Inside the London Bar Inspired By a Jamaican Childhood
Londoner Gordon McGowan grew up in the small Jamaican town of Mandeville. Two years ago, he opened a bar that pays homage to his “beloved little boring town.”
Bar owner Gordon McGowan was born in South East London. He moved to Mandeville, Jamaica when he was two. Far from the stereotypical image of Jamaica, McGowan's experience in Mandeville, which he affectionately refers to as “my beloved little boring town,” was less tropical paradise and more rural simplicity.
“It's not on the seaside or the beach,” he says. “It's up in the mountains and it's a little bit colder than everywhere else.”
After spending a core part of his childhood in Mandeville, McGowan moved back to the UK aged 14. But two years ago, when he opened a bar and restaurant in Deptford, the beloved little town became a key source of inspiration. Buster Mantis—named for Jamaica’s first Prime Minister, Alexander Bustamante—is a different kind of Jamaican eatery, one that approaches its food and cocktails from a place of innate authenticity.
Sitting under two looming railway arches, Buster Mantis isn't immediately identifiable as a Jamaican bar and restaurant. But Mandeville's humble charm has influenced much of what you see once you step inside.
“What I wanted to do here was have slight nods to Mandeville in the decor,” explains McGowan. “So we have a lot of greenery and natural wood that reminds me of there, but not overtly so.”
With McGowan’s mum Janet credited for the creation of each dish, Buster Mantis is the result of his love for the food he grew up eating, combined with his own business and marketing know-how.
“I'm passionate about my mum's cooking," McGowan says. "She cooks better than most mums. And I know everyone's going to say that but she's actually proven it. Alongside that, I do a bit of everything. So I run the bar, serve food, and take the pictures. I do the graphic design for the most part, as well as sweeping and cleaning the toilets.”
“It's a small business so you end up doing a bit of everything. I'm kind of the Renaissance man, but master of none," he jokes.
The menu celebrates classic Jamaican staples, alongside modernised dishes with an international twist. So while traditionalists can rely on the ackee and saltfish, boneless jerk chicken thigh, and fried plantain, someone with a more adventurous palette has the option of trying the red kidney bean and thyme hummus (a customer favourite) or the jerk jackfruit roti wrap, which is popular with vegetarians.
“We had to have the jerk chicken because you can't have a Jamaican place without it,” says McGowan. “So I think we used that as the foundation.”
While Janet doesn't work in the Buster Mantis kitchen full-time, she stops by daily to check in on things, and her influence and vision is ever-present.
“As opposed to learning to cook over here, my mum learned to cook Jamaican food from Jamaicans in Jamaica, and that's a big deal,” McGowan explains, adding, “For us it was never, ‘I know what would work well, let's do Jamaican food.’ Instead it was like, 'Let's do Jamaican food or do nothing, because we can't do anything else.’ I respect places more that do whatever comes naturally, as opposed to just cynically doing something because they think it will sell.”
He laughs, “Maybe that's why I'm not a millionaire.”
In an area like Deptford, which is gradually succumbing to the effects of gentrification, you could be forgiven for assuming that Buster Mantis was just another soulless establishment cashing in on a current trend—especially as it's more upscale than your typical West Indian eatery. Aware of the area's changing dynamic, McGowan recognises the influence that the “out with the old, in with the new” shift has had on Deptford's restaurant scene.
“There's always been good food in Deptford, but what there is now is more food that speaks to I suppose the new people coming in,” he says. “It's marketed in a more modern package, for want of a better term.”
But as a South East Londoner who grew up in Jamaica, McGowan has true ties to both the food and drink he serves, and the area and its people.
“I mean, you can look at the customers that we get. It's much more of a diverse range of people that come in here, as opposed to any of the new places in the area. What I'm quite proud of is that we've managed to bridge that gap between the old Deptford and the new Deptford.”
Like everything else about the place, each of the cocktails at Buster Mantis are inspired by life in Mandeville.
“They're soft references,” says McGowan. “Such as the Bishop Gibson, which is the name of a high school round the corner from where we lived.”
It's a blend of Cognac, banana liqueur, coconut water, fresh cream, dragon stout reduction, and cashews.
“The brown and white colour of it reminded me of Bishop Gibson High because they used to have a khaki and white uniform.”
Then there's the Cecil Charlton, a mix of thyme-infused scotch whiskey, sweet vermouth, smoked syrup, rock salt, egg white, and lime.
“Cecil was the mayor of Mandeville for God knows how many years,” McGowan explains.
McGowan gets to share the food he's eaten and loved his whole life with both Deptford locals and those who come from further afield to sample his offerings. Now firmly established with a slew of glowing reviews and a loyal customer base, does he have plans to expand Buster Mantis to one of the capital's more sought after areas?
“I couldn't do something like this in Shoreditch or Hackney, where a lot of these sorts of businesses are popping up," he says. "If it didn't work here then it didn't work, but I was never going to try somewhere else because this is the only thing I know.”