There’s no point following a guidebook. Sure, a book might point you towards the area, but it’s easy to be distracted from the gems by ultimately unfulfilling sights and bars full of out-of-towners (particularly on a Saturday night). For those of us who live here, Shoreditch encapsulates London’s multifaceted soul, from its gritty urban zones overflowing with creativity to the city’s answer to Silicon Valley.
The area is home to the UK’s first cat cafe, Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium, as well as a mess of bicycle shops, restaurants, markets, canals, parks and pubs. It’s a hub for art and creativity nestled close to Liverpool Street, the stiff-upper-lipped professional centre of London.
Take Beigel Bake, for example. Sitting at the top of Brick Lane, this dingy, crowded shop, complete with pock-marked linoleum and incredibly rude staff, serves the very best bagels in London 24 hours a day. The salt beef bagel, dripping with mustard, is a meal in itself. Tender slabs of beef are haphazardly slapped within a sweet, warm bun. Nestled in its brown paper bag, it is the perfect ambulatory meal for this crammed thoroughfare. At Brick Lane Market itself, open between 9am and 5pm each Sunday, you’ll find fresh fruit, broken chairs, vaguely disturbing paintings and endless ephemera alongside the shops and restaurants (which are also open during the week). It’s also the home of vintage clothing in London, but you might find yourself searching all day for a gem. Instead, head to a couple of carefully curated options.
In the basement of the Old Truman Brewery you’ll find Sunday UpMarket. Racks of unique if occasionally musty items tussle for attention beside newer accessories. The price tags on the bags, fur coats and velvet dresses here may be slightly higher than out on the street, but you’re also far more likely to find something you can’t leave behind.
For those who can’t abide all that pre-owned stuff, there’s Backyard Market, just opposite. New designers – some stocked in stores like Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters, others who’ve only been selling their wares for a couple of weeks – line the covered, yet airy space. At Backyard you can also get a haircut, buy prints direct from artists and find jewellery you can be guaranteed won’t be seen on anyone else.
When you need reviving try Black Cab Coffee Co, where owners Graham Buck and Emmy Osman serve their own blend of South American beans from the back of a quintessential London taxi. The silky, almost honey-scented roast goes perfectly with the tiramisu cupcakes made by Graham’s mum.
It may seem odd to suggest, but one of the best restaurants in an area lauded for Indian food does, in fact, serve classic dishes from across the Channel. Chez Elles Bistroquet, towards the end of Brick Lane, offers beautifully simple cuisine in an over-the-top, flag-flyingly proud French cafe. The staff and clientele of Chez Elles all speak French and will assume you do too. Pick up a gossip magazine, sip an espresso and eyeball your chic neighbours. It’s certainly cheaper – and closer – than a trip to Paris.
Once you’re buzzing on all of the coffee and cake consumed during the day, move on to Shoreditch’s legendary night-life. Close to Old Street there is a plethora of bars and clubs to while away the night, but for something special try Happiness Forgets. Located in a basement, it’s tiny – really tiny – but don’t be dissuaded. The stunning cocktails are made by experienced barkeeps who may not look kindly upon an order of vodka and coke. After all, the bar’s slogan is ‘Great cocktails, no wallies’.
For great beer there’s only one choice: BrewDog. The independent Scottish brewery, founded in 2007 and with bars spreading around the world, offers a staggering array of bevvies you’ll have never tried before. Pull up a stool in the vintage-tiled, laid-back space and try pints with names like Punk IPA and 5am Saint (an amber ale and my personal favourite). More comfortable seating can be found downstairs in the New Orleans-inspired UnderDog, a craft beer and cocktail bar behind a secret door. Head here for honky-tonk piano, a ‘voodoo’ corner and dancing past the witching hour surrounded by snakes in jars.
Avoid at all costs the men with menus along Brick Lane who will try to lure you into an Indian restaurant with promises of mates’ rates or free booze. Invariably, these places put too much sugar and too little seasoning in their food. If you’re going for an Indian, you’re going to Dishoom. I’ll confess, I’ve never been one for biryani and butter chicken, but Dishoom is a revelation. Everything on the menu, from chilli cheese on toast (a Bombay classic, apparently) to the mind-blowingly delicious masala prawns, served with a pomegranate, tomato, mint and tamarind salad, bursts with elegance, simplicity and freshness. Eat it all with your fingers, just like a local.