just Lady Gaga popping in on her way back from Tesco Express is not clear.

Finally, one of the few events actually taking place on Halloween itself is The Good Ship‘s Celebrity Shame Halloween Party. “Think Lindsey Lohan in prison get up, George Michael frequenting toilet cubicles, Cheryl Cole punching toilet attendants…”. It’s £3 in and prizes for best costumes.

Whatever you’re up to, have a gorylicious Halloween, and remember the clocks go back at 2am Sunday morning, so you’ll get an extra witching hour this year.

Small & Beautiful review

Small & Beautiful is neither particularly small nor particularly beautiful. It is commonly described as ‘cheap and cheerful’, which seems a much more appropriate moniker.

On Thursday night only half the restaurant, which nestles against the Overground railway bridge on Kilburn High Road, was being used, but the place was buzzy when we arrived.

Menus came promptly. It is all ever so slightly confusing with starters, light bites that sound like entire meals (a lamb’s knuckle can surely never be a light bite?), main courses, and then a separate list of specials which overlapped mostly with dishes listed on a blackboard but not entirely.

Bread and olives were swiftly delivered – a generous amount of both – while we ordered a bottle of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon (in honour of the miners you see) and attempted to order several different bottles of white before finding one they actually had in stock.

And so to the food – the menu is a strange mix of more interesting dishes such as chicken and artichoke salad, and pub grub staples such as potato skins. Matt and I opted for the tiger prawn special, which came with long strips of pepper and a piquant tomato sauce. The sauce and the peppers tasted fine, the prawns were slightly overcooked and tasted of nothing and were also the smallest tiger prawns I’ve seen. But apart from that it was fine.

Jess and Mark had the aforementioned chicken and artichoke salad, which looked nice and they both seemed happy. Mark’s only complaint being that the salad was overdressed. Marcia had the calamari which performed as calamari tend to do, while Ana went for the impressive looking baked chèvre but was thrown by the large slice of beef tomato underneath the slab of cheese. Blake‘s potato skins looked perhaps the least appetising of the starters, and he was perplexed by the plain yoghurt accompaniment, expecting mayonnaise or aioli. Still, for the paltry price of a few quid it was hard to complain.

We had waited quite a long time for starters, but not long enough to contemplate chasing them and all had come out together – a feat very few restaurants have managed. Main courses followed starters fairly swiftly and our skepticism as to the lightness of the bites was soon justified as Jess’s plate of spaghetti all’arrabiata arrived. There was a lot of it. Really a lot.

Matt’s chicken and mushroom risotto was also generously portioned. It wasn’t a risotto, more a chicken and tomato rice bake with some mushrooms involved somewhere along the way. But he enjoyed it.

Blake had steak, which he was very happy with, pronouncing it perfectly juicy and tender while admitting that ordering fries after his potato skins starter might not have been the best call. Marcia and I braved the Lucanica sausage, which had been grilled in a a spiral and was served with sauted potatoes and green beans. It was pretty good, perhaps not as spicy as I might have liked, but I reluctantly admitted defeat towards the end (this was another light bite!).

Ana had bravely gone for the ambiguous fish fillet of the day, which was something unpronounceable. It came liberally covered in a herb sauce, but she was underwhelmed by the whole thing, declaring the fish “rubbery”. Mark – having been denied the final steak by Blake – also had fish, going for one of the restaurant’s most expensive dishes – the sea bass at £10.95. It was quite a small sea bass, and he was struggling to enthuse about it.

For most dishes, vegetables are ordered separately, but this isn’t one of those restaurants where you find yourself paying £16 for a main course only to be forced to spend another £3.50 for a small plate of barely-steamed broccoli. For less than £2 you can get a plate of veg that would do some people for dinner by itself.

Did we want to see the dessert menu? Of course we did. Blake, Matt and I all chose the warm peaches with pistachio ice cream. This was exceptionally good. The peaches were delicious, with a light caramel sauce and if there was a complaint about the ice cream it came from Matt who suggested that it should perhaps be more ice cream and less pistachio – never a terrible complaint.

Jess’s “never-ending” mango sorbet more or less justified the price of her entire meal as scoop upon scoop upon scoop was piled into a dish. Mark’s apple pie was “homely”, bathing in a pool of bright yellow custard. Marcia felt her chocolate cake was the weakest dish of the evening, while Ana was quickly defeated by a “too generous” hunk of tiramisu.

