London is a city like none other. If you know it well, you’ll know that to really thrive here, you need to be able to tell the scams from the high value propositions. That might sound like business jargon but you need to understand that almost everything in London is designed to take money from you in some way. We’re always amazed at how many people come to us and tell us in complete shock that they’re out of budget already, half way through their trip. They end up making do on a relative pittance for the second week and don’t have a much worse time. In many cases, they actually end up enjoying it more. Why? Because London is a bit like those organic supermarkets: it’s easy to pay double or even triple the price you would elsewhere, all because you’re buying into a narrative instead of a product’s actual strengths. For example, you can easily drop several hundred a night on a hotel and end up with something that’s not worth more than the £100 that someone else is spending elsewhere. Splashing that cash is no guarantee of quality and in some cases it’s actually a sign that you’re being taken for a ride.
We think that the industry that best sums this up is the food one, so we’ll be using that as a example. Do you fancy a cup of coffee? Good, well you can spend anywhere from £1 to £5. That’s a massive level of variance and if it becomes a regular purchase the difference can swiftly add up. What’s the difference between the two prices? In some cases, almost nothing. The budget option may very well be burnt and overproduced, or it might simply be a no frills option that is relying on common sense to carry it through. Likewise, the more expensive option might be one of the most brilliant cups of joe you’ve ever tasted, or it might be Nespresso standard coffee that’s packaged in just the right way to part you from your money. In a trendy little coffee shop, with chalk boards, wood furniture and more than a little hipsterism, it’s not easy to tell. In many cases, it’s actually impossible. Those these are extreme examples, they often show off the problems that afflict industries in this city. Things become even worse once you delve into the midrange category, which is as murky as they come.
You see, a cup of coffee from £3 to about £3.80 can be anything. Some of the absolute best brews in the city are at that price, hand roasted artisan beans processed by real baristas with expertly steamed milk, all notes of chocolate, hazelnut and other delicious goodies that will make your mouth water. Every element carefully considered and balanced. Or it might be the same coffee that’s being sold in the supermarket down the road, overroasted beyond belief to help extend its shelf life. The question is, how do you know? How can you know? You can’t, not unless you try it or have an unnatural sense of smell and eyesight that can spot a fake at a mile off. So you’re drawn to review sites, to the opinions of others. They have done the dirty work and tried things first hand, and they will let you know if it’s truly worth it or not. You won’t find many other places like that. Head to most cities in the world and by that coffee shop’s prices and location you’d get a pretty good gauge of how good it’s likely to be.
In London though, a restaurant in Leicester Square might be groundbreakingly brilliant, sure to win a star the next time the list is compiled or it might be borderline inedible food that’s as dated as you can possibly imagine. Venues at some of the biggest institutions in the city turn out to be absolutely awful, experimenting with ideas that they can’t pull off and failing horribly. Or you can turn into one of the nastiest, grottiest parts of town and find a dish that will blow you away and have you coming back for dinner over and over again. It’s the way that the city is. Beautiful street food, absurd gastronomy, steaks that cost as much as a new pair of shoes and seem to be made of the same leather. It really is all here and there’s very little way to tell what’s what without having to turn to the experts, to pages like this and to the review sections of magazines and newspapers. When it comes to parting you from your money, it seems like London is very much still in the embrace of rogues like Oliver Twist. Except instead of cutting your purse from your belt, they somehow convince you to hand it willingly over to them, often with a smile.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in terms of transport. A taxi across the city is the greatest game of roulette one can play. Sometimes it’s polite, punctual and cost efficient, getting you to that last minute job interview with minutes to spare and a tune on your lips. Other times, they’ll dawdle and take the stupidest route imaginable, and you’ll end up 30 minutes late on a 15 minute journey. Then the driver will have the temerity to take a hefty chunk of change for the honour of having royally screwed you over.
That’s London for you. They say that a fool and his money are easily parted but in the capital the truth is that everyone ends up losing a lot. Short of being savvy and ever on guard, chances are one day this fine city of ours will pick your pocket. And all you can do in those moments is smile, and learn for next time. Nothing will make it better, so accept, learn and move on. They wonder why we’re so cynical as citizens, but once you’ve seen the capital’s darker motives in action, it becomes all too clear. And don’t even get us started on sandwiches that cost more than a fiver…