Live: East London

The Olympic torch is about to ignite in London's East End — yet this gritty area of the Big Smoke has been luring locals with an eye for design since the turn of the millennium with wacky street art, pop-up malls and a hedonistic nightlife.

By Chris Leadbeater
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:16 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 09:40 BST

Over the last five centuries, the flow of inspiration and ideas has often been westward — Christopher Columbus sailing off in search of the New World, and pioneers pushing ever further into the plains, plateaus and parched deserts of the uncharted American continent.

Yet in London, the last decade has witnessed a shift east — at least in terms of what locals view as the cool corners of the city, and the places they go to drink, eat, dance and spend. True, the British capital is a vast and much-varied metropolis — and it is still endlessly possible to enjoy a night (or a fortnight) in the bars of Soho, the restaurants and discreet clubs of Mayfair, the shops of Regent Street and Knightsbridge, and the cafes of Kensington.

But since the turn of the millennium, Londoners with an eye for the fashionable have gravitated to the parts of the conurbation lurking to the right of the traditional centre — the lively, close-knit hotspots of Dalston, Hoxton and Shoreditch; the on-the-up enclave of Bethnal Green; and the ugly duckling/swan mutation that is increasingly stylish Hackney.

Contrary to what politicians will tell you, this has little to do with the Olympics. The arrival of this sporting bonanza in east London — the stadium is in Stratford, three miles east of Hackney — has seen around £10 billion spent. But the rise of Shoreditch et al was underway long before the Games were awarded to the E20 postcode.

Instead, this minor revolution has been down to the classic cycle of gentrification: low rents in dilapidated areas of the city — Dalston was distinctly unappealing 15 years ago — a surfeit of unused warehouses perfect for conversion into chic apartments; a resultant influx of young, aspirational residents and arty urbanites; and a tidal wave of trendy eateries and late-night establishments seeking to cater to this fresh pocket of disposable income.

This is not to say that Hoxton is suddenly the heart of London. If you want high art, you still need to go to Tate Modern or Tate Britain; if you want religious grandeur, St Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey are still unmissable; if you fancy a spot of drama, the Victorian theatres of Shaftesbury Avenue are still the experts. But if you're looking for a night (or day) out with local authenticity, catch the tube to Liverpool Street (Central Line) or Old Street (Northern Line) — and escape into the modish London of 2012.

Food glorious food

Shoreditch puts the emphasis on nightcaps over nutrition, but dining outlets abound. In fact, you can find all kinds of food from grub to gourmet in the space of a few feet at the west end of Bethnal Green Road. Les Trois Garcons delivers haute cuisine (£40.50 for two courses), including a 16oz chateaubriand with truffle shavings (for two). Pizza East proffers a range of doughy delights from £8 in the bare concrete of the Tea Building — a restored Victorian warehouse. And while Brick Lane is now firmly on tourist maps, the quality of the fare in its many curry houses remains solid — City Spice sells splendid baltis from £9 and many are of the bring-your-own-booze calibre.

A mile to the east, Bethnal Green is gaining a gastronomic image. The star is Viajante, which brandishes a Michelin star in the plush confines of the recently arrived (in 2010) Town Hall Hotel. Yet there is competition from Bistrotheque, where the menu mixes British and French, and cabaret acts light up Friday nights. In contrast, Raizes, is an unfussy Brazilian spot where the moqueca fish stew is both cheap (£7) and delicious.

On either side of Bethnal Green, two further pockets await intrepid diners. 'Victoria Park Village', to the east, is estate-agent-speak for the junction of Lauriston Road and Victoria Park Road. But the options clustered here are increasingly tempting: high-end sustenance at the gilded Empress Of India, upmarket cod and chips at Fish House, and exquisite Vietnamese at Namo. Similarly, nearby Broadway Market lures carnivores to its Argentinian steak house Buen Ayre.

Between the two, Mare Street forges north into the maw of Hackney. Still to feel the flick of the touch-up brush, the restaurants on this mile-long drag pay tribute to the Turkish and Vietnamese communities who live here — in the grilled meats at Tad and the hot bowls of pho at Hai Ha respectively. The jewel, though, is the Mess Cafe, where the cooked breakfast is so revered that, at weekend lunchtimes, you usually have to queue for a table.

Places mentioned
Bistrotheque: 23-27 Wadeson Street. T: 020 8983 7900.
Buen Ayre: 50 Broadway Market. T: 020 7275 9900.
City Spice: 138 Brick Lane. T: 020 7247 1012.
The Empress Of India: 130 Lauriston Road. T: 020 8533 5123.
Fish House: 126-128 Lauriston Road. T: 020 8533 3327.
Namo: 178 Victoria Park Road. T: 020 8533 0639.
Hai Ha: 206 Mare Street. T: 020 8985 5388.
Les Trois Garcons: 1 Club Row. T: 020 7613 1924.
Pizza East: 56 Shoreditch High Street. T: 020 7729 1888.
Mess Cafe: 38 Amhurst Road. T: 020 8985 3194.
Raizes: 460 Hackney Road. T: 020 7739 2009.
Tad: 261 Mare Street. T: 020 8986 2612.
Viajante: Town Hall Hotel, Patriot Square. T: 020 7871 0461.

Party people

The crush of people filling Shoreditch on most evenings is the signifier of its status as party central. Most come for the bars nestling on, or in, the holy quadrangle of Shoreditch High Street, Old Street, Great Eastern Street and Curtain Road. The latter offers many and varied choices, from the cocktail swagger of The Hoxton Pony and the swish artiness of Bar Music Hall (which runs film nights on Mondays) to the welcoming vibe of the Strongroom Bar — whose cobblestone-covered courtyard underlines the area's post-industrial aesthetic.

