Among the historic (and historically hardscrabble) corridors of London's East End, a new energy has taken hold, marked by the efforts of trendsetting artists, designers, chefs, and hoteliers.
In the past decade gentrification has rolled inexorably east, powered by the freak money being made and spent in this world financial capital, first into Spitalfields, then Hoxton, Shoreditch, and Bethnal Green, in the borough of Hackney, and finally to Whitechapel and Mile End, in Tower Hamlets. (In 2012, it will roll even farther east when the Olympics are held in Stratford.) These are the neighborhoods and boroughs that make up East London, a palimpsest whose rough-and-tumble history indelibly colors its contemporary identity. —Maria Shollenbarger
Aesop: Upon entering this simple shop, designed in green hues with reclaimed wood, patrons are awed by row after row of dark glass apothecary jars filled with cutting-edge beauty potions. The third London branch of the now-global Australian brand, this Shoreditch shop provides a welcomed option to Aesop addicts and newbies alike. The products, made with extensively researched botanical ingredients, are at once effective and enjoyable, with favorites including the aromatic geranium leaf body scrub, moisturizing Moroccan Neroli shave lotion, sage shampoo, and mandarin facial cream.
Bistrotheque: Patrons willing to search for this unmarked eatery, tucked away in a converted East London factory, will likely find it's well worth the extra effort. Part restaurant, part bar, and part cabaret theater, Bistrotheque offers a trendy, industrial-chic atmosphere with exposed pipes, gleaming cement floors, and sleek marble-top tables softened by vibrant bouquets and plenty of sunlight. The bistro is particularly popular for brunches consisting of eggs Benedict and traditional Sunday roast, although the dinner menu is equally enticing, pairing fresh fruit cocktails with delicate steak tartare and garlicky roast chicken followed by decadent crème brûlée.
Broadway Market: Situated between the Regent’s Canal and London Fields, this Hackney market sells everything from fresh organic produce to vintage clothing. With a history dating back to the 1890’s, the marketplace was revived in 2004 and quickly became one of the most celebrated markets in the city. More than 100 stalls line the streets every Saturday, offering high-quality meats, cheeses, fair-trade coffee, fudge, homemade jams, truffle oils, smoked garlic, and mushroom risotto. In addition to food, vendors also sell handmade soaps, vintage records, flowers, and antique jewelry. Street musicians often play lively jazz music during the event, as well.
Café Columbia: Every Sunday morning, historic Columbia Road becomes a colorful, fragrant collage of flower stalls, and in the midst of all the lovely blooms, an equally ambrosial treat awaits: the fresh, blissful bagels of Café Columbia. Only open during flower market hours, this charming family-owned café has been delighting market-goers with delicious fare for over three decades. Behind the quaint green storefront, customers discover just-baked bagels stuffed with unusual, delectable fillings like crayfish and cress, English breakfast and sweet strawberries and cream. Patrons can dine inside the cafe or outside on the sidewalk, surrounded by bright blossoms and joyful street music.
Climpson & Sons: Smooth, creamy bliss in a cup warms even the dreariest of London mornings at this coffee shop in East London’s Broadway Market. Opened in 2005, the shop is run by passionate baristas who hand-roast their own beans and top each expertly-made cup with a cheerful heart design. In addition to silky flat whites and bold cappuccinos, Climpson & Sons also offers gourmet goodies such as flaky croissants, moist banana chocolate chip muffins, and scrumptious aubergine feta sandwiches. Patrons enjoy their sips and snacks in a cozy space with sage green walls, beautiful old hardwoods, and vibrant flowers.
Dove Freehouse: Rich wood paneling, cozy hidden nooks, occasional live music, and stacks of board games all cultivate a uniquely welcoming vibe at this landmark pub in Borough Market. Established over two decades ago, Dove Freehouse offers a timeless combination of tasty homemade comfort food and beer galore, including approximately 100 Belgian bottles, an array of ales on tap, yummy ciders, and rare lambics and sours. Pints are paired with pub classics as well as a few Thai and Belgian specialties, with favorites including the fish and chips, hearty bison burger, Waterzooi van Vis (seafood stew), and traditional full breakfast with a secret-recipe Bloody Mary.
