The Great London Gentrification Pub Crawl
Going on the piss and eating burgers in London's most despised hipster joints.
Once upon a time, they called it "urban renewal", the razing of the old, post-industrial, riverside London and the building of a new citadel of strip lights, buffed steel and teal glass. It was Thatcher, Foster, Mandelson and Harold Shand's shared vision of the future: a new, tough, modern, resolutely urban London that was meant to drag the old city kicking and spitting towards the dawn of a new millennium. The Docklands were the focal point, London's newly useless shipping area perfumed with money, the smell of waterlogged Richardsons victims and rotten oysters soon replaced by the stench of cold cash and hot property.
But in the following years, when London's terror-proof nucleus and hyper-capitalist identity had been established, a new kind of pogrom started up, as if in response to the city becoming too hard, too strong. They called it "gentrification", a form of social cleansing that somehow manages to be both twee and ruthless in equal measure.
In London, the term has come to describe that pyroclastic flow of wet burgers and expensive beer that has turned Dalston into Brooklyn and Stoke Newington into Worthing. It moves through the city in all directions, engulfing any area within bus-reach of the Silicon Roundabout. It leaves behind it an occupied territory where children have long hair, starters are called "small plates" and men dress like characters from O Brother, Where Art Thou?
(Stoke Newington in 2009)
And pubs, ever-fickle and desperate to drum up business (remember Giant Jenga?), have been some of the worst offenders for buying into this shit. Not just in a "£16 for Haddock & Chips!" kind of way, but in a, "Jesus, that's genuinely quite evil" kind of way. They've jacked up their prices, they've put on speed-dating nights, they've started serving steaks on roof tiles. These places are the life's work of people who went to Park Slope once and have since decided to dedicate themselves to establishing some kind of work-wear caliphate in London.
As you can probably tell, I've never really been taken with such places, or the idea of this new London. I go to pubs to watch football, get pissed and stave off the sad realities of my own living room – not to eat good food. We have curry houses for that. But I've always wondered what people do see in these pubs, and if there is any kind of legitimate counter-argument for them benefitting the native populations.
So I decided to link some of the most extreme examples of London pub gentrification in the spirit of another Great British tradition, the pub crawl. Brixton to Clapton, heading South East and then across the river, a drink at every stop. Would I warm to them after a night of Negronis, or would it merely speed up my application for a Cuban passport?
To find out, I set out on this tour of London's most hated pubs.
Stepping out into a stifling South London summer afternoon, our first stop was Brixton Village, formerly Granville Arcade, a rundown, ramshackle consumer favela where shops selling phone cards, cow feet, magic candles and toilet brushes once stood incongruously among each other; unloved, uncared for and unappreciated by even the long-term residents. The fact is that Brixton has long been a buzzy place, with Fridge, The Windmill, Plan B and cheap rents bringing a bohemian crowd into the area as far back as I can remember. But this part of it was always something of a time warp.
In the last few years, however, under the patronage of Jay Rayner, Urban Spoon and thousands of amateur food photographers, the undercover market has become the home to a slew of trendy, rough 'n' ready al fresco restaurants serving everything from sourdough pizza to Pakistani cafe food. It's packed most nights of the week with the kind of people who advertising types would call "young urban tastemakers", and the awards are coming in thick and fast.
But with this sudden change comes the familiar cry of gentrification. A cry that was levelled the loudest at Champagne + Fromage, a "traditional artisanal French store" and champagne bar that riled the local "Yuppies Out" crew so much that they staged a kind of party-cum-protest when it opened. Looking at the place, it was hard to imagine a small deli with a few chairs and bits of sauccisson knocking about the front could be some harbinger of elitist doom, but it did seem oddly out of place, even in Brixton market.
It seemed somehow not ethnic enough, not interesting enough, not cool enough to fit in with the obscure cuisines and herby cocktails. The kind of thing that should, by rights, be in Clapham or some little Sussex town full of people who couldn't stick it out in Brixton any more. But calling it the Reichstag fire of a new London class war seemed a bit much, especially considering Brixton Road has been nigh on indistinguishable from most other urban centres for a good few years now.
