Why Marylebone Village remains a revelation - and offers hope for a better future
Peter Ormerod returns to the delights of Marylebone Village as it opens up to the world once again
Never go back, they say. The last time I was in Marylebone was in March in 2020 for a weekend of bustling restaurants and busy shops. We stayed in a hotel where masks, hand sanitiser and public health messages were absent. Within weeks, that mini-break felt like it had taken place on a different planet.
Going back to Marylebone, then, was not just a matter of going back to a place. It was like going back to a time. And while the effects of the past 16 months have left their marks, what was perhaps most striking was the resilience of this often curiously overlooked part of London testament surely to its sense of community and the care and heart that underpin it.
That previous visit can be read about here, but the point that most bears repeating is that those London-bound visitors who hop off the train at Marylebone station and dash down for a tube into central London are missing a real gem of a place just a few minutes' walk away. Marylebone Village is the name that has been given to the part around Marylebone High Street, and is more than a marketing phrase: while the area is certainly urban, it is all on an endearingly human scale, and has a winning personality of its own. It's unquestionably pretty, too.
We were staying at The Marylebone Hotel, and frankly could have had a terrific weekend without leaving it. It has been decorated and furnished in quite mesmerising style, like a fantasy version of 1920s New York splashing into the colours and textures of the 2020s. It's as if Jay Gatsby had woken from a century of sleep and decided to design a hotel. The place is a masterclass in mood, from its seasonally themed lounge and bar areas to its sleek-but-never-clinical lines and vibrant-but-never-gaudy tones. It is the right side of contemporary, the right side of classy, the right side of fun.
Even having taken in the dazzling decor, however, little could prepare us for our seventh-floor Terrace Suite, which might well have been a tad overwhelming were it not for its charm. As a place to spend a night, it is quite staggeringly impressive. The chic sitting area, the Scandi-style bedroom (think warm wooded tones) and the marbled bathroom were striking enough, but it's the terrace that elevates it to the spectacular, with a retractable roof and transparent blinds leaving you looking over London and touching the sky. It's a pretty breathtaking place to watch television, that's for sure. But it's the small things that really make it: the book of stories next to the bed, the fresh flowers, the delicate details.
Tempting as it was to stay in and soak it all up, we had lunch booked at The Italians. It immediately passed the first test: actual Italians were eating there. It's a deli and bar that prides itself on working with small, hand-picked suppliers in Italy who, it is fair to say, know what they're doing. There is no sense here of the chain pizzeria or undue concessions to English tastes: this is fine Italian food prepared and served as it is supposed to be, all done with smiles and character. Food-wise, it prides itself on its cooked meats and cheeses honed over generations; in terms of drinks, there's a wine to suit every taste, every food and pretty much every time of day. Our prosciutto di Parma and melon was a salty-sweet-rich-fresh-melty-crisp marvel, while a board of salami and cheese was surely the Platonic ideal of such a thing, one of those times you realise how all this is meant to taste and feel. A glass of Valpolicella Classico was so deliciously light it was nearly levitating.
Next up was the Marylebone boutique of Fresh, a luxury beauty brand. Any preconceptions one may have about such places are swiftly dismissed, and happily so: the shop itself is pleasingly quaint, akin in some respects to a sort of steampunk apothecary, while the staff are affable and down-to-earth. I was booked in for a facial, the first I have had in my 42 years, for which I was put in the hands of Judith. She went about her task with the sure touch of an expert, talking me through the extraordinarily elaborate treatment regime. Fresh uses natural ingredients like sugar, milk, soy and rice with more unusual additions such as Japanese sake and Umbrian clay. To hear them being described is like hearing a chef talking about a meal: the balance of ingredients, where they come from, how they work together. After a good deal of cleansing and toning and firming and moisturising and massaging, my face felt so radiant it could probably have been used as a torch.
