Michael Webb relishes the gentrification of one of London’s seedier boroughs and finds it quite delicious.
A few Rip Van Winkles still marvel that you can eat very well in London, unaware that the revolution has been in full swing for the past forty years. And you can now find exemplary restaurants in poor neighborhoods that once offered little besides jellied eels or greasy fish and chips. Historic boroughs to the east of the City have been gentrified to the point that their original inhabitants wouldn’t recognize them. Warehouses and residential terraces, devastated by the Blitz and still more by slum clearance programs, have been restored or rebuilt. The new locals are artists, architects and advertising personnel, drawn by relatively low rents, proximity to the center, and a pervasive sense of history that feels more visceral than in the manicured western districts.
Chefs have responded to the demand, delivering creative cuisine in unpretentious or idiosyncratic settings. In general, the prices are far below what you would pay in the West End. Wapping Food is a feast for the eyes and the palette. It’s located in what were formerly the London Docklands and it’s housed in a disused hydraulic power plant down the street from the ancient Prospect of Whitby pub. White tables are scattered among Victorian machinery. The eclectic menu of plain food, imaginatively prepared, evokes Sydney, and the wine list is a giveaway—the chef is Australian.
Brawn is on a narrow street in Hackney and is aptly named: it was started by two French rugby players and it specializes in meat. The room is as frugal as a working class café, but the staff and a roomful of hungry diners provide plenty of warmth. There’s pig crackling to nibble on, while choosing between charcuterie and a coarsely chopped raw steak. Order from a blackboard of daily specials and try an unfamiliar French wine by the bottle or the glass.
Bethnal Green Town Hall has been turned into a boutique hotel, and Portuguese chef Nuño Mendes operates two exceptional restaurants: the pricy, Michelin-starred Viajente, and its bargain-priced sibling, the Corner Room. The prix fixe lunch at the latter is bookable (regrettably dinner is not) and it may offer the best value in London. The room is crisp and cool, and it’s a short walk from the underground station.
If you are staying in London, and have tired of the well-trafficked monuments, plan to spend a day or two wandering around the East End. It’s a storied area, with 17th-century Huguenot houses, glorious 18th-century churches by Hawskmoor (Christ’s Church Spitalfields is a marvel), plus 19th-century markets, museums and industrial relics. The newly restored Whitechapel Art Galley is an Art Nouveau jewel, a hub of adventurous programming, and its Dining Room is supervised by star chef Angela Hartnell. All this—and a flourishing contemporary art scene that was launched by the White Cube in Hoxton–co-exists with the remnants of cockney London and the wave of Asian immigrants who have imported their own culture and cuisine.
around the world.