We were about to hail a taxicab to go to dinner when we saw the signboard for a tabloid displaying the evening headlines: "Dollar Crashes."
"Let's take a bus," I said to my wife. She agreed, and suggested that instead of going as planned to the fancy restaurant, we try a fish-and-chips shop that had been recommended to us.
As did other Americans abroad recently, we watched with a morbid fascination the value of the dollar advertised in the windows of banks and exchange bureaus drop daily.
The effect, in addition to the sinking feeling it gave us, was to prompt a shift in our vacation plans. We went into a lower gear, forsaking the more expensive places to eat, shop and be entertained, as well as the conveniences of taxicabs.
The shift was not difficult and, to our delight, it put us in stride with a more relaxed, local London; a London of fish-and-chips shops, friendly pubs, fringe theater productions, inviting parks and double-decker buses.
Fish and Chips
The fish-and-chips shops, so indigenous to England, were a particular plus. Searching out the better of them became a quest, and we enlisted the aid of friends and acquaintances.
High on everyone's list was the Sea Shell at 49-51 Lisson Grove, near Baker Street and Regent's Park. Excellent, although on the pricey side. A chippie (fish and chips), the luncheon special, was about $10.
Less expensive ($6 for a huge, delicately fried cod, a heap of chips and a smattering of peas) and patronized by more locals, was Fryer's Delight, 19 Theobald's Road in the Holborn. The Rock and Sole Plaice, at 47 Endell St. near Covent Garden, was also reasonable.
And there was Harry's, which we stumbled on in a farmer's market off of Kings Road across from the Chelsea Town Hall. Harry's primarily is a fish stall, with a few deep-frying cookers as an appendage. The fish was wonderfully fresh and fried to a moist perfection. Adding to the ambiance are a few outside tables; you can get drinks and desserts at other nearby stands.
We also enjoyed the fish and chips at Geale's, a family restaurant at 2 Farmer St. off of Notting Hill Gate Road. The meal there followed a movie at the Coronet Theater, a 1920s relic replete with gilded ornamentation and faded upholstery. That, and a few pints of ale at a pub, topped off an enjoyable evening that proved the rule: "When trying to be frugal when traveling, do what the natives do."
We loved the friendly ambiance of the pubs but not necessarily their food. Too many have begun to microwave their frozen meat pies. Our advice is to rely on recommendations, and to check on the offerings at the counter before ordering.
Of the chain restaurants at various central sites, a favorite was Cranks, which offered a vegetarian menu of good soups, salads, quiches and breads at reasonable prices.
We also found bargains in the proliferating Indian and Chinese neighborhood restaurants. The more central, the more pricey the establishment tended to be, a rule that also applied to theaters.
Although we did indulge in a few West End productions, we found that ticket prices are edging toward Broadway levels. One can get half-price tickets at the Leicester Square Ticket Booth, but lines there during the dollar's fall seemed to be longer than usual and the selection of plays limited.
More interesting and considerably less expensive were the fringe-theater productions, scattered about the city in refurbished warehouses, schools, churches and even on a barge. (The latter, a charming puppet theater, docked on Regent's Canal in Camden Town.)
An aid to finding out what's what, where, how much and how to get there is the weekly Time Out magazine. It lists and comments on not only theatrical offerings but also movies, concerts, exhibitions and a miscellany of events, including those for children. And though admission to most London museums is free, a small contribution is considered a polite gesture. London lodging was a challenge even before the dollar's fall. Reducing the strain on our budget considerably was that before arriving in London we had made arrangements to stay for a few days at the relatively inexpensive, exceedingly friendly Westland Hotel at 154 Bayswater Road in Notting Hill, and then move into an apartment in neighboring Bayswater.
The Westland price for a simple room for three with a private bath on the top floor overlooking Kensington Gardens was about $90 and included a hearty English breakfast, served with a ready smile.
If you plan at least a week's stay in London, an apartment is a better bargain, especially if you prepare your own occasional meal. If you travel with a child as we do, apartments also are more comfortable and convenient.
If you don't mind being a little distant from the city's major tourist attractions, you'll find similar bargains in other neighborhood settings. For suggestions, scan the various guides to London and consult with the British Tourist Authority.
Help From Friends
We found a one-bedroom apartment with the help of friends. But the BTA publishes a well-illustrated annual listing of apartments and apartment services. Apartments also are listed in the authority's monthly magazine "In Britain." In Los Angeles, both publications may be obtained from the British Tourist Authority, 350 S. Figueroa, Suite 450, Los Angeles 90071, phone (213) 628-3525.
If you plan on using public transportation, look into getting a London Explorer ticket or a Travelcard, each of which are available at most London Underground stations and tourist information centers. For us, and particularly for our 2 1/2-year-old son, Josef, the bus was a particular adventure and a constant source of diversion.
Clutching the Matchbox models of the red double-decker buses we had bought him, he happily climbed onto the real thing, taking a seat near the rear open platform on the lower deck or in the front row on the upper deck, to enjoy the passing scene.
The few times we had to use a taxicab, Josef would wail: "I wanna go on the double-decker!" adding, to our embarrassment: "It's cheaper," which is what he had heard us often say to him when explaining why we had to take the bus.
Josef and his parents learned well how to be frugal in London, and it wasn't such a hardship after all.