A handful of coffees and an over-sized port for Matt (in honour of @Ghoul_of_London who was missing his first whampreview in months), and the bill came to £23 each, which for three courses each, two bottles of wine and coffees didn’t seem bad at all.

The reviews and anecdotes beforehand suggested that Small & Beautiful could be hit and miss and this was reflected in the individual scores, with Ana having clearly been in the ‘miss’ camp. She was, however, in a minority and the first ever 10/10 was awarded (for value by Jess). The only complaint a couple of us had was that the menu itself wasn’t especially enticing, especially compared to Little Bay, the Belsize Road instituion that offers similarly cheap food.

There is no question however, based on this experience, that Small & Beautiful is an excellent option for a cheap and cheerful meal out on the High Road when you don’t want Nando’s, pizza or yet another kebab. Mind you, it’s no Speedy Noodle…

Food 6.9
Service 7.2
Value 8.3
Overall 7.8
Good for: the impoverished
Bad for: Michel Roux Jr
351 Kilburn High Road
T: 020 7328 2637
Small & Beautiful on Urbanspoon

The Plaque at Pooh Corner

“A party for Me?”
thought Pooh to himself.
“How grand!”

There can be very few people who have not encountered Winnie the Pooh. One of the great characters of children’s literature and I can’t help but feel also a precursor of Homer Simpson. Lovable, of “little brain”, and ever so slightly obssessed with food.

Pooh’s creator of course was A.A.Milne and – who knew – he was born in Kilburn in 1882. The house where he was living was destroyed in the war when a V1 fell in the vicinity and the site is now occupied by Remsted House, part of the Mortimer Estate, at the junction of Mortimer Place and Kilburn Priory.

Lib Dem worthy and sometime local historian Ed Fordham has launched a Historic Kilburn Plaque Scheme. Appropriately enough given the area’s Irish heritage, the plaques are green. The unveiling today of Alan Milne’s plaque was the first of what Ed hopes will be “at least 20” such plaques to be dotted around Kilburn.

Under gloriously blue skies an impressive crowd was gathering for the big moment. Milne’s granddaughter Clare was present.

Ed kicked off with a few booster words for the area, before local historian Dick Weindling (he literally wrote the book) gave a short explanation of the heritage of the area – formerly the Greville Estate (and much earlier part of a 12th Century priory).

Weindling explained that Milne’s father had bought and ran a private school – Henley House – on the site at which 13 boys boarded. Four years later, A.A. Milne was born. In 1889, H.G. Wells was the science teacher there for a year and despite being highly critical of the type of education at Henley House he praised Milne’s father as a “really able teacher”. The Milnes sold the school in 1893, apparently concerned that “the neighbourhood was going down”.

Michael Brown, chairman of the Pooh Properties Trust and wearing an approriate Pooh-themed tie, then said a few words about A.A. Milne himself. Of course he is famous for the Winnie the Pooh books, but he also wrote successful plays and adult books and was very much part of the literary elite in the interwar period.

It was time for the unveiling – suitably to be done by two kids. “Either the string will break, or the tape will stay up, or something will go wrong,” said Ed.

But really isn’t that what would have happened to Pooh? Piglet would have pulled with all his Strength. Rabbit would have advised from the sidelines and Eeyore would have pointed out all the things that could have gone wrong. The strings were pulled, the curtain fell, some tape remained and Pooh would have been a very happy bear.

OxjamKilburn comedy night

Last night, OxjamKilburn’s four-night comedy festival kicked off. Along with Friday’s fashion show at the State building, this is all building up to October 23rd’s OxjamKilburn takeover when your favourite Kilburn music venues play host to a day of live music – all accessible for a tenner if you’re quick and £12.50 if you’re not ( Proceeds from all these events go directly to Oxfam.

A good crowd turned out for launch night at Power’s on the High Road to see compère Jeff Leach walk us through six acts. Paul Sweeney and Simon Feilder were the stand-out stand ups. I also have a soft spot for Tom Allen, who I saw at The Good Ship a few weeks ago.

The evening ended up in mild farce as headliner Julian Deane got caught up in strange 1-on-1 conversations with audience members and the whole thing verged on the uncomfortable. Gelatio Mio were on hand with free ice cream – what’s not to like about that you’re thinking? What’s not to like may be when it’s thrown at Leach (playfully-ish I should add). There was a distinct mood shift after spoof band Hot Brew finished its surreal character comedy cabaret act. It was different, and entertaining, but maybe this wasn’t the right audience as most sat there in stunned silence.

