When Service Can Make or Break a Hotel Stay: Sleeping in Austin, Texas

Posted by Krista on May 28, 2016

The other week, I had to go to Austin, Texas for work. Because it was my birthday and a friend of mine was in town from Chicago for the weekend, I booked two hotels: a fun hotel to kick things off, and then the work hotel because I had to.

It’s hard not to have expectations when you check into a hotel. Let’s play a game. If I I say “brand new Kimpton hotel,” what do you think? It’s not hard. You think “brand new” and “Kimpton” (they of the free cocktail parties every evening at 5 pm as well as the leopard print robes). You probably get a teeny bit excited.

Now if I say “AT&T Executive Education Center on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin,” don’t you just want to yawn and change the channel? Who wants to stay at an Executive Education Center? BORING.

But as your parents probably told you growing up, never ever ever judge a book by its cover. If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t stay at the Hotel Van Zandt, the brand new Kimpton in Austin, Texas. While the place was Instagram-worthy, the staff were poorly trained and a bit all over the place — from the bellboy to room service to the front desk. My stay was hard work, which is the last thing you want when you are traveling. Compare that to the AT&T Executive Education Center and, well, there is no comparison.

Things started off well at the Hotel Van Zandt. I arrived just when the happy hour was in full swing, and was quickly offered a glass of wine to take up to my room. Great! But then the bell boy did that thing that hotels are not supposed to do. He asked me for my room number. I know the drill in hotels…staff are never supposed to say your room number out loud. So I showed him my hotel room key, and then he proceed to loudly announce my room number for anyone in the vicinity of the hotel lifts to hear. As a female traveling alone, this just didn’t jive with me. Training, people. Training.

Contrast this with my check-in at the AT&T Executive Education Center. Bellhop Larry asked to see my room key folder. I showed it to him, he nodded. That was all. I said something like “Larry, thank you for not announcing my room number for any and all to hear” and Larry quickly responded, “Oh no, we’re never supposed to do that. That’s the first law of working as a bellhop.”

Some of you might be shaking your heads and asking me why I am making such a big deal about this. It comes down to price. I paid a lot more for the Hotel Van Zandt than the AT&T Center, and at that Kimpton-level, I expect certain behaviors. I’ve also staying in quite a few Kimptons over the years. And well, it wasn’t just this one incident in Austin. It was a string of incidents.

Moving on…the hotel restaurant. At Hotel Van Zandt, I had to wave my arms around to get my server’s attention and then my food took forever to arrive and be removed afterwards. At The AT&T Executive Education Center, it was like I was the restaurant’s only patron. I was graciously tended to and treated like an old friend.

Lastly…check-out. At the AT&T Executive Education Center, they seemed genuinely sad to see me go, they helped me with my luggage, and patiently waited for me as I changed for my flight. At the Hotel Van Zandt, I kinda got in a fight with the check-out desk! My room service bill the night before had been incorrect, and room service promised me “Don’t worry, it will all be taken care of when you check out.” I’m always wary of these sorts of promises, and of course it wasn’t taken care of when I checked out. The check-out person had a little attitude about my request that the item be removed — we’re talking like $18 here people — and told me they would need to “investigate” and that the finance team was all “in a meeting.” I totally understand that they needed to confirm it, but it was all in the delivery. Then, I had to keep spelling my surname and the check-out person totally wasn’t listening and kept getting it wrong, to which I would say politely, “No please, slow down. Let me spell it again.” And we ended up in a vicious cycle of me spelling, the check-out person misspelling, me asking them to slow down, them insisting they “had it,” grrrrr.

So in this case, service broke my experience with the Hotel Van Zandt. It left me with a bad taste in my mouth and no desire to return. But the AT&T Executive Education Center? I will gladly return anytime!

Has a hotel service experience ever ruined your stay at an otherwise wonderful property? Please tell me I’m not alone!

Pizza Buzz, Shoreditch

Posted by Krista on May 26, 2016

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I never thought I’d say this but guys, I’m ADDICTED to Snapchat. I experimented with it last summer and never quite figured it out. That’s because I didn’t follow anyone who was doing cool stuff. Then I saw an article somewhere about Adventurous Kate and how you should follow her on Snapchat and I did and now I totally get it! And I love it. In university, I used to do radio and I loved putting together my shows. Snapchat can be sort of like that, which I love. And it’s one of the reasons why I like Adventurous Kate’s use of Snapchat so much. It’s almost like she makes little news reels of her travels and adventures. She did a great series on her visit to Savannah Georgia the other week. Now I just have to get over my fear of selfies. (So so so not into the selfie or lecturing the camera.)