Eschewing the inevitable headache and delusions of grandeur the champagne would bring on at such an early hour, I instead went for an Aperol spritz at one of the pizza stalls. My friend Nick – who took all the photos for this article – got himself a bottle of locally-brewed Brixton Ale.
We sat down and breathed in the fishy ambience of the place. Still quiet in the late afternoon, it seemed a long way from the Brixton of old, the Brixton I knew as a teenager. The cold, aggy, brilliant Brixton that always had someone banging a drum somewhere, always smelt of skunk and usually held enormous drum 'n' bass raves where bouncers dressed like SWAT team agents and pilled up Antipodeans got in altercations with the local youts. But then again, it's hard to think about cultural levelling when you're sipping a cold cocktail on a summer's day.
The market does still play host to a few niche, bizarrely laid-out stalls that seem more befitting of the Brixton that most people's memories are made up of. Shops that barely even have tills, let alone gluten-free options. Strange, almost temporary-looking set-ups that appear to have far too much of the kind of stuff nobody ever buys.
Looking on at them, it seemed like somebody had made a conscious effort to ensure these bastions of urban eccentricity weren't going anywhere, and together these disparate parts of the London consumer experience sat together like exchange students in each other's worlds. Just as odd and badly laid out as you'd want London to be, really. Because once a market begins to make sense, it's no longer a market: it's a farmer's market.
The next stop on our petit-bourgeois piss up was Peckham Rye, an area that every freelance journalist in the country with a looming rent bill has called "the new" something or other for 30p a word. SE15 has an odd reputation – a place that's somehow evenly synonymous with chirpy cockneys, art students and gangland slayings. It's equal parts flat caps, fitted caps and beanies.
We'd come here not just because the place has generally become more trendy and expensive in recent years, but because some local businesses have come under threat from extreme gentrification – a whole new kind of gentrification that swallows Londoners and shits them out towards Luton.
There are plans to redevelop the area surrounding Peckham Rye station, "improving the passenger experience" by building a grand, Venetian-style square ripe for a Wagamama and a shit water feature. Unsurprisingly, many of the businesses surrounding the station, some of which have been there for decades, aren't happy, and many are blaming the increased sense of mobility in the area for bringing in the high street investors.
Bar Story, a hip local cocktail and pizza bar, sits in a strange position within this, itself a kind of economic fable. On one hand, the place is totally synonymous with the gentrification of Peckham – a process that has transformed the local population from these guys to those guys above.
But interestingly, Bar Story now seems to have come under threat from more powerful forces determined to jack its steez and repackage the area yet again. Today, Bar Story lives under the shadow of National Rail's wrecking ball. The original gentrifiers are finding themselves priced out by the kind of grand wealth that comes with government backing, perhaps proving that gentrification is a relative term.
To be honest, I've always liked the place. Perhaps even more so than at Brixton Village, it's hard to argue with good pizzas, a solid happy hour and £6 strawberry daiquiris. I did once get in a fight with some Australian bloke who stole my seat in the garden here, but to me Bar Story has always felt casual, utilitarian and relatively unpretentious.
It's undoubtedly places like this that most people opposed to gentrification would point at and mutter, "Bastards." But I wonder if there's a case to be argued that, as an independent outlet catering to a local community, Bar Story really isn't all that different to the Afro-Caribbean barbers and halal butchers that surround it – it's just that the demographic has changed. And as annoying as you may find a group of mojito-sipping aspiring sculptors, they're a small threat to London when compared to the unregulated property rush land-sliding through the city.
Leaving the purple sediment to crawl back down my Martini glass, we headed south-east, round the back of Queens Road, to pay a visit to the Duke Of Sussex, an OG Peckham boozer that now sits behind steel shutters and security warning signs. The pictures of long-departed Premier League stars gloomily advertising Sky Sports and the chalk signs promising "coffee, cakes and darts" now look like cries for help that were never answered. There was no "Save the Duke Of Sussex" campaign, just a protracted decline, followed by a quick exit.
