With rent prices sky-rocketing due to the limited supply of restaurant space, Central London is gradually purging itself of independent restaurants and vendors.
The 35-year old Covent-Garden stalwart Porters and its 10-year old sister restaurant the Covent Garden Grill are due to close their doors on 19 January 2015 due to untenable lease rates, and, similarly, Russell Norman of the Polpo empire is facing rent review increases of up to 80%.
The situation is strained, but, luckily, there is a rather inspiring silver lining. Independents are making do and moving, out of Central London to Peckham, Notting Hill, Clapton, Kentish Town, Hackney, Brixton, Stoke Newington, and forming their own independent food neighbourhoods, as this feature will discover.
One such place is Shoe Shop in North London’s Tufnell Park. Opened this year by laid-back Aussies Paul Merrony and partner Tracey Petersen, who formerly owned the charming Giaconda Dining Room on Denmark Street, Shoe Shop is a real local restaurant, serving the food they love to cook and eat, and at very reasonable prices to boot.
Exploring the independent food neighbourhood: Bear + Wolf on Fortess Road
Unfussy, thoughtfully decorated and with a real regard for flavour, Shoe Shop exudes the quiet, unpretentious pride that can come with a good independent. Our breakfast of coffee-stewed prunes with homemade Ricotta, and Holstein, toast with tomato, prosciutto, egg and anchovy, is exceptional and original, the memory of the taste following for days.
A remarkable range of fresh fish from Jonathan Norris fishmongers on Fortess Road
Leave the lovely setting at Shoe Shop and you’ll realise that the independent place where you were just dining is not an anomaly of the area. Shoe Shop shares the street with fishmongers Jonathan Norris, showcasing fresh squid, hake, dressed crab, scallops and more, and Meat London, an impressive free-range butcher and deli, Bear + Wolf, an ‘exceptionally kid-friendly café’ and local vendors selling top-knotch seasonal fruit and veg. To residents’ delight, an independent food neighbourhood has been born.
Many recognise South London’s Peckham as an independent food neighborhood as well – its many vendors and experimental attitude making it one of the leaders of this shift in sentiment.
Thai eating house The Begging Bowl on Bellenden Road is a landmark of new Peckham – its gorgeous outside verandah and low-key but high-style approach to dining attracts a cool, buzzing crowd, even on a Tuesday night.
Its dishes are full of flavour and fragrance, are spicy, aromatic and distinctive. The grilled suckling pork belly with mint, coriander, roasted rice, chilli and lime dressing and lettuce to wrap is a favourite, as is the gently sweet and coconut-y vegetarian massaman curry with yam bean, baby corn, new potatoes and peanuts. The green curry with rabbit and Thai basil is rather wickedly spicy, and made all the more authentic for its sharp and sour apple and pea aubergines that burst in the mouth when bitten.
Like Shoe Shop, The Begging Bowl does not stand alone, its proud neighbours Flock & Herd butchers, Middle-Eastern restaurant Peckham Bazaar, Melange Chocolate shop and café, artisan sourdough bakery Brickhouse, and much more.
But with London’s independent food neighbourhoods, there is something that unites this cluster of independent vendors at a deeper level than just the bottom line. The attitude and ethos hints at an approach to business that is more concentrated but more effective, that is community-focused and thus more personal, responsible and resourceful. They are truly locals, and long shall they live.