Anyhow, I say all this because I’ve been snapchatting a lot of my meals and adventures these days. If you want to follow me, find me on @kristainlondon. (Surprise.) Or do the whole Snapchat scan thing by scanning my Snapchat thingy over in the right sidebar.

I don’t have a cat (many of the people I follow on Snapchat seem to have cats) and I don’t do a lot of (any?) talking TO the camera though, just so you know. So I guess what I’m saying is that Snapchat is the most instantaneous way to know what I am up to. (I find with Instagram, I string out my photos over time rather than posting them in the moment.) The other night, while I was at Pizza Buzz with May from Eat Cook Explore, I Snapchatted the interior of the restaurant, but oddly not the food. I was too focused on EATING the pizza. Here’s the interior…

I was also focused on Atila, the uber-charming pizza maker. Guess where Atila is from?? HUNGARY. Atila the Hun, get it?? Love it. Love Atila. And I love his pizzas.

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Although if you go to Pizza Buzz, I wouldn’t recommend the odd combinations they offer on the chalkboard. We tried one of them — veal meatballs and caramelized onions — but the onions made the pizza too sweet and who wants a sweet pizza? Not this New Yorker. There was also some sort of Irish pizza with potatoes that I just didn’t even want to imagine.

We did admire the crispy, slightly charred crust of  both our pizzas though. Only 2 minutes in the pizza oven, flaming away at the back of the restaurant! 2 minutes! The miracle of pizza, my friends. Of the three combinations of pizza we tried — May wisely went for a half/half — we liked her spicy pizza with nduja sausage the best.

With our pizzas, we enjoyed a very good version of a Caesar salad, with nice creamy, garlicky dressing. We also had some burrata with rocket; the burrata could have been a bit creamier but one really cannot complain about burrata because, well, it’s burrata. And to top it all off, I had GOAT MILK MINT CHOCOLATE CHIP ICE CREAM. Like I had died and gone to heaven. (I really really like mint chocolate chip.)

The Verdict: Pizza Buzz is fun and friendly. Pizzas start at about £7 and go up from there, depending on what toppings you order. You can see the full menu over here. Note that things look like they could quickly add up…

The Fine Print: I was a guest of May’s during our visit to Pizza Buzz. She was invited to try Pizza Buzz out so we did not pay for our meal. 

Things to Do in Sofia, Bulgaria

Posted by Krista on May 25, 2016
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Nevsky Cathedral

Sofia was a surprise. The wifi is AMAZING. It’s everywhere, and it’s fast. I mean, really fast. Bulgaria ranks at the 20th position in the global Net Index Explorer for broadband internet accessibility and speed. The average download speed in Bulgaria is 33.5 Mbps and the average upload speed is 22.8 Mbps. Apparently, the main reason for the good internet speed in Bulgaria is the fragmentation and competitiveness of the ISP sector in the country.

Also surprising? Besides for all the copious amounts of wine — did you know that Winston Churchill’s favorite wine was Bulgarian? — it was the way Bulgarians nod their heads yes. I had heard about this but never seen it live in the flesh. It’s a unique side-to-side-low-swinging movement that cracked me up each and every time. (Sorry, Bulgarians.)

I had a delightful time in Sofia and the surrounding areas. So will you! Here are my recommendations on where to sleep, eat and explore.

Stay at Arena di Serdica. Located about a 10 minute walk from Serdica metro station, this hotel had great wifi connectivity, a fantastically magical mattress — The Magniflex — and tasty if basic food in the two restaurants.  Ah, and Roman ruins in the basement. The only thing I didn’t like about this place was the chaos at breakfast. Uncleared tables, staff arguing with customers…all a little crazy. But the price was right, the bathrooms were huge, and the location — just down a flight of stairs from the National Art Gallery — was great. Visit the Arena di Serdica website. Note the hotel calls itself 5 stars but I’d say more 4-ish.

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Wine and Dine at Grape Central. One of my tour guides sent me here when I asked where I could try Bulgarian wines. I ended up visiting during lunch so I only had a glass of Bulgarian Chardonnay, but I liked the vibe and the food. My potato pancakes with olives and green salad were just what I needed after a long morning of slogging around Sofia. Carbs, people. Carbs. Also good? The decent wifi connection. Visit the Grape Central website.

