Once a gastronomic desert, trendy Dalston in north-east London is taking off as a food and drink destination – perhaps an inevitable consequence of its easy Overground connections, and the juxtaposition of affluent City workers now living side-by-side with hipsters. This has led to an explosion of upmarket wine bars and bistros, yet venerable institutions such as Arthur’s Café still remain. The Palate team went to check out the area, finding it somewhat of a mixed bag but with some hidden gems…
495 Kingsland Road, London, E8 4AU
Something, or rather someone was missing when we walked into Arthur’s Café. Arthur Woodham, son of the original Arthur who opened the Dalston greasy spoon in 1935 died in January, aged 91. Until recently, Arthur would be there every day in a pristine white coat serving customers, his accent belonging to an East London that now seems on the verge of being swept away by gentrification. When you sit down you can almost hear the clock ticking on the place…
This café is not a mere provider of sustenance. It is a purveyor of nostalgia
If you’re used to London’s more high-end experiences, you may be a little apprehensive. Arthur’s looks like a Gray’s Inn Road sandwich shop dressed up for the set of Trainspotting; a visible layer of grime covers the tiled walls and tiny furniture designed to be used by the pre-McDonalds generation haphazardly arranged. Yet, gratifyingly, it is chock full of real Londoners the Labour Party could only dream of having put together. At breakfast, Arthur’s serves up a fry-up with the most perfect sausages – almost uniformly crisp on the outside and explosively juicy within. Tea is £1 and the colour of Donald Trump’s face. Safe to say, there is no avocado toast. Lunchtime sees classics such as liver and bacon, lamb chops and shepherd’s pie put up on the sliding board menu. The steak is always sirloin, not bavette, onglet or whatever off-cut of beef Flat Iron manages to pass off as steak.
On this visit we tucked into roast chicken, chips and peas, all for a grand total of £6.50. It comes with stuffing and a choice of two sauces: brown or red. The chicken is cooked perfectly, firm but still moist. The chips are still hand cut and fried in new oil. Is it the best roast chicken in the world? Certainly not. But it’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to be lunch, gorged quickly and washed down with builder’s tea. It is food that is almost meant to be taken for granted, not artistically plated for the Instagrammers and their ilk.
Arthur’s grandson James now runs the café, and thankfully he seems to have kept everything the same, despite the world around it changing so quickly (recently a yoga studio opened a few blocks down the Kingsland Road, joining the artisanal pizza shops and cocktail bars that have spread malignantly along the old East London Line). As we left we stole another look at Arthur’s uncertain if that meal would be our last there. This café is not a mere provider of sustenance. It is a purveyor of nostalgia, harkening back to an era someone our age could only imagine a connection to, yet have somehow always known. A feeling free to those that can afford it, but very expensive to those that can’t.
Little Duck – The Picklery
69 Dalston Lane, London, E8 2BF
Our next stop was this new addition to the Ducksoup and Rawduck family (in Soho and Hackney respectively). The sound of a cosy wine bar and diner showed great promise. But oh dear. Oh dear oh dear…
It was stiflingly hot as we walked in, even on a wintry evening. Apart from a couple of small tables on the periphery, the idea here is that everyone sits together around the central showpiece kitchen. Now, this is all democratic of course but if it’s a homely vibe you’re going for then this demands the same level of hospitality to go with it. Alas, this is not the case at The Little Duck, which squeezes profit margin out of everything it can, as if the poor duck itself is being drained of its blood in a press.
The one table idea may not be fatal, but here they cram as many people in as possible, so there is literally no elbow room (not easy when eating pasta, but more on this in a moment). There’s no air con either. All overheads have been stripped out at the expense of customers’ comfort. Add to this the ludicrous mark-ups: a quick survey of the blackboarded menu revealed nut milk at £4, the ominously named ‘daily juice’ at £5.50, and most scandalous of all, a solitary slice of bread with a smear of butter at £2.75.
Hipsters and trustafarians may love it but anyone wanting a printed menu, looked-after wine, a comfortable ambience and fair pricing should look elsewhere
We kept an open mind with the food but this was going to be difficult, the descriptions alone revealing more of the restaurant’s attitude: “tonnarrelli with pecorino” is basically cacio e pepe, and as anyone knows that can be made for under a pound. Here it is £12.50 – why the addition of ‘lamb pancetta’ justifies such a hike in the price we’re not sure. And not only that but these are apparently ‘small plates’ and the staff encourage you to buy several of them (a clever trick which we weren’t going to fall for).
Could The Little Duck be saved by its wine selection? We tried (or rather were upsold) two different natural wines, both of them so acidic we couldn’t finish the glass. Perhaps they use their wines as pickling liquor, who knows?
The straw that broke our backs was watching the chef drop a bit of food on the counter and put it back on a customer’s plate – in full public view. If they’re trying to go for a home-like vibe then it’s misfiring – who would serve food that’s fallen on the kitchen surface to a house guest, let alone a paying customer?
Hipsters and trustafarians may love it but anyone wanting a table and chairs, a printed menu, looked-after wine, a comfortable ambience and fair pricing should look elsewhere as you will, like us, be distinctly unimpressed. Perhaps it’s an example of Dalston going too far. Or maybe it just wasn’t our cup of tea.
Either way, we needed to wash away the pain. We found solace in Newcomer Wines…
5 Dalston Lane, London, E8 3DF
A bohemian shop and bar adjacent to Dalston Junction station, Newcomer’s USP has to be the low mark up on translating a purchase from the deep stock of wine from the shop – the epicentre of the venue – to open bottles to drink alone or with friends. Indeed, the wines are labelled (by the shop) with their “drink-in” price. It’s not unusual to see a wine selling at £20 with a drink-in price of £30. Compare this to the average London restaurant – where you know for a fact that some of the wines priced at £70 or £80 are £13 in your local supermarket.
Coupled with the drink-in option is a small list of wines by the glass, written up on a chalkboard and rotating regularly. Owing to the focus on artisanal wines, you are unlikely to have intimate knowledge of the producers and vineyards supplying Newcomer. On the night of our visit, the theme was distinctly Austrian (which, we understand, is the bar’s go-to country in terms of sustainably grown grapes). The high point was the Zweigelt Kieselstein by producer Claus Preisinger; medium-bodied with vegetal notes and heaps of class.
There is no abundance of seating at Newcomer – but plenty of room to stand, together with a mild, “grown up” atmosphere. They also use quality glassware, which adds to the effect.
If you’re not in the market for Austrian, or are otherwise bonded to the classic producers and blends of France, Italy, USA and so on, then Newcomer might not cater to your tastes. As a drinking destination and an opportunity for research, there is little to bemoan. The low mark-up is a reason in itself to pass through, especially if out and about in East London’s trendiest quarter.
So, Dalston has both hits and misses in its ever-developing dining and drinking scene but there is certainly something for everyone. With the inexorable spread of gentrification to this part of London we’ll have to see how things change, if at all.
Words and photography by Cristian Ley, J A Smith and Jervan Khou
495 Kingsland Road
69 Dalston Lane
5 Dalston Lane