An Oasis Off London’s Beaten Path
An Oasis Off London’s Beaten Path
By OLIVER STRAND - New York Times, 9/1/20010
WITH its picnic tables and chipped folding chairs, Towpath feels as if it should be in a shack on the beach, not on the ground floor of a converted factory in East London.
Wine is served in juice glasses, and food is limited to bar snacks like almonds or radishes served with anchovies. During a recent visit, a young, chatty crowd filled the seats and benches Towpath sets up on the narrow walkway that runs along Regent’s Canal, a thin band of water that slices through the city’s aging industrial zones. The afternoon light bounced off the canal, making this corner of the capital feel languid, like a village waking up from a siesta.
This is London?
Not exactly. This is East London, a sprawling area known for its artists, anarchists and immigrants. Neighborhoods like Shoreditch, Bethnal Green and Hackney Wick have long been where a creative class could afford to live and work. Now it’s also where they play, shop and eat.
Though the main arteries are often choked by traffic, the side streets of East London can be as tranquil and pleasant as parks. The area feels light years away from central London, and totally self-sufficient, thanks to a host of enticing restaurants, shops, markets and hotels.
As Clarise Faria, the curator of the Loft Project, a private club that invites acclaimed chefs to cook meals in an airy apartment for select guests, said: “There’s no reason to go to the rest of London.”
There’s certainly no reason to go elsewhere to eat. In 2005, a shed behind a former school that now contains an artists’ studio, where Rochelle Street meets the leafy traffic circle Arnold Circus, became Rochelle Canteen, a restaurant open only for lunch. The food is bright, direct and unapologetically English: fare includes dishes like a salad of fresh peas, favas and pea shoots, and a whole sole sautéed in butter and served with cucumber and fennel. The spot has a casual elegance, and it’s easy to linger over a midweek lunch, with dogs napping in the restaurant’s walled garden and neighbors catching up with one another.
On the other side of Arnold Circus is Leila’s Shop, a small specialty store with raw wood shelves, drying sausages and nougat imported from Isfahan, Iran. On a recent visit, I was browsing the shelves of house-made jams with the cookbook author Anissa Helou, who sometimes holds cooking classes in her nearby loft, and after we stepped outside, a perfectly silent electric car whipped around the corner. The driver and Ms. Helou knew each other, and as they said their hellos under a bank of trees four stories tall, I felt that I was looking into the future, to a time when cities are gentle and everybody is friendly.
Things are busier a few blocks to the south on Redchurch Street. There are boutiques like Caravan (tasteful bric-a-brac) and Hostem (sartorial concept designs for men), and there’s Boundary, a hotel and restaurant that the designer and hotelier Terence Conran opened last year. Shoreditch House, a branch of Soho House that opened as a hotel this spring, is nearby. So is Dirty House, a soot-gray private artists’ residence designed by the conceptual architect David Adjaye; the building’s cantilevered roof seems to hover at night, as the interior lights below give it a luminescent glow.
And then there’s Columbia Road, home to an open-air flower market on Sundays since the 19th century. More recently, it has welcomed dozens of tiny shops that bustle during the week.
Not everybody is happy with the area’s transformation. Recently, squatters occupied a derelict building on Great Eastern Street that developers want to turn into a hotel and held a “Bike Ride of Fury” — a protest on two wheels. Most cyclists have sunnier dispositions. Because this part of the city is poorly served by the Underground, many locals choose to bike, though even seasoned riders seemed tense when navigating the screaming traffic on Bethnal Green Road, one of East London’s main thoroughfares. You could also fill up your transit pass and hop on the buses that crisscross the area.
But biking is a great way to see Regent’s Canal, which has a narrow walkway shared by pedestrians and cyclists who sometimes need to duck when riding under the low bridges. The canal snakes past shimmering new condos, abandoned warehouses, floating vegetable gardens and narrow barges turned into bohemian residences (and some businesses) with potted plants in the windows.
The canal is also a quick way to get across town to Broadway Market, a busy shopping street since 2004 transformed every Saturday into an open-air market with produce stalls and artisanal cheese, art books and prepared food. The storefronts on Broadway Market also do a brisk business, and one of them, Fin and Flounder, is known for getting sustainable and especially fresh seafood from Cornwall dayboats.
After my visit to the market, I walked my bike through London Fields, which has an iffy reputation. But most residents I met took offense when I voiced concern. That Saturday I found the park — the verdant heart of the area — to be more crowded than threatening, although there was some colorful trash-talking during a match at a concrete Ping-Pong table.
The quiet streets north of London Fields are lined with tidy, modest Edwardian row houses, and at first glance one of those streets, Wilton Way, looked like a quiet business district. But then I noticed that the storefront post office was actually an art gallery called Posted, and that the Wilton Way Cafe had flea-market furniture and a booth in the window from which a Web broadcast emanated.
Also on Wilton Way is Violet, a bakery owned by Claire Ptak, an American who worked at Chez Panisse and sold pastries at a stall at the Broadway Market before opening up her own store this year. Now Ms. Ptak has a squat stucco building to herself, and every month or so she throws a tiny sit-down dinner in the room above the bakery, and asks a chef to be the guest cook.
I asked Ms. Ptak where else I should visit, and she pointed across the street to the Spurstowe Arms. Initially, it looked like a standard neighborhood pub. But afternoon drinkers sitting on battered Thonet chairs in the garden out back, eating smoked mackerel and pickled cucumber toasts, made it even more appealing.
I considered staying for a drink, but it was the late afternoon, and I felt drawn back to Towpath, a leisurely 15-minute bike ride away. I asked the bartender at Spurstowe Arms if it was worth it to come back later. “Right now it’s quiet, but it picks up later,” he said, pointing at the mirrored disco ball hanging from the ceiling. It wasn’t just that there was no reason to leave East London, it’s that there was every reason to stay.
IF YOU GO
Boundary (2-4 Boundary Street; 44-20-7729-1051; theboundary.co.uk). Doubles from £200, or $302 at $1.52 to the pound.
Broadway Market (broadwaymarket.co.uk). Open Saturdays.
Caravan (3 Redchurch Street; 44-20-7033-3532; caravanstyle.com).
Columbia Road Flower Market (columbiaroad.info). Open Sundays.
Fin and Flounder (71 Broadway Market; 44-783-801-8395; www.finandflounder.com).
Hostem (41-43 Redchurch Street; 44-20-7739 9733; hostem.co.uk).
Leila’s Shop (17 Calvert Avenue; 44-20-7729-9789).
Rochelle Canteen (Rochelle School, Arnold Circus; 44-20-7729-5677; arnoldandhenderson.com).
Shoreditch House (Ebor Street; 44-20-7739-5040; shoreditchhouse.com) Double rooms from £75.
Towpath (Regent’s Canal by Whitmore Bridge).
Violet (47 Wilton Way; violetcakes.com).