Directly parallel on Shoreditch High Street, Bar Kick is also a totem for the district's appeal — a football-themed watering hole, but one that spins around jovial games of table football and bottled Italian beers, rather than tuneless shoutalongs and hints of aggression.

The main draw is Hoxton Square — an oddly leafy expanse in this urban setting. On the outer edge, the Electricity Showrooms, a 1920s electrical store, has found a second life as a dark-decor drinkery. Bluu is a narrow hang-out that does a fine Blueberry Martini (£6.95) as it tries to keep up with the Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen — where the cocktail list (£7.50 a go) is as lengthy as the clientele is noisy. Open until 2am at weekends, this upbeat institution provides a rival for graffiti-daubed nightspot 333 Mother, two minutes away on Old Street.

Marks for obtuseness go to Dream Bags Jaguar Shoes, which serves its beers in the shell of two former boutiques, and has retained both shops' signs over its door. It is one of the last hurrahs for a drink in Shoreditch, although, at the other end of Kingsland Road, Junction Room sounds a note of lounge cool amid Dalston's new apartment blocks.

Places mentioned
Bar Kick: 127 Shoreditch High Street. T: 020 7739 8700.
Bar Music Hall: 134 Curtain Road. T: 020 7729 7216.
Bluu: 1 Hoxton Square. T: 020 7613 2793.
Dream Bags Jaguar Shoes: 32-36 Kingsland Road. T: 020 7729 5830.
The Electricity Showrooms: 39A Hoxton Square. T: 020 7739 3939.
Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen: 2-4 Hoxton Square. T: 020 7613 0709.
The Hoxton Pony: 104-108 Curtain Road. T: 020 7613 2844.
Junction Room: 578 Kingsland Road. T: 020 7241 5755.
333 Mother: 333 Old Street. T: 020 7739 1800.
Strongroom Bar: 120-124 Curtain Road. T: 020 7426 5103.

Piles of style

At this stage of its revival, east London is not quite in the eye of the global players, despite the rumours Christian Louboutin, Vivienne Westwood and Ralph Lauren are all looking for a plot in the East End. You won't find major computer manufacturers or A-list sports brands either — when it comes to shops, the individual and the idiosyncratic still hold sway.

Nowhere is this clearer than Columbia Road. This half-mile street, just east of Shoreditch, is most noted for a flower market dating back to 1869. Held on Sundays (8am to 3pm), this cheery petal-fest transforms its surroundings into a bright blaze of buds and blooms. The market is complemented by a string of left-field shops and small operators.

Future Vintage trades in throwback clothing and floral dresses; Angela Flanders, a perfumer who concocts her own fragrances, only opens during market hours; The Powder Room deals in make-up and manicure; Bob & Blossom caters to kids and cuteness; and Keeping House does funky crockery and retro teapots.

Broadway Market pulls off a similar trick on Saturdays (9am to 5pm), with the accent on second-hand gems (from forgotten vinyl to antiques), along with artisan breads, fruit, curries and cake stalls. Again, the shops along the sides add intrigue. Donlon Books offers out-of-print works and foreign magazines, Artwords Bookshop focuses on photography and contemporary art, while Fin & Flounder sells gloopy olive oils and good quality fish.

Such outlets are less common in Shoreditch, but Lifestyle Bazaar touts designer and oddball homeware, such as light-up lion cubs for £70. Just as quirky is Box Park, a 'pop-up mall' that appeared last year by the new Overground rail line. Here, you can purchase your shirts and shoes inside metal shipping containers — a very east London vision of retail heaven.

Places mentioned
Angela Flanders: 96 Columbia Road. T: 020 7739 7555.
Artwords Bookshop: 20-22 Broadway Market. T: 020 7923 7507.
Bob & Blossom: 140 Columbia Road. T: 020 7739 4737.
Box Park: 2-4 Bethnal Green Road. T: 020 7033 2899.
Broadway Market:
Columbia Road Flower Market:
Donlon Books: 77 Broadway Market. T: 020 7684 5698.
Fin & Flounder: 71 Broadway Market. T: 07838 018 395.
Future Vintage: 98 Columbia Road. T: 020 7729 2197.
Keeping House: 144 Columbia Road. T: 07979 851 593.
Lifestyle Bazaar: 11A Kingsland Road. T: 020 7739 9427.
The Powder Room: 136 Columbia Road. T: 020 7729 1365.

Top 10 local tips

01 The London Overground (orange line) service links Dalston, Hoxton and Shoreditch. An Oyster card will cut travel costs by around 50%.
02 Dine in Jamie Oliver's Fifteen with its Italian-inspired menu.
03 Head to Victoria Park or London Fields for picnics and people-watching.
04 Try the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme  for cheap two-wheeled journeys.
05 Take a guided tour of the East End's street art and uncover works by artists on the cusp of mainstream recognition.
06 Step back into the 19th century along the Regent's Canal, cutting prettily through the area.
07 Revisit your youth amid the toys of Bethnal Green's Museum Of Childhood.
08 Take in a show at the Hackney Empire, a refurbished Victorian theatre.
09 Hunker down for the night at the Hoxton Hotel — doubles from £59.
10 For authentic Vietnamese in an intimate setting, book an evening at Leluu's Supperclub.


More info

London: A Novel by Edward Rutherfurd. RRP: £8.99. An epic look at the city's life and history.
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. RRP: £8.99. Set in East London.
I, Lucifer by Glen Duncan. RRP: £7.99. The Devil comes to Earth, and hangs out in east London.
The Rough Guide to London by Rob Humphreys. RRP: £13.99.

A Weekend In The City by Bloc Party. RRP: £8.99. Indie rock album inspired by the area.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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