By Imogen Sarre
It's official. The lights on Regent's Street have been turned on, the party diary is starting to fill up, John Lewis' TV advert is dominating YouTube and Heart FM is humming along to its soundtrack. It can only mean one thing: Christmas is very nearly upon us. And there's so very much to look forward to that I almost can't get my head around the excitement in store for us: panto, carols, obligatory Love Actually watching, the smell of Christmas trees, mulled wine, Pret's Christmas sandwich, cards, office parties, reindeer jumpers, ice skating, mince pies, bobbly hats, decorations, cheesy Crimbo classic tunes, tangerines, too much food, and fun times with friends and family.
And to get us well and truly in the festive spirit, we asked eight ATG staff members for their personal Christmas recommendations. From things to do in London, to places to visit and things to see, this is the one and only guide to use that will ensure you have a perfect day and night out this Christmas.
Name: Imogen Sarre
Job at ATG: Project Management & Content Strategy Executive
Favourite London restaurant: Pizza East
Favourite London activity: Notting Hill's Portobello Market, Coronet Cinema and Hyde Park
Favourite London show: Ibsen's Ghosts comes to the West End straight from The Almeida Theatre in Islington, following fast in the footsteps of the outstanding Chimerica. Ibsen's play is full of meaty, dynamic, and eminently flawed characters, and this production gets the balance between dramatic flair and personal stories just right. Lesley Manville's sensational performance is matched by an exceptional supporting cast and creative team. The Evening Standard Awards, which saw the production being nominated for Best Director, Design and Actress, has got it spot on.
Recommended London restaurant: Pizza East combines stellar pizzas with beautiful decor and a fabulously buzzy atmosphere (it's heaving even on Sunday nights - the true test of quality). I think one of my favourite things about this lovely place is how versatile it is: the light and airy downstairs is perfect for a crisp-cold blue sky winter's day and glass of chilled white wine, but if you want to go down the red wine and cosy evening route, the laid-back upstairs gives all the comfort you associate with sitting in front of a log fire on a dark night.
Favourite London activity: If Hugh Grant hasn't converted you then possibly nothing will, but Notting Hill still gets my vote. Portobello Market on a Saturday is a lovely way to spend a morning, with its melange of vintage bargains, antique cubbyholes, and freezing stall-holders clasping de rigueur polystyrene coffee cups. After winding your way through the multicoloured stalls and past attractive Victorian-terraced houses, you can put your feet up in a whole host of coffee shops, book stores and independent picture houses (The Coronet Cinema is my personal fave, with £7 tickets and a cameo appearance in the Notting Hill film to recommend it). With Hyde Park - and the chance to Boris Bike through it and feed some ducks - on your doorstep too, this has to be one of London's best boroughs.
Name: Alexander Briggs
Job at ATG: Deputy Customer Services Manager
Favourite London show: The Bodyguard
Recommended London restaurant: Les Trois Garcons
Favourite London activity: Vintage rummaging in Shoreditch
Favourite London show: The Bodyguard combines stellar music - who doesn't love a good old bit of Whitney? - and Beverley Knight - who, let's face it, is really quite a big deal right about now. It's been running for a year but as Whitney's definitely queen of the night, we will always love her and she'll make you wanna dance with somebody, there's no way her musical won't get you oh so emotional. Going to see The Bodyguard is one moment in time you can't afford to miss.
Recommended London restaurant: Usually in London we find ourselves checking the prices before we go in to avoid places that are overpriced. However, when you really want to impress, try Les Trois Garcons - it's an old Victorian pub turned French Bistro, and is absolutely outrageous. The first thing you'll notice is the eccentric yet perfectly placed decor: a stuffed tiger with a diamond headdress looks across the restaurant, accompanied by a stuffed monkey, glittering chandeliers and handbags hanging from the ceiling.
If the ornate decor and furniture isn't enough to entice you, the food certainly will. Beautifully cooked Anglo French food, the menu is a modern take on classic French cuisine. The slow-cooked lamb (Pave d'agneau infuse a l'huile de noix de coco) is mouth-wateringly delicious and wonderfully accompanied by artichokes, a bean puree and pea and lemon thyme jus. If you want to watch the pennies but can't resist this place, the lunch menu is perfect, with 3 courses for £22 which includes a braised pork option that can't be bettered. Located on Club Street, a five minute walk from Shoreditch High Street / Brick Lane, this is the place to go for an absurd, opulent and excellent dining experience.