The comedy festival runs until Wednesday. Monday & Tuesday the shows take place at Paradise in Kensal Green with Trevor Lock and Alex Zane headlinng respectively. Wednesday’s show is at The North London Tavern where Rufus Hound and Gail Porter (yes, that Gail Porter) top the bill. Leach is on stage every night and probably justifies the £5 ticket price (£6 on the door) by himself.

For more information, visit the website.

Rock on the High Road: Kilburn’s music then and now

The arrival of The Betsy Smith – a pub/music venue – on the Kilburn High Road is yet another indication that the old Roman road is finding its way back onto the musical map.

After my brief round-up of West Hampstead’s musical heritage, I was delighted to be invited to join accredited blue badge guide Simon Rodway on a walking tour of Kilburn’s musical treasures. This was organised by Camden council, who are putting together a self-guided podcast. October is also Camden mayor Jonathan Simpson‘s Music Month, so what better time to catch up on music on the very edge of the borough – an area often overlooked in favour of Camden Town and Chalk Farm.

We kick off outside the iconic State building. Recently taken over by the Ruach Ministry on condition that the decorative interior was restored. When I first moved to Kilburn and lived round the corner from the State it was a bingo hall, but when it opened in 1937 it was Europe’s biggest auditorium , seating 4,004 people. Anyone and everyone has played there and The Who’s live performance there is a DVD classic. It is also home to one of the largest working Wurlitzers in the country and this too will be restored to its former glory.

The Rolling Stones backstage at the State Nov 19, 1963

Working our way north up the High Road (bizarrely with a full police escort, which makes us look like VIPs but does nothing to suggest that this is a perfectly safe part of town) we pause outside the National. This enormous venue was built in 1914 and was a cinema and ballroom initially. In the 1980s and early 1990s bands including Suede, Nirvana, The Smiths and Blur played here. It too was taken over by an evangelical church – the Victory Christian Centre – but this ran into all sorts of problems. At the moment the building is used by another church movement, the UCKG.

The next stop on the tour is not really music-related, but it is the epicentre of Kilburn’s cultural revival. The Tricycle Theatre is certainly one of the most respected off West End theatres in London, with a reputation for staging political plays that often transfer to larger theatres or go on tour.

From the Tricycle, with its “opened by Emma Thompson” plaque we head across the road to the Sir Colin Campbell. I’ll be honest, this is one of those pubs that I always thought you’d have to pay me to go in. It looks like an old-man Irish pub and upon entering there is indeed one old man sitting at the bar. The landlord looks surprised to see us, and does a double-take when the police escort walks in. But when prompted to tell us about the music at the pub he is more than happy to tell us about the sessions on a Friday night. It all sounds genuinely Irish and not tourist Oirish, and actually the sort of place that could be a good night out if you threw yourself into it.

We walk up to The Good Ship, the first of Kilburn’s cluster of live music venues. John, the owner, is there to meet us and give us the lowdown of the low stage. The Good Ship tends to have younger up-and-coming bands. John tells us of the night Adele and Kate Nash shared the bill, and explains that bands like the back projection that lets them have more imaginative visuals.

I throw in a good plug for the Monday night comedy. What I like about The Good Ship is that it’s completely lacking in pretension. It is also willing to try things out and has hosted spoken word events and quizzes as well as music. Right now, it’s the most reliable comedy club in the area and at £4 an absolute bargain. Recent better known acts have included Josie Long, Milton Jones and an unbilled impromptu opening from the great Ed Byrne. But back to the music.

We turn off the High Road to a place none of us has ever even heard of. The Institute of Contemporary Music Performance is a living and breathing rock school. It offers full BMus degrees as well as diplomas, foundation courses and specialist courses. We actually gatecrashed and they’re weren’t expecting us but the college’s CEO Paul Kirkham appeared and gave us a quick talk about the college. Its aim is not to churn out the next X-Factor winner or Simon Fuller band, but rather to give students a sustainable career in music. He cited the fact that half a dozen or so students were at Glastonbury this year as backing singers/musicians. The college was originally in Acton before moving to its rather swish Dyne Road premises, of which it is taking over more and more floors.

