Here’s our writer Lee Hubbard experience of Eating London – a four hour tour of the most interesting restaurants in London’s coolest neighbourhood. First stop was Spitalfield’s St.John Bread and Wine famous for its bacon sandwiches….
St.John Bread and Wine
For a fully paid-up carnivore, there are few greater things to start the day than getting your incisors stuck into a hearty bacon sandwich first thing in the morning. And when that bacon sandwich comes from St John Bread & Wine, by London’s Spitalfields Market, so much the better. Their Michelin-starred sister restaurant (simply called St John) are famous for nose-to-tail eating, or in other words making use of every possible edible part of an animal. Here, using Butts Farm Old Spot pigs, the synapses on your taste buds are woken up with a jolt. Some people need coffee – me, I prefer a piece of finely sourced meat between two slices of freshly char-grilled bread. They describe it as the “bacon sandwich of your nocturnal fantasies” and while I’ve yet to actually dream of one, I get where they’re coming from.
The English Restaurant
Taste buds alive and kicking, our next stop was the Market Coffee House English Restaurant. Located in what used to be a nut factory, this 16th century building is the oldest house in Spitalfields, though dishes like their bread pudding date back even further to around the 13th century, when it was regarded as a poor mans food. The interior is cosy, with gorgeous wood detailing, and parts of the material were salvaged from the nearby Christ Church designed by renowned architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. The menu is traditional but well crafted, as befitting the location – the kind of place you could bring friends from abroad to if they wanted a taste of something local. The custard was to die for – forget any misconceptions about lumpy yellow gloop, the liquid gold they serve here could happily be drunk on its own.
Bedales Wine and Food
Spitalfields used to be Europe’s oldest red-light district, and the streets around it ran red with the blood of Jack the Ripper’s victims. Thankfully it’s much safer these days, with the only red you’re likely to see pouring anywhere is at one of the lovely wine bars in the area, like Bedales. With a choice of around 400 bottles, it’s also a shop – meaning you can try before you buy, without the markup of a dedicated wine bar. They offer tasty accompaniments like cheese platters, meat selections, and other nibbles but their specialty is wine tastings.
Of course, the whole notion of local food in England has changed so much in the past 20 years, and it’s always a pleasure to dispel the myths of British cooking that are based on stereotypes from decades ago. Most people who mock the food in Britain have usually either never actually visited and made an effort to find the right places, or are happy to keep living in the past and maintain a rather dated outlook. Ask any serious foodie, and they’ll tell you that London now rates as one of the finest cities in the world for gourmands, whether it be for Michelin-starred fine dining or the trendiest new street food. Cooking at home is not ingrained in our culture as much as say, France or Italy, but for sheer variety and choice, London is right near the top.
Poppies of Spitalfields
Although the current incarnation of Poppies Fish & Chip bar has only been around on the Hanbury St site since 2011, Pat “Pops” Newland has been serving fish and chips in the East End of London for 50 years, continuing a tradition started by Joseph Malin in the 1860’s when the imported Portuguese fish in batter was combined with Belgian chips, and a British icon was born. The personality of the restaurant and its owner are inextricably linked – think vintage 1950’s-style outfits, a retro jukebox playing vinyl records and flea-market discoveries liberally sprinkled around the place as decoration and you’ll have a decent idea of what to expect. All of this attention to decor and recreating a former time would be for nothing if the fish and chips don’t match, but thankfully everything from the mushy peas (or “Yorkshire caviar” as its optimistically nick-named in the north of England) to the wonderfully crisp batter on the fish is exactly how it should be.
The Pride of Spitalfields
Having a decent pint of beer or lager in a traditional pub is as synonymous with Britain as eating fish and chips, and in reality it’s also something the locals do more often. In an area not exactly short of gentrified watering holes and trendy bars, if you looked in the dictionary under the heading “proper old school boozer” then the Pride of Spitalfields fits the description perfectly. Slightly worn carpets, a nonchalant cat, old black & white photos adorning the walls – this place almost goes deliberately against the grain by being about as unpretentious as possible. For real-ale drinkers, a pint of Truman’s beer (from the recently re-established brewery of the same name, which at one point was the largest brewery in the world) or sinking an Orchard Cornish cider on a warm day are ideal ways to take a rest from the bustle of nearby Brick Lane.
Aladin Curry House
Although Brick Lane has diversified with vintage clothing stores and independent cafes, London’s own “curry mile” is most famous for its Indian food. I’ve often felt it was trading off former glories and fame – almost every Indian restaurant on the street has seemingly won some kind of “best curry in the UK” award at some point. Walking past the Jamme Masjid – which used to be a church, then a synagogue, before its current incarnation as a mosque – and almost opposite the original 1666 site of the Truman Brewery, Aladin is almost like a diamond in the rough. Having been a couple of times now, their lamb dishes are succulent and flavoursome – though this place is perhaps best enjoyed in a group, when you can share dishes amongst you. It’s perhaps not the place to come for intricate and complex Indian cooking, nor does it pretend to be, but for a fairly cheap and cheerful curry fix you won’t go far wrong.
Beigel Bake Brick Lane Bakery
Almost as famous as the curry houses, the Beigel Bake Brick Lane Bakery has been serving locals, taxi drivers, drunk revellers and passers-by wondering what the long queue is all about since 1977. They go through thousands of the little dough balls each day, and the place is something of an East End institution. I’d been once before and, to be honest, wasn’t too impressed (probably because I was expecting toasted beigels not the boiled versions they do here) but my second visit was much more tasty. Salt beef, pickle and mustard or a cream cheese and salmon beigel are the thing to go for here, preferably eaten as messily as possible. If its not oozing out the back, juices running down your hand a little, then you’re probably not eating it right. This isn’t a place for silver service etiquette – get stuck in and enjoy the chaos, which begins when you join the inevitable queue.
Pizza East was the end of our East London Food Tour, and despite the name we’d actually come in for dessert rather than pizza. Housed in the former Tea building, Pizza East is certainly the trendiest of all the venues we went to – very much in the New York loft-style exposed brickwork and industrial chic vein that London has adopted with aplomb. Presented with a salted chocolate caramel torte (recently voted the best dessert in London by Time Out magazine), I had to restrain myself from digging in straight away before I’d taken any photos – either way, the photos will certainly last longer that the tart did. Once I’d had one mouthful I knew there would be barely any residual trace of it on the plate once I’d finished with it. Yes, its true to say I’m a man who lives for dessert, and this one was performing a chocogasm in my mouth. So I can’t vouch for the pizzas as such, but if you find yourself shopping in Box Park and crave a sugar fix, hop across the road and get comfy here. You’ll be glad you did.
Nicole, our Australian guide, was wonderful, and by walking between each venue you also get a flavour of the areas architecture and vibe – namely, a lot of interesting graffiti adorning the walls and doorways too, which is a sight in itself. And with hundreds of other places to try while you’re staying in the English capital, you could consider this an ideal starter on your culinary tour of London as a whole.
All words and images by regular contributor Lee Hubbard. Lee was a guest of Eating London but all his opinions are his own.