Once written off as the seedy, run-down side of the city, East London has now become a legitimate destination in its own right (helped, in no small part, but this little event you might’ve heard of called ‘the Olympics’). Formerly dilapidated neighbourhoods have been rejuvenated by an influx of innovative restaurants, unique bars, and cool, creative residents, adding an interesting new dynamic to East London’s unique energy. Combine that with the area’s rich historical heritage and diverse multicultural feel, and you’ve got the most consistently intriguing side of town.
Nowadays, visitor to the city could quite easily spend several days exploring the historic neighbourhoods, hidden canal paths and hipster enclaves in this part of London without ever feeling the need to leave. But when cabin fever strikes, the recently expanded Overground is an efficient and surprisingly enjoyable way to head North, South or West.
Where to start? From old school greasy spoons to painfully cool pop-ups, eating out in East is a diverse affair. In the old-school corner you have your E. Pellicci’s (an iconic, Italian-owned Bethnal Green caff), your Tayyabs (a Punjabi grill house that serves the best lamb chops you’ll ever eat) and your Mangals (I and II – Turkish institutions that are renowned for their delicious grilled meats, although I personally prefer the more low-key Hasan nearby).
Then there are the new guns, like Corner Room at the Town Hall Hotel, where dishes of salmon confit and Iberico pork are almost too pretty to eat. In Dalston, there’s the innovative White Rabbit, which serves small plates of delicious things like octopus with Brindisa Chorizo, or Rita’s Bar & Dining, where the Southern-style chicken wings and green chilli Mac & Cheese are also built to share.
If you want traditional British fare, you can’t go far wrong with the original outpost of London steak restaurant, the Hawksmoor for a bone-in prime rib, or a shortrib French Dip sandwich from the bar downstairs. On a similarly carnivorous tip, EC1’s St. John Bread & Wine is still regarded as one of London’s best restaurants, becoming a mecca of sorts for offal-loving visitors. And you must – absolutely must – have a bagel, or rather, a beigel, from Beigel Bake and/or Beigel Shop, located two doors apart from each other on Brick Lane. They’re the best bagels in the world. Yeah, I said it!
Once a barren land on the hotels front, East London’s accommodation options continue to multiply. Town Hall Hotel in Bethnal Green is possibly my favourite hotel in London: stylish, bursting with character, and just a little bit weird. It’s also the home of Viajante and the aforementioned Corner Room – two of the best restaurants in this part of town, or indeed any part of town.
For a chic, boutique option on a budget, opt for B&B at Russell’s of Clapton, which offers six elegant bedrooms on the rapidly-gentrifying Chatsworth Road. If you want to be a little bit closer to all the action, the Hoxton Hotel on Great Eastern Street is a stylish, failsafe bet.
I’ve rhapsodised endlessly about the joys of Ruby’s, but it really does serve some of the best cocktails in London, and the hospitality is as warm as the cosy basement bar itself (Big up Tom!) At newish pizza joint Voodoo Ray’s the slices aren’t quite New York-calibre but the cocktails – especially the frozen margaritas - pack a punch.
A couple of miles away from Dalston (although it feels like it could be a million) is the Night Jar in Old Street, where perfectly mixed cocktails are served in a sexy, secret bar – you’ll have to look hard for the entrance, but it’s worth the hunt. The illicit drinking den vibe continues at the The Worship Street Whistling Shop – a tribute to the gin palaces of 19th Century London, with a range of historic cocktails to match.
East London by day is an entirely different proposition to East London by night, although both have considerable charms. Saturdays are a good time to check out the markets – try Broadway for posh fudge and nice bread, or Ridley Road for, erm, halal chicken wings and weave shops. Stroll through Victoria Park or along the canal (stopping in at Towpath Café in the summer months), or take in the pound shops and generally mania of Kingsland Road on a weekend afternoon.
Sunday mornings were made for visiting Columbia Road Flower Market for beautiful roses and excellent market trader chat, then wandering down to Brick Lane to buy check out the vintage shops and stalls. Have a roast dinner at The Princess of Shoreditch, then catch a film at one of several great cinemas in the area: Try Rich Mix, the Rio, or one of the double velvet sofas at The Aubin.
At night, things get slightly grimier – albeit in a good way (mostly). Shoreditch is hen night central on a Friday, but the infamous Dalston ‘strip’ – running from Dalston Junction station about a mile up the Stoke Newington Road – still delivers if you’re looking for a sweaty basement party and some unparalleled hipster-watching. Birthdays, Visions Video Bar and the Alibi are good places for drunken dancing to a regular rotation of solid DJs.
The commercial goliath of Westfield might loom large over Stratford, but the rest of East London deals predominantly in small, independent boutiques. In Shoreditch, there are several smaller stores worth investigation: Buy uber-stylish menswear at Present, cool street brands and chic accessories at Goodhood, and sleek contemporary brands at Start. And don’t forget to make an appointment at concept store LN-CC for one of the most unique shopping experiences of your life.
If fashion leaves you cold, then get your retail therapy buzz at one of East London’s many great groceries and gourmet food shops. Albion offers an abundance of fresh British veg, Leila’s Shop stocks locally smoked salmon and homemade jams, while A.Gold sells produce sourced entirely within the British Isles – plus the best homemade scotch eggs in town.