How Two Shipping Containers in an Alleyway Became One of East London’s Best Restaurants
All Photos by Tom Griffiths.

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How Two Shipping Containers in an Alleyway Became One of East London’s Best Restaurants

Tia Maria teamed up with MUNCHIES for Coffee and Conversation, a series of conversations over coffee with the owners of some of London's top coffee-serving establishments.
November 25, 2015, 2:39pm

With the launch of the Tia Maria + Coffee Project and a selection of new, innovative serves that unite coffee culture with cocktail hour, Tia Maria is leading the way in coffee cocktails.

To celebrate this, Tia Maria teamed up with MUNCHIES for Coffee and Conversation, a series of conversations over coffee with the owners of some of London's top coffee-serving establishments. We talk about all things Java: the industry, the cocktails, the science, and the steaming mugs of Joe at the heart of it all.

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This time, it's Dandy Cafe, or: How two Australians turned an alleyway into one of East London's favourite new restaurants.

While recent global events might seem not very chill at all, Britain's dining scene is—at the very least—going through something of a golden age. In London especially, quality eateries can be found in every Zone, from Brixton to Bounds Green. Take London Fields, for example, where competition for space is now so dear that chefs are setting up businesses in literal alleyways.

Like Andrew Leitch and Dan Wilson, the two Australians behind Dandy, a shipping container-lined alley that has somehow become one of the best spots for food, wine and coffee in East London (Disclaimer: Dandy has a roof and doors too, so this is sit-down dining, not "street food.")

We recently caught up with Dan and Andy—Dandy—and their unreasonably adorable dog Manny, to find out how they pulled it off.

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All Photos by Tom Griffiths.

Hey Dan, hey Andy! First and foremost: what brought you guys to London? Wilson: I graduated from the University of Queensland in 2009. I met Andy in Brisbane. After university, I trained as an organic sourdough baker, but then decided to get a masters in food culture. So I went to northern Italy, did that for a couple of years, and then moved to London to work in a place called Petersham Nurseries in Richmond.

Leitch: I came to London in early 2013 and did the masters in publishing at UCL. During that period, Dan and I were living together. We were working in cafes and we always talked about doing something of our own.

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And why did you eventually decide to open Dandy? Wilson: This industry is pretty tough, and it's just a lot more enjoyable if you're doing it for yourself, doing it your own way.

Leitch: [Dandy] is kind of like an exercise in scratching an itch. It's something we'd spoken about for a long time. Dandy is nothing like what we had in mind when we first actually started looking for venues. But it got to a point where the opportunity was there and it was kind of put up or shut up.

Was it important to open in this area? Wilson: Not at all. A friend's business partners look after the top floor of the warehouse next to us, and they wanted to convert this site into a kind of "street food" lane, so to speak. This used to be a driveway. It had about 10 tonnes of rubbish in it and these two containers. They offered it to us and we thought it might be a nice thing to build, and we did our best.

Leitch: We were very open to where we would do it. We had very grand ideas when we first started looking for sites, around Broadway Market or wherever,. But unless you've got loads of money you just don't have a chance. For us, this posed a good opportunity because there was none of that. It was dead space. And it took us coming here and looking at it and being like "we can create something out of this dump" to do that.

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How have people responded to the cafe since it opened? Wilson: We were a lot busier than we thought very early on, which has been really nice for us.

Leitch: People have responded well to what we do, but also to the space itself. In some ways it's quite unique. On a miserable day like this it still feels light and open, comfortable. And that's something you don't get with a shop with three flats above.

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Let's talk about your coffee. Is it a big part of your business? Wilson: In many ways, it is. We've turned into a place where even people who work in the coffee industry come to drink. We're able to offer a product that's high quality, consistent, and aligns with the ethos we try to promote with the food and wine.

Leitch: It definitely is a big part of what we do, even if it's not exclusively what people come here for. We're not a coffee shop. But my background is in coffee, and what we've been able to do is apply our knowledge to deliver something that is of a top quality, but without any of the associated pretences and bullshit. For us, it was important for coffee to integrate seamlessly as an element of what we do, rather than being like …

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Like boasting about the excellence of your coffee to anyone who'll listen? Leitch: Yeah. But likewise, if you do know what you're looking for, you appreciate that you can get that here without a fuss.

What goes into selecting your coffee? Wilson: For coffee we work exclusively with Square Mile. They're a roastery I've worked with in the past at different places around London. As far as choosing the coffee goes, like everything else we do, we try to challenge people a little bit—we tend not to use the more standard blends. We don't shock people, but we want them to sit and drink it, and be like "that tastes really interesting."

