Starting in 2009 it has become a family tradition for Terri & Kay, my UK-resident sisters, and I to take our mother out for a birthday meal together. In recent years we've begun to meet for each of our birthdays, choosing 'interesting' places in (reasonably) central London, an easy destination for all of us to get to & back from using public transport.
2019 had been a subdued year for our birthday meet-ups. We'd fallen into the habit of meeting at the same, convenient but rather conventional, gastropub venue each time, hadn't met for Terri's birthday, and then were short handed when she missed the last meal of the year due to transport disasters. As the next organiser in line I was determined to get back to our previous, rather more fabulous, standards.
The first challenge was arranging a date. With an early January birthday it's often a case of compromising between post-festive opening hours, transport disruptions, and everyone's schedules & availability. This was exacerbated by the fact that all of my immediate family were out of the country over Christmas - Vi & Terri in Australia, Kay in Italy - which meant forward planning was hampered by needing to juggle haphazard responses through international messaging systems. But eventually we found a Saturday afternoon that everyone could make, a good few weeks after my actual birthday but in reality a much better date with more restaurants back on a normal schedule and less overshadowing by the aftermath of the Christmas retail madness.
Having sorted out a date I thought it would be a simple manner of just choosing between the restaurants on my short list. Alas not. Again & again I filled in online booking forms but was rewarded with no tables available or times that not everyone could make. Sigh! I methodically worked down my first choices, then the 'possibles', then places we'd enjoyed in the past, then Googled results for 'quirky lunch in London'. Finally I found a free table at Zuaya, a South American themed restaurant/bar that looked like a funky setting to dine in. It was on Kensington High Street, a bit outside our usual area but just about manageable for everyone to get to. Although I'd not being able to snag one of my original targets I was excited by the prospect of a new dining style as well as a new venue and once I'd established that the menu was varied enough to cope with our (not outrageous) dietary requirements I confirmed the booking and we were set.
It's at this point that I normally go into detail about the transportation crises that contemporary public transport always seems to throw up on these occasions but this time around things went fairly smoothly. Before setting off I checked the running times of the trains and, seeing that my intended one was delayed just enough to miss my first connection, set off early and caught the prior service. As if to taunt me this arrived just too late to catch an earlier connection but it was a sunny, if chilly, day and I waited on the platform quite happily. The next train ran to schedule and I arrived at my London terminus pretty much on time.
While waiting it struck me that the train company offered compensation for delays and I wondered if having to set off early to make a connection that you could see wouldn't be met by the regular service would qualify as a 'delay' in the opposite temporal direction? I suspect not, and didn't have the opportunity to ask a station official.
Vi was travelling in on her own and although she's a seasoned traveller the central Tube interchanges can get seriously clogged with people on a Saturday lunchtime which can make them rather daunting. I usually try to arrange a rendezvous at a station on the line she comes in on, either having someone meet her in person or finding a café nearby where the earlier arrivee can wait. The Central Line doesn't pass near Kensington but by meeting at Queensway we could then stroll through Hyde Park (or grab a taxi if the Weather Gods frowned upon us), my map app gave the walking time as fourteen minutes so I arranged to meet her an hour before our booking to allow for misadventures on the day.
From Paddington station I could get to Queensway by Tube but I'd arrived with ample time and the sun was beaming down so I set off on foot, heading directly towards Hyde Park and then tracking through it to the Underground station. The cerulean sky brought out the rich green of the grass while the low winter sun picked out the stark, leafless trees and threw jagged shadows across the ground. There were a good number of people around and the overlapping fragments of conversation in a hotchpotch of languages brought back memories of my time living in the cosmopolitan metropolis. Snugly wrapped in my sensible (but stylish) coat and Shan State scarf I felt myself an equal member of this diverse community, if only for the day.
Arriving at Queensway I found Vi waiting outside, having arrived herself a few minutes earlier. Linking arms we crossed Bayswater Road and re-entered the park. Our route took us along a broad walk (the Broad Walk, as it turned out) where we joined a throng of promenaders taking the air in the afternoon sun. A few cyclists and dozens of scooter riders wove in & out of the pedestrians but there was room for all and apart from one or two furiously focussed four year olds there was no fear of collision. The deep blue water of the Round Pond promised glorious photographic opportunities and I was sorely tempted to detour around it but we stayed on track for our restaurant appointment.
Trying to find somewhere purely by address can be a vexing task in a city centre where facade stylings often find no place for something as mundane as a street number. My map app gave a loose indication of the location and when we finally made it across the busy road we spotted the number of the building next door, unfortunately right beside a large gap in the frontage. But all was well, a small pedestrian-only lane led off the main road and our restaurant was a short distance down it, presumably keeping the Kensington High Street address for its fame & associations. The doorway was framed in brightly coloured floral decorations, a very inviting portal.
Having arrived half an hour early we tentatively made our way in but were fulsomely greeted and once it was established that our's was the booking for five we were led to the table and assured that time was no problem. Coats were taken, menus were presented, and we ordered drinks - Vi had tea, I ordered a fruity mocktail - while we waited for the others to arrive. When my drink arrived it gave a decidedly voodoo impression, coming in a skull-shaped glass with what looked like a jam jar screw top, and on first taste was both unusual and delicious. This was a very good start.
