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Across the pond, Paul Evans soaks up another great city's culture, neighborhoods, and nuances

LONDON -- When he needs to clear his head, Paul Evans grabs a bag lunch and heads to his favorite spot: St. James's Park.

"It reminds me of the Public Garden, except on a grander scale, " says Evans, who when he was Boston's police commissioner from 1994 to 2003 would frequently take his lunch on a bench in Boston's premier park.

Now, as the British government's point man on reducing crime, Evans sits on a bench in front of a pond in London's premier park, surrounded by pigeons, swans, and the odd tawny owl. Spanning 58 acres, surrounded by three palaces, including Buckingham, St. James's is the oldest royal park in London, taking its name from the 13th- century leper hospital that once stood there. Plane trees, imposing and distinctive for their flaky bark, stand as sentinels, and pelicans that live around Duck Island take their tea -- in this case, fresh fish -- every afternoon at 3.

"I come here to think, or just people watch," says Evans.

Watching people in such an idyllic setting is a treat for Evans, because much of his professional life is devoted to observing those engaged in less savory activities.

Four years ago, Evans was given a three-year contract to run the Police Standards Unit (now the Police and Crime Standards Directorate) in Britain's Home Office. Boston's success at reducing violent crime during Evans's tenure gained the attention of Prime Minister Tony Blair's government. Last year, with the British pleased with his performance and Evans enjoying life in London, he was handed the expanded portfolio of crime reduction and community safety. He is unsure how long he will remain here, but says he is in no rush to return to the United States .

For Evans, 57, and his wife, Karen, leaving South Boston, where they were lifelong residents, was hard. But the London job offered an unexpected adventure. They fell in love with the spacious, spotless parks, the varied museums and galleries, the vibrant theater scene, and the sense of history and majesty in one of the world's great cities.

A Marine veteran of the Vietnam War, Evans especially enjoys the military museums, including the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms, just across from St. James's Park.

"You get a real sense of history here," Evans says, standing outside the underground bunker where the cigar-chomping prime minister directed British resistance against the Axis forces during World War II. "This is where Churchill had to make life-and-death decisions."

Evans credits his wife with getting him to take advantage of the inumerable history lessons in every corner of the city. Karen Evans first visited London when she was in her early 20s. She has returned 30 years later with an encompassing enthusiasm that is infectious.

With a population quickly closing in on 8 million, London is a sprawling metropolis, but it is also a collection of neighborhoods and villages, with a people as diverse as the rich Guardian-reading liberals of Hampstead and the working-class Bangladeshis of the East End.

"My wife's a real history buff," Evans says. "She takes me on walking tours. She got me to take two in one day."

When friends and family arrive for visits, the Evanses like to show off the bounty of their adopted city. When his three brothers came for a visit, the Evanses made up a detailed itinerary that included stops at museums, art galleries, and other cultural highlights. The Evans boys couldn't be bothered.

"They went to the horse races," Evans says, with a shrug.

The Evanses have three favorite restaurants: the Pico Bar & Grill, a loud, brightly lighted Portuguese eatery on the Albert Embankment; Daphne's, a more chic, upscale, Italian restaurant between South Kensington and Sloane Square; and San Lorenzo, a famous Italian dining spot in Knightsbridge.

Daphne's is where they go for special occasions. The head chef, Lee Streeton, used to cook at The Ivy, a celebrity haunt, but this is more relaxed, with a conservatory and open area to dine in. Since it opened in 1963, San Lorenzo has been a celebrity magnet: Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Rod Stewart, Courtney Cox, Margaret Thatcher, Eric Clapton, Madonna, Kate Moss, Johnny Depp, and the late Diana, Princess of Wales, ate there regularly. The Evanses go for the cuisine (Northern Italian), not the celebrities.

"Only downside is they only take cash," says Evans.

As someone who felt more comfortable in Amrheins than Aujourd' hui when he lived in Boston, Evans enjoys the informality and buzz of the Pico. The buzz is partially provided by trains that rumble above on the way to and from nearby Vauxhall Station. Considering that Portugal bounced England out of last summer's World Cup, the fact that so many Portuguese and Englishmen congregate side by side to quaff Sagres drafts at the large bar makes the Pico a study in diplomacy. And because the headquarters of MI6, Britain's foreign intelligence agency, is across the street, the Pico is peopled by more than a few spies at any given time.

"I'd have to say this is our favorite," Evans says, tucking into a chicken piri-piri as the hangar-like roof vibrated to the passing of a train. "Food can be inconsistent in London and expensive. We've never had a bad meal here, and by London standards it's reasonable."

The Pico is a short stroll from the couple's Thames-side apartment. Evans has a 15-minute walk to the Home Office, along the river.

"It's a view you never get tired of," he says, as the looming Parliament building in Westminster draws near.