By now, Andy at The Luminaire was ready for us. Modest to a fault, he ascribed the venue’s success to the fact that there are clean towels in the dressing room. The club, above the Kings Head bar, has the biggest pulling power in the area. It has a slight tendencey towards bluesy/folky musicians, but also hosts its fair share of pop & rock bands. The Libertines, Editors, James Morrison and Jarvis Cocker have all played there, while some months ago I saw the last living Delta bluesman David Honeyboy Edwards at what may well be his final London gig.

The Luminaire’s famous “silence during the music” policy is almost a trademark and although it’s often ignored during the support acts, it has undoubtedly contributed to the fact that artists like the place. Punters like it because as well as good acts, the managemnt is conscious that they often have to get home on public transport, so sets tend to be over in time to catch the tube or train. Put it all together and it’s not surprising that Time Out and Music Week have both given it Music Venue of the Year awards. It also has an excellent website (something a lot of London’s music venues would do well to emulate).

The last stop on our Camden musical tour was meant to be Powers. Owned by former Mean Fiddler founder Vince Power, it is a more intimate music experience and again focuses on up-and-coming acts. Sadly, we were a bit early to have a snoop around and as this was the one place I hadn’t been to I had been intrigued to see inside.

We’d managed to spend several enjoyable hours exploring the musical legacy and contemporary scene along the Kilburn High Road (with the exception of The Westbury). It’s great that a street that inspired the name of Ian Dury’s first band and that has let Marilyn Monroe and Kurt Cobain entertain its residents, is still rocking.

UPDATE May 2011 – Camden has produced a PDF map of the musical heritage of the High Road.

The Betsy Smith, Kilburn – Opening night

(photo: courtesy of Kai Reysenn)?

The Betsy Smith opening night last Friday attracted the crowds. The bar staff, vying for the Artful Dodger lookalike prize, were struggling. At one stage the crush at the bar was seven-deep and getting a drink took upwards of 40 minutes. Bluntly, the place was heaving.

A cunningly worded press release had set the scene earlier in the week. This sister venue of The Winchester in Islington and Ealing’s Lodge Tavern was already being referred to as the “Narnia” pub although it struck me more as Alice in Wonderland.

The front of the bar, in what used to be Osteria del Ponte, is heavy on seating and a little crammed. As my companion commented on arrival, “It’s about 15% All Bar One”. Ouch.

Force yourself through to the back, however, and the décor, ambience and style change gear. Here, the tables are more secluded. There’s a mezzanine level perfect for private hire and below that a small area where a band was setting up. This was clearly the place to be. It’s darker, quirkier and far more seductive, especially on a night when the hordes were clamouring for their cocktails at the bar.

The drinks list is laden with contrived idiosyncracies, with cocktails categorised by their degree of whackiness. Parsnip and blue cheese? Really? More standard cocktails and of course beer, wine etc. are also available.

The Betsy Smith has aspirations to be almost 24-hours, opening 8am-midnight Sunday through Thursday, and closing at 3am on Friday and Saturday. On opening night there was finger food being passed around, which was certainly better than average and bodes well for the quality of the kitchen.

The Earth Lights Boogie Band, led by Spencer Kennedy, cranked up the volume and blasted everyone’s eardrums through the wardrobe or looking glass or somewhere into the nether regions of Cricklewood at the very least. They were good. Very good in fact. Playing a mix of boogie and funk covers at full throttle, with a few poptastic tunes thrown in for good measure, the surprisingly (and pleasingly) mixed crowd settled in to listen for the first set. At such decibels, talking was pretty much out of the question.

By the time the second set kicked in, numbers had thinned slightly, it was possible to get a drink within just 10 or 15 minutes (!) and the small dance floor was getting its first workout. In the dark, with the multiple lampshades on, any All Bar One-ness from earlier in the evening had vanished. Revelling continued into the early hours with Louisubsole on the decks.

(photo: courtesy of Kai Reysenn)??

The Betsy Smith looks like it will be a success as long as it can keep appealing to a mixed Kilburn crowd. It’s too far from the entertainment core of Kilburn (Tricycle/Good Ship/Luminaire/Powers) to draw many drinkers from there, but close enough to The Westbury to be direct competition. It will need local support as well as to lure people from beyond Kilburn for its DJ nights. Midweek reports since opening night have suggested it’s been quietish and coupley rather than meat-market sweat-on-the-dancefloor, but if it can get both groups in it might just last. If it hopes to turn NW6 into Shoreditch, it might face a revolt.

For more details on what it offers, check out its Facebook page, along with loads of photos from opening night
The Betsy Smith
77 Kilburn High Road
T: 020 7624 5793