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On the Culture Front: London's Athenaeum Hotel and the Culture at its Doorstep

06/30/2015 03:53 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2016

I was more than a little excited when I found out that my schedule allowed for a few days in London last fall. The last and only other time I'd been was in high school for a theater trip that included seeing H.M.S. Pinafore at the storied Savoy and Simon Russell Beale in a rousing production of The Merchant of Venice. This trip would be no less theater packed, so Mayfair (think a more tranquil Central Park South) was a perfect location.

My hotel, the Athenaeum, sat across from the intimately regal Green Park, which leads to Buckingham Palace, and adjacent to the more expansive Hyde Park, where one afternoon I found myself in the middle of an impromptu marching band concert while walking off an epic lunch.

On arrival, I indulged in a decadent "gentleman's afternoon tea" which included an array of treats such as wild boar sausage rolls, ale pies, and cheddar and bacon scones. Along with a pot of tea a dram of whiskey is included, and there are over 300 whiskeys to choose from including the hotel's own 8-year-old speyside malt blend that they serve during a weekly reception for guests. Announced with a tiny card displayed above my room's minibar, these gatherings exemplify the understated elegant touch that can be felt throughout the hotel.

As a second alternative tea offering and in celebration the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carol's "Alice in Wonderland," the hotel's currently offering a "mad hatters tea" that aims to replicate the eponymous character's party with white chocolate clock cakes among other fanciful treats.

In my room, floor-to-ceiling windows brought Green Park inside where every surface felt plush. The cozy marble lobby allowed for easy comings and goings, and like everything at the Athenaeum, struck a delicate balance between service and privacy. Stretching just eight stories high, it's boutique in stature but has the comfortable familiarity of a place you've been before.

After tea, I took in a production of Simon Stephens' new adaptation of the "The Cherry Orchard" at the Young Vic and was struck by how he seamlessly brings the characters raw emotions to the surface. This didn't feel like a classic play to be appreciated as much as an urgent one to be consumed. The ending disturbed me in a way I've haven't felt before in a Chekhov production. I wonder if this is how the first Moscow audience felt more than a century ago?

Mike Bartlett's "King Charles III" turns the structure of Shakespearean history on its head as it imagines a not-too-distant future when Charles makes his long-awaited ascent to the thrown and chaos breaks out. There's a lot of humor to be had in Bartlett's razor sharp dialogue but the plot bears an equally savvy construction that echoes our own political climate.

The last play I saw was Paddy Campbell's searingly moving and achingly joyous "Wet House," at the Soho Theatre. It follows people on the edges of society who believe the last lines of their stories have already been written despite caged desires live. There's an abundance of compassion that pulses throughout but this never comes at the expense of truth. There are many moments when it's easy to forget there's a stage, and that you're going to be able to walk out in the end.

When I wasn't at the theater, I ate well. Two places in particular were of note. The Peruvian restaurant Coya, just a stone's throw from the Athenaeum, serves ceviche that abounds with vibrant flavor. Tart, meaty and refreshing, these dishes are most comfortable existing in a space of complex contradiction. The rib eye with chimichurri sauce is cooked on a Josper grill, giving it a smooth and flavorful texture. A pisco sour just scratches the surface of Coya's cocktail offerings, which include a julep made with scotch, ginger and a barrel aged pisco 1615 Quebranta.

On my last day, I took the underground to the East End for an inventive tasting menu at The Corner Room, which included squirrel (seeing one later in Hyde Park provided an eerie complementary experience.) Reminiscent of duck in its balance of gamey and hearty flavors, it's not just a novelty menu item. The duck too was quite satisfying. With a locally sourced menu that rotates frequently, favorite dishes can easily be replaced but the transformation of simple flavors into sublime is a constant that's always in season.