Visit the Central Market. This is one of the neatest, tidiest food markets I have ever visited. All very chill. I wish I had had a tour guide to show me around and tell me what to try. Instead, I just ogled the display cases. Next time around, I’ll come here for snacks for a picnic. There are a number of small bakeries and a few wine shops, along with fruit, veg and butcher stands.

IMG_3152Take the Sofia Food & Culture Tour: Truth: I booked this tour because it contained the word “food.” And it did have some food — a shopska salad (the national salad of Bulgaria — tomatoes, cucumbers and fresh cheese) and some charcuterie — but it wasn’t the tasting that I expected. During our 3.5 hour meander, I think my tour guide got a little annoyed with me asking, “So is there food at the next stop?” Because I was STARVING. I had purposefully had a very light breakfast and skipped lunch in preparation of this tour. While our guide was amazingly informative about all things Sofia in an amazingly detailed, detailed way, the tour didn’t live up to my food expectations. If you’re in it for the history, you’ll get a lot of that for sure. But don’t go hungry! Check out this tour on Viator. 

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Hang out on Vitosha Boulevard: Downtown Sofia is refreshingly pedestrian. It’s kind of amazing actually. There’s this huge pedestrian street — Vitosha Boulevard — with a fab view of the mountains, and it’s lined on both sides with cafes and shoe shops. (People in Sofia seem to like shoes. There were many shoe shops.) I spent a meandering hour or two here, wandering from one shop to the next as all of Sofia strolled by.

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Visit Villa Yustina Winery: I really wanted to see some Bulgarian vineyards so I found Ivaylo online and he drove me out to the lovely Villa Yustina, where we stood on the hillside and admired their young vines. Later, back at the winery, I got to taste a number of their wines. The 4 Seasons range is a good value with a wine — guess what — for every season. I particularly liked Winter — a cheery Cab Franc. I loved my visit to Villa Yustina and gladly would have stayed longer had they had a restaurant or informal cafe. But I was hungry! (Yes, a consistent theme.) Visit Villa Yustina. Also, contact Ivaylo and ask for a tour!

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Visit Plovdiv: For lunch, we drove over to Plovdiv and strolled around the picturesque streets and admired the many Roman ruins. (Man, that Roman Empire was huge.) I say stroll jokingly as the tiny roads are made of rough hewn bits of stone and”strolling” is an exercise in balance. After admiring the architecture, we dropped into the picturesque Philippopolis, where we sat out in the garden and enjoyed a lovely salad, mushroom risotto and chocolate ganache cake before heading back to the car for the 1 hr and 45 minute ride back to Sofia. I liked Plovdiv and hope to one day have more time to go back and explore. Check out this tour of Plovdiv on Viator.

I really enjoyed my time in Sofia. I was pleasantly surprised by what a good value it was, how easy it was to get around — the metro is fab — and how friendly the people are. If you’re looking for a quick weekend getaway, this is it!

Eating in Austin, Texas

Posted by Krista on May 24, 2016

I flew to Austin the other week for a quick work trip. Did you know that British Airways flies direct from London to Austin? That made my life significantly easier, let me tell you. Also easier…I was upgraded to business class at the gate, which was especially awesome because I was flying on my birthday!! (Long ago, I vowed never to do anything for work on my birthday. It is a sign of the times that I have not been able to hold myself to this vow in 2015 or in 2016.)

The weather in Austin was particularly weird while I was there. Blazing hot on Day 1, cloudy and cool on the next day, and then warm and then hot again for the rest of my visit. And while I was primarily there for work, the beauty of a work conference is work dinners! So while I didn’t hit the Salt Lick or any of the other famous barbecue places — not enough time — here’s where I ate while I was in town:

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Jacoby’s. Image borrowed from Jacoby’s Instagram feed.

Jacoby’s Restaurant: This peaceful little general mercantile-like restaurant has a lovely outdoor area on the river. We enjoyed heaping platters of particularly good brisket while we were eaten alive by mosquitos the size of, well, Texas. (This was my first trip back to the US since December and let me tell you…Zika fears are at a high.) Loaded with atmosphere and with a sweet little gift shop attached, this is a pretty little slice of Texas. Visit their website.

