Follow the tourist hordes and you'd imagine that the West End is where it's happening in the British capital, with its royal sights, theatre district and Monopoly-board streets clogged with sightseeing buses. Yet the overlooked East End – popularly associated with Dickensian street urchins, jellied eels and Jack the Ripper – is far more vibrant and characterful.
Now undergoing the beginnings of a hipster renovation rescue, the East End has seen the arrival of artists, upmarket hoteliers and trendsetting chefs, but retains an edgy, scruffy appeal. Districts such as Shoreditch, Spitalfields and Hoxton have channelled successive waves of London immigrants, and the best way to explore their rich, multi-ethnic history is through the East End's eclectic food scene.
From the skyscraper clad City of London, you cross Bishopsgate into the East End world of low-rise alleys. The edge of the Roman road once ran here, outside the walls and beyond City control. The church ran St Mary Spital (hence Spitalfields), a hospital where Londoners came to die as monks chanted. From the late 16th century onwards though, the East End – close to Thames docks where immigrants and refugees disembarked – was a fast-expanding slum. Persecuted Huguenot textile workers from France were early arrivals; then the Irish and Eastern European Jews, more recently Bangladeshis and Arabs.
"And now a wave of hipsters. I quite like them really; it isn't their fault property prices are soaring," says Charli Matthews, founder of local tour company Walk Eat, Talk Eat.
Trace these immigrant layers with your tastebuds. The East End is crammed with eateries and food stores that lead you from scotch eggs to bagels, falafel rolls to barfi, a condensed-milk sweet flavoured with cashew or rosewater and sold in hole-in-the-wall Bangladeshi delis.
It's this vibrant, small-scale, budget-range food scene that makes the East End such fun, but the culinary scene in recent years has also seen the arrival of more sophisticated, upmarket restaurants. The swanky Smoking Goat Shoreditch (smokinggoatbar.com) dishes up contemporary Thai food inside a former strip club. At Smokestak (smokestak.co.uk), blokes with beards tuck into dry-aged beef ribs. It's the first restaurant of a London street vendor that acquired a cult following for its smokehouse meats.
At Ottolenghi Spitalfields (ottolenghi.co.uk/spitalfields), the deli counter feeds harried city suits with spiced cauliflower and green tahini, or beef fillet with horseradish. Visitors on a more relaxed schedule can enjoy a sit-down, Middle East-influenced meal from celebrity British-Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi, notable for favouring vegetables and unusual flavour combinations.
Old names are making a comeback, too. Truman's brewery, once one of the world's largest beer makers and associated with the East End for more than three centuries, returned in 2013 to specialise in traditional cask ales at The Eyrie (trumansbeer.co.uk). Its former brewery complex just off Brick Lane now houses pop-up stores selling vinyl records and colourful clothing. In the courtyard behind, a pink car by street artist Banksy lodges atop a wall.
You can see tiles in the Truman company colours at Victorian-era pub The Well and Bucket (wellandbucket.com), as well as original advertising signs and pillars. The pub has the same colourful history as the East End: it once had a roped-off area for cockfights and bare-knuckle brawls, and in the 1960s henchmen of the notorious criminal Kray brothers drank here. Now imaginatively restored, it serves English beers with tapas-style nibbles: smoked haddock croquettes, grilled king scallop with fennel salad, haloumi with roast capsicum and pesto.
Good timing and an appropriate menu, since the street outside, Bethnal Green Road, looks poised for gentrification. Bengali leather workers have already been pushed out by rising rents, leaving gaping shopfronts. Hip new businesses have already moved in elsewhere.
Boundary Street – where in the early 1900s the City of London police stopped their beat – was one of the frontrunners of East End change. It's anchored by Albion (albion-uk.london), a "food and drink destination" comprising a cafe, bar, bakery and posh grocery, all specialising in upmarket British produce.
Just around the corner, Redchurch Street is often listed as one of London's trendiest streets. You'll find an artsy cinema, tea parlour, lavish chocolatier, hipster barbershop and boutiques selling £200 T-shirts. Duck into Franze & Evans (franzeevans.com) for an on-trend breakfast of chia pudding or avocado and shaved fennel on sourdough amid upmarket Italian produce.
For the moment independents hold sway, but the worry is that even the upmarket ones will start to get pushed out by high-street brands as East End prices rise. Sandwich chains Pret A Manger and Subway recently arrived on Brick Lane to considerable dismay from some. Spitalfields Market (spitalfields.co.uk), where local artists sell their work, has seen fashion brands such as Kiehl's and Chanel open outlets. Yet Londoners still come here for breakfast, and it hasn't turned into Notting Hill just yet.
"I like the mix of wandering Bangladeshi ladies in saris, tattooed men, tourists and Jamaicans," says Charli Matthews, a self-described London nerd. She muses that at least the changes in the East End are incremental, not wholesale as with the now-soulless Canary Wharf commercial district.
The East End has always metamorphosed. The design of Christ Church Spitalfields (ccspits.org) was so revolutionary in 1729 that it caused uproar; now it's lauded for its Palladian elegance. More recently, it was the spreading graffiti that was derided. Now Bacon Street, Hanbury Street and Brick Lane's side alleys are rightly admired for their brilliant street art. Don't be entirely distracted in Bacon Street, however, in case you overlook Dark Sugars (darksugars.co.uk), which specialises in Ghanaian dark chocolate and truffles.
Good things endure here. Above kebab shopfronts you'll see beautiful Victorian facades, and several streets preserve Huguenot weavers' houses, where silk looms once clacked in attic spaces. Jewish immigrants were supposedly the first to sell fish and chips in the East End. Poppies' (poppiesfishandchips.co.uk), crammed with retro memorabilia, still uses fish fresh from Billingsgate Market, the UK's largest indoor fish market.
On Brick Street, be sure to stop at another survivor, Beigel Shop ("Britain's first and best"), established in 1855 by Polish immigrant brothers. Almost adjacent, rival shop Beigel Bake (beigelbake.com) has been around a mere 50 years. Debate rages over which shop bakes the best bagels, but they're a tasty reminder of the East End's Jewish immigrants.
Things ebb and flow in great cities, and Brick Lane especially symbolises the flux. Most Jewish eateries have gone, replaced most recently by Bangladeshi curry houses. Rather wonderfully, the street's 1743 Huguenot chapel became a Christian Society hall, then a synagogue, and is now a mosque.
"It's a great symbol of the area. The West End has all the monuments and will never change. The East End always changes. If one building tells its story, then this is it," says Matthews. "Maybe one day soon it will be a barbershop or socially responsible cafe."
Cathay Pacific flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Hong Kong with onward daily connections to London. Phone 131 747, see cathaypacific.com.au.
Hip, high-energy South Place Hotel has interiors designed by Sir Terence Conran with arresting colours and curious artworks. It has a popular rooftop bar, chophouse and Michelin-starred seafood restaurant. See southplacehotel.com.
Walk Eat, Talk Eat has custom-designed food trails through the East End that explore its social and culinary history. Owner Charli Matthews is also knowledgeable about street art. See walkeattalkeat.com.
Brian Johnston travelled courtesy Visit Britain, Viking Cruises and South Place Hotel.