Pubs were once community hubs, places where young lads, young girls, matriarchs, geezers, old biddies and just about everyone in the area whose doctor would still let them drink congregated to wobble and moan. In contrast, modern London pubs seem to be occupying the same space that coffee shops did in the 90s: community centres for upwardly mobile, young-ish, creative-ish people who think there's no such thing as society.
Our next location was even more depressing. The Job Centre opened a few weeks a back, to the kind of left-wing furore that usually greets human rights abuses and new tax legislation. Run by "The Antic Collective" (nope, me neither) this bar/restaurant/café is so called because it sits on the site of the old Jobcentre Plus in Deptford, an institution that became a lifeline for what remains one of the most deprived parts of the capital.
But instead of ripping it up and starting again – calling the place "DPTFRD HUB", or "Lucy Sixes" or something like that – the people behind the venture decided to pay tribute to the previous occupiers, keeping the name and cladding it out in vintage Thatcher-era décor, like some kind of Cockney experience museum dedicated to the funny old proles whose lives were so calamitous that they had to use the job centre for its original purpose.
Other than the fact it looked like a 70s council flat, the only real nod to the job centre inside was this: the Jobs Board. From a distance, I had a pang of horror, dreading that it might be a menu, with pulled pork and macaroni cheese advertised like they were casual labour vacancies. If that was the case, I was going to have to break all journalistic codes and practices and start shanking someone with a bottle of Brooklyn Lager.
But luckily, they were actually jobs. Although mostly jobs in other trendy pubs; a kind of retro Gumtree advertising placements with some kind of cool cachet. I suppose it's worthy in a way, but something told me that your average Deptford High Street resident probably wouldn’t have much luck applying to be a mixologist at a new cocktail restaurant in New Cross.
In the garden, I got stuck into a Sierra Nevada and a Scotch egg, a kind of hipster ploughman’s for the hungry freelancer. I've always been confused by this new found fetishisation of Scotch eggs and pork pies, with so many flash new pubs selling them at the bar.
I mean, I like Scotch eggs as much as the next Englishman, but I can’t help but think this kind of ancient casual bar snack cuisine they’re nodding to never really existed. Pork scratchings, yes, but Scotch eggs? You buy those from Saino's, not from pubs. To me, pub cuisine will forever be associated with steak flavoured McCoy’s and the occasional reheated beef pie.
Back on Deptford High Street, it appeared that this was a place that had mostly resisted gentrification. The Job Centre is kind of an outpost in uncharted territory, a frontier saloon serving up that Hackney lifestyle to those who've been forced to move here by rising rents. It's a post-Dalstonite version of the pie & mash shops you see in places like Margate and Southend.
But all around were signs that the Gold Rush was a' coming. This sign in particular worried me. I have no objections to people serving good coffee in a working-class area, but this fucking picture is evidence of something more troubling: Bespectacled, moustachioed, overtly Caucasian, this is a beacon to the imminent Deptford emigres. "Come inside, white people," it says. "This is home. This is a safe space without class tension or strange Caribbean vegetables." Of course, deeply rooted in that message is the understanding that a certain type of person will almost definitely not be inside.
But modernisation doesn't only have to come in the form of craft beers and classism. Sometimes new projects, new buildings, new ideas can bring a lot to the area.
The Deptford Lounge, just up the road from the Job Centre, is surely the archetype of what developers should be striving for. A kind of community centre for all ages, encompassing a library, free computers, a school, a cafe and a rooftop ball court, it's a venture that properly serves the needs of the community, and provides that all-important sense of being cared about that something like The Job Centre never could. The building – designed by award-winning team Pollard Thomas Edwards – is beautiful, and actually feels like it deserves to be there, rather than some iceberg from Shoreditch that drifted into the ends.
