Diners seated at a counter at Lardo peer into an open kitchen, where deputy head chef Christian Angius gets to work on their dinner.
magnify Click image to view more.

Hackney Swings Like a Pendulum Do

Andy Lynes - May 2014

A long-percolating restaurant culture has elevated London to the top of the dining destination charts, no smirking necessary. That’s why when a lot of forces—from chefs and restaurateurs to local politicians and hipsters—pull together to create a happening ’hood, everyone takes note.

In 1997, Vanity Fair’s infamous Cool Britannia cover story touted London as “a center of gastronomy and fashion that outclasses Paris.” At the time, no one who knew the city’s restaurant scene could have taken that claim seriously. Seventeen years later, the phrase reads like a prophecy: London boasts one of the most dynamic, diverse, and exciting dining scenes in the world. Yes, there’s plenty going on in Soho, Mayfair, and Covent Garden, but if you want to see the future of London dining, you’ll have to head east to Hackney.

Hackney is an inner-London borough adjacent to the City of London, covering 19 square kilometers (12 square miles) divided into 19 wards—Shoreditch, Hoxton, Haggerston, Dalston, and Stoke Newington among them—with a total population of about a quarter of a million people. It’s long been a center for the creative arts—there’ve been theaters in the area since Tudor times, Alfred Hitchcock made his early films at the now- closed Gainsborough studios, and, more recently, it was the base for 1970s avant-garde group Throbbing Gristle and is currently home to Britain’s top stand-up comedian, Stewart Lee. But it’s only in the last two years that it’s emerged as London’s most notable restaurant scene.

What started as a faint murmur over a decade ago with the likes of La Bouche deli and cafe in Broadway Market and Bistrotheque in Bethnal Green grew to a steady hum with the opening of the Rivington Grill in Shoreditch in 2002 and then to a roar when Mark Hix opened his monumental chicken and steak restaurant Tramshed, complete with Damien Hirst sculpture, in a converted Victorian electricity generating shed for London’s old tram system in 2012.

“We’ve got an incredible business base starting to emerge in Hackney now, including technology companies, creative agencies, and fashion companies,” says Andrew Sissons, the head of regeneration delivery for Hackney Borough Council. “They all wanted more diversity in the restaurant scene. It was very Turkish and Vietnamese before, and although they’re very important and vibrant restaurant communities, there wasn’t an awful lot beyond that.” Sissons adds that the arrival four years ago of the London Overground transport system helped fill the Hackney-sized hole in the Underground network and enabled South and South East London to access North East and Central East London. “It’s had a huge impact on footfall with a huge influx of business; the support services like restaurants follow off the back of that.”

A series of high profile hotel openings planned over the next few years will add about 1,000 rooms to the area. The American brand Ace Hotel opened in Shoreditch last year, and word on the street says a Nobu hotel will be following, along with Dutch chain CitizenM and London’s Montcalm group, providing more customers for the borough’s restaurants.

And although hotel brands are welcomed with open arms, you’re far more likely to dine in an independently operated restaurant than a chain. “A lot of first-time business owners are opening here because it’s cheaper, smaller, and cooler, and the brands aren’t there yet pushing up the rent,” says restaurateur/bar owner Jonathan Downey, who helped launch The Clove Club in Shoreditch Town Hall and has recently opened Rotorino, an Italian grill and wine bar in Dalston with chef Stevie Parle of Dock Kitchen in West London. “In neighbouring Clerkenwell, there’s warehouse space where you can have grand restaurants with high ceilings and cast-iron columns, but when you get into Hackney it’s more nooks and crannies. That’s the nature of a lot of the businesses in Hackney—they’re small covers. You can open a restaurant for £150,000 [$234,515], whereas in Soho or Clerkenwell the minimum is £350,000 [$547,202] to £500,000 [$781,717]. A lot of people who previously haven’t been able to afford or haven’t dared open their own restaurant have been able to. There’s a lot of creative and business talent that been allowed to get on with it, and that’s why we’ve seen such a surge.”

Downey has been instrumental in nurturing that talent through the Street Feast and Hawker House street food events he’s helped stage over the last year with founder Dominic Cools-Lartigue. “The events we’ve done have been phenomenal, and I’m helping stall holders like Yum Bun, which sell Chinese-style steamed buns, and Breddos Tacos to find restaurant sites in Hackney.”

The Hackney Council has also taken a proactive role in the borough’s restaurant scene. “We don’t like to have bland high streets,” says Sissons. “We started to reach out to chefs and restaurateurs and tried to focus on developing a really good independent offer. We work as a one-stop shop for restaurateurs, helping them with planning, licensing, and waste agreements. The trade-off for us is to get local jobs. Through our jobs brokerage, we can help them find staff and save them money, as they don’t have to go through agencies. We’ve got a huge supply of young local people keen to get into the industry.”

Pop-up events and supper clubs have proved fertile breeding grounds for Hackney’s emerging restaurants, too. Claire Roberson opened Mayfields in Hackney Central, where chef Matthew Young serves an eclectic menu of small plates in a converted fish and chips shop last May after staging the well received Shacklewell Nights supper club in various East London locations. Jackson Boxer (grandson of British food writer Arabella Boxer) opened Rita’s in November with business partners Missy Flynn, Gabriel Pryce, Deano Jo and Andrew Clarke in London Fields in Hackney Central following a nine month trial in Birthdays nightclub in Dalston. And the recently opened Sager and Wilde wine bar in Haggerston that specializes in boutique wines and charcuterie started life as an after-hours weekly pop-up in a coffee bar.

