London, East End, pre-Olympics

Posted by: on Jul 7, 2012 | No Comments

London is awash with Union Jacks; hanging across Oxford Street and adorning tea cakes and paper plates in Marks & Spencers. Visiting between the Queen’s Jubilee and the London 2012 Olympics is the reason for the patriotism. Seeing the same patriotism in the US makes me wince, but here it is kinda cute.

UK friends seemed to want to know whether we thought London was different to last time we were here. In four years, of course it has changed. Shoreditch in the east feels like Brooklyn, there’s more good coffee and cafes (mostly run by Aussies and Kiwis), and it feels like Oxford Street is crammed with more tourists than ever before.

But the biggest change is the exchange rate which suddenly makes London feel affordable. It’s a strange feeling. For once the outlying colony has one over Britain, although not without a small feeling of guilt for the locals doing it tough.


The Breakfast Club. We semi-accidentally went here three times. It’s a US diner style place in Hoxton, Shoreditch, Soho and somewhere else with burgers, burritos and a serious brunching menu more akin to the offerings of Sydney cafes, rather than the traditional English fry up. The Hoxton branch has killer chocolate milkshakes so thick your straw has no problem standing at 90 degrees. The bathrooms include the “world’s smallest disco” complete with Miss Piggy wallpaper and a disco ball. Hipster warning: you will see ray-bans, elbow patches and boat shoes.
(Bus 55 from Oxford Circus or Old Street Tube to Hoxton, Liverpool St station to Spitalfields)

Brick Lane. So there’s a place called Tayyabs, south of Brick Lane, which is apparently the best Indian around. We tried to go the night we arrived in London, but the queue out the door and the general crazy-busy-ness was too much for our “I’ve-been-awake-for-two-days” selves. Luckily, other Indian on Brick Lane is still perfectly good – it’s just the touts you have to watch out for.
(Walk from Liverpool Street station through Spitalfields)

Brixton Market. Probably one of the most multicultural parts of London, this covered market area sells produce by day, while restaurants spill out into the quiet corridors by night. All the restaurants seem to have a focus on great produce, authentic cuisine and doing one thing really well. They’re tiny, casual and completely welcoming. I noticed French, Thai, Mexican, Italian (a pizza place and a homemade pasta place), as well as a fine looking burger place.

We opted for pizza: sourdough base, buffalo mozzarella, ham from some special area, goat ricotta, some delicious wine to wash it down… you get the idea. We finished up at a gelato place around the corner that had mint and liquorice gelato – it works, it really does.

There are two separate covered markets on opposite blocks so check them both out. Totally worth the trip.
(Victoria Line all the way to Brixton)

Marks and Spencers. Everywhere. M&S Simply Food are a wonder of pre-made snacks and lunches. Each time I’m in the UK I head straight for their range of Irish breads. Being summer, we were eating a punnet of raspberries everyday.

Borough Market. A crazy place to visit on a weekend, but we were there for the TATE so decided to fight it out with all the other tourists. There really is a great range of Italian meats, cheeses and olives. A picnic seemed too difficult given the crowds, so we headed to Roast for a pork belly roll.

Neal’s Yard Cheese Shop. North of the most touristy part of Covent Garden is a maze of cobblestone streets pretty enough to justify fighting the crowds of Covent Garden. “Taste some cheese,” are just the words you want to hear when you walk into a cheese shop, so we did. Then we bought cheese and walked away wondering in the cute lads (and one lady) in little hats spent the whole day eating cheese.


Spitalfields in 2004 was grungy and choc-full of trestle tables of good design. By 2008 it had been rebuilt as a shiny granite and glass building of shops and restaurants with a passage of market stalls (more tourist craft than good design) paying homage to its past. In 2012 the markets are on the up again, and the surrounding shops (including German bag designer, Jost and local frock-maker, Traffic People where I traded my money for goods) are fairly decent too.

A block or so away is the Up Market which was a little drearier than last time, with food stalls – massive and inviting bowls of tagines, curries and other flavours from around the world – taking over more of the space. The giant tagines and other international food would make it worth a visit in its own right, as long as you can be bothered fighting for a space in the gutter to sit and eat.

Across the road and a little north is the Backyard Market. Half of it was retro furniture stores and the rest made up of t-shirts, cupcakes and accessories, including a cute laser cut wooden earrings.

Further up Brick Lane is the wonderful Laden where each rack contains an up-and-coming local designers. It was great in 2008, but at a conversion rate of 1.5 rather than 3 times, it’s even better in 2012.

Across from Laden is @work gallery – jewellery from local designers. Beautiful, but mostly “investment” pieces, rather than whim purchases.

Continuing up Brick Lane you’ll come across Cheshire street on the right, a cute lane of shop fronts. Local designer Dragana Perisic is worth checking out.

This northern end of Brick Lane is also home to some newer beer gardens which reminded me of pop-up places in Berlin: picnic tables, beer and sport on a big screen. They looked fun by day, but late in the evening, crammed with sports-mad English fans, they looked less than desirable.

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