Breakfast at the Sky Garden

Like virtually any millennial who has trod the hallowed banks of the Thames, I had the Sky Garden placed rawther firmly atop my list of places to visit. Actually hauling myself over to Fenchurch Street to live my dream, however, was always an intimidating prospect because no one I knew had been, and I didn't know much about it other than that it seemed like a fancy place for fancy people. While I am absolutely fancy people, I am also perpetually terrified of committing some damaging faux pas akin to, say, wearing denim to the opera, so going in blind is not a strong suit of mine. It seemed that whenever people would mention going it was always for some sort of special evening occasion, but being the steel-hearted maverick I am, I decided to throw caution to the wind and book us in for a cosy little breakfast date. Genius.

Waking up to a pitch black sky and the crisp, bone-chilling winds of an Autumn day not yet born is perhaps not a natural suggestion for someone as snoozy as my fine self, but I had a vision, and as soon as the lift doors opened to a panoramic view of London just before sunrise I knew I had nailed it. When I say our booking was early, I mean I'm pretty sure it was for 7am, which sounds excessive but that meant that we had time for the hour long reservation as well as half an hour to explore afterwards before I had to get to work. I find there's something very heartwarming about fitting in a whole date before work, and I think Will summed it up quite nicely when I asked for his perspective and he replied "I was very sleepy at the time, but that made it all the more magical." Did I mention this was a surprise? I am a Master of Surprise (also sprung Book of Mormon on him the next night because I am the romantic equivalent of a year-round musical Santa Claus but hot) and didn't say where we were going, just that we had to be there by seven and it was going to be a breakfast to remember. His guess was the zoo. Like ok bro, it's 6am but sure, let's crack open a fresh day with a pitch black hike through the park and some orangutangs. Fab.

Innyway, I firmly believe that breakfast dates are a highly underrated commodity; you haven't accumulated a full day's worth of built up stress, you still look as good as you did when you got ready and if you both actually show up it creates a special little understanding that you give enough of a shit about each other to sacrifice your precious, precious sleep. Plus you go through the rest of your day feeling both warm'n'fuzzy from the (presumably positive) interaction and accomplished because you've already got something ticked off before your day has even properly begun. To quickly employ a tone of sincerity that we may never again witness on this particular platform, I would describe the experience as intimate, tranquil, inspiring and quietly invigorating. Yes, that is perhaps also the description of a 2-for-1 spa package aimed at stressed out Over 40s, but I am trying to convey an atmosphere here and sometimes we need to use cringey words to make these things palpable.

Because we were there so early in the day there were only a few other guests, which can sometimes be a bit uncomfortable if there isn't quite enough background noise to create a comfortable atmosphere or the layout makes you feel a bit too conspicuous, but it was actually really nice. Our table was in a corner, which meant that we had a perfect view of St. Paul's to the East, as well as out over the main terrace to the Thames. I remember sitting there, still half asleep, looking out at the tiny buses crossing London Bridge and trying to commit every single detail to memory, because it was one of the most indescribably perfect moments I'd ever felt. Rarely do I manage to stop thinking about six different things and just exist in one present moment, but when you can physically see an entire city waking up in front of you it's hard to want to focus on anything else.

Will and I may live together now, but at this point it had only been two months since he laboriously dragged himself out of the friend zone and we'd spent most of that time apart, so while this was already memorable as a standalone event, it was even more significant because being together in such a deliberately romantic setting was completely new. However, the years we'd spent as friends meant that although it was all new and exciting, I was still comfortable enough to really appreciate where we were inside my own head in my own time, instead of needing to fill the silence. That quality is one of the reasons our relationship has always worked so well, and I'd say it's probably why we don't ever get sick of each other. We're rampantly codependent, but have always been able to exist in the same space completely in our own heads, and being the introverted little darling I am, that's essential. I really appreciate able to experience things with him, but simultaneously by myself.

As a neat juxtaposition against my ability to weave beautiful, immersive, emotive literary tapestries out of the heartstrings of my readers, I just asked Will what he remembers most about this expedition and the two things he remarked upon were that he enjoyed "living that luxe life, all dressed up with no one around," and "drinking three coffees." He did indeed drink three coffees, because the first one he ordered was presented in a vessel that was apparently "too feminine" for his delicate sensibilities, which still bamboozles me to this day considering he is one of the most consistently flamboyant individuals I have yet to encounter and also it was just a bloody double wall glass. Anyway.

Now that we've all spent more than long enough dreamily drifting through that heartwarming exploration of how Will and I are just absolutely too precious for this earth, here are some splashes of advice for those of you who may be considering planning a visit of your own.

One of the best things about the Sky Garden is that it operates on a free but compulsory booking system. There are only a certain number of places available for each time slot in the day, which means that despite being on the Must See List for any Google-savvy tourist, it never becomes overcrowded. Living in London, the idea of a picturesque, interesting venue that's guaranteed not to be absolutely packed from wall to wall is akin to stumbling upon an air conditioned day spa full of Voss water after wandering through the desert for ninety five years. I know that sounds dramatic, but spend one week working in SoHo then come back to me. Anyway, while the booking system is part of what makes the Sky Garden so great, there is a downside in that spots are first come, first served, so if there's nothing left for the day you want to visit then bad luck. However, there is a way to find yourself in the sweet embrace of fauna, regardless of general admission availability, and that is the restaurants.

