East is Eden ‘If you’re going to Shoreditch, turn your jacket inside out,’ joke the City boys, talking about how to achieve the East London look. To many, Shoreditch is a wild and foreign land, heaving with hipsters, asymmetric haircuts, rolled-up trouser legs and sketchy venues which suggest the Kray Twins may be nearby.
East is Eden
‘If you’re going to Shoreditch, turn your jacket inside out,’ joke the City boys, talking about how to achieve the East London look. To many, Shoreditch is a wild and foreign land, heaving with hipsters, asymmetric haircuts, rolled-up trouser legs and sketchy venues which suggest the Kray Twins may be nearby.
Proposing a jaunt to the East End can be met with a few raised eyebrows, but it shouldn’t be — not any more, anyway. With the Olympics accelerating its progress, the East End has a burgeoning cultural scene, celebrating art, food and creativity in a brave and exciting way. It is one of my favourite corners of London, and it should be one of yours, too.
Illustration by Phil Wrigglesworth
From the establishment of Chinatown in Limehouse in 1860 to the influx of West Indian immigrants in the Fifties, the East End has always embraced new cultures, communities and concepts. An area of such vibrancy naturally attracted the artistic community and in the last few decades Shoreditch and Hoxton have become synonymous with edgy, conceptual art.
Artists and designers including Tracey Emin have made the area their home. You’ll find one of the largest concentrations of Contemporary art in the world here — reason enough to spend a Saturday wandering around — including White Cube and the Whitechapel Gallery. That is without taking into account the ubiquitous street art plastered by young graffiti artists such as Stik and LA-based collective Cyrcle along nearly all the area’s side streets (you can find one of several Banksys in a car park on Great Eastern Street).
Smaller galleries such as Rivington Place, Wilkinson and Fred [London] on Vyner Street are also very much worth a look, as are the independent galleries and print boutiques, like Nelly Duff, that can be found on most streets, tucked between shops, restaurants and flats.
With prices on the hike and the City encroaching from the south, the artistic community has pushed north to Dalston and London Fields, leaving behind not only its wonderful legacy but also space for something new in the heart of Silicon Roundabout: fine dining, high-end design and boutique living.
Brix Smith Start, musician turned fashion aficionado, opened up Start on Rivington Street — a clothes store filled with super-chic brands and dubbed one of the best boutiques in the world by Vogue. Opened at a time when shops were scarce, from that point on Smith-Start noticed that ‘something fabulous took over every single week.’ You still won’t find chain stores lining Great Eastern Street or Shoreditch High Street; selected more popular brands are piled high in black shipping containers at the pop-up Box Park by the new Shoreditch High Street station. Smith-Start points out that ‘this is no Bond Street’, but that is surely part of its charm.
The shopping experience is intimate and intoxicating. Both Broadway Market (Saturday), with its artisan foodmakers and skilled craftsmen, and Columbia Road flower market (Sunday), replete with every kind of bloom, are buzzing outdoor emporia. There are also little shops like Pitfield (the hip new place, according to Smith-Start), Two Columbia Road (Modernist furniture), Milk (furniture to trinkets) and Squint (jazzy sofas).
Rumours that Louboutin, Prada and Ralph Lauren are setting up shop here are — I’m told — untrue. Nevertheless, fashion abounds: Parisian label APC, classic British clothing manufacturer Sunspel, Aubin & Wills on Redchurch Street, 11 Boundary and Jasper Morrison on Kingsland Road can more than satisfy.
Many people credit the regeneration and increased popularity of this once run-down corner of London to the opening of Sir Terence Conran’s Boundary on Redchurch Street. Conran told me that he has ‘always been seduced by the prospect of breathing new life into old buildings and using that to kick-start the regeneration of an area’.
Transforming an unoccupied, dilapidated building into ‘a hive of activity that never seems to sleep’ has been Conran’s first solo project since Bibendum in 1987. It is a great place: a bustling café with produce for sale at one end, a hotel with seventeen individually designed rooms and suites by Conran and David Tang, a basement restaurant and the most fantastic views from the rooftop bar, where you can sit in beautifully designed chairs, wrapped up in soft blankets by the outdoor fires as the sun sets over the Citi Building in the distance.
Here in Shoreditch, Conran tells me, ‘The traditional seems to comfortably blend with the modern to create a lively atmosphere, whatever the time of day — as architects and stockbrokers arrive with their morning coffee the clubbers are collecting their post-rave bagel.’ You’ll find ‘global advertising agencies cheek by jowl with traditional ateliers’. It is this stark juxtaposition between the scruffy outside and the polished products within that makes spending time in the East End so enthralling.
One thing you won’t find next to a small boutique, though, is a Starbucks. Gastronomically, East London is vibrant and independent. Coffee in this part of town is much more than a quick caffeine fix. With Antipodean joints popping up on most streets, freshly roasted and ground coffee is expected. Try Ozone on Leonard Street, which boasts a huge roaster in the basement; Cup of Excellence beans are stacked in hessian bags to one side and wafts of fresh coffee permeate every inch of the unapologetically industrial cafe above. Fix 126, Salvation Jane and Allpress all offer something similar and are signs of a wider brunch culture that reigns supreme here.
For those who leave the comfort of the Soho House Group and venture a little further, a rewarding and enlightening time awaits. World-class art, cuisine and Café Oto, the ‘coolest place in Britain’ according to Vogue Italia no less, are side by side with the new wave of artists, diverse cultural communities and good old-fashioned pie shops. As Sir Terence Conran said when I asked him why Spear’s readers should make the journey east, he simply replied, ‘Because they’ll enjoy themselves!’
There are innumerable places for lunch and dinner: authentic Bangladeshi food and great Indian in Bethnal Green (not on Brick Lane), the refurbished Bistrotheque and newly opened Tramshed from Mark Hix, natural wine specialist Brawn and chef’s favourite Eyre Brothers on Leonard Street are all worth the schlep.
If you’re after something a little more special, try some of the local pop-up supper clubs or head to Michelin-starred Viajante, run by Nuno Mendez. Housed in the magnificent architecture of the former Bethnal Green Town Hall, the interior is so far removed from the bustle of E2 it is quite a joy. Gazing out of the windows onto the ever-so-slightly shabby buildings outside, the contrast allows you to revel in Viajante’s simplicity. A new entrant on the World’s Best Restaurant list, this is a destination whether you are coming from Eaton Terrace or the Far East.
Less well documented but equally worth rooting out is the underground scene: if you look behind the graffiti-covered doors, under the kebab shops and through the wardrobes (genuinely, the private bar at Callooh Callay is accessed through a Narnia-esque wardrobe) you’ll find some of London’s best-kept secrets.
Underground cocktail havens like Lounge Bohemia on Great Eastern Street (booking only and no suits), the Night Jar on City Road (voted one of the best bars in the world) and Danger of Death on Brick Lane (a members-only bar open to all on a Wednesday) push mixology to its most exciting extremes. The signs may not be as polished they would be in Mayfair, but the experiences available are just as exquisite.
If polish is what you’re after, look no further than Teresa Tarmey’s new salon on Redchurch Street. A favourite with celebrities and West Enders alike, Tarmey has moved shop from W1 to E2, taking her client list with her. And there’s always Shoreditch House for those in need of a spa and rooftop swim.
Read more by Emily Rookwood