It's not the most attractive area of London, but Shoreditch is a compelling district. Once famous for its turbulent history of crime and immigration, today this corner of London’s East End has been enlivened by an ever-expanding street art scene, a cluster of Sunday markets and an influx of hipsters toting handlebar moustaches and double denim. You could use all the travel writing clichés to describe it: a melting-pot of cultures; a vibrant area with a rich cultural heritage; full of hidden gems.
The area has been home to the French Huguenots, who escaped persecution before the French Civil War in the 1500s, the Jewish community who settled here in the late 1800s, and a wave of Maltese, Irish, Scottish, West Indian, Somali and Bangladeshi migrants who have all impressed their own traditions and cultures on this part of London since the early twentieth century.
Thanks to all this diversity in such a small neighbourhood, Shoreditch is the ideal place to taste the best of East London’s varied cuisines. After taking a tour with Eating London, Lottie Gross recommends five foods for an edible exploration of the East.
Bacon sandwiches at St. John Bread & Wine
It’s a bold statement, but we’ll stand by it: this may well be the best bacon sandwich of your life: thick-cut, freshly baked bread, charred to bring out its natural sugars then slathered in melted butter inside and out; perfectly smoked, salt- and sugar-soaked Gloucester Old Spot bacon; and tomato-and-apple ketchup as the perfect accompaniment. Start your day with one of these and your average British bacon sarnie will never seem the same again. There's no question that this is the best place for bacon in the city either: Bread & Wine is part of the St. John Group and run by renowned "nose-to-tail" chef Fergus Henderson.
© Joe Gough/Shutterstock
Fish & chips at Poppies
The comforting smell of vinegar-soaked chips and battered fish greets you from metres away as you approach Poppies on Hanbury Street. Owner, Pop Newland, has been serving fish and chips in London his whole life, and hasn’t given up the traditional ways. The takeaway portions come in a “newspaper” cone (specially made with edible ink so as not to poison you) like in the old days, and Cockney rhyming slang phrases are printed on the wallpaper as a reminder of the East End’s now-fading cryptic tongue.
The fish, which comes from a third generation sustainable trader from Billingsgate, is beautifully flakey, the batter light, and the golden chips are fried to perfection. If you’re still not convinced, Poppies won the award for the Best Independent Fish and Chip Restaurant in the whole of the UK in 2014.
Salt-beef bagels at Beigel Bake
When the mood for bagels strikes you, whatever the time, Beigel Bake has got it covered. This 24-hour-a-day bakery is an institution on Brick Lane, most famous for its salt-beef bagels, cooked the traditional way and boiled before they’re baked. A traditional Jewish delicacy – introduced by the migrants that once made up 95 percent of the area's population – the deliciously salty beef is carved to order from a big hunk kept warm on a plate by the window, served with mustard and gherkin between the bounciest bagel you’ll ever eat. If bovine isn’t your bag, take your pick from the intimidatingly large selection of pastries baked throughout the night.
© Manu Padilla/Shutterstock
Curry at Aladin
The smell of food from the Subcontinent will invade your nostrils and arrest your appetite on a stroll down Brick Lane. It’s almost impossible to resist, and it's just as hard to choose where to eat, when touts outside establishments promise “award-winning chefs” and “the best curry in London”. Aladin, at number 132, who set up shop here in 1979 to serve spicy delights to the growing Bangladeshi community, is one of our favourites. Try the succulent lamb in a rogan josh gravy, a stiflingly hot chicken biryani and smoky naan breads from their tandoori oven.
Bread & butter pudding at The English Restaurant
A dish known to cooks since the sixteenth century and once the food of London’s poor (thanks to its basic ingredients and use for stale bread), bread and butter pudding is one of the most quintessentially English comfort foods. Fitting then, that you can indulge in the English Restaurant on Brushfield Street – the oldest house in Spitalfields. In its old-timely oak-clad interior (the wood salvaged from Christchurch, Spitalfields), taste a new twist on this dessert, made with home-baked brioche infused with orange juice and served soaked in a wonderfully refreshing, but still just as comforting, cardamom-and-brandy custard.
Eating London run food tours of Spitalfields and Shoreditch from Mon–Sat at 10am or 10.45am. Rest your head (and stomach) at the hipster Hoxton Hotel in Old Street for an insight into the East London scene.
Top image © norikko/Shutterstock