London can be a lonely place. A disparate metropolis where our heads are bowed, schedules filled, and doors locked. At least that can be the sense. However, beneath the surface, in the neighbourhoods, life’s most valuable commodity - that of community - is bountiful.
In Notting Hill, I have four favourite hubs, where friends – new and old – gather in communion.
When returning to London after the pandemic, I found this feeling of family at LAYLA, the creation of my brilliant friend Tessa, who employed me as less-talking-more-selling-please-Simon.
The word ‘companion’ comes from the Latin ‘cum panis’, or ‘with bread.’ Tessa understood that the village of W10 was full of characters who would enjoy breaking bread. They just needed a baker.
“I love that Layla has given people rituals. The Friday Coffee Club, the dog walkers, the father and daughter brightening up the school run, my favourite French couple who perch in the window each morning, or the twin sisters who start more days than me with a Pain au Chocolat. Seeing this joy, brings me joy.”
Over the bridge and into Italy. A country which understands that the ingredients of a life well lived are free and familial. By walking through the doors at PANELLA you join Giuseppe and Caterina’s family, and kitchen.
“Back home in Sicily, hospitality is in the blood. If you ask for directions, you end up being invited round for dinner. We try to bring that same generosity, cooking simple, authentic, and affordable food. I learnt this from my mother. She is 83-years-old, and still sending us recipes to try.”
The next door may take a little finding, but in an old warehouse on Elkstone Road, you step into a pocket of Portugal at SPORTING LONDRES. Unchanged in 30-years, Paula and Rui’s hidden gem transports you to those moreish sea salt and sardine-filled trips to the sun.
“Funnily enough, our Mums were neighbours back in Madeira. So, when Rui took over this restaurant in the early 90s, my Mum suggested I come down. It worked, and we were soon running it together.”
Another fabulous import is ABU MAHER and this taste of Syria named after its owner. Displaced by the war, with his family divided, he cooks, waits, and cleans to keep costs in check.
“We have been given an incredible gift, to no longer sleep with one eye open. Arriving here, I knew I had to learn the language, so I studied at University, and spent evenings listening to the BBC. When this space became available, I had a chance to give back. Even if it was safe to return, we would not. This country is our community now. Its people kind and welcoming.”
This restaurant is a story of hope, and a snapshot of a world – and indeed a neighbourhood – that I am proud to live in.