At the top of Deptford high street in South East London is a bright white, glass-fronted bar. The interiors are on point: green plants frame the windows and minimal interiors give it a Scandinavian look. Stockton, recently opened by longtime resident Gordon McGowan, certainly stands out against the grey streets, budget supermarkets, and old man pubs that surround it.
But the purpose of this impeccably designed bar that presides over the high street is to direct attention towards its smaller, less obvious cousin: Buster Mantis, a casual Jamaican bar and restaurant also owned by McGowan, five minutes walk away under a railway arch.
“I found Stockton at the exact same time as I found Buster Mantis, and I fell in love with both of them in different ways,” McGowan tells me when I arrive at Stockton on a sunny Thursday morning. “I loved the idea of having both of them, and both of them doing distinctly different things. Even though we set our sights on Buster Mantis and making it what it is, a small part of me always checked back at this place.”
Finally, two years after the opening of Buster Mantis and its establishment as a firm neighbourhood favourite, Stockton launched in July. I glance at the list of cocktails: there’s one called “Benoit” with vodka, black pepper, and strawberry; the “Sloan” with sloe gin, campari, and marmalade; and many more similarly bizarre-sounding names. Speaking of which, I have no idea why the bar is called “Stockton.” Am I missing something?
“I had this concept at the time, four years ago or whatever … ” McGowan says, then pauses for a moment. “At this point, I'll probably show you a prop.”
He jumps up off his seat, heads behind the bar, and brings back a picture frame. Inside it is a basketball card.
“When I was a kid growing up in Jamaica, I was always a big fan of this man: John Stockton,” McGowan explains, pointing to the picture. “John Stockton used to play for a team called the Utah Jazz, back in the 80s and 90s, and he wasn't a very glamorous player but he played with a bigger teammate, and helped his team make excel.”
“Like a playmaker?” I ask.
“Yeah, exactly,” says McGowan. “He always used to play with one big teammate called Karl Malone, and the two of them just became very legendary for being a duo.”
“It was always Malone scoring baskets,” he continues, “but if it hadn't been for Stockton then you could argue that Malone wouldn't have been nearly as great. I always liked the idea of having a small place on the high street that was a lot more prominently located, and that we could use to help people know about Buster Mantis—to kind of assist it. So, this could be the Stockton to the Malone that is Buster Mantis.”
Huh. Well, this is a subject I didn’t anticipate covering when coming to check out a new bar in South London. I listen obligingly, taking note for any future pub quiz rounds on niche basketball facts.
“The cocktails are all Utah Jazz teammates. Well, mostly,” explains McGowan. “We've had one person realise it.”
“Do they get a free cocktail if they get it right?” I ask.
He laughs. “I'm too cheap for that.”
The year of John Stockton’s team—1998—also coincides with the year McGowan moved to the UK.
“I grew up in Jamaica and I moved here when I was a teenager,” he tells me. “Buster Mantis is my Jamaican side and Stockton is more my British, South London side. I moved around here and I've lived here ever since.”
Opening Stockton has allowed McGowan to explore both ends of his personal culinary spectrum. At Buster Mantis, you’ll find guava and coconut-based cocktails, jerk chicken, and plantain. At Stockton, however, the cocktails are eclectic and guest chefs invited for kitchen residencies offer dishes that range from vegan tacos to Lebanese sharing plates.
“Here, we could be a little more free,” McGowan explains. “When I lived in Jamaica, it was quite narrow but moving here I discovered so many kinds of cultures, different foods, and [types of] music, and I wanted here to reflect that more.”
“[Buster Mantis] is based on my childhood,” he concludes, “whereas [Stockton] is more based on my adulthood.”
We turn back to the cocktail menu. “There are Asian influences in them, there are Nordic influences in them, there's Italian. There's lots of different influences, nationalities, and ingredients that you wouldn't find in Jamaica, but you would find in South London because you've got everything.”
With Stockton located in an area as diverse as Deptford—one home to a large Afro-Caribbean community, as well as students from the nearby Goldsmiths University, young professionals, and families—what kind of bar does McGowan want it to be?
“I do places that I would want to go to,” he says, explaining that Buster Mantis is the kind of restaurant he would have eaten at in his 20s. Stockton fulfils his wishes as a 30-something in an area he has “been going out in” since he “was too young to go out.”
"It’s for anyone," he says, "no matter where you're from.”
In a rapidly gentrifying area like Deptford (home to a bar named after a job centre, criticised when it opened in 2014 for being the worst manifestation of gentrification), I ask whether McGowan feels a particular responsibility—even as a local—to the neighbourhood when opening a place like Stockton?
He thinks for a moment.
“Out of all of the quote-unquote “posh” [places], Stockton and Buster Mantis are two of the only ones actually done by someone who's from here,” he says. “Not even the posh ones, that's any of them, actually. But then … how much does that matter?"
Unsurprisingly, we do not find a solution to the problem of gentrification, so decide to move onto drinking. Despite it being a strangely warm October day (and also 11 AM), it only feels fitting that McGowan creates an autumnal cocktail for me to sample.
We opt for one named after Utah Jazz basketball player Greg Ostertag: a mix of bourbon, salted caramel syrup, creme de cacao, and hazelnut milk. It also contains coffee, making it almost a morning cocktail.
McGowan begins to measure the bourbon. “25 millimetres. Is it 25? I feel like I’ve put in too much.”
He checks the recipe. “Oh no, that’s correct.”
I take a sip. This should be a fun morning.