Time Out's food and drink team select their most satisfying experiences of the year
2011 may have been peppered with the obligatory celebrity chef openings and a procession of bland fine dining venues. But the past year has been more strikingly defined by the uprising of grassroots culinary communities and an appreciation for simple food and quality drink.
From a quickly evolving craft beer movement to speakeasy burger bars and a growing hub of independent eateries, Time Out’s favourite food moments all share the same anti-mainstream, anti-gloss mentality.
It’s great to see the old Granville Arcade, one of Brixton’s covered markets, flourishing again after decades of neglect and disrepair. What used to be derelict shop units have now been taken over by a new wave of entrepreneurs running cafés, restaurants and boutique shops .The change of fortunes started in 2010, but during the summer of 2011 it really became a ‘scene’, particularly on Thursday evenings. Among the many good places to eat and drink are Honest Burgers, KaoSarn, Federation Coffee (pictured), Okan and French & Grace. We’ve been reporting on new developments on a near-monthly basis in Time Out, but for an overview of the recent redevelopment of Brixton Village Market, take a look at our video guide.
Not a street market, but a loose collective of warehouses and shops whose owners decided to open on Saturdays and see what happened: Maltby Street in Bermondsey started out very word-of-mouth but is now the worst-kept secret among food-lovers. The current scene started life as a few low-rent railway arches, seized upon a couple of years ago by Borough Market stallholders who needed storage space (as Borough had none). With the start of its Saturday trading, Maltby Street has grown in strength, and now even has its own restaurant (at number 40) from Thursday evenings to Saturdays. Relations between the stallholders and the market trustees were never comfortable, but in May 2011 the former were evicted from Borough Market. The Maltby Street traders seem to be doing just fine, though, with many places of interest for the Saturday visitor, from the Kernel microbrewery to well-known favourites such as St John Bakery or Monmouth Coffee.
Now we’re not saying that Spuntino is the best restaurant to have opened in 2011. But we are saying it is one of the most influential, as more trend-spotters and chain restaurant directors have probably been through its door than any other London restaurant. Why? Owner Russell Norman copied – but bettered – the NYC Lower East Side chic look that has now become de rigueur in Londons coolest bars (his Polpo restaurants were also the first to introduce Londoners to cicchetti, now found on every aspiring menu from gastropubs in Battersea to the Zizzi chain). He has also hired staff with the most alarming tattoos – and was at the forefront of the no-bookings (see below), small-plates and Americana trends. That’s a lot of trends, all mixed up together (and no, ‘Spuntino’ is not Italian for ‘spittoon’). So, for being at the cuttingest cutting edge – and for never being off our list of top-ten most searched-for restaurants on our website – our couldn’t-try-harder award has to go to Spuntino.
‘Real ale’. The very phrase makes your woolly cardigan fray, your belly protrude and your facial hair grow unkempt. But wait! There’s a new breed of beers in town. They’re sharper-dressed, they’re bolder in flavour, and they’re often served in sleek, enticingly designed bottles. These are the new-style craft brews, which might not get Camra’s tick of approval as ‘real ales’, but look to the microbreweries of the US and the Antipodes for their inspiration. Among the leading luminaries in London are Kernel, Redemption and Camden Town, which all went from strength to strength in the last twelve months; new openings in 2011 include London Fields, Redchurch and the East London Brewing Co. The only problem is that, so far, demand is outstripping supply – if you chance upon a bottle of Kernel, buy it before someone else does. If you’re a hop-lover, you’ll not regret it.
Yianni Papoutsis and Scott Collins’s #Meateasy pop-up was a three-month no-bookings speakeasy-esque burger and cocktail dive in an abandoned New Cross boozer. You’d go into an alley, walk up a fire escape and creak open a door into a carnivore’s version of Narnia – where you could wait for up to two hours to sink your teeth into a ‘Dead Hippie’ burger. Looking back, it seems pretty bizarre that it even happened at all, but we’ve got the grease-stained clothes and jam jar cocktail hangovers to remember it by (heck, some hardcore fans even walked away with #Meateasy tattoos after the debauched final evening). Inevitably there were the obligatory moans about the place being overly hyped, but it was unlike anything else London had seen. Half a year later, the pair have settled down in central London with a permanent burger bar, Meat Liquor. The queues are still epic, the burgers are still dirty good and the cocktails hard… and you’re guaranteed a quick sit-down-and-eat if you come at lunchtime. But we don’t think anything will ever be able to replicate the sheer madness and fun of #Meateasy.
No-booking restaurants are a current London fad that started off well, but this year has turned sour. They allow restaurateurs to pack more people in, at the cost to the diner of convenience: you will have to wait, or – quite often – not get in at all. No-booking restaurants can work well when turnover is rapid, the premises large, and you have somewhere to wait it out – for example, just see how fast the queues move in a Wagamama. But you also need a location where there are plenty of plan Bs available – central Soho, say. Translate this to a small, isolated restaurant in – for example – Bethnal Green or Westbourne Grove, and the no-booking system simply causes wasted journeys, aggravation and bad feeling. Diners – vote with your feet. If it’s not your idea of fun to be kept waiting in the rain outside a packed-to-the-gills restaurant, then go elsewhere.