“The first time I came to London, I was 17,” the violinist Joshua Bell, now 54, told me. We were at dinner together following a recent performance of his at Wigmore Hall, a small but renowned concert hall. “I came with my parents to make my first album,” he continued. “This was in the ’80s, and I remember thinking there wasn’t a lot of variety in food. Now, of course, it’s great.”
Mr. Bell estimates he’s been to London around 70 times since then.
So no, the virtuoso and onetime child prodigy doesn’t live in London. But you could say he’s a professional visitor. His London is one of exquisite taste, uncommonly good food and a handful of tiny places you’d breeze right by if you didn’t know they were there — with, of course, a measure of music.
Mr. Bell tends to favor lesser-known places, with one very notable exception: the Royal Albert Hall. “The Royal Albert Hall has this thing called the Proms. They take out the seats on the lower level, and people line up down the street to get in,” he said. “All these people are standing up like it’s a rock concert, and it’s Beethoven symphonies. It’s incredible.”
Here are five of his favorite places to visit in London.
1. J.&A. Beare
A technician works on a violin at J.&A. Beare in central London. The shop has a collection of precious violins that can be viewed.
“In August 2001, I walked into Charles Beare’s shop to pick up a set of strings, and Charles Beare said to me, ‘You have to take a look at the Huberman violin, it’s on its way to Germany.’” The instrument, made by Antonio Stradivari in 1713 and known as the Gibson ex Huberman, was legendary. “I knew the famous story of the violin,” Mr. Bell said, recounting its theft from a dressing room at Carnegie Hall in 1936.
“Charles Beare put me in a room with the violin and after a few notes, I was shaking with excitement. I was in love with it. I had a concert at the Royal Albert Hall — at the Proms — and used that violin that very night.”
Even if you’re not in the market for a multimillion-euro violin, J.&A. Beare is worth a visit. The shop is open to the public — but if you want to see the collection of nearly priceless violins, book ahead.
“I did an event in New York with Salman Rushdie,” Mr. Bell said. “At one point, we were talking about London and he recommended Trishna. I love Indian food, but Trishna is not your typical Indian restaurant. The problem with Indian food for me is that I want to try a lot of things. I don’t just want to have one lamb curry as my dinner.” Instead, Mr. Bell likes to get the five-course tasting menu — “and a crab dish that’s really great,” he said.
The Michelin-starred restaurant, with its private nooks, mirrored walls, delicately gilded surfaces, feels a like special occasion kind of place. It’s also best to come hungry. “I like places where they just get the tasting menu because I eat everything,” says Mr. Bell. “I like the person cooking it to choose what he wants to present.”
3. Wigmore Hall
“Wigmore Hall doesn’t have name recognition to the general public,” said Mr. Bell of the 552-seat concert hall in Marylebone. With its small stage and red velvet seating, Wigmore Hall has a hushed, intimate appeal. “One of the problems with classical music is that it’s developed a reputation of formality. I’ve actually seen classical musicians admonish the audience for clapping at the wrong time. In fact, classical music can be the most exciting thing to watch.”
“Having said that, it’s nice that there are places like Wigmore Hall where you know everyone understands. It’s like for an actor to do theater in a place where people really get it. And Wigmore Hall has history for me personally. The first concert there — I think it was 1901 — was played by the teacher of my teacher, Ysaÿe, the greatest violinist at the end of the 19th century in Europe. I feel the history when I walk on the stage.”
4. Baglioni Hotel
When days are packed with rehearsals and evenings are given to performing, proximity to one’s bed is important — as is a nice hotel around that bed. And so when Mr. Bell plays at the Royal Albert Hall, he always stays at Hotel Baglioni, a stone’s throw away. “It’s an Italian boutique hotel and has a very intimate feel,” he said. “It feels like people know you there, and the rooms have this sort of very sexy vibe — they’re just very boudoir-like and dark. I sleep better in those kinds of rooms.”
Its location also means he can “walk to the rehearsals and back — you can also walk right across the street to Hyde Park. It’s my home when I’m at the Proms.”
5. Fidelio Cafe
“Very few places like this exist — or dare to offer this,” said Mr. Bell of Fidelio Cafe. The “this” in question is the intersection of a sweet little bistro and live, world-class classical music.
Imagine a small cafe where the walls are papered in actual sheet music, a grand piano greets you at the front door and the menu — with its home-roasted granola, slow-cooked aubergine and roasted cherry tomato bruschetta — seems crafted from the morning’s farmer’s market.
It’s also “about the uniqueness of having a meal in an intimate space while hearing chamber music,” Mr. Bell said. “It’s clearly a passion project for the owner, who loves classical music and food and puts them together.”
“One of my dreams is to open a food-slash-music venue,” he added. “When I see places like Fidelio, I love that people are thinking outside the box and celebrating classic music in such an usual way.”
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