Whatever the day's public availability may be, a reservation at one of the restaurants gives you full access to the Sky Garden, so you can have yourself a nice little meal or a couple of cocktails, enjoy the view and take your time once you're done. Inconveniently, deciding which of the venues to go for just by looking at the website is a living nightmare. There are five different venues, the photos and info on the website do not make it particularly easy to distinguish one from the other, and having been multiple times I still can't figure out where a couple of them could possibly be. This intimidating virtual tangle of swishy looking bars was the largest contributing factor to me putting off my visit for so long, but I can assure your delicate hearts that the reality of the experience (at least during the day) is far from the high intensity facade presented online.

After a bit of research and a lot of fretting (mainly comparing opening hours and prices, plus it's relatively easy to rule out an expenno cocktail lounge at 7am) I decided to make our booking at the Darwin Brasserie, which turned out to be perfect. I recommend it 100% because not only does booking here get you access to the gardens, but it also pretty much guarantees you a great view during your meal (there are a few tables in the centre of the room, but most are right against the windows) and is relaxed and reasonably priced, especially considering the location. Despite my penchant for staying home, I have been dragged to many a Hot Spot in my day, so I was pleasantly surprised when my often-essential bracing for a stuffy reception turned out to be unneeded, and every time I've been back I've had only positive experiences with the staff.

I believe that earliest is best when picking a time to visit the Sky Garden. London (especially in winter, aka October to May) has a certain peaceful quality in the morning that dies a thorough, crushing death by about 11.30, and I can't think of any better way to soak that in than from up in the sky, 36 floors away from one's commute. Secondly, breakfast dates are the one, and in my opinion the Sky Garden is the best place for a breakfast date in London. I've been to Duck & Waffle quite a few times, and although I do think it's worth visiting (especially as it's open 24/7), the atmosphere doesn't come close. The Sky Garden is also right around the corner (talking a 60 second trot) from Monument/Bank station, so in most cases it should be easy to pop to work once you're done. You absolutely don't need to show up at dawn for the trip to be worthwhile, but sunrise is especially stunning considering you have a view of literally every single part of London, and watching the light creep up over Tower Bridge and Canary Wharf has a certain way of putting things in perspective. Plus bookings earlier in the day guarantee entry far before the garden itself opens to the public, so you can get some fab photos without having to dodge the proletariat.

I have also noticed that certain times of day are more expensive than others. For example, they seem to have realised that brunch is the achilles heel of an entire generation and adjusted their prices accordingly. There's a set brunch menu between certain hours which ends up being far more expensive than ordering off the regular menu, and from what I can tell you can't opt out. Don't stress too much about being caught off guard though, because when you make your booking it will indicate if there is a set course for the time you've selected. This shouldn't veto all decent time slots either; often the difference between your choice of a normal menu and a set 40 pound meal comes down to half an hour's booking window, so if your preferred time comes up with an option you don't like, just try the block before or after and you may be in luck. Additionally, book tactically, so that your reservation ends at least half an hour before you actually need to leave. That way you have time to appreciate the gardens (see: get ya bf/gf/bff to take 300 separate photos of you to make sure you get the lighting right) before you scamper off.

Finally, as someone who has had to actively cultivate any level of sartorial instinct, and having seen many a man turned away from the MCC (the members club at the MCG, a sporting stadium in Melbourne, please keep up) for foolishly not wearing a collared shirt to watch the footy, I am perpetually aware of dress codes. Generally speaking you should be fine with anything decent in the public area, but most of the restaurants do have a smart casual policy, and won't allow flip flops, sportswear (including sneakers - in my experience this really applies to full athletic sneakers rather than #fashionkicks but use ya discretion) or shorts. They are especially strict about this later in the day, and in the evenings even the open space bar enforces a smart casual vibe. Don't stress too much though; they're not going to grade you out of ten and tell you your bag is passé, they just want their restaurant to maintain a certain air of class. Which I think we can all appreciate here at Maddi McGowan dot com.

Quick Tips:

Bookings open 30 days in advance, best to get in early if you really want a specific time.
Check that your booking doesn't include a set menu you don't want. If it does, try a different time slot.
Arrive early - you need to pass through security before going up (nothing hectic, just a bag scan/metal detector before the lifts) and depending on the time there can be a line.
Check dress code for your venue on the website before going. Generally avoid flip flops, sportswear and shorts, especially in the evenings.
Dress for the weather. Restaurants are heated but the open area is not.
You will need to leave the restaurant after your reservation is over, but are free to stay in the garden.
Restaurants open hours before entry before the general public - gr8 for pics ;););)
Around the corner from Monument Station, so definitely doable for a breakfast date on a weekday if you work anywhere in central
Bookings are generally for around an hour, so pick a time that leaves you space afterwards to explore
There is also a cafe in the open area, great if you want to get a drink and hang around for a bit
Doesn't get overcrowded, but can get busier as the day goes on with people from earlier times
I've heard it gets more crowded in the evenings, and the open bar may require bookings if busy

And with that, I bid you adieu. If you're in London, do chuck this bad boy on your itinerary, and if you're not, my apologies. x0x0