Alcohol abuse is blamed for nearly half the violent crime in Britain, and much of Evans's work has been aimed at combating the binge drinking that is behind so much antisocial behavior. But pub culture is very much part of British culture, and Evans will have a pint or two, most often at his local, The White Swan, an unpretentious pub just over the southside of the Vauxhall Bridge, near his home and the Tate Britain, one of his favorite museums.

He will occasionally duck into the Westminster Arms, half way between the Home Office and New Scotland Yard, headquarters for the Metropolitan Police. It's not much to look at, but it's a freehouse, meaning it is not tied to a brewery, so it has a variety of true ales, the cask-conditioned brews favored by beer connoisseurs.

The Evanses have taken in more than 40 plays since moving to London, where the theater is not only superb, but also typically half the price of Broadway shows. When their college student son, Paul Jr., visited, he took in three plays, including Patrick Stewart performing a one-man show as Ebenezer Scrooge.

The Evanses also have visited 18 other countries, because London, like other European cities, is home to many low-cost airlines.

"In Europe," he says, "this is the real hub."

And like many other Londoners, the Evanses have become seasoned day-trippers, getting away from the urban sprawl for the bucolic splendor of Kew Gardens (the Royal Botanic Gardens) the monarchic magnificence of Leeds Castle, and the seaside kitsch of Brighton, a town on England's south coast which conjures memories of Revere Beach or Nantasket Beach, circa 1970.

"The cost of living is high," Evans says, offering an understatement that anyone who has visited or lived in London would recognize, "but there are some things, like the theater or air travel, that are an unexpected bargain."

The Evanses say they find everything on the south side of the Thames cheaper and less pretentious. That's why, after first living in Westminster, they moved across the river to Lambeth two years ago.

They have gone native in the smallest of ways. They like to watch televised coverage of prime minister's question time in the House of Commons, which, besides being entertaining, underscores the gap between British oratory and most American speechmaking. The highlight of their life in London so far was the weekend they spent as guests of Tony and Cherie Blair at Chequers, the Elizabethan mansion in Buckinghamshire that serves as the prime minister's country estate. Cherie Blair, a Roman Catholic, delighted in showing the Evanses and some other guests the portraits of anti- papists that line the walls.

Like all expatriates, the Evanses miss certain things about Massachusetts. She misses Filene's Basement. He misses walking Castle Island. They both miss their families. But they both are too busy trying to take in all of what London has to offer to get too homesick.

Outside Parliament one recent Friday afternoon, Evans chatted up PC Roger Arbery, one of the police constables whose practices and standards Evans refined for three years. At first, Arbery thought he was speaking with one of the myriad American tourists who turn up to gawk at Big Ben every day. When it dawned on him just whom he was talking to, Arbery asked Evans a question that proves cops are cops, all over the world: "Can you do something about my pay?"

Kevin Cullen can be reached at cullen@globe.com .

If You Go

Where to eat & drink

Pico Bar & Grill 74 Albert Embankment

011-44-20-7820-1282

This friendly, informal Portuguese restaurant serves traditional entrees like chicken piri-piri and assorted tapas.

Daphne's

112 Draycott Ave.

011-44-20-7589-4257

daphnes-restaurant.co.uk

A classy Italian eatery named for theater agent Daphne Rye, who opened the place in 1964. It specializes in seafood.

San Lorenzo

22 Beauchamp Place

011-44-20-7584-1074

Critics complain that the attention this restaurant receives is too much about which celebrity is visiting and too little about what is served, but this white-tile floor Italian dining spot still packs them in. Be warned: no credit cards.

The White Swan

14 Vauxhall Bridge Road

011-44-20-7821-8568

A friendly traditional pub in Pimlico. It serves food late, which is unusual for a London pub.

The Westminster Arms

9 Storey's Gate

011-44-20-7222-8520

A restaurant upstairs and wine bar downstairs draw tourists from nearby Parliament Square, but it's the ale in the ground-floor pub that brings in the local punters.

What to do

Churchill Museum andCabinet War Rooms

Clive Steps, King Charles Street

011-44-20-7930-6961

cwr.iwm.org.uk

Step back into what Churchill called Britain's finest hour. Daily 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Adults about $20, under age 16 free.

Tate Britain

Millbank

011-44-20-7887-8888

tate.org.uk

Big, traditional brother to the more adventurous Tate Modern, it is the repository of British art from the 16th century to the present. Daily 10 a.m.-5:50 p.m. Admission free, but donations appreciated.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Richmond, Surrey

011-44-20-8332-5655

rbgkew.org.uk

Just six miles from the heart of London, but it feels like a million . Daily 9:30 a.m. to closing, which varies by season. Adults about $18, under 17 free if accompanied by an adult.

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