When I lived in the UK at the turn of this millennium (anyone remember Y2K hysteria?), London was not notable for it’s food scene or any known gastronomic wonders of the modern world.
Instead, it had a reputation for stuffy restaurants serving bland and uninspiring fare, a place where a curry and a beer was the most exciting thing on a menu for most people. A far cry from being one of the culinary capitals of the world that it is today.
Fast forward a decade and a half and it’s been a place I was yearning to go back to. Not for the weather or the friendly dispositions of the locals, but for the food. Yes, you heard me right the first time. I was excited to go to back and explore London on a food tour!
I asked around and searched online, finding a variety of guided walking tours on offer. Eventually I booked one with Eating London Food Tours. It was my first tour with them and I could not have had a better experience. My only regret is that I did not remember the name of the tour host. She was brilliant and remembered everyone’s name (shame on me!).
I booked and paid for the East End Food tour on the Eating London website and received a confirmation with details on the same day. Further details regarding the meeting place location for my London food tour were received within 24 hours of booking.
The tour operates from Monday to Saturday at 10:00 am, 10:45 am and 11:30 am. I loved the fact that they included a questionnaire about food preferences and allergies and that they subsequently accommodated my halaal food requirement and also made a substitution for the alcoholic beverage served at one stop.
This guided walking London food tour takes place in Spitalfields, a former parish in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. The area takes it’s name from the hospital and priory of St. Mary’s Spital that was built on the land around the twelfth century.
The tour started out from the Old Spitalfields Market and I took the underground from Turnham Green to Liverpool Street, with a change at Westminster to get there. I followed the directions and found the Old Spitalfields Market easily enough.
Over the centuries the area was settled by numerous waves of immigrants. Spitalfields has been a melting pot of cultures; from the Huguenots (French Protestants) in 1687, the Irish silk weavers in the 1730’s to the Jewish influx from the late 19th century and lastly the Bangladeshi immigrants of the 20th century.
One of the places of interest on the London food tour was what appeared to be an abandoned building on Brune Street. It had an ornate front that declared that it was a soup kitchen for the Jewish poor from 1902. This soup kitchen operated for ninety years until 1992.
As each wave of immigrants prospered and became wealthier and more influential they moved out to better neighbourhoods, leaving behind cheap accommodation for the next influx of immigrants. The Bangladeshi community still has a strong presence in this part of the city. The area is in the process of gentrification and has moved on from being a slum for marginalized immigrant communities, to being a sought after hub of hipsters, artists and young professionals.
St John Bread and Wine: 94-96 Commercial Street, E1 6LZ
Imagine my surprise when at the very first stop I came face to face with a huge porker hanging over the entrance! This Dining room, wine shop and bakery is acclaimed for being one of the first to introduce the notion of ethical food producers using nose to tail eating and cooking, and using every part of the animal to minimise waste.
Fortunately, the award winning bacon buttie served to the other members of the group, was replaced with a greek yogurt and mixed red berry compote with toasted brioche, for me. It was a deliciously perfect start to my food adventure that day!
The English Restaurant: 50-52 Brushfield Street, E1 6AG
A short walk later and we came to our second stop, that was a family business located in a 17th century listed property that had survived the Great Fire of London. The speciality of the restaurant is British Classics and there is nothing more British than Bread and Butter pudding, made from ingredients sourced locally.
Our tour host informed us that the restoration of this building was the trigger that started the revitalisation of the Spitalfields and Shoreditch areas. It has gone from being ‘the dirty little secret’, low rent slum like neighbourhoods of London, to a hub for creatives and young professionals.
Androuet Cheese Room – 10a Lamb Street
This cheese shop is owned by Leo and Alex Guarneri, two brothers from France who opened an artisanal luxury cheese shop selling only the best cheese they could find. We tasted a variety of hard and soft cheeses, and I can truly say it was mind-blowing. I would have loved to buy some to take home with me, but my hotel room didn’t have a bar fridge so there was no way to keep it chilled until I travelled back.