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Yellow Jacket Social Club. Image borrowed from GirlsonFood.net

Yellow Jacket Social Club: In a sign that the world is more connected than ever before, I got off my flight at Austin airport, picked up my luggage, walked through the customs doors, and an old London friend saw me! Her sister-in-law was on the same flight. A few days later, Steffi and Stuart picked me up from Jacoby’s and took me to the supremely atmospheric Yellow Jacket Social Club, were we sat outside under the trees and solved all the world’s technology problems. Visit their website.

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El Naranjo. Image borrowed from El Naranjo’s Facebook page

El Naranjo: Within one hour of arriving at my hotel, I was at El Naranjo to meet my friend Amy, who just happened to be in town that weekend for a wedding. We stuffed our faces with nachos and delicious tacos and then I passed out with jet lag. The end. Note: The servers here are really friendly and nice. Visit their website.

La Condesa – Austin, TX

La Condesa. Image borrowed from Starchefs.com

La Condesa: While El Naranjo offered a more traditional, homey version of Mexican food, La Condesa was all hot, hip, modern and buzzy. A bit more of the west coast of Mexico perhaps because at La Condesa, it’s all about the ceviche. A few of my colleagues had never had ceviche before, if you can image that. No worries, that just meant more for me! The staff here were a little too busy for their own good — and ours — but it was an enjoyable meal nonetheless. Good if you need a scene. Visit their website.

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The pool deck outside Geraldine’s. Image borrowed from Hotel Van Zandt. We sat in the first row of pool deck chairs.

Geraldine’s: OK, somewhat cheating. I was staying at the Hotel Van Zandt for my birthday and Geraldine’s is the restaurant in the hotel. I met up with my friend Amy to hang by the pool and read trashy magazines. And have brunch! Some short rib, some poached eggs. Done. The restaurant at the Hotel Van Zandt was always buzzing during my stay — popular with both hotel guests and locals. Definitely a destination. There was also live music on Sunday while we relaxed by the pool, which was great. Visit their website.

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Gabriel’s Cafe at the AT&T Executive Education Center

Gabriel’s Cafe: This was the surprise of my stay. For the last few nights of my visit, I moved into the AT&T Executive Education Center for my work conference. I was starving when I checked in, so I dropped into Gabriel’s Cafe. My server heartily recommended the smoked brisket sandwich with homemade potato chips so that’s what I had and it was really, truly melt-in-the-mouth amazing. This is a pretty soulless hotel restaurant really, but whoever is in the kitchen knows what they are doing. I liked it so much, I went back on my last day before my flight. Visit their website.

Not enough time for all that I wanted to do, as always. It was a super quick trip, so being in a jetlagged fog for the first two days didn’t help either. Austin is a fun city, and the fact that you can get there directly from London is a huge bonus. Go visit! Have some brisket for me.

Where I’ve Been Eating in London Lately: Spring 2016 Edition

Posted by Krista on May 23, 2016

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First is was the cherry trees. Now it is the wisteria. London is flower-mad at the moment, and so am I! Above is some wisteria outside St. Paul’s Cathedral on Sunday, when the skies managed to hold their blueness for more than a few minutes and everyone was out and about. Here’s where I’ve been out and about lately.

Brawn, Shoreditch: My friend Howard was in town from Switzerland the other weekend — he was one of my first Internet friends ever, thanks to a blogger dinner at Salt Yard many years ago. It was his birthday and after a little to-ing and fro-ing, we decided on Brawn for Saturday lunch. I’m not quite sure why I haven’t been to Brawn after all these years, but I haven’t and now I have. For some reason, in my head I thought Brawn was all seafood — maybe because Brawn rhymes with prawn? — but it’s not all seafood at all.  It’s of that somewhat British, vaguely European style that is perfectly alright with me. The sun dappled through the windows just SO while we feasted on fresh asparagus, Dungarvan oysters, navarin of lamb, and some delicious bavette. I liked it here very much and will return, hopefully many times. Visit Brawn’s website.

Cafe Saffron, Clerkenwell: An old colleague was in town from the US so I met up with her and felt that I should take her for something “British.” Uh, that would be a curry then. The service at Cafe Saffron is particularly sweet, and while the space and the food is best described as “solid” and is certainly nothing to write home about — Does anyone do that anymore? Write home? — I still like it here and find it a fun little local place to bring guests. TripAdvisor at work though for sure as the proprietor must have asked us three times to leave a review on TripAdvisor. (Given their proximity to the Zetter Hotel, I can understand why. Seriously, people, the world has changed/is changing.) Visit Cafe Saffron’s website.