Heading up towards East London to our next destination, I was reminded of the London I came of age in. I grew up in the suburbs of West London, but most of my family lived in and around the working-class South London of the 90s. The streets seemed somehow emptier in those days, pubs didn't seem to want your business, restaurants were for birthdays and weddings only and the roads were easier to drive through. The place was bigger and colder and tougher than it is now.
But, in what is surely Boris' vision of London, places that serve a community rather than house-ladder rung-jumpers are in the minority. We're being sold a lifestyle, and anything that doesn't fit into that lifestyle is banished into a kind of slum netherworld, where they'll be left to starve as the gentrifiers redevelop their still-warm homes.
I wonder what will be left when these last gatekeepers of the old London are gone, when we're left with a city of prosperous millennials, their long-haired children and little else. Suddenly pubs with England flags and chicken shops with stolen bikes propped up outside don't seem as uninviting as they used to.
But we didn't have time to speculate on this new London too much, because we had more drinking and eating to do.
Hackney's most offensive burger restaurant, The Advisory, seemed the perfect place on our tour of problematic dives. Much like The Job Centre, The Advisory is named after some previous occupants, an Asian Women's Advice centre that took care of the borough's abused and battered women. Today, it is one of the many burger and cocktail joints in this part of the city. It's hard to imagine a less appetising backstory to any restaurant.
But when there are post-modern signs to be put up, taste goes out of the window. The nod to the previous tenants comes in the form of the cringeworthy and almost impressively lame notices that are dotted around the restaurant, all written in the kind of straight, legislative style that the signs in the Asian Women's Centre probably would've had on the walls. You know, that kind of language that normal people with boring jobs use – like that square in your bank, or the dork receptionist at the GP.
And if the decor wasn't abhorrent enough, the fact that the table of guys sitting opposite made the waitress take a picture of them all about to bite into their burgers was just about the seeds on the bun.
Needing some company, and a second opinion, I invited my friend John along for the ride. John works in digital marketing, so he's exactly the kind of yuppie bastard that these places are supposed to appeal to. We both ordered the chicken, avocado and Emmental burger, whereas Nick went for the beef and Gorgonzola, all washed down with a round of Golden Pale Ales.
The food was horrific. Bland, stodgy, stale, overpriced, oversized bourgeois swill. The onion rings looked like supermarket Danish Pastries, and the pretentious lettuce leaf they placed in each burger was the size of an Elizabethan ruff. Three burgers, drinks and three sides set us back over 50 quid. I don't say this lightly, but it was one of the worst meals I have ever had, and perhaps a new nadir in London's obsession with the Man vs. Food dream.
The city has been invaded by places like this, serving bad food at big prices and justifying it by putting them in a cool part of the world, with a "sassy" attitude. London has an incredible food culture at its doorstep, with thousands of Turkish, Vietnamese, Indian, Nepalese and Korean restaurants at its fingertips, yet for some reason it's this kind of shite that people fetishise, because they play "Niggas In Paris" in there and the chefs have tattoos. It's cuisine that has nothing to do with London, and barely anything to do with food.
As John left, I asked him what he thought about The Advisory. "If I ever move back to Hackney, you can shoot me," he replied. And heading up Mare Street towards Clapton, I was reminded of how much the area has changed, even in the time I've known it. I remembered coming to a party here when I was 17, a girl telling me that it was "just north of Brick Lane". The place was desolate, quieter than its reputation for random shootings suggested. A long thoroughfare of motorbike garages, empty off-licences and dead pubs. It felt cold, wide, suburban.
A few years later I was here for the riots of 2011, when local youths reigned in chaos, pulling bundles of expensive gear from the shops in the narrows, later on that night we came back and watched The London Fields Boys patrolling the area, the fires still burning in the eyes of their Staffies.
