I suspect there’s an expectation that, as a lifelong Londoner with an inclination to wander, I will know most parts of London and be able to guide myself and others accordingly. Let me happily correct that assumption now as false: one of things I love most about this vast, sprawling city is that it is ever unfolding itself and revealing new parts to me; I am in a continual state of discovery in it, and it is a humbling and joyous experience.
One of the things I wrote quite a while back on a list of things to do is ‘[explore] East London – Hackney, Dalston, Stokey’ (and yes, I know that Stokey is North London rather than East). As a North/West Londoner, this part of London has been a bit like the Bermuda Triangle for me – unknown and highly mysterious, but often referred to, and inviting (it contains a high number of recommended coffee houses, cafes and restaurants) – hence me writing such a whimsical wish. It would have been more accurate if I had written ‘explore three London boroughs covering about 10 square miles’. It is not one activity; it is several.
Since writing that wish, I have started to make inroads into that hitherto mystical part of London, nibbling my way around the edges towards the middle. This is a rather accurate metaphor, as my exploration has almost always been food-led, cafes and eateries being for me the metaphorical thread which guides me through the labyrinth of E1 and beyond.
As I make repeated excursions, East London proper is opening up to me in fragments. I am enjoying being a wide-eyed wanderer as I venture from more familiar areas like Spitalfields and Brick Lane to Old Street, Hoxton, and Haggerston. I haven’t quite made it to Dalston yet, but I’m a stone’s throw away, and it will follow in due course.
On my most recent exploration, I went in search of the closest thing we have to a New York deli in London: Monty’s Deli in Hoxton. Recently featuring in Timeout’s 100 Best Dishes in London, Monty’s Deli offers the ultimate Jewish-style deli speciality: the salt beef (or pastrami) sandwich. It is served New York-style i.e., about an inch and a half of meat stuffed between lightly toasted slices of rye, topped with sauerkraut, Russian dressing, cheese, and half a fat, deliciously sweet-sour pickle on the side. If there was a reason to visit a new part of East London, this is it.
Monty’s is located on a quiet part of Hoxton Street, which snakes away from Old Street. It is a 10-12 minute walk from the station, and I am expecting the route to be lined with trendy, hipster hang-outs which have become synonymous with East London. After all, I am less than a mile from the infamous cereal cafe which was vandalised a few years ago for being symbolic of the gentrification that has engulfed the area like a bankrolled tidal wave. I prepare myself for homogenous hipsterville.
Instead, as I turn left off Old Street, it feels like I am leaving the bright lights and pretentious coffee shops behind me. They quickly give way to a quiet, unpolished street of council estates and nondescript commercial buildings, dotted with the odd community building, and some arty graffiti on the odd wall – this is still East London, I would expect nothing less. I don’t know whether I am disappointed or just curious, but I keep on walking.
The ‘high street’ part of Hoxton Street contains shops which, being a Kilburn local, I am familiar with: a Poundland, an Iceland, ethnic grocery shops, and an outpost of the small east end bakery chain Percy Ingle – (in Kilburn, we have a Wenzel’s instead, with the same lurid orange signage – there must be some common DNA in their baking lineage). Nothing fancy or pretentious here, just staple ghetto stores. Apart from Monty’s Deli, there is not a trendy cafe in sight. It is also the home of Hoxton Street market, which I have just missed, arriving at just before 3pm. A bit of research reveals that it is not like its cool neighbouring market Broadway Market (which is definitely worth a visit, by the way), but more like a real East End market, selling household goods, some women’s fashion, and cheap tat.
A New York style deli which attracts the foodies and cool kids seems out of place here, but I’m quite glad it’s in this unassuming location, and pop inside for my food.
Monty’s is just the taste of New York I need. The inside is a stylish retro diner, and mid-week it is quiet and peaceful. The salt beef on rye is satisfying (although a little too fatty for me – I’ve had leaner and better), and gives me the energy to explore further north into Hackney. Little tip: they close for lunch at 3pm, and take last orders at around 2.30pm, so if you’re running late you can call ahead and order your food over the phone, and it’ll be there for you when you arrive. Good service indeed.
Revived and nourished, I step outside Monty’s and wonder: left or right? Right will take me back to Old Street, and from there I can walk down Great Eastern Street to Spitalfields and Brick Lane, familiar and enjoyable (I thoroughly recommend Spitalfields food market by the way – varied and excellent, with a great atmosphere. Maybe I should do a post on that…?!). Left will take me somewhere new: Haggerston and up into Hackney. I turn left.
I have a destination in mind and start walking, eyes open and curious. I take a right onto Nuttall Street, then left onto Kingsland Road. I’ll walk along that for a while, then bear right in zigzags until I get to my destination near Hackney Central.
What I find is a slightly haggard main road, and, once I turn into the smaller roads, a strange architectural mix of terraced, period workers’ cottages juxtaposed with larger period houses, frequently interrupted by lines of council estates, with a smattering of odd, modern houses arranged in clusters. It was all very unremarkable, which is what made it quite unusual for me. This is not gentrified East London, this is a snippet of the real East End. If you come across a pub with the following sign, you’ll be following the same route I did:
I was walking through the original East London, most likely with its original inhabitants. It made me wonder how many of these inhabitants have been disenfranchised by the sea change around them, and the years of money injected into certain places, leaving places like this relatively untouched.
I am fascinated by the contrast of demography and environment in this part of London, all visible in one walk in a roughly square mile radius. I am still walking distance from Columbia Road, which is an incredible and now very glamorous riot of colours, scents, sights and sounds on Sunday when it comes into full bloom as a pedestrianised flower market. It seems to be a perfect clash of the old East End meeting the new, with stall vendors bellowing out the prices of their wares, and trendy buyers and tourists wandering the street and snapping them up. In contrast, this quiet, nondescript part of Hackney was many miles apart in terms of atmosphere and trendiness, but in real terms about a mile away.
My destination appears, on a quiet residential road: unassuming, a low, flat, pale pink and white building unmarked except for a small retro neon sign. It looks and gives off the aura of being an ice cream by the seaside, but it is in fact Violet Cakes. I step inside.
Downstairs is the tiny serving area, an open, operational bakery (which reminds me of New York’s Magnolia Bakery), and, most importantly, a welcoming smile from the friendly staff, and an inviting array of cakes. I choose a slice of Devil’s Food Cake with espresso frosting – oh, yes – and a mocha, and retire upstairs to a sitting area which has the cosy, comfortable air of a nursery.
My cake is incredible: moist, dark, rich, and suitably chocolatey and caffeinated. I’m pleasantly surprised that my mocha is a proper size (rather than the 8oz cups which most speciality coffee chops and bakeries serve now – it really irritates me), and is rich and chocolatey.
There is a table laid out with magazines for patrons to read: I pick up the February edition of Vogue and sit down to disappear in a heavenly idyll of daydreams fuelled by delicious food. This is an unexpected retreat from the world.
I finally leave, and make my way to Hackney Central station, where I will catch a train home. My surroundings slowly become familiar: I have been here before, on visits to Broadway Market. The geographical and experiential dots are joining up. Ha, I am getting familiar with East London, with its many faces.
If you’re wondering whether this post is about nothing more than a ramble along some nondescript, shabby London streets, you’d be right. It is. But that’s what made it quite unusual.