London’s hipster enclave is a place blessed with brilliant restaurants, avant-garde art and a vibe that’s all its own
Broadway Market, Photo: Dan Annett
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The journey from Hackney to hackneyed isn’t a long one and yet, improbably, the ne plus ultra of sourdough-munching, orange wine-quaffing urban lifestyle neighbourhoods is still, somehow, a place that holds an undeniable allure. Sure, a summer’s night on London Fields often resembles a jamboree of unused extras from a Wes Anderson film, but Hackney is too dynamic to disappear entirely up its own fundament: brilliant restaurants seem to open weekly, bars emerge overnight, and there is always something new to do. The perfectly pleasant Mama Shelter on Hackney Road aside, there isn’t a great hotel so you’re better off staying in nearby Shoreditch, much of which is in the borough but is deserving of a guide all of its own.
Start the day as locals do at London’s number one café-in-a-park, Pavilion, which sits prettily on the side of a large pond in lovely Victoria Park. Either go for the hyper-Hackney option of avocado and poached eggs on its delicious own-baked bread, or order its signature Sri-Lankan brunch which comes with hoppers and dhal. For lunch, head to the small but perfectly formed Little Duck The Picklery on Dalston Lane for lovely modern cooking and all kinds of fermented pickle-y things. Or for the borough’s best pizza, go to buzzy Lardo at the top end of London Fields where kids eat for a mere fiver.
For the borough’s best food, it’s a straight choice between James Ramsden’sPidgin on Wilton Way, where every week head chef Drew Snaith comes up with a completely new four-course no-choice tasting menu of impeccable modern European dishes, or Bright on Westgate Street, with its stripped-back interior, ultra-modern understatedly great food and properly funky wine list.
Or clustered around the top end of Mare Street, at the bottom end of Lower Clapton Road there are three superb Asian restaurants. Head to the always-packed and atmospheric My Neighbours the Dumplings for potstickers and prawn har gow, Lucky & Joy for happily inauthentic Hunan-inspired plates (the cold sesame noodles are worth the journey alone), or the off-the-beaten track Facing Heaven for fully plant-based hipster Sichuan and its mouth-tingling dan dan noodles.
Hackney is blessed with a battery of fantastic pubs, from the nation’s only completely vegan boozer, The Spread Eagle on Homerton High Street (it uses chickpea water instead of egg white in its whisky sours), to the sprawling Crate Brewery in Hackney Wick where in the summer the area’s heavily inked locals spill out onto its riverside terrace drinking its own-brewed craft beer and eating pizza. But our favourite is the dark-walled and atmospheric Cock Tavern on Mare Street, with its 24 beer taps and famous pickled eggs. Wine drinkers should head to the lovely low-lit Sager + Wilde on Hackney Road for cheddar and nduja toasties and a superb list that always includes more than 20 wines by the glass.
The borough might not be home to a single vine but that hasn’t stopped Hackney being one of the world’s great centres of natural wine. For the funkiest of plonks head to sister shops P. Franco on Lower Clapton Road, or Noble Fine Liquor on Broadway Market. Combine a trip to the latter with a visit to the London outpost of Margate-based skincare brand Haeckels, or one of Broadway Market’s three brilliant bookshops, which includes Donlon Books and its wonderful collection of indie publications, zines and esoterica. For mid-century Scandi furniture, paintings and rugs head to Chase & Sorensen on Dalston Lane, or for a little bit of everything check out one of the borough’s street markets: Broadway Market on Saturdays or Chatsworth Road on Sundays.
Hackney’s panoply of great things to do runs from the saintly to the hedonistic. For the former, head to the lovingly restored and heated London Fields Lido for urban (sort of) fresh-air swimming in its 50m pool. For the latter, book yourself in to dinner and a show at The Cockatoo, the new performance space downstairs at Bistrotheque on Wadeson Street. Expect cabaret apocalypse from David Hoyle and crime-solving debauchery from legendary ghost whisperer Séayoncé. For something from either end of the wellness spectrum, beat a path to Shacklewell Lane, where you can have a wild night at The Shacklewell Arms, which hosts nights by local promoter Eat Your Own Ears, or an evening of soul-nourishing at Naomi Annand’sYoga on the Lane, which regularly hosts gong baths and seasonal suppers.
These days, the borough’s art scene isn’t what it was back in its early noughties’ pomp, but long-time Hackney institution Victoria Miro still operates out of its handsome gallery on Wharf Road and its roster of big-name artists – which includes Chris Ofili and Adriana Varejão – means it’s always worth a visit. Cinephiles should head to the Castle Cinema on Chatsworth Road, a crowdfunded passion project with a glorious 100-year-old interior and a lovely bar. And fans of the avant-garde shouldn’t miss Café OTO, a gloriously unpretentious space in Dalston which hosts experimental music of all stripes for one of London’s most knowledgable audiences. As well as improvisation and free jazz nights, expect the occasional side-project performance by a big star like Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.
Hackney’s pre-eminent under-the-radar gem is surely artist and food stylist Rosie Ramsden’s Charcoal Art Club, a glorious combination of great food and life drawing. Charcoal’s in-person events take place down an alley just off Mare Street at Issy Croker and Anna Jones’s beautifully designed studio with its pale pink walls and gorgeous dining room. The evening starts with a series of timed life drawing sessions (some as short as 30 seconds), under Ramsden’s non-judgmental eye, before everyone sits down to eat her amazing food (her focaccia is legendary). All are made welcome, irrespective of talent and experience. Charcoal sticks are provided but those present are encouraged to use whatever they prefer, from biros to brushes. They’re a bit ad-hoc so you’ll have to check the website to see when the next one is but they’re worth the wait. If there’s not one on in London while you’re there, she also does life drawing sessions via Zoom.
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