It's a place plenty of us have been to but may not have really visited. You arrive at Marylebone and usually head off somewhere else straight away; you may go under it or around it, but you probably wouldn't go through it, let alone contemplate spending much time there.
And yet it turns out we've been missing a treat all this time. A weekend was enough to convince me that Marylebone is a gem of a place in its own right. It is undeniably well-to-do, the sort of place where the presence of a Waitrose threatens to lower the tone. But it has none of that oppressive, exclusive airlessness of London's super-rich districts, instead feeling alive with colour and soul and humanity.
The area around Marylebone High Street has become known as Marylebone Village and has been cultivated by the Howard de Walden Estate. They seem admirably picky about who they want to do business in their precincts: big chain stores are scarce, the place being crammed with independent this and artisan that. Traditional greengrocers and barbers and pubs nestle against 'wellness salons' and places selling - it's not clear what, actually, but presumably one is supposed to just know. It all makes for a quite fascinating place just to mooch around. At a time when high streets across the country are dying, Marylebone Village shows that such decline is far from inevitable: the money here helps, of course, but this place can teach many others about the value of giving shoppers something they'll never get online.
We were based at the Holmes Hotel in Chiltern Street, a quiet and dignified road running parallel to Marylebone High Street. The hotel is billed as "a home away from home for curious minds," the theme being inspired by Marylebone's most famous resident. It's an intriguing place to stay, chic and stylish with a dash of eccentricity, comprising four Georgian buildings housed over four floors, in a combination of 118 guest rooms and unique duplex suites: some have marbled bathrooms with free-standing bathtubs even vinyl players. A high-tech yet vintage-style gym can be found in the basement, while the bar is every bit as playful and vibrant as it is described. Perhaps most impressive of all is a sweeping and expansive lounge, modish and swish yet dotted with curios: golden monkeys, gas masks, antique appliances. They look like clues: on each floor is a riddle. There is a sense the hotel could dive even more deeply into the world of Sherlock, but one assumes it needs to cater to a broad market.
Our bedroom owed little to the world of Conan Doyle, but impressed in its own right. Its crisp, sharp lines and monochrome decor were complemented by splashes of colour from soft chairs, while blue-lit consoles enabled everything from heat to light to curtains to be controlled with a tap of a finger. The bed was fashionably low but perfectly comfortable; and considering the room overlooks a street in central London, the night passed with remarkable quiet.
Before that though, we had the village to explore. First stop was Daunt Books, an original Edwardian bookshop with long oak galleries and graceful skylights situated in Marylebone High Street. It's a bustling place and a visit there is a heartening experience for any lover of literature. It specialises in travel books, but there is far more to it than the usual Lonely Planets and Rough Guides. The word 'curated' may be overused these days, but that is precisely the term to apply here: the section for each country consists not only of guide books and reference works but of history, fiction, poetry and more. The shelves are stacked with great care, thought and imagination. It is a world away from the arid algorithms of online shopping: it is a place where bookselling remains an art. The shop is palpably Instagramable for those so inclined, and the staff appear to have little objection to those who wish to visit purely for its aesthetic delights, but that would seem to miss the point somewhat: this place exudes all that is best about books, so the experience would surely feel incomplete without buying one.
A few doors along is Cologne & Cotton. The shop will be familiar to those who know Leamington: the first branch opened there in 1989. But the Marylebone store is now its flagship, having been especially invited to open there, and it does a fine job in showcasing its distinctive delicate, decorous and fragrant style.
Then there came the charms of Joseph Cheaney & Sons. The shoe company was founded in 1886 and still crafts its wares in Desborough, Northamptonshire. The opening of its Marylebone branch is the latest chapter in a rich story, the shop bright and handsome. Its style is timeless rather than trendy, and its whole approach contrasts refreshingly from the fast fashion so prevalent elsewhere. The idea is that its shoes are an investment, to last for many years; the cork soles mould themselves around the foot, and the firm will make a new shoe once it has worn out. It's one of few British manufacturers not to outsource the initial production of its shoes internationally, with personal communication and specialist knowledge central to its business. Few footwear shops have such a close connection to the people who make their stock.
Our appetite having been sufficiently worked up, it was time for dinner. And there are surely few places to eat in Britain quite like Le Relais de Venise L’Entrecote. For starters, there's, well, one starter: walnut salad. And in terms of mains, there's steak frites and - actually, just steak frites. It's not entirely lacking choices: you can have your steak blue, rare, medium or well-done. But that's it. You can't book a table - you just have to wait. And it says something about the place that people are willing to wait and wait and wait for a table. The restaurant was due to open at 6.30pm; we got there for 6.15pm and found ourselves way back in the queue. Fortunately there was still space for us to be crammed in to by the time we reached the front. There followed an hour of expertly organised mayhem; what the restaurant lacks in relaxation it makes up for in exhilaration. It's like watching time-lapse footage, everything happening with a frenzied precision. The salad arrived nanoseconds after we'd removed our coats; it was simple but effective, sharp and fresh with the nuts keeping the teeth interested and the dressing keeping the tastebuds awake. A blur of crockery later and there was the steak, sliced and accompanied by shovelfuls of frites and a special, unspecified sauce - a bit of pepper, a bit of mustard, a bit of fish, to this palate at least. This is substance over style: no thought is given to presentation. And it soon becomes apparent quite why this is all so popular: the steak was one dreamy mellow melting mouthful after another, with a delicate heft and subtle richness, the frites bringing a welcome crunch to the dish. Something about the ambience encourages speedy eating, which is easy when it tastes this good. Then the waitresses return - with more. More steak, more frites. A whole new plate's worth. Shovel shovel plonk plonk eat eat eat. It's speedy mass catering rendered elevated to an artform. A couple of tartes au citron later (there are at least a few desserts to choose from) and we were done, 60 minutes and essentially four courses after sitting down. If you like your food big, fast and delicious, you can do no better than this place: it is uncompromising in all the best ways.