F. Cooke: Open for more than a century, this authentic mash and pie shop was established in 1900 to serve traveling shepherds. Today, the family-run eatery remains largely unchanged, still situated in Hackney on the border of Broadway Market. Behind a Victorian glass-and-marble façade, the interior has original yellow and blue tiled walls, marble benches, a long metal counter, and a floor sprinkled with sawdust. The shop serves 100-percent minced beef pies with homemade pastry, mashed potatoes, and “liquor,” or parsley gravy. As per tradition, F. Cooke is also known for its hot and jellied eel, which tastes similar to pickled herring.
Glitterati: The shop keeps hours more or less according to the whims of its owners, a couple who are specialists, respectively, in vintage watches and Miriam Haskell costume jewelry.
Hostem: The most fashion-forward men in London are raving about this Shoreditch style house established in 2010 by native fashion guru James Brown. Created by innovative design team JamesPlumb, Hostem's three-room interior is strikingly shabby-chic, incorporating an antique church pew, hand-painted hessian walls, reclaimed Victorian floorboards and caged light bulbs dangling just inches above stacks of cashmere. One room focuses on sharp streetwear by labels such as Visvim and Adam Kimmel, while the second room is all about the avante-garde, showcasing the likes of Ann Demeulemeester, MA+ and Rick Owens. The final space serves as a display room for up-and-coming designers.
L’Eau a la Bouche: This Borough Market deli, whose name means "mouthwatering" in French, lives up to its alluring appellation with a smorgasbord of foodie-approved treats. Elaborate displays offer typical deli finds, including quality meats, artisan cheeses, freshly baked bread, and rare olives. You'll also find already-prepared homemade goodies ranging from fluffy quiches to hearty toasted sandwiches like the Italian ham with pesto and sundried tomatoes. Patrons can chow down inside, where reclaimed timber and warm globe lights create an inviting atmosphere, or outside at a sidewalk table where rich coffees and creamy pear flan come with a side of spectacular people-watching.
Labour and Wait: Although its name is actually derived from a Longfellow poem, this charming Shoreditch shop inspires patrons to "labour away" with its enticing selection of everyday home goods, ranging from sleek metal dustpans to hand-knitted dishcloths. Established in 2000 by former menswear designers Rachel Wythe-Moran and Simon Watkins, who had become disillusioned with the demands of ever-changing trends, Labour & Wait specializes in timeless, functional and simplistically beautiful goods from across the globe. The shop itself is tidy and cheerful, brimming with such tempting treasures as pastel milk jugs, ceramic teapots, cozy wool throws, leather diaries, ash-handled trowels and darling aprons.
Old Truman Brewery: Old Truman Brewery here takes its name from a family who started making ales in the late 1600’s. Today, the brewery building is home to almost 200 independent creative companies. It’s connected to Brick Lane by a small pedestrian alley called Dray Walk, over which the brewery towers, and along which the best of Brick Lane’s energy can be experienced: food stands peddle izakaya-style snacks, dosas, empanadas, kebabs and dolma, and eye-watering Goan curries. Small fashion traders with provocatively arcane names (Son of a Stag; A Butcher of Distinction; Public Beware Co.) enjoy fiercely loyal local followings. In and around Brick Lane are multiple markets, including the storied one in adjacent Spitalfields; Thursday, not Sunday, is the connoisseur’s day for antiques.
Pizza East: Fresh clams, cherry tomatoes, garlic, and pecorino; veal meatballs, cream, parsley and lemon; San Daniele ham, buffalo ricotta, hazelnut pesto and baby chard: although such unique topping combos speak for themselves, there's plenty more to say about this Shoreditch pizzeria. Housed in an old tea factory, Pizza East executes industrial-chic style to perfection with exposed concrete, bare wooden tables, oversized chandeliers, and funky touches like tumblers for wine and linen napkins in every shade of the rainbow. And while the pizza is indeed popular, patrons give equal kudos to the antipasti and salted caramel chocolate tart.
Rochelle Canteen: Hidden behind the soaring walls of an old Victorian school playground in residential Shoreditch lies a small converted bike shed housing Rochelle Canteen, a cafe made all the more magical by its secretive location and almost imperceptible buzzer entrance. Run by Melanie Arnold and Margot Henderson of Arnold & Henderson catering, the canteen serves weekday breakfasts and lunches embodying Henderson's head-to-tail culinary philosophy. In the landscaped courtyard or all-white dining room, patrons indulge in daily specials that may include creamy asparagus soup, deep-fried cod cheeks with tartar, and pecan caramel ice cream.