Now, it reminds me of Clapham before Clapham turned into Kingston and Kingston turned into Huddersfield. Soon enough, the cool lot will move out, and we'll be left with only thick-tied Foxton's boys and the circle of Boris' London will be complete; its previous residents either fleeing to the 'zones or lying cold in the ground.
As the bus turned onto Lower Clapton Road, we reached our final stop, the granddaddy of them all. The place that inspired more outrage, more hysteria, more gentrification discourse than anywhere else: The Bonneville. Opening just a few months ago, the pub became notorious due to a series of official tweets it dropped after a local kid ran into the place nursing a stab wound and getting blood everywhere. The tone was less than sympathetic, laced with derision and annoyance at the thuggish locals and their ambience-ruining stabbing culture.
There was a protest outside, a flurry of think-blogs and many apologies for the tweets. Apparently the member of staff who shot their mouth off has subsequently been fired, but that hasn't stopped the name of the place becoming mud among the E5 intelligentsia. Naturally, it was the perfect place for the end of our odyssey, our boozy, locally sourced Ithaca.
But you know what? The Bonneville is just a bar. A very pretentious, slightly misguided, actually-fairly-reasonably priced bar in a part of town that's going through a lot of changes. It's not some kind of bunker of evil in the heartland of decency, it's just a poncey bar that made the mistake of handing its Twitter account to somebody who clearly isn't well-versed in the social sensitivities of the area or human compassion in general.
Yes, what was said was abhorrent, but it's indicative of the kind of ignorance that is typical of the rest of the borough's cultural immigrants, not just that of a particular bar. The cocktails were good, the food looked much better than The Advisory's, the waiters wore braces, some bloke in a moustache tried to engage the barman in a discussion about whiskey. It is what it is, merely a single representative of a problem that is so much wider that really, it feels quite pathetic to pick on them.
London's problems will not be solved by beating up people who drink Martinis, or by banning craft beer and reinstalling Carling taps, or by giving out David Simon books to everybody who runs a pub's social media account. They'll be solved when we try to solve the bigger problems in the city, surrounding rent control, local priorities and community integration. A place like the Bonneville is merely the olive on top of a whole cocktail of evil.
As our bus trundled through the busy streets that come with hot summer nights, I thought about how for many people London is a city of memories that have been taken away from them. Places they'd loved torn apart in the name of creating something "better", something better that is resolutely not for you.
You'd have to be a social warrior far stronger than myself to deny the appeal of drinking cocktails among good-looking people, in a part of town that somehow feels on the up, rather than say, drinking tepid pints of Caffrey's in an Irish pub in Dollis Hill. And it's hard not to agree that such places bring a sense of vitality. But watching this new city unfold in front of me as we sat on the top deck, half-pissed and sweating into the seats, it became clear that there is a dream of a kind being sold here.
It's a dream aimed only at people who've just moved here, or people who are visiting – be it as tourists or students. It's not a dream for people who live here. The new London is a dream that strangers are dreaming in your bed. It's too expensive and too intense to mean anything to anyone for more than 15 minutes. London's new drinking and dining lifestyle is the Madame Tussauds and The London Dungeon of the AirBnB demographic. Nobody within any real community will ever interact with it.
And don't forget, these bars and artisan spots are not here forever. A new gentrification lurks in the shadows that will soon eat them up. Today's restaurateurs are merely prospectors, the willing few happy to mop the blood off their floors until the place is safe enough to put a Wagamama in. If you want to see what will happen to Hackney, look at Angel.
London is a city that's up for sale, and soon enough the Caipirinhas will turn to Costas, and old London will flee further and further into the sprawl.
More on gentrification:
- pub crawl
- Craft Beer
- South East London
- Vice Blog
- pretentious bullshit
- The Advisory
- Bar Story
- upwardly mobile
- art students
- changing face of London
- Brixton Village
- negronis are the cocktail world's answer to gentrification
- Peckham Rye
- sourdough pizza
- The Job Centre
- scotch eggs
- cocktail bars
- The Bonneville
- shit food served on slate is still shit food