Favourite London activity: For those who like a one-off fashion piece, making a statement, or enjoy anything and everything vintage, there's nothing better than a trip to Shoreditch. Take some time to rummage amongst the vintage and retro shops that are in abundance here. Brick Lane is always a good start and The Vintage Store, Rokit or Hunky Dory are a foolproof way to start your shopping trip on the right foot. Whether you're on the hunt for a bargain or don't mind spending a little more for something special, there's a shop for you.
Don't, however, contain yourself to the wonder of Brick Lane, as a visit down some of the side streets may reveal treasure troves. On Hanbury Street is the highly recommended Absolute Vintage, where wannabe Sedgwicks can pick up iconic accessories. Or you can head to the well-known Beyond Retro store on Cheshire Street.
If you've had enough of clothes, take a break from going through rails and old brown suitcases and visit The Blitz to admire the home furnishings on sale, or flick through their vinyl in search of that elusive Buddy Holly album. Then take the weight off your feet by going for a quick cuppa in The Vintage Emporium, whose basement has a last stop boutique.
Name: Jane McKay
Job at ATG: Travel Trade Manager
Favourite London show: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Recommended London restaurant: Fire & Stone pizza for families; Christopher's for adults
Favourite London activity: Southbank Centre's Christmas Markets
Favourite London show: Charlie & the Chocolate Factory is the perfect show for a Christmas family outing. It has lavish, colourful sets, catchy songs, a stunning central performance from Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka, and some amazing visual effects. It truly 'must be believed to be seen'. And not only for families - the magic holds for adults as well as children.
Recommended London restaurant: For a great family meal try Fire & Stone in Maiden Lane. They serve pizzas with an international twist. You can sample delicious tastes of Mexico, India, the USA, Australia and of course, Italy. It's fun to share! For a more romantic couples atmosphere go to Christopher's, where sophisticated modern cuisine with an American flavour is the order of the day. They also have an elegant martini bar. Both restaurants are within a 3 minute walk of the theatre. Don't forget to check out ATG's meal & show offers - both these restaurants participate.
Favourite London activity: When Christmas approaches, London dons her glittering finery and ignoring the drizzle and murk, sets out her stalls and decorations giving delight to children and adults alike. The Southbank Centre has an annual Christmas market along the waterfront, with traditional wooden chalets serving up festive food, warming drinks, unique gifts and seasonal ingredients. Between 16-22 December the Designers & Makers Christmas Market has lots of original and interesting gifts, while the Real Food Christmas Market has mince pies, mulled wine, cheeses, chutneys, charcuterie and all manner of traditional and non-traditional festive bites, ingredients and gifts on offer. In addition there are heaps of free events at the Royal Festival Hall.
On your way to Drury Lane to catch your show, you have to cross the river via Waterloo Bridge. Here you have the entire panorama of the City of London on your right and the City of Westminster on your left. At the South West end of the bridge there is a place (by the bus stop, just before the Hayward Gallery) where you can get a magnificent photograph of Big Ben framed by the London Eye. And as you walk across the bridge you will be able to see St Paul's Cathedral, the wedding cake steeple of St Bride's Church and all the iconic modern buildings of the City to the East. To the West you have the London Eye, Houses of Parliament, Hungerford Bridge and the towers of the Royal Horseguards Hotel.
Favourite London show: I didn't think I'd say this because I'm not really a fan of folksy music but I absolutely loved Once. The phenomenally talented cast take a simple story and transform it into one of the most immersive, gut-wrenching performances I've ever seen. Where shows like Wicked, The Book of Mormon, The Lion King (all of which I love) revel in excessive production values which sometimes undermine the narrative, Once is simple, moody and beautiful.