Just over the road is fashion shop DAI. It has a simple aim: to make women's clothes that are simultaneously boardroom-smart and sofa-comfortable. It says much about the industry and society more generally that women are often forced to choose between one or the other, but DAI seems determined to bring about change and make women feel better - something evident in its desire to cater for different body shapes. The colours are bold, the angles sharp, but the fabric is cut and crafted in such a way as to feel soft and snug. They're big on their friendliness to the wider world, too, using sustainable materials and making legal commitments to the welfare of their workers. It seems to be a force for good.
And not far away is a source for goodies. Mr and Mrs Small has got to be among the most likeable and, indeed, lickable cafes around. If you're a human, it's great; if you're a dog, it must be heaven. There's grooming, there's daycare, there's training, there's accessories galore (jackets, bows, that sort of thing), and fun and joy everywhere. Parts of its walls are covered with Polaroids of regular canine visitors, and the whole place has the energy of a particularly bouncy puppy. It is fantastically unpretentious, takes great pride in the quality of its tea and simply exudes joy. They want to spread the message that owning a dog should be a pleasure and never a burden. By all appearances, they are doing tremendously.
Then a return to the hotel, for early evening drinks on our terrace. They were made and brought to us by a remarkable man named Greg Chudzio, who manages the hotel's cocktail bar and was plainly put on earth for that very purpose. He talked effervescently about his craft, which is essentially the creation of cocktails, but involves everything from making the barrels to educating the unenlightened. The hotel gives him creative freedom and the tools to go about his work; the result is art you can drink. His company was intoxicating enough, let alone his liquor. The hotel is also home to 108 Brasserie, which has become something of a local institution with a new menu taking inspiration from culinary delights from across the globe, focusing on light, fresh and healthy dishes where seasonal produce takes centre stage.
The night having been passed in deep comfort, we kept it simple for breakfast. Porridge, toast and tea were all we really needed, but the menu offers an array of temptations for those who want to make a proper meal of it. And the surroundings deserve it, too - the breakfast room is calming, painted in a particularly luscious deep blue, and gentle on weary eyes. Then back to the suite for coffee on the terrace, because you really have to make the most of these things.
Then we ventured out to explore once more. First stop was David Mellor, which is named after its founder, one of the most celebrated British designers of the 20th century. A master metalworker who also happened to create the traffic lights still used in Britain today, his distinctive style has aged not one jot in the 50-or-so years since it first emerged. The company is known best for its cutlery; there is a wide range of styles but they all share a certain sense of flow, a kind of liquid heft. Everything is as beautiful to look at as it is to hold. It's now run by his son, creative director Corin Mellor, and the shop itself is a treat to explore; it could pass as a gallery, with wonderfully crafted pottery, glassware and more adorning its walls in a light and airy setting.
Down the road is KJ's Laundry, an appealingly laid-back and low-key shop selling niche and under-the radar fashion brands from around the world. The place has an honest, quietly confident unshowyness to it, which lets the clothes sing from their hangers: they radiate joy, the love and care that has been poured into their creation apparent even to the most inexpert observer. The shop's ranges from cult favourites like Samantha Sung and Sessun have made it a favourite destination for those in the know, and those who would like to know.
After a swift return to the hotel for the best non-alcoholic cocktails imaginable - including an apple mojito - our final stop was Isabel Manns, a fashion brand that has recently opened a pop-up shop in Marylebone High Street. The concept is simple - unique, reversible clothing - but the effort that goes into it is anything but. There is a mastery of art and craft at work here, a deep ingenuity allied to a richness of imagination leading to quite remarkable creations. Sustainability and circularity are the key ideas; barely a stitch is wasted, and two items of clothing can make four outfits. It's a seriously impressive venture and deserves to become a Marylebone mainstay.
And with that, it was a short walk to the station for the train home. It really is that straightforward. Once again, especially striking was the knowledge and enthusiasm and friendliness of everyone we met, be they hotel staff or shop managers or restaurant workers. It's that human touch that no algorithm can replicate, and that not even a pandemic can extinguish. Until last year, I was one of those who would just take the Bakerloo line into central London. But I didn't know what I was missing. Behind so many shopfronts in Marylebone Village are little worlds, filled with stories and passion. And today, that's more heartening than ever. Never go back? I'm delighted I did.
* Visit www.marylebonevillage.com for more information.