After the mania, the chill-out. Just along the road is a bar named 28°-50°; calm, spacious and placid, it was just what we needed. The staff had a laid-back authority; given that their knowledge of wine plainly exceeded mine, I was more than happy to accept their recommendation of a Hungarian Tokaji to accompany my three cheeses - one smoked, one unpasteurised, one like a superior Cheddar. The deep sweetness of the drink married delightfully with the saltiness and earthiness of the cheeses; my only regret was having already eaten so well, as I have no doubt the rest of the menu would have been worth going hungry for. Whether for a full meal or a nightcap, it's a little wonder of a place to spend a few hours.
Somehow I had room for breakfast at the hotel the following morning. I'm glad I did: my scrambled egg and smoked salmon eased me into the day with a gentle vigour, while my wife's porridge offered a big bowl of creamy comfort. Hotel breakfasts can be perfunctory affairs, but the Holmes treats the meal with the care it deserves, the Full Englishes arriving on our neighbouring tables plated with skill and generosity. It is a lovely room in which to eat, too, a bright and bustling kitchen at one end, natural light pouring in elegantly at the other, the decor imaginative without being distracting.
Time for more visits. Little Greene is the sort of place to make even the most DIY-phobic fall in love with paint. The shop is quite beautiful: its great masterstroke is its presentation of paints in brick-shaped holes in its walls, enabling them to be seen in different lights but also making for an aesthetically pleasing interior decor. Beguiling wallpapers hang on another side; it is easy to see why this company is sought after by the likes of the National Trust and English Heritage. As was the case in so many places on this visit, its staff care deeply about what they do, and speak about their work as it if is a vocation, with human connection integral to how they do business: we heard about the intuitive and psychological insights that help them understand what their customers really want. Even for those who think they know about paint, a visit to Little Greene is an education.
Next door is Gloucester Room. It's another enlightening encounter with another expert in their field: they are framing the new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and are often trusted with paintings worth millions of pounds. But it's a pleasingly down-to-earth and, again, very personal operation. A frame can make all the difference to a painting, becoming part of the work itself. The team will listen to what their clients want but will delve into their knowledge of art to recommend ways to bring a painting to life. They also offer a gallery space in which they showcase a curated selection of contemporary and 20th Century artworks, all presented in their own bespoke frames. It's art with real heart.
Just down the road, tucked into charming Moxon Street, La Fromagerie is buzzing. It's stacked high with delicacies from around the world, along with freshly-baked bread galore. It's a popular place to eat, too - a long table at the back is flanked by packed benches - but perhaps its most distinctive feature is its cheese room, which is worth visiting just for the smell. It is a glorious place to learn about the stuff as well: what's in season, what goes with what food and drink, which parts of the world produce which flavours, and so on.
And as if cheese were not enough, just opposite is Rococo Chocolates. The company was founded in 1983 by Chantal Coady. The story goes that she was at the seaside one day eating fish and chips, and wondered what would happen if chocolate were made with sea salt. It transpired she was on to something. The company professes to "bring tastes and experiences to our customers for the first time" and "believe in setting trends, not following them". This much is evident from its wares: there's chocolate shaped into everything from asparagus to lobsters, and a dazzling array of blends and ingredients; a yuzu caramel was particularly sensational. It's proudly British, too; its chocolates are made in London, and it proclaims a commitment to British creativity and craft, from its distinctive visual design to its daring recipes.
For all the classy restaurants on offer in Marylebone, only one place seemed right for a Sunday lunch: The Coach Maker’s Arms. Seated on its relatively quiet but characterful first floor, we were treated to a pub-food masterclass. It does the traditional expertly but is not afraid to do things a bit differently; luckily, this is never at the expense of taste, quantity or enjoyment. So while my wife devoured the best roast beef she'd had for years - just the right pink, just the right bite, just the right edge and warmth - I had a Lancashire hotpot with a twist. Yes, those last three words often cause food lovers to shudder, but it worked splendidly: lamb served on the bone, which erupted through a layer of potatoes, which covered a just-sweet-enough filling of gravy and vegetables. It managed to be simultaneously classy and a lot of fun. It was followed by an apple tart, served with a caramel whose slight bitterness brought definition to the sweetness of the fruit and rendered the pastry a molten marvel.
Then the last visit of the weekend, this time to menswear shop Luca Faloni. Its clothes are crafted in Italy but sold at high-street prices; the Marylebone store was the first of two to open in the UK. The store is designed to be a space to relax as well as shop, with armchairs, an espresso machine and coffee table books and, on our visit, an exhibition of photos by Terry O'Neill. There are cotton shirts handmade in Bergamo, roll-necks, crewnecks, polos and hoodies, and accessories such as belts, gloves and travel bags. It's all done with an understated confidence and quiet assurance; there's nothing garish, but nothing bland, and they're the sort of clothes you can't help touching, so exquisite is the fabric.
A ten-minute walk and we were back at the station. Perhaps because of that very proximity, it's easy to overlook Marylebone Village. Easy, but a mistake. Aside from everything else, it was clear that there is a genuine sense of community there: the shopkeepers know their customers and work with each other when they can. It's the best of the old with the brightest of the new. Calling it a village may sound like PR puffery, but in this case, it's perfectly appropriate.
* Visit www.marylebonevillage.com for more information.