Recommended London restaurant: Known for its almost 24 hour food and drink service, Balans on Old Compton Street serves up some of the most delicious food at the most reasonable prices. From its gorgeous, glamorous exterior to the friendly and sociable interior, this is one of the best known finds in Soho and is a hop, skip and a jump away from all the main Theatreland theatres. Whether you're there for early breakfast after a heavy night out (open until 6am and reopens at 7.30am!), lunch after some serious shopping, a pre-show meal or a post-show meal and cocktails, Balans is the friendly face of the best in high end food for the cosmopolitan and hard-to-please Londoner. If you're not around central London then you can find branches in Bluewater, Earls Court, Kensington and both the Westfields - each just as good as the other.
If I'm to recommend some food, I'd absolutely commit to getting the sesame tuna which is served with steamed bok choi, fragrant rice and sticky ginger soy. Oh em gee. And finish that off with a Queen's Blush cocktail and a flourless chocolate pecan brownie.
I'm off there right now.
Favourite London activity: I'm one for wandering around London aimlessly. When I first moved to London two years ago I made a conscious decision not to 'seek out' places of interest as I often find myself building up expectations and ultimately being disappointed. What I did instead was spend every weekend jumping off the tube at places I'd never been and I discovered some absolutely fantastic places. Even when there's nothing particularly fascinating around, you'll always find a gorgeous independent shop or wonderful coffee shop to sit and plan your next jump-off.
Name: Alice Morris
Job at ATG: Email Marketing Executive
Favourite London show: Spamalot
Recommended London restaurant: Jamie Oliver's Diner
Favourite London activity: Greenwich's Observatory, river boat and Boris Bike to Primrose Hill
Favourite London show: 'England, 932 A.D. A kingdom divided. To the West, the Anglo-Saxons.
To the East, the French. Above, nothing but Celts and some people from Scotland...
... In the kingdoms of Wessex, Sussex, Essex and Kent, plague.
In Mercia, and the two Anglias, plague, with a 50% chance of pestilence
and famine coming out of the Northeast at twelve miles per hour.'
Thus begins what will be a frivolous 90 minute journey through King Arthur's England. Spamalot, which has been 'lovingly ripped off' from the 1975 film, Monty Python and The Holy Grail, is not for Pytho-philes alone (who, let's face it, are frighteningly enthusiastic about the whole thing). Having never seen the film, this glorious show has reduced me to tears on each and every occasion that I've seen it. With Dick and Dom about to appear in the cast, Spamalot couldn't be a better choice for a family Christmas outing. Furthermore, those medieval darlings have offered up 2 for 1 Tight Arse Tuesday tickets for those feeling the festive pinch. Lovely.
Favourite London restaurant: I still haven't been, but Jamie Oliver's Diner can't fail to provide a chirpy chappy antidote to Pinter's idea of a laugh. Why Jamie - King of healthy eating and ultimate adversary of US junk food - has spearheaded this deep-fried, burger-fied joint is a mystery to rival the Mary Celeste. But if anyone's gonna add quality to the diner scene, it's this boy.
Favourite London activity: Get ready for this:
Start at Greenwich and see London stretched out before you from the Observatory.
Board a river boat up to Westminster Millenium Pier. No better way to feel like Bond (or, post 2012 Olympics, David Beckham. Get your smirk on).
Hop on a Boris Bike and head north: ogle at Westminster, look out for the Queen getting changed in Buckingham Palace, sail through Green Park and Hyde Park, zig zag your way across Oxford Circus, wonder at the palatial pads skirting Regent's Park and dock back in below Primrose Hill.
Climb to the top and watch the world go by. The best view in London, and all for nothing.
Name: Stephen Reynolds
Job at ATG: London Sales Manager
Favourite London show: Shakespeare's Coriolanus.
Recommended London restaurant: Tas
Favourite London activity: Walk from Lambeth Bridge to Tower Bridge
Favourite London show: I always find the Donmar's small and intimate theatre a joy to visit and no matter what I see there it always offers me a different perspective on the piece of theatre I watch. I'm very excited to see Coriolanus by William Shakespeare. I love to see Shakespeare at the Donmar. Seeing it performed in such an intimate space often helps to make things clearer for me and draws me in to the story. I have been very lucky recently to see both Othello and King Lear at the Donmar, both of which held me gripped throughout the evening; a great way to see Shakespeare.
