Where To Start A Conversation In London (Or Listen To One)

Last Updated 17 June 2024

Where To Start A Conversation In London (Or Listen To One)

London's not exactly known for being the chattiest city in the world — but it's far from devoid of proverbial fat-chewing opportunities. In this abridged extract from Don't Be A Tourist In London, Vanessa Grall suggests a few places to start a conversation in London... and one place to go and listen.

The conversationalists' pub

People standing in front of a well-stocked bar
You needn't be able to speak French to chat in the French House. Image: Bob Shand via creative commons

Before you walk through the doors of The French House, know the house rules: no music, no machines, no television and no mobile phones. This is precisely what makes it a haven for conversationalists; a place where friends and strangers alike can talk to each other — you know, like they did in the old days. What’s the "French" connection, you ask? Sometime around the second world war, this Soho pub, formerly known as the York Minster, became a hangout for exiled members of the Free French movement regrouping in London. Even General Charles de Gaulle is rumoured to have written one of his famous speeches here, while Edith Piaf is said to have stopped by for a drink in the 40s. Locals started calling it 'the French house' and eventually, the name became official. Notable bohemians with a Paris connection began congregating around the bar in the post-war years; painters Lucian Freud, Salvador Dali and Francis Bacon and writers Sylvia Plath and Dylan Thomas became regulars, chewing the fat over a drink or five. The legendary London pub is still a magnet for Soho's most interesting characters, from resting actors to fading pop stars, who have stories and memories to share, many of which are captured in the black and white photographs that cover the walls. Upstairs, the dining room is a cosy little oasis of calm to congregate with pals (and people you've just met) over oysters and impeccable steak frites.

See also: any of London's micropubs.

French House, Dean Street

Voicing your existential shower thoughts to strangers

Rodin's The Thinker
Rattle your brain, brush up on your French, or just sit back and listen at Café Philo. Image: CrisNYCa via creative commons

From one French House to another. If you often ask yourself questions that you don't have answers to, the weekly Café Philo at the French Institute might be up your alley. The weekly café what, you ask? Well it's a thing, or at least, amongst Francophiles it is; a grassroots concept born in Paris that regularly brings people together in cafés to discuss and listen to ideas (philosophical or not) while relaxing with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Led by the warm and welcoming Christian Michel, the weeks alternate between French and English, and everyone is welcome. Any and all topics brought to the table will be considered, to be discussed in the spirit of tolerance and openness. You don’t have to know anything about philosophy to join, just go along and meet local musers, rattle your brain, brush up on your French, or just sit back and listen.

Café Philo, French Institute

From derelict dock to creative quarter

A boat turned into a community centre
All aboard for good conversation and community activism. Image: Matt Brown/Londonist

Wander off-piste and take a turn down the River Lea, to find Cody Dock. From a thriving Victorian gasworks to an industrial wasteland, it's now back in business as a creative community space — brought back to life by residents, artists and volunteers who transformed the space into a social enterprise with an environmental ethos. The riverbanks of the Lea here are now bursting with wildflowers, urban beehives, and an equally buzzing little café. Along with this, you'll find exhibition spaces made from shipping containers and a floating classroom aboard the restored community boat, all available to hire. Join the locals for a cosy folk gig, partake in a craftivism workshop or grab a high-vis jacket and a paintbrush and get involved in the process. Cody Dock is still a work in progress and a labour of love – it always will be. That's the beauty of community projects like this, it keeps bringing people together to tend to the plants and watch the birds. What a different world it must be, across the water in the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf. Pick your playground...

Cody Dock

A gentlemen's club with a (waxy) twist

A plaque for the Handlebar Club
Meet your tribe of fellow face furniture enthusiasts. Image: Matt Brown/Londonist

Whether you sport a sleek and skinny Dali-esque tash or have the whiskers of a walrus, get ready to meet your tribe of fellow face furniture enthusiasts. Showing hipsters how it's done since 1947, membership to the Handlebar Club is open to men with 'graspable extremities of the upper lip'. Beards are strictly forbidden, and any sign of sideburns merging into your moustache is a big no- no, and punishable by a fine. Sounds pretty strict, but these guys sure know how to grab life by the handlebars. The world's oldest whisker club was founded by 10 chaps with one thing in common: the facial hair fight against "the bland, the boring and the generic" (while enjoying a convivial drink and a game of darts, of course). The group has since grown in strength and length to over 100 members around the world. Those who can, still meet down at the pub on the first Friday of every month, always impressively turned out in their tweeds and ties. Their corner of the Heron Bar is jam-packed with moustache memorabilia from the club's hairy history, including the minutes from the first meeting.

Want to get in on the fun but lack the facial fluff? Fear not. Friends of the Handlebar Club is the place for supporters who do not have the necessary qualifications for full membership.

The Handlebar Club/Friends of the Handlebar Club, The Heron Bar

Eavesdropping at the Houses of Parliament

The House of Commons
Image: UK Parliament via creative commons

Members of the public can drop by the cradle of modern democracy for free. Simply arrive early, and if there's space, you can sit in the Visitors' Gallery (aka 'Strangers' Gallery') and watch the government shape British history. It is a remarkable and little-known privilege, for not even the King is allowed into the House of Commons. The last monarch to enter the hallowed chambers when Parliament was in session was King Charles I back in 1642, when he stormed in to track down five MPs suspected of treason. From the Strangers' Gallery, note the two red lines on each side of the House of Commons' floor: they're two sword lengths apart, supposedly designed to stop fevered debates from descending into duels. There may be a total of 650 MPs, but with only seating for 427, on busy days, members have to stand. Enterprising MPs may arrive at 8am however, and leave a prayer card indicating where they wish to sit, with the caveat that they do, in fact, arrive early to say their prayers. If you wish to nab a seat, you can just turn up at the Cromwell Green entrance on St Margaret Street and wait for entry. Tickets are not required for general debates but are required for the Prime Minister’s questions. Whether or not you deem some of the heated debates that go here these days as 'conversations' is up to you...

Houses of Parliament, Westminster

Don't Be A Tourist In London: The Messy Nessy Chic Guide by Vanessa Grall, published by
13 Things Ltd

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