The menu at Zuaya offered tapas but with a different selection than that found in the usual Spanish style, reflecting its South American theme. The prospect of coordinating between five diners each choosing their own combination of dishes didn't feel like the recipe for a relaxed get together, especially when Terri sent a text saying she'd been held up with transport problems and would be arriving late. So when Kay & Roger appeared I asked the maitre d' if he could come up with a selection for us. After checking on our preferences & dietary restrictions we agreed on one meat dish and a selection of seafood plates with rest made up of vegetarian options. I've not had many opportunities to order meals this way - "Bring me a feast for five people!" - but when I have it's always been a great success, the kitchen gets to show off their best work and I often get to try things I'd otherwise never consider. With the bill of fare dealt with Kay & Roger ordered drinks and we started catching up on our news.
There was a lot to relate. Kay & Roger had been in Italy for their usual midwinter break, Vi & Terri were back from Australia where they'd seen my sister Marina along with other antipodean relatives, and I was (once again) in the middle of job hunting. Conversation bounced around the table as we told our tales and reacted to each others' adventures.
Soon enough the food started to arrive. An intriguing selection of dishes (in an intriguing selection of dishes) were squeezed onto the barely spacious tabletop and we all dipped in, determined to try all of them. There was a wonderful selection of flavours & textures, nothing very fiery (until the patatas bravas turned up) but each one rich and, in most cases, interestingly unusual. As we made our way through them a new tranche of plates were delivered - involving some creative rearrangement - and as we started on them we collectively decided that after leaving a representative collection for Terri to sample we'd all had our fill. Leaving some room for dessert, of course.
At this point Terri arrived, having overcome her travelling misfortunes. Ordering a recuperative G&T she gave a quick recap of her journey before starting into her portion of the feast. And then... another selection of dishes were brought to the table. Despite our previous declarations of satiety we all managed to find a second wind and the newcomers were devoured in short order.
I normally try to be the archivist at these gatherings, periodically taking myself out of the conversation to grab some pictures of the setting, food, and people, but today I found myself too caught up in the flow to even consider my photographic duties. The room was dense with greenery and had quirky decorations & fittings, the food was creatively presented and looked as good as it tasted, our little group were animated & expressive as we talked & reacted, and yet my phone camera lay neglected for most of the time. Much as I'm a proponent of being 'in the moment' it is nice to have some record of the event, especially as age takes its toll on my memories. But then again it was my birthday so I think I was allowed to relax & enjoy myself.
With the savouries dealt with it was time to ponder the dessert menu. I asked about the ice cream flavours and one leapt out at me - sweet potato sorbet. The others didn't appeal as much so I went for a yummy-sounding flan (and it was very yummy) but my sisters persuaded me to get one scoop of the sorbet "... as it is your birthday" . The waiter clearly took note of this as it arrived on a plate inscribed with 'Happy Birthday' in chocolate sauce and topped with a candle. The flavour was definitely unusual but after a few seconds for my taste buds to get their bearings it met with great approval, echoed by everyone else as they took an (invited) sample spoonful.
After the meal came another surprise - presents! My family don't usually make a big deal about gifts and although we usually find little somethings for the day I wasn't expecting anything, especially as I'm such a difficult person to buy for. But this year I came up trumps - wooden kitchen implements from Vi & Terri's Australian trip, a lovely print by an Aboriginal artist from Terri, and a selection of loose leaf teas from Kay & Roger that will encourage me to use my onesie teapot more often. There was even a card! I felt well celebrated, meeting up was the main delight but there's something about packing up all the new swag that leaves my inner child very contented.
Finally it was time to leave, although there was not a hint of urgency from the restaurant staff. Waving farewell to Kay & Roger, who were catching the Tube from a nearby station, Vi, Terri & I headed towards Hyde Park where we could retrace our steps back to Queensway. But when we got there it wasn't quite the walk in the park we were expecting - with no lighting visible inside the railings it was an inky blackness with barely a flicker from the distant farside road. At first I assumed that the gates had been left open for latecomers to escape being locked in but reaching the wider Broad Walk entrance it was clear that the park was indeed still open. As we pondered whether to risk a nighttime crossing - city parks after dark were perilous places in my younger mythology - an urban fox trotted across the path, adding an eldritch element to the atmosphere. But despite these Ominous Portents we strode on into the darkness.
And, after some initial unease, it turned into a rather nice experience. As the lights & traffic noise fell away I found my senses adjusting to the gentler stimuli, it was still very dark but I could make out the path, the nearer trees, and the (admittedly few) other pedestrians well enough to stroll casually along. A couple of battery-lit riders passed us but none too fast or close. In a dense city centre we were blessed with a few minutes of unexpected personal space as we transitioned back into the public world.
At Queensway I waved farewell (Terri & Vi were travelling home together) and meandered through the back streets to Paddington and my train homeward. The journey back was uneventful and in what felt like the twinkling of an eye (but was in fact a couple of hours) I was slotting the key into my front door. Another splendid time with my immediate family, I'm already looking forward to the next one.
(Click on pictures for larger versions)