Recommended London restaurant: It's not one restaurant that I would recommend but a chain: Tas. It is Anatolian Turkish Cuisine and I love eating at any of their restaurants. My personal favourite is the one near London Bridge and the Musaka is the best. I also love their Cafe Ev behind Southwark Station. Their salads here are a delight and I can usually be seen here once a month catching up with a group of friends.
Favourite London activity: The best way to see London if you only have a day is to walk on the South side of the river from Lambeth Bridge to Tower Bridge. The whole of London is laid out before you. Along the way you will see the Houses of Parliament, Temple, St Pauls, The Globe Theatre, The Monument, Tate Modern, and the Tower of London. You could nip into the Festival Hall and see what is going on; catch a film at the BFI (British Film Institute); see a platform performance at the National Theatre; take a trip on the London eye; have a pint at one of the oldest Pubs in London, The Anchor; visit a replica of Sir Frances Drakes ship, The Golden Hinde; or see how we used to look after our criminals in the Clink Museum. Buy some of the best food in London at Borough Market. No matter what your tastes you are bound to find something that you'll enjoy.
Favourite London show: I'll level with you - I haven't seen The Commitments but I have no qualms in recommending it based on my deep, deep love for the 1991 film. Adapted from the novel by Roddy Doyle, it's the story of the 'World's Hardest Working Band', the eponymous Commitments, and their quest to bring soul to Dublin. With a soundtrack featuring stone cold classics such as Mustang Sally and Try a Little Tenderness, and in the capable hands of director Jamie Lloyd, there's gonna be one hell of a party at the Palace Theatre come September.
And guys, I'm just putting it out there: if you find yourself short of a backing singer, I'm ready and waiting. Call me.
Recommended London restaurant: Inamo serves up reasonably priced, tasty Pan-Asian cuisine, but that's not important right now. Let's talk about how you order it - via your super space age interactive tabletop. And while you're waiting for your food to arrive, you can play Battleships with your date. You know the future? Welcome to it.
Favourite London activity: I get all romantic about London on a fairly regular basis, but never more so than when I visit the South Bank. Wandering around London is one of life's great joys, and this is one of the best spots for a good meander: you've got the river, beautiful architecture, a hive of activity... in short, there's always something to look at. Their Christmas market runs till December 24th where you can do your Christmas shopping while drinking something mulled - live that festive dream. It's also a popular hang-out for street theatre, so if you get market fatigue, find a perch and make eyes at a human statue. Or if all else fails: people-watching. All human life is here.
Name: Josh Nixon-Hill
Job at ATG: Customer Services
Favourite London show: Once
Recommended London restaurant: El Parador
Favourite London activity: Music and magic in Covent Garden
Favourite London show: Without a doubt it would have to be Once. The show is a masterclass in stagecraft, musicianship and performance, and I would hazard a guess that it could melt even the iciest of hearts (we're talking Miss Havisham here). If this show were a person (other than the obvious yet wonderful choice of Glen Hansard), it would be Liam Neeson: charming, charismatic, sexy and Irish. Being of a lazy persuasion it takes a lot to make me stand up when I don't have to. This show has made me stand... twice.
Recommended London restaurant: Although it's a little further afield than you'd want for pre-show dining, I would have to go with El Parador. A delightful family-run tapas restaurant a stone's throw away from Mornington Crescent tube station - or, for the slightly more adventurous patron, a casual stroll from Camden Town or Euston. For lovers of food that satisfies both the stomach and soul, this little gem (owned and run by the exquisitely bearded Carlos Horillo) is the place to be. Being tapas, it is also perfect for those inclined towards both indecision and sharing!
Oh, and it's probably worth mentioning the seemingly endless selection of wines to (responsibly) drink all afternoon in their beautiful garden terrace.
Favourite London activity: On a nice day in London, there are few places I would rather be than meandering with a docile mind around Covent Garden, being drawn in by what has to be the best value entertainment in the UK. Music, clowning, magic, balancing, juggling, more balancing and a steady stream of publically embarrassed dads taking the spotlight - all for a couple of quid.