It’s Thursday afternoon and I’m knocking on the window of a closed pub, pressing my face against the glass like a crazed alcoholic looking for a 3 PM mad one. Despite appearances, I’m not looking for weekday pint, rather I’m trying to get into The Spread Eagle: London’s first entirely vegan pub.
Situated on Homerton High Street, The Spread Eagle is inconspicuous. There’s no name on the blue building—its only identifier is a giant golden eagle above the entrance. The word “vegan” is nowhere to be seen, and I’m starting to doubt whether I’m in the right place.
Eventually, co-founder Luke McLoughlin appears at the door and lets me in. It’s an hour before the pub is set to open and deliveries are arriving for the kitchen, the general manager is giving a tour to new staff members, and two women are having a conversation about social media. A man sitting on one of the sofas types frantically into his laptop.
The pub may have only opened last week but business already seems to be booming.
“We wanted to keep it on the down low, just for locals, but it was absolutely hammered,” Meriel Armitage, fellow Spread Eagle founder, tells me of their recent soft launch. "The reception to it has been incredible. You know when you walk into somewhere where everyone is so fucking happy? That's what it was like.”
If you don’t recognise Armitage’s name, you might have heard of her food pop-up, Club Mexicana. The vegan food joint, launched four years ago, has locations at food markets in Shoreditch and Camden, and is famed for its faux-meat and fish tacos. Armitage is very clear: Club Mexicana is about “not giving a fuck about the general perception of veganism.” The pop-up will have a permanent kitchen within the pub, with Armitage taking care of the salty bar snacks and McLoughlin running the completely vegan bar.
The idea for The Spread Eagle began, Armitage tells me, at a London food festival where Club Mexicana outsold a neighbouring barbecue stall. In the massive queue for “tofish” tacos—and returning throughout the day—was McLoughlin.
“They [McLoughlin and his girlfriend] came to all our supper clubs,” says Armitage, “and they came to our wedding, and a friendship developed out of that. We've always talked about doing something, and then [McLoughlin] decided to buy his local.”
McLoughlin, who works in medicine technology alongside running The Spread Eagle, came to the decision to buy the pub with his business partner when they were doing catering work at a festival.
“We were at Secret Garden Party,” McLoughlin remembers, “and [my business partner] said, ‘Shall we open a pub?’ I was drinking a pint of vodka—”
I stop him there. “I’m sorry, did you just say a pint of vodka?”
He backtracks. I’m not sure whether it was a simple slip of the tongue or he’s terrified of making public his penchant for giant glasses of spirit.
“There was some tonic in there, I think … ” he says finally. “We came back, a few months passed, the local pub came on the market.”
And that was that.
Armitage is right: the pub is fun. It’s bright, there are velvet sofas in colours that match the dark blue walls, and the loos are so beautiful McLoughlin says that they’re his favourite rooms in the building. But what was The Spread Eagle like before its vegan reincarnation?
There’s a telling silence. One that says, “the old pub was quite dodge but we don’t want to shit on it in an interview.”
“Ermmmm,” says McLoughlin. “We ran it for about a month or two before the refurb, and it was kind of a football club.”
He continues: “The locals used to come here but if there was a match on, it'd be on very loud in the background, so the demographic was very much male-orientated.”
Despite the quite drastic change from local footie boozer to vibrant, vegan pub, it was important for McLoughlin not to alienate The Spread Eagle’s former regulars, and to keep the pub accessible. This is something that certain parts of the vegan community haven’t been great at—whether that’s with extortionate pricing or holier-than-thou attitudes to ham.
“We've got an allegiance of locals that have been coming to the pub for 60 odd years, and we were really concerned when we took the pub over that they'd feel ostracised,” McLoughlin explains. “We want to give them a pub to come and drink in, somewhere they feel welcome.”
So much so, that he and Armitage went to great lengths to preserve a set of leather bar stools the locals loved. Of course, they couldn’t have leather in a vegan pub, so they re-uphostered them “at quite an expense.”
“At least they feel like they've still retained some of their front room,” McLoughlin says.
Along with the seats, everything in the pub is vegan—all the beer, all the spirits, all the liquor, and all the food. With places like London’s Temple of Seitan or New York’s By Chloe—two successful vegan fast-food joints—there’s nothing strictly new about a vegan eatery distancing itself from the healthy archetypes attached to the word. Saying that, The Spread Eagle is even more surreptitious with it’s animal-free status. The word “vegan” only appears once, in very small font at the bottom of the menu, and as far as I can see, nowhere else in the entire pub.
As if to further prove that The Spread Eagle can function as a “normal” boozer—and that it is definitely not run by puritanical vegans—McLoughlin insists we get some beers in as the interview goes on. Superb.
“I think four years ago [when Club Mexicana opened] it was quite a new thing to be doing,” says Armitage, referring to the wild idea of opening a vegan place that served food with flavour. “All the vegan places around London and everywhere were quite … you wouldn't go into there if you weren't a vegan.”
“The food was also very unexciting,” she says. “I don't want a bean chili.”
“Or a tomato pasta,” McLoughlin adds.
London’s food scene has certainly changed since then, and it’s the places deep-frying fake chicken or selling oozy macaroni “cheeze” that are selling out at food festivals, not the identikit burger joints.
“I started Club Mexicana it was out of desperation. I just had nowhere to eat,” explains Armitage. “The change over the past 18 months has been big.”
And how much has the controversial, much reviled “clean eating” trend contributed to that, does she think?
Armitage sighs. “I hope not. I think that clean eating was a weird fad that happened, and it's annoying that it happened before veganism. I think they were happening in parallel and they're not really related.”
The Spread Eagle’s food is anything but clean and, a few beers in, I’m glad. I wolf down a Mexican fried “chick’n” burger dripping in mustard mayo, insanely good triple-fried chipotle potatoes, and some vegan scallops that I order out of pure curiosity. How the fuck you veganise scallops?
“It’s been really fun to create this menu,” says Armitage. “We're able to do a little beer pairing menu. I love bar snacks. We have chips and guac. We have esquitas—street corn. In terms of flavour, I'm all for lime, chili, salt, and coriander.”
McLoughlin jumps in as I wipe up mayo with my burger.
"And tequila," he adds.
Is it too early for a shot?