Why are people happier to spend more on quality coffee these days? Wilson: I think it's a general shift in the markets associated with food. People are looking for origin, they're looking at the treatment of the land, the integrity of the farm in terms of how much they're paid, and how that product gets from A to B. It's becoming clear that these affect not only the taste and the quality, but also the experience. I think when people are now drinking coffee they know that there can be an experience associated with it, there can be more than just a caffeinated beverage. In the same way, there can be more associated with a bottle of wine than getting drunk, more with a plate of pasta than just feeding yourself. This is really bred out of an appreciation for that whole process, from the soil to the cup.

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Do you ever incorporate coffee in your food? Wilson: Sometimes with desserts. We had a great espresso a few months ago that when you added a bit of milk it would give you an almost strawberry-cream flavour. When that was tossed into a dessert with some ice-cream, it would sort of taste like strawberries and cream ice cream.

What's your approach to the menu? Is it seasonal? Regional? Pure experimentation? Wilson: I think it's a combination of those things. We try to take items that are at their best at a certain period of time. Seasonality in the UK is tough one, because, say, a pineapple is never gonna be in season in the UK, but sometimes you can get really great pineapples, and it's nice to be able to use that product. so we search around to try and find suppliers and farmers who are putting out good things and then using those products in a way that exemplifies it, whether it's beetroot, coffee beans …

Have you ever created a dish where you worried that you'd perhaps taken too much of a risk? Leitch: We had a dish that was calamari in a reduced almond and hazelnut milk sauce, with some pink peppercorns. Super delicate. The people who ate it would either flip out and think it was the most amazing thing they'd ever eaten, or they'd go home and trash us on the internet—like "What the fuck was that? It said calamari and it wasn't even fried!" But that's not something that's ever concerned us—polarising people. I'd rather someone went home and trashed us online than have them eat something here and just be like "meh."

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That's a good point. How much do you worry about online reviews? Leitch: You can't get hung up on it too much. I suppose we have the luxury of coming from a position where we don't have many negative reviews. But not everyone has to like what you do. And if you try to appeal to everybody, you're only gonna dilute what it is that you do. Someone asked us recently if there are some things we'd never put on our menu because they're off brand, and the two things we could think of were avocado toast and—having made the mistake of doing it once—pancakes.

Wilson: We had pancakes on the menu for one weekend—heaps of bacon, cream, like really dirty.

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Leitch: And literally no one bought anything else for the whole weekend. We just stood there and made pancakes for two days, and we were like we're never do anything like that again.

Even if it's what the people want? Wilson: If it's what people want, great, but you can kind of get pancakes anywhere. Thing was we were reviewed that weekend. In the review, it was like "We had X and Y and it was great, but next time we'll do what the locals do and we'll get the pancakes." Damnit!

Leitch: We don't want people coming back week after week for the same thing. Otherwise it gets too easy and boring.

You're obviously known for your wines, but was there a point where you decided on wine over, say, cocktails? Leitch: Primarily we went with wine because it was our area of knowledge and interest. Our intention was to have a small selection of cocktails, but for us it came down to a question of honesty. We're not cocktail bartenders, but that doesn't mean we'd want to use cheap spirits. I don't want to have to charge you £11 for a cocktail if it's not gonna be great—and I can't guarantee that. We'd want to seek out small specialist spirits, but then we would also have to do them justice, and we didn't feel like we could.

Wilson: Where there is hope is in one of our friends, who's developing a pre-made Espresso Martini on tap.

Leitch: They do nitrogen charged cold brew coffee on tap, so the idea is to have that but as a cocktail.

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OK, what if you were on a night out or had to fix your own cocktail, what would it be? Wilson: Tia Maria in a White Russian! Or in a Black Russian! It's so good in a Black Russian. That's fucking sick.

What? Wilson: Tia Maria, vodka, and Coke. I hate to tell you, but it's so good. It's fucking tight. I'd say roll the dice with life and ask for a Black Russian with Tia Maria. I mean don't quote me on anyone actually liking it—I've got really weird taste.

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Leitch: Then again, a night out on the town doesn't really exist for us anymore. It tends to be taking home a half empty bottle of wine on Sunday night, finishing that, and going to bed.

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If someone had a first date coming up, would you suggest they go for coffee or cocktails? Dan: Coffee on a date would make me so anxious. I have been on a coffee date and it's awful.

Leitch: You'd be absolutely jacked on coffee.

Wilson: "Can you please correct this coffee and put some Tia Maria in it?"

LOL. Thanks guys.

This article is from Coffee and Conversation, click here to read more.

All Photos by Tom Griffiths.