Royal Oak: Although this pub becomes exceptionally busy during the Columbia Road flower market held every Sunday, the Royal Oak is also bustling every other day of the week thanks to its perfectly poured pints and classic comfort foods ranging from steak and ale pie to succulent Sunday roast. The downstairs pub is wood-paneled with haphazard seating arrangements, while the calmer upstairs dining room is all plush furniture and natural light. On market days, patrons can also sip crisp summery ciders on the outside terrace, surrounded by beautiful blooms.
Shoreditch Rooms: Visitors hoping to amp up the glam in London will be pleased by the 26 stylish yet affordable rooms at the ultra-exclusive, members-only Shoreditch House. Opened in 2007 by Soho House founder Nick Jones, the Shoreditch is housed in a renovated warehouse that embodies the concept of industrial-chic cool. Rooms are light and airy with big screen TVs, rainforest showers, and quirky touches like old-fashioned telephones and a "Borrow Me" collection of games and goodies. Guests also enjoy the on-site Cowshed Spa and the many hidden treasures of the Shoreditch House, which range from a bowling alley to an expansive rooftop pool.
Spitalfields Market: London’s oldest market, Spitalfields has a history dating back to 1666. Today, the sprawling marketplace includes both the old market and a newer traders market, which features up to 110 stalls each day. Spitalfields is open Tuesday through Friday as well as Sunday, with Sunday being the most popular day to visit. Shoppers may find everything from designer clothing and handbags to eco-friendly stationery, vintage furniture, handmade jewelry, and bespoke children’s toys. After browsing the stalls, market-goers can dine at a variety of restaurants, including Carluccio’s, Giraffe, and Leon, and attend special events such as concerts and wine tastings.
St. John Bread & Wine: Opened in 2003 across from Spitalfields Market, Bread & Wine is a more casual offshoot of Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver’s St. John Bar & Restaurant. The high-ceilinged dining room, housed in a former bank, has white walls, simple wooden furniture, and a bustling open kitchen. Incorporating fresh seasonal ingredients, dishes from the daily changing menu can be enjoyed as a three-course meal or as a selection of small plates. The menu emphasizes adventurous head-to-tail cooking, with possible options including foie gras and duck liver toast and venison and trotter pie. Wine and baked goods are available to take home.
The Boundary: Designer Terence Conran’s new six-story Boundary complex is making waves in the gritty-glam neighborhood of Shoreditch. Within the converted Victorian printing house: Albion, a perfectly curated high-end food shop and laid-back streetside café; a 17-room hotel inspired by design movements from Shaker to Bauhaus; and a subterranean French restaurant. But the space that has crowds lining up around the block is the 2009-opened Boundary Rooftop restaurant and bar (open through October), overlooking East London. The style here is low-key beach-house: white canvas chairs printed with images of cheeky British seaside postcards, a wood-burning stove— on colder nights, staff provide guests with wool blankets—and potted olive trees dotting the patio. Don’t miss the steak and chips, accompanied by the spicy house sangria. Just make sure to get here early; tables are first come, first served.
Town Hall Hotel & Apartments: Singaporean hotelier Peng Loh made his European debut by transforming an Edwardian town hall into a fine-dining restaurant, 98 rooms and apartments, and public spaces that exhibit work by up-and-coming East End artists. The room rates—which are, on average, $250 less than those at other pedigreed hotels in London—are cause for celebration, too. Furnishings are spare and clean-lined, a mixture of Midcentury reissues and new pieces designed by Rare principal Michel da Costa Gonçalves. Conspicuous luxury isn't the order of the day here; one is meant to appreciate having 18-foot ceilings, Tasmanian oak-paneled walls, and original casement windows (and thanks to Rare's subtle ministrations, one probably will). Locals, meanwhile, are coming to sample Viajante, Town Hall's restaurant, where chef Nuno Mendes is turning out consistently imaginative, delicious, seasonal food (despite London's critics meting out only the thinnest, most begrudging praise, as is their bitchy wont).
Viajante: At this experimental East End eatery, adventurous foodies savor a surprise-stocked trip across the globe courtesy of fearlessly creative Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes. Housed in a majestic former town hall, the restaurant comprises two simply chic dining rooms and an open kitchen that offers mesmerizing views of the culinary theatrics. Seasonal prix fixe menus are served "blind" and feature a tantalizing parade of inventive plates which may include a bold galangal and lemongrass-scented confit of chicken sandwich; Iberian pig’s neck with Savoy cabbage and salty explosions of fried caper; and dark chocolate pudding with hazelnut, praline powder and blackcurrant gel.