Poppies Fish and Chips: 6-8 Hanbury Street, E1 6QR
There are few things as quintessentially British as fish and chips, preferably sprinkled with salt and malt vinegar and wrapped in plain old clean newspaper. At Poppies there is not a sheet of anything old in sight and they use pre-printed (news) paper for the serving wrapper. The crispy fried fish had a light batter; the chips were chunky and served with mushy peas. I must confess however, that I loved the interiors and 1940’s vintage decor, a bit more than the fish and chips.
The Pride of Spitalfields: 3 Heneage Street
I can practically hear the sharp indrawn breath. First a pig sign above the nose to tail dining room door, now a pub! Astaghfirullah! Unfortunately, with the British love of the public house, it was inevitable that it would be included on a food tour in the East End of London. The best thing about this stop was Lenny, the pub cat sleeping on the chair, and apparently Lenny has quite an Instagram following. The pub itself smelled of stale alcohol and sweat, and was dark and dingy, although it was quite pretty from the outside.
I don’t actually know what was served to the other members of the tour group because I excused myself to use the washroom facilities soon after we entered. I suspect from the small plastic sample cups on the tables that they had a beer and ale or cider tasting. When I rejoined, I was presented with a small bottle of orange juice from St. Clements (remember the nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons, say the bells of St Clements’?)
Aladin Curry House: 132 Brick Lane, E1 6RU
Our sit down meal was at an ‘Indian’ restaurant on the curry mile known as Brick Lane. The tour host had mentioned before coming inside that this place sold the best curries. Apparently she and her friends loved coming here in the early hours after a night clubbing and pubbing.
The managers and staff are Muslim with Bangladeshi origins and confirmed that the food is halaal, although there was no obvious halaal certification displayed anywhere on the day of the visit. Fortunately, I noticed that quite a few Muslims had come for Eid lunch and decided to bite the bullet and taste the food after a few Bismillahs.
We were presented with three different curries all looking similar in colour and texture. On the menu was Vegetable bhuna, Lamb curry and Chicken madras served with Naan bread. Upon tasting the curries, we realised why the tour host thought at 4am they made the best curries ever… one would have to be quite inebriated to enjoy it.
Beigel Bake: 159 Brick Lane, E1 6SB
The speciality of this bagel shop in Brick Lane are bagels with hot corned beef, mustard and gherkins. It is open 24 hours a day and is another favourite of the late night crowd. I did not see any kosher certification and did not try the corned beef bagel. Fortunately, my cream cheese and smoked salmon bagel was delectable and I had it for my dinner that night. This place does a roaring trade with queues out of the door, so be prepared to wait a bit for your pot of gold.
Pizza East Restaurant: 56 Shoreditch High Street, E1 6JJ
Our final stop was at a ‘pizzeria’ on Shoreditch High Street. It turned out to be a rustic and chic restaurant on the first floor of a converted warehouse. It was the first time that I voluntarily ate salted caramel tart and nothing that I have tried since even comes close. Perfection!
This place was located very close to the original Box Park, a strip mall built of shipping containers for pop-up independent fashion and lifestyles stores and quirky cafes. I passed it on my way to Liverpool Street station after the end of the food tour, but didn’t enter any of the small claustrophobic spaces.
STREET ART WITH A SIDE OF HISTORY
Throughout the food tour we also learned a great deal about the influence of the immigrant communities well as the social history of the East End. One of the places of interest was a shelter for women as well as a house that is used for movie sets and has been deliberately left to look like it is straight out of a nineteenth century scene.
If for no other reason to visit Spitalfields, there is an Ottolenghi cafe a few streets away from Liverpool station.
Throughout the London food tour our host pointed out various installations of Street Art including graffiti by anonymous satirical street artist and political activist, Banksy.
Verdict: This food tour was a snapshot of a neighbourhood that has been evolving for centuries and offers as much social history and unique tidbits of information as authentic London food experiences at a diverse array of family owned businesses.
For me it was a value for money experience and one that encouraged me to book more food tours in other cities, with this tour operator.
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