The most notable pop-up is The Clove Club. Head chef Isaac McHale was previously part of the Young Turks collective with Ben Greeno (now head chef of Momofuku Seiobo, Sydney, Australia) and James Lowe (who was looking to debut his own venture, Lyle’s), which ran a series of pop-ups across London. The events helped develop a loyal following for the chefs’ food, which McHale leveraged via a crowd-funding website. “We didn’t have a lot of money and didn’t want to give away too much control and equity to one large investor who might want us to do something safer or with a better return on investment,” says McHale. “I met American chef Brad McDonald, now at The Lockhart in London, when I staged at Noma in Copenhagen about five years ago and he was working there. We stayed in touch, and he told me that Kickstarter funded his previous restaurant Colonie in Brooklyn, New York. I thought that was a really interesting approach.”

Set in the Grade 2–listed Victorian Shoreditch Town Hall, The Clove Club is one of Hackney’s larger and more atmospheric restaurant spaces. Throw that in along with McHale’s acclaimed Noma–meets–St. John cooking that encompasses modish signature dishes like buttermilk fried chicken with pine salt and slow-poached pheasant’s egg with almonds, radishes, and home-cured lardo, it’s no wonder why The Clove Club attracts customers from all over London and the world. It’s also arguably the borough’s most ambitious and probably its most expensive restaurant, with a £55 ($91) five course dinner menu, a price point more commonly seen in the West End of London. “I’ve never thought, ‘I can’t do that’ because I’m in Hackney,” McHale states. “I stupidly spend all my money on caviar, extra-large langoustines, white truffles, et cetera. We offer a supplement course every night—I recently served English caviar from Exmoor with a baked potato jelly, pear, walnut, and crème fraîche—and 60 to 70 percent of guests ordered it, so there is the demand. If we were in Dalston or Stoke Newington, it would be a different kettle of fish.”

Merchants Tavern, opened late last year on the site of the pioneering Cantaloupe (the first bar to open in Shoreditch over a decade ago), is another example of Hackney’s maturing restaurant scene. Partly owned by former Gordon Ramsay protégé Angela Hartnett and featuring the refined but robust modern European cooking of Michel Bras–trained Neil Borthwick, typified by dishes like roasted quail with hazelnut pesto, rémoulade, and foie gras, the restaurant is the most high profile signal so far of Hackney turning away from the adolescent pleasures of nightclubs and vertical drinking establishments toward a more grown-up evening out.

“The same people who came here when it was Cantaloupe are coming now, but they’re 10 years older. There’s a nice poetry about that,” says founding partner Dominic Lake, who runs the restaurant alongside Hartnett, Borthwick, and Patrick Clayton Malone (also Lake’s partner in the Canteen group of casual British restaurants). “I went to Gramercy Tavern in New York City with Patrick a few years ago. We thought it was incredible—really skilled cooking in an environment which is not fancy or too stuffy and service that’s really efficient and friendly. We thought there was some of that going on in London but not on the level we felt was possible, and that was the inspiration for Merchants Tavern.”

Lake says he considered a central location but soon changed his mind after doing some research in the area. “I’d come here on a Friday or Saturday night, and it was mobbed with all sorts of people. It felt like the West End, and the potential here is rising, but it’s nowhere near the top. We decided we didn’t want to laden ourselves with a chunky rent in Soho, where you’re just working for the landlord. Don’t get me wrong. The rent isn’t free here, but by comparison with central London, it’s good.”

In addition to the definable business advantages, Hackney offers more intangible benefits to its restaurateurs. “Opening up Mayfields in Hackney is really nice because we all support each other rather than it being a competitive type of thing,” says Roberson, who has lived in Hackney for 15 years. “It’s a small burgeoning scene, we’re all of a similar age, and we’re all really passionate about what we do.”

Eliza Flanagan of Lardo pizzeria in Hackney Central and a local resident of 10 years’ standing agrees. “I really like that community of makers and servers and workers who are all in the food industry ’round Hackney because you help each other out. My friend Stella supplies us with really good handmade limoncello, and I met the owner of Square Root London sodas at the local Chatsworth Road market, and he’s going to bottle our homemade chinotto for us.”

Hackney’s distinctive customer base is another big advantage. “The places that have opened in Hackney have come from quite inventive and ambitious points culinarily speaking, and have found a very interested and engaged audience in the younger crowd that lives in the area,” says Boxer, whose Asian-inflected Americana menu at Rita’s Bar and Dining covers everything from soy/ginger hot wings to miso-grilled eggplant and mushroom toban yaki. “Having lower overheads, you don’t feel pressurized into playing it safe in the way you would if you were operating in Soho, and being out of the glare of central London’s heady street lights means you can take a bit more time. If you get a good review, you’re still not going to be swarmed by tourists or neophytes obsessed with going to the latest places and who come once and never come back. Your regulars are regular and your customer base is set around you, so you can build up a strong engagement with your guests, which is really lovely.”

Despite the furious rate of change in the borough, the story is far from over. With most of the action so far taking place in the southern wards of Shoreditch, Hoxton, Haggerston, and Hackney Central, the north, including Clapton, Stoke Newington, and Dalston, is ripe for development. “The thing about Dalston is that there’s some fantastic places to go out if you’re in your 20s, but if you’re 30 or 40, there’s nothing. That’s the change you’re going to see over the next year or so,” says Downey. “Many people have been in Dalston for five or six years and they don’t want to go to a nightclub till three in the morning. They fancy a restaurant.”

With what seems to be a bottomless pool of business and creative talent, a council switched on to the commercial and social benefits of a vibrant independent restaurant scene and an ever increasing appetite for good food, it shouldn’t be long before the good people of Dalston get their wish.

Andy Lynes lives in Brighton, England, and writes about restaurants and travel for Independent on Sunday and the BBC’s olive magazine.