Free Weekend? Explore St Pancras

The main trouble with even attempting to shop at St Pancras is the fact that there are inevitably some quite tempting edible (and drinkable) distractions…

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St Pancras International is a local-ish resource that many Kentishtowners probably don’t even consider using, apart from an occasional rushed coffee before a dash to Platform 8. And unlike our own quirkier NW5 shops, whose highlights we covered earlier this week, and the mixed bag that is nearby Camden (which we’ll feature next in our series of Xmas features) St Pancras is awash with posh independent boutiques, and the more ‘tasteful’ chains (don’t get us started on what is or isn’t one).

And since it’s just a twenty minute or half hour stroll away along the canal for most of us, we thought we’d roadtest a ‘day out’ there. Especially as the holidays are just over a fortnight away and it seemed a nice way of browsing for potential gifts – and having lunch, of course.

After escaping planned demolition in the 1960s, the complex was renovated and expanded in the early noughties at a cost of £800 million. And it was a clever move keeping the ‘quality’ of the outlets; its ambience and sense of space, particularly on the upstairs level, is quite different from the manic crush of many mainline stations.

The shops are conveniently laid out for a seasonal mooch: start at Sourced, the long, stylish deli that can be found occupying the full length under the UK departure board. Here there are all manner of goodies, boxed and packaged, including (last weekend) a colourful display of apples as well as cheeses, charcuterie and rows of wine, including the just-in Beaujolais Nouveau (which we tasted, all in the name of research, of course). And, taking a seat at a sharing table, it seems an indulgent treat to sit without purpose and watch people in a place we normally rush through.

Nearby is the colourful Isle Of Flowers, on the tip of the central section of outlets: there’s a Hamley’s (much better than a slog to Regent’s Street), Foyle’s (for those books that Owl haven’t stocked), and quality designer outlets like Cath Kidston, LK Bennett, Thomas Pink, Oliver Bonas.

With no train to catch, it’s also worth taking a lingering look at the station, a major attraction itself, with its acute level of detail right down to the original sky blue shades of paint on the iron and steel arches.

The main trouble with even attempting to shop at St Pancras is the fact that there are inevitably some quite tempting edible (and drinkable) distractions. Pleasant enough chains like Gelato Mio, Le Pain Quotidien, Paul or Carluccio’s fill the lower level, whilst more upmarket destinations, such as the Booking Office Bar, are on the Eurostar floor.

We climbed up the escalators to Searcy’s 300ft long champagne bar, where we had been invited to sample a ‘tasting trio’ of champagnes – three half glasses, ending in a Bollinger rose with seasonal hints of orange peel and spice – before lunch next door at the St Pancras Grand Brasserie.

We reviewed the wonderful Gilbert Scott restaurant at the Renaissance hotel earlier this year, but had never been to the other signature station eatery. Stepping inside, with its gold leaf ceiling, leather banquette seating, and jazz sounds tinkling, it was like a combination of Titanic liner-cum-30s New York brasserie. Furthermore, it was full; every table taken, groups of rowdy families and friends tucking into what is a quite traditional menu. Which was a surprise: there we were, expecting a quiet Saturday lunch.

To start? Potted shrimps, whose deep buttery richness won out over our other choice, razor clams packed with garlic and chorizo. A main of monkfish scampi was fine, if not quite as moist as anticipated, but most recommended is sirloin, meltingly soft, with a highly dunkable bearnaise. Chips were more-ish. For wine, well-sourced half litre carafes, like a Sauvignon & Viognier or Grenache Syrah, are £17 each.

After a double espresso, we perused the two examples of public art: The Meeting Place, Paul Day’s 9 metre bronze sculpture of a couple locked in an intimate pose, which was received rather poorly by critics back in 2007 but is nonethless an imposing sight; and Martin Jennings’ Sir John Betjeman, the man responsible for saving St Pancras from demolition in the 1960s, who you can read more about here. The 2-metre (6 ft 7 in)-high statue stands on a flat disc of Cumbrian slate inscribed with lines from Betjeman’s poem Cornish Cliffs.

As we left the station, the light was already fading on our meander back to NW5 along the canal. But it had felt like a proper day out – without, in fact, having to go very far at all.

And there’s something very Kentishtowner about that.

Words & Pics: Stephen Emms

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St Pancras Grand Brasserie – starters from £5, mains from £8. Wine is £17 for a 500ml carafe. A tasting flight of champagne at Searcy’s Champagne Bar is £18.

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