Noble Rot, Bloomsbury: I love Noble Rot. Like really really love it.  I like the vibe, I like the food, I like the service. I find it odd that back in December, it took them an entire month to charge my credit card — Amex said that they entered the transaction but never completed it — but that doesn’t bother me so much really because I love it here. I would eat here every day if I could. I dropped in a few Fridays ago when it was still early, and had some rilettes and Bordeaux in the bar and all was good with the world. During one of my visits, I was somehow motivated to spend £16 on a glass of cognac. I never spend £16 on a glass of anything. Jedi mind tricks, I tell you. Visit Noble Rot’s website.

Apulia, Clerkenwell: Another “solid” option, especially for a work lunch if you’re close to Farringdon/Barbican/St. Paul’s, I really enjoy this little Italian spot, specializing in food from (surprise) Puglia. It’s the type of place you’ll take your “Please, nothing fancy” parents to when they’re in town. Service can be a bit all over the place — oh to be young and innocently forgetful again! — but the pastas are nice and a decent value (for London) and the vibe is all a bit shabby chic and cozy. When I need carbs, I go here. If you visit during lunch, make sure you see all the lunch specials, including the ones on the chalkboard at the back. Visit Apulia’s website.

That’s not the half of it! (Literally.) But that will do for now. More to come. I promise!

Need advice on what to do in London? Check out these 25 tips from Jan at The Crazy Tourist!

House of Ho, Fitzrovia

Posted by Krista on May 20, 2016

The House of Ho, Percy Street

The first thing I notice about the all new House of Ho in Fitzrovia — the original House of Ho in Soho is now just called “Ho” — are the stairs. The all new House of Ho is set in an old townhouse, and if you’re not dining on the ground floor, there are a lot of stairs. And they’re creaky. The front of house staff have advised me to climb all the stairs to the top of the restaurant and wait for my party in the bar.  My gym got rid of their last StairMaster a few months back, and as I climb the stairs, I start a strongly worded letter in my head, suggesting they bring it back.

IMG_2410Luckily, my party finds me before I make it to the top floor — we’re in the very lovely and serene private dining room on the 2nd floor — and a heart attack is averted — although I make a solemn vow to up my gym visits from .5 times a week to at least 1.5 times a week.

I’ve been invited to a social media night at the restaurant but of course I’ve forgotten my camera and my blog cards. What sort of blogger am I?? (Hint: An old one.) And there’s assigned seating at the dining table, which makes me wonder briefly about the conversations that must have occurred to put this all in place.

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This is quickly forgotten when our servers plop a nice plate of bo la lot down in front of me. Bo La Lot is very, very special to me — I had never had them before visiting Cay Tre in Old Street back in 2005, and now I love love love them.  (Don’t you love the effusiveness of my earlier writing style?) Like really love them. I hold myself to one piece at House of Ho, and it’s a great, high-quality version — the quality of the beef being deliciously higher than that at Cay Tre.

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Bowls of duck and watermelon arrived early on during the meal and while I am not the hugest watermelon fan, this worked amazingly well, the light acidity of the watermelon combatting the richness — not that there’s anything wrong with that — of the duck. I could have had more of this.

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Soft shell crab with chilis wins for most photogenic dish of the night. I wonder what do they do with all those chillis after each meal? As a huge fan of soft shell crab, I kept plucking and plucking at the bowl. It reminded me of Easter in America, where you would scrounge around in your Easter basket for the remaining jelly beans, knowing, hoping that there would still be something in there for you to enjoy. While the dish wasn’t listed on the menu at the time of our visit, it can be ordered by special request.

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At the end of our meal, they leave us with these lovely little bowls of pebbles — chocolates really. A sweet ending to a very nice meal. Despite the stairs.

House of Ho is now commanded by Ian Pengelley, who used to be over at Gilgamesh in Camden many years ago. If you want another dip into my seemingly limitless archives, check out my visit to Gilgamesh many years ago over here. Good times. (By this point, it’s 2007 and I have discovered my writing voice and dropped the word “yummy” from my vocabulary.)

The Verdict: House of Ho strikes me as a great place to go if you need a private dining room and something different for everyone.  I would return for more of the bo la lot and beef with watermelon.

I was invited to House of Ho for a dinner with other social media types. I did not pay for my meal. As always, my opinions are my own. 

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