Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Hackney's best new restaurants 2014

I started off 2014 predicting that the Mare Street and Lower Clapton Road axis in Hackney would flourish with exciting new restaurants, becoming more of a destination for eating and drinking out. And lo it came to pass: the area saw an unprecedented amount of new openings, not just on the main axes, but in the surrounding areas of Homerton, Hackney Downs, and around Dalston Lane.

Lower Clapton Road has changed the most - and going through the list of new (food) openings in the last year, let alone all the other shops that have opened, makes me feel exhausted. New restaurants have been distinctly classy and grown up, with Verden, Little Ivy's, the Bonneville, Yard Sale and Pie Franco opening within a few months of each other and attracting praise, custom and occasionally controversy from across London, and even in national press. Meanwhile supper clubs upstairs at Palm 2 seem to do a roaring trade, and Candela has come and gone. Over on Chatsworth Road, the big news was the opening of the luxury Spar supermarket, with a fancy (and actually very good) burger bar and a luxury restaurant upstairs.

Down Mare Street way, Raw Duck's opening at a bigger premises on Richmond Road was met with widespread acclaim, while Broadway Market has seen new openings from sourdough pizza kings Franco Manca, snazzy butchers Hill and Szrok, the revamped Cat and Mutton, and fancy Thai  residency Som Saa.

Further south, Paradise Row in Bethnal Green is newly home to a handful of new restaurants and bars located under its arches, most notably Mission E2 - a wine bar and restaurant, with a giant palm tree inside and impressive selection of well-priced Californian wines.

Towards Hackney Downs, Lardo have opened up a petite pizza restaurant off Amhurst Road, Hash E8 on Dalston Lane has become my favourite spot for a porky brunch, and Hand of Glory is a gorgeous pub with great beers on tap and high quality kitchen residencies. You'd never know it was 5 mins from Kingsland High Street.

Homerton's new openings have been mostly pubs - the Adam and Eve and the Jackdaw and Star joining The Plough on Homerton High Street, while the Gun on Well Street is a lovely little saloon bar.

Dalston continues to see lots of new openings, including mid-market chains like The Diner, Premier Inn and Costa Coffee. The more interesting restaurants open off the main drag of Kingsland High Street. Steve Parle's Rotorino has brought fancy Italian cooking further down Kingsland Road near the intriguing-sounding Fan TongLucky Chip have got a permanent space in a disused car park just off Dalston Lane, and the Pond has brought the tortuous concept of modern Hawaiian cuisine to a fully decked out warehouse off Gillet Square.

But with all the hype and excitement comes a new band of generic, half-arsed restaurants ready to ape an aesthetic to blend in to New Hipster Hackney. Chatsworth Road in Clapton now has three such restaurants and cafes, Lower Clapton Road a couple too - with exposed brick, industrial fittings, ramshackle furniture and slightly too loud music all there to distract you from the average quality, average price food you're getting. It's old hat for Stoke Newington and Dalston, which have housed generic 'trendy' restaurants for some time, as investors piggy back on the coattails of more interesting new businesses.

It's been the year of the backlash too. In 2013 and 2014 house prices in Hackney grew by almost 50%, rents by a similar amount. The number of restaurants and cafes opened could well represent a doubling or tripling of what was there in 2012 in some parts of the borough, as Hackney firmly becomes, and feels like, a more expensive kind of place. In one of the poorest areas in the country, basic living costs are increasing as benefits are cut and low wages stagnant - and the streets and faces are changing dramatically. Combined with suburban disdain for l'hipster, restaurants and cafes in East London quickly feel the heat of the spotlight when they respond insensitively.

I don't believe that this pace of change can continue. I see the last two years as a mega adjustment, and I expect to see a lower number of new restaurants opening in 2015, but with a few trends...

The Mare Street axis will continue to gentrify apace. The kind of snazzy restaurants opening in Dalston, Haggerston and Shoreditch will make their way to the arch spaces around London Fields station, such as the fancy-sounding Il Cudega, which will specialise in the cuisine of the Lombardia region. Further up, the fancy ramen joint Tonkotsu is set to open on Narrow Way in January. It will be the first of its kind to open on this stretch, and could pave the way for other restaurateurs drawn to the road's scruffy, slightly down-at-heal charm. New openings in the Mare Street area will be fuelled by the impending arrival of the Hackney Fashion Hub, which will seem a lot more tangible as 2015 trucks on.

Asian and fusion flavours will have a greater influence. You can't move for modern British, pizza, burgers and dude food, and there's plenty of French and Turkish cuisine to be had. Despite a long tradition of Vietnamese restaurants opening on Kingsland Road and Mare Street, we're only starting to see the influence of Asian flavours in a small number of newer openings, such as Rita's and Raw Duck. Dalston newbie Fan Tong appears to be fusing eclectic Asian flavours with British ingredients, and I'd expect to see a bit more of this in some of 2015's more interesting new openings. Bring on the kimchi!

More interesting openings outside of Hackney. Areas like Walthamstow and Leytonstone have both old and new interesting restaurants, but places like Tottenham, Leyton and Forest Gate have seen less of the new. As more people are priced out of Hackney AND Walthamstow AND Leytonstone, I'd expect a sourdough pizza restaurant or two to open in these parts of town.

More chains and more generics. As business rents increase, it will be harder for small businesses to afford to offer quality, interesting food at a price people are willing to pay. This means more low quality generic restaurants will open, skimping on ingredient quality to meet demand. Not necessarily overlappingly, mid-market chains will find their model at an advantage in the area. Nando's, Costa and The Diner are already in the area, and I wouldn't be surprised if a Pizza Express or similar opens on Stoke Newington Church Street or on the ground floor of a Dalston new build development.

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