One perfect weekend: Where to eat and drink in East London

Best of British: A loganberry tart from Lyle's.
Best of British: A loganberry tart from Lyle's. Photo: Supplied

There are few places in the world that hold so much history, misery, joy and mysticism in one city corner.

The birthplace of David Bowie, Alfred Hitchcock, Damon Albarn and Ray Winstone brings with it a sense of community through mutual struggle. Architecture that has fallen and risen through two world wars, an ever-morphing, impossible-to-define area of greater London that treasures the old while celebrating the new.

Yes, there are the Pearlies, and Jack the Ripper and pies and mash and jellied eels and the old gin alleys and cockneys and rhyming slang. But it's also an area that, while hit hard with gentrification, is still the beating heart for migrants. Where council flats throw shade over small bars and pretty boutiques. For a visitor, East London makes for one of the most dynamic patches to spend some serious time.  

The seasonal menu at Lyle's offers dishes you won't find in Australia.
The seasonal menu at Lyle's offers dishes you won't find in Australia. Photo: Supplied

Friday

Spitalfields holds a special place in my heart, and not just because my favourite bacon sandwich resides here. But because it's one of the better places in town to stand quietly for a long time and stare at a Hawksmoor church. The haunting architectural fantasy looks like a mix between a pagan temple and a secret rocketship. When I think about the magic of East London, I think about this. And then I think about pastries.

The Old Spitalfields Market, apart from housing a decent collection of vintage stalls, also features a serious Portuguese custard tart care of Chiltern Firehouse's Nuno Mendes at Taberna do Mercado. The thin flakes of pastry are deeply caramelised, the custard torched to the point of being burnt, and all the better for it. That should put you in a pretty good position to amble across the road to St John Bread and Wine. This younger sibling to Smithfield's St John, Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver's famously infamous nose-to-tail restaurant, is a little more fun, with a lot more brio. It's here that the day starts with an Old Spot bacon sandwich on house-baked bread and a pot of tea. Some would argue that to really do things properly, you'd take elevenses with madeira and an Eccles cake with a slice of Lancashire cheese. But then if you were really going to do SJ the way it's intended, you'd already have set up with a Dr Henderson (one part creme de menthe, two parts Fernet Branca). Word to the wise from the good doctor himself: "Don't let the cure become the cause."   

I can think of few things more pleasurable than taking a ramble from the East End with no particular place to be except dinner. Leila's Shop, a rustic little neighbourhood cafe set in an old grocery store, is best known for brunch but it will also serve you a bowl of strawberry ripple ice-cream. It's perfect for a little breather before ambling back down towards Commercial Street and the joys of the Golden Heart. The service is reliably crotchety but there's a special joy in sitting on the footpath, the sun on your skin. Even better, it's just a 15-minute walk from Lyle's. Chef James Lowe's menu changes pretty frequently, but eating seasonally in Britain means you're likely to try all sorts of things that just don't appear in Australia (gulls eggs! Spring greens! Live langoustines!) Today, though, we pick the cheek meat off roast turbot head and dip just-picked sprigs of samphire through drawn butter. Bliss.       

Marrow bones and parsley salad at St John Bread and Wine.
Marrow bones and parsley salad at St John Bread and Wine. Photo: The New York Times

Saturday

Come morning, it can be a little strenuous to drag yourself out of bed, so best start with a lo-fi malted milk soft-serve with chocolate fudge sauce down by the canal at Towpath Cafe during the summer while you watch the barges choof by. Monty's Deli offers up Jewish diner vibes year-round, complete with chocolate egg creams, Russian salad and matzo ball soup. If you fell in love with Arnold Circus, the leafy little area where Leila's operates, head back and have lunch at Rochelle Canteen. Run by Fergus Henderson's wife Margot and her business partner Melanie Arnold, it's in an old school-cum-creative precinct. The menu follows a fairly steady rule of no more than three things on the plate, cooked simply, with seasonality in mind. Here's to ham hock, runner beans, onions, and a glass of bandol in the front garden. Now, easing seamlessly from one meal to the next without putting down a glass is a wonderful thing, but if you can handle a dry six-minute walk, you're a two-step from chef Isaac Hayes' Clove Club, its excellent front bar and even more excellent restaurant. Settle in for an afternoon shandy before an early evening reservation and some roast Cornish pollock. 

Sunday

A good caff where the spoon sticks up in your mug of tea and everything comes with chips is a thing of real beauty, and a vital part of the city's make-up. But if that's not your style, check out the Blue Legume, where breakfast is a little more of your flat white and hotcakes affair. The real joy of a London Sunday is a lazy snack-and-drink crawl. Start at Brawn for a glass of something natural with a bit of funk on it and maybe a plate of cured meats, then make for Morito, Hackney Road. It's here that Sam and Sam Clark (of Moro fame) deliver grilled stone fruits hiding under ribbons of cured ham and their spin on fattoush in a sun-drenched room, where the pressed metal bar takes pride of place. Prop an elbow and let them do the rest. And since you're out, your proud, and you're drinking wine, stop down the road from Morito at Sager + Wilde. Hungry for more? Their Paradise Row digs offer a proper dinner menu including the excellent "nduja laced taglierini with creme fraiche.    

East London: magical, mystical and altogether more delicious than ever. Innit.

Advertisement

Where to go

The Blue Legume 101 Stoke Newington Church Street, Stoke Newington

Brawn 49 Columbia Rd, Bethnal Green

Clove Club Shoreditch Town Hall, 380 Old Street, Shoreditch

Fergus Henderson at St John Bread and Wine in 2003.
Fergus Henderson at St John Bread and Wine in 2003. Photo: The New York Times

Leila's Shop 15-17 Calvert Avenue, Arnold Circus, Shoreditch 

Lyle's Tea Building, 56 Shoreditch High Street, Shoreditch

Monty's Deli 227-229 Hoxton Street, Hoxton

Morito, Hackney Road 195 Hackney Road, Hackney

Rochelle Canteen Rochelle School, Arnold Circus, Shoreditch

Sager + Wilde Arch, 250 Paradise Row and 193 Hackney Road, Hackney

St John Bread and Wine 94-96 Commercial Street, Spitalfields

Towpath (summer only) 42 De Beauvoir Crescent, De Beauvoir Town

Taberna do Mercado Old Spitalfields Market, E1

Myffy Rigby travelled to London as a guest of Jack's Creek