Over two balmy days in a formerly dingy East London back alley last summer, eight of the city’s best bars competed to make the best gin and rum cocktails the city had ever tasted. The Twitter-driven events – Ginstock and Rumstock – attracted several thousands of thirsty people in two days. Both were part of a weekend celebrating the British Street Food Awards and the 10-year anniversary of Jamie Oliver’s restaurant Fifteen.
The concept was simple: Roughly a dozen booze brands, from independent to Bacardi, paired with different bars to dream up delicious cocktails that the public would then drink, compare and (rather drunkenly) vote on. I’d tell you who won but everything that came after my fourth mojito/pineapple punch is a bit fuzzy. But what I do remember is a wonderful sense of abandon. People sat on hay bales munching Korean pork buns and crispy fried chicken from food trucks. Reggae thumped from the sound system and a DJ played in the “lounge” (a small covered tent with picnic tables) while onlookers chased their cocktails with craft beer.
It was almost wild. And yet it’s also the cool new way of eating out in London – a haphazard world in which the pop up, the one-off and the temporary trump the old-fashioned, fine-dining experience.
The problem for the intrepid traveller, of course, is how to navigate this brave new food world. Offbeat and semi-hidden, it can seem out-of-reach to the outsider. But with the right tips, and access to social media, London’s scene opens like a flower.
With this in mind, I meet Jonathan Downey, the man behind Rumstock and Ginstock, in the main-floor lounge of Rotary Bar, his East London restaurant and private club. The place, which officially opened a few weeks ago, is a former pizza joint/greasy Chinese buffet/basement band venue transformed into a laid-back bar/diner/cocktail club.
In addition to being an established restauranteur and clublican, Downey is mentor to many in a food and drink scene so in flux few know how to navigate it, let alone become a part of it. In his 40s, he is a man who can tell you where the cool new place is before it’s been chewed over by the critics and discovered by the crowds. He is a prized contact: the guy who knows a guy who knows a guy – and that makes him a guy to know.
Downey encourages young chefs and bartenders to start small, be nimble and grow organically. He’s been a big supporter of the Young Turks, for example, a group of three iconoclastic chefs who took the city by storm with pop-up supper clubs, most recently in the upstairs room above the Ten Bells (a.k.a. the famous “Jack-the-Ripper” pub). Isaac McHale, one of the trio, opened up the Clove Club in the refurbished Shoreditch Town Hall last month. Time Out called the nine-course, no-choice menu “both accessible and obscurantist.”
Tonight, though, Downey takes me to the Sebright Arms, a divey East End neighbourhood bar on a residential street. Inside, the decor is authentic old-man pub, but the sound system is good and the place is crawling with hipsters in plaid shirts and jeans. The table toasts with “picklebacks” (shots of rye and pickle juice) and then we dig into burgers and fries from Lucky Chip, a food truck that has started distributing to two permanent locations – the Player (one of Downey’s Soho clubs) and the Sebright Arms. “I love this place,” Downey says. “The guy who makes these burgers DJs on Friday nights.”
It seems the traditional restaurant model has all but evaporated here. Downey himself took a short-term lease on Rotary Room, did a $313,000 (£200,000) reno that looks like a million bucks, and while he hopes the place persists, he’s happy to recoup his costs (plus sizable profits) and move on if it doesn’t.
“There’s no point in trying to build a long-term following any more,” he says. “The number of places that open in this town every month is staggering – in the hundreds. People want new places and they can have them. You can’t fight it.”
Not only new places – but new experiences. Spring and summer is peak season for event-based eating in the United Kingdom. One example: Taco Wars, the latest event from Downey’s Tweat Up side project, takes place May 18 at Merchant Yard in Hackney. And at the Wilderness Festival in the Cotswolds (Aug. 8 to 11), artists such as Noah and the Whale, Empire of the Sun and Martha Wainwright will share centre stage with feasts and culinary events thrown by the likes of Yotam Ottolenghi (once called “the man who sexed up vegetables”), celebrity chef Mark Hix and Russell Norman, owner of Soho’s restaurants of the moment Polpo and Spuntino.
For now, it’s on to the Beagle, a new bar-by-night, coffee-shop-by-day housed in three glassed-in brick railway arches next to Hoxton Station. The crowd is young and diverse, the look East End casual. “This is the place of the moment,” Downey says, “but cool places move over quickly.” We order a round of drinks. A Beagle martini for me (potato vodka, Spanish gin, caraway and coriander bitters), a rhubarb gin and tonic for him and a Silver Fox (gin, vermouth, sherry, Lillet and lavender) for the table.
I am skeptical of non-traditional cocktails, but the taste is otherworldly. I savour my drink and wonder whether I’ll ever come here again. Probably not, and that’s okay. In this accelerated ebb and flow the point is to enjoy things as they come, to seize the moment – because everything in life is temporary. Especially this crowd, this night, this particular caraway martini.
IF YOU GO
The Rotary Room promises to be open “until the end of the year.” But note: you need a membership to partake (it’s open to anyone who can “act like a grown up”), which also grants access to other restaurants/bars in the Rushmore Group. The upstairs Rotary bar and diner is open to the public. 70 City Road, London; rtryrm.com
Every Friday night until June, some of London’s best food trucks serve up treats at Street Feast at the Merchant Yard near Haggerston Station. streetfeastlondon.com
Empire of the Sun headlines the musical side of the Wilderness Festival in the Cotswolds, which also features “long table banquets, feasts and gastronomy.” Aug. 8 to 11; wildernessfestival.com
The Sebright Arms offers up microbrews on tap and Lucky Chip burgers, hot dogs and fries. 31-35 Coate St., London; sebrightarms.co.uk
If you don’t mind the noise of passing trains, try the slow-roasted pork belly and borlotti beans at the Beagle, located right beside Hoxton Station. 397-400 Geffrye St., London; beaglelondon.co.uk
The pop-up restaurant at Ten Bells started by the Young Turks chef collective did so well it’s now permanent. (Well, as permanent as a restaurant can be.) 84 Commercial St.; tenbells.com
The Clove Club offers a $74 (£47) set dinner Monday to Saturday, but an à la carte bar menu is also available. 380 Old St.; thecloveclub.com