A diverse cultural mix and new entrepreneurial spirit have made the south London district “pop”. Michelle Margherita joins Brixton’s foodie renaissance (while she can still get a seat).
There was a time not so long ago, when many Londoners wouldn’t venture south of the Thames for a meal, let alone to Brixton, one of the capital’s notoriously troubled districts. But in the past six years, the fortunes of this urban neighbourhood have taken a dramatic turn for the better, due largely to the runaway success of food hubs Brixton Village and Pop Brixton, which have helped transform the district into one of the most exciting and vibrant foodie destinations in the United Kingdom.
Brixton has had a fraught history. Years of socio-economic hardship, high crime and racial tension came to a head in 1981, when the so-called “Brixton riots” broke out between police and black youths – many of them born to the Caribbean migrants who had moved into the area after World War II. However, through it all a fierce sense of local pride from small-business owners and residents has shone through, making this cultural melting pot ripe for renaissance. That’s what happened in 2009 – albeit quite by accident.
When plans were proposed to demolish two of Brixton’s decaying 1930s Art Deco vaulted arcades – home to wig shops, fish stalls, suppliers of religious paraphernalia and Caribbean grocers – in order to build luxury flats, locals launched a vigorous campaign to save them. Although initially unsuccessful, their persistence paid off and the arcades eventually gained heritage listing in 2010.
With the arcade owners now forced to make use of the existing buildings, new businesses were offered three months’ free rent to entice commerce into the area. Suddenly, the arcades came alive with boutique and vintage clothing shops, homewares stores, photography studios and new cafés and restaurants. Before anyone realised what was happening, a flourishing foodie scene had emerged (alongside the wig shops, religious stores and fishmongers).
But don’t expect chocolate-box prettiness. Brixton is urban and rough around the edges. And Brixton Village, with its start-up aesthetic and edgy vibe, is that microcosm. There are no fine-dining establishments or bars with gleaming chrome interiors. The “Village” is more like the best pop-up food court ever, except permanent and far more diverse. What’s more, with the opening of Pop Brixton, a cool shipping-container food and events space, Brixton now has a multitude of restaurants in one location.
“Brixton’s food scene has always been amazing but it was mainly Caribbean and South American cuisine,” says Paul Belcher, owner of Basque pintxos bar Donostia Social Club at Pop Brixton. “But now there are great Japanese, Italian, Mexican and Basque restaurants. I think variety and feeling always help make a place a dining destination and Brixton has that in spades.”
With that in mind, a tour of the best of Brixton’s foodie offerings should start at Brixton Tube station, where as soon as you emerge from the Underground you get a sense of the area’s joyful chaos – sirens blare, people crowd the pavements and the smell of jerk chicken hangs deliciously in the air, with a soundtrack provided by steel-drum players or street musicians outside the Tube entrance. (Cross the road to check out the David Bowie mural, which has become the Brixton-born icon’s unofficial shrine.)
For newbies, the Village can be tricky to find and you can’t rely on Google Maps to get you there. Turn left onto Electric Avenue (the same Electric Avenue that reggae singer Eddy Grant “rocked down to” in his 1982 smash-hit) and then right onto Electric Lane, where you’ll see the entrance to Market Row and Franco Manca – maker of the best sourdough wood-fired pizza in London. Order the classic tomato, mozzarella and basil pizza, paired with a bottle of organic red to really bring out the flavours.
My favourite cocktail bar in Market Row is Seven at Brixton, just a little further along from Franco Manca. With its retro “found in a ’50s schoolroom” furniture, it has a fun hipster vibe, which suits the eclectic menu of Spanish tapas (try the lightly fried squid in a garlic, chilli and lime dressing) and ever-changing cocktail list (the Salted Caramel Martini and Brixton Sour are popular).
For possibly the best Mexican margaritas in Brixton, slip into Casa Morita then satisfy that meat craving at Bukowski Grill – try the grilled baby back pork ribs with bourbon barbecue sauce. If you’d prefer contemporary British cuisine, Salon offers a simple yet innovative menu that includes charcuterie, samphire tempura with anchovy and hot smoked salmon with kohlrabi.
Walking the length of Market Row, you’ll hit Atlantic Road, where across the way are the Brindisa Food Rooms (great for fancy Spanish pickles and dry goods) and the entrance to Brixton Village, the second arcade. Bigger than Market Row, with interior avenues and four entrances, this light-filled arcade is also architecturally prettier. And it has a more diverse food selection, starting with my favourite, Mama Lan, a Beijing street-food restaurant that produces fresh little parcels of dim sum deliciousness. My go-tos are the woodear mushroom, spinach and vermicelli fried dumplings, served with pots of sweet vinegar, and the seaweed salad with toasted sesame.
For a juicy burger experience, snag a table (if you can) at Honest Burgers. Thanks to patties made from 35-day dry-aged beef sandwiched between glazed brioche buns, there’s always a queue. Recommended is the Honest Burger (smoked bacon, red-onion relish, pickled cucumber, lettuce and mature cheddar).
If you have a hankering for pulled pork, mosey on over to The Joint, where you can savour 16-hour slow-cooked pulled pork on a bun with candied apple bacon, slaw and salad. For the most authentic Thai food in South London, KaoSarn offers all the obligatory staples, including tom yum soup and red and green curries, plus new dishes such as moo ping (Bangkok-style pork skewers) and khao pad, a fried-rice dish.
The ultra-hip Champagne + Fromage has everything from artisanal cheese boards (select your faves from the fridge) to charcuterie, duck confit and one of the best selections of Champagne south of the river. For a slice of the Caribbean, Fish, Wings & Tings makes hearty West Indian dishes – try the moist jerk chicken with sweet-sour tamarind barbecue sauce, or the tender goat curry with pineapple-mango chutney.
Just behind the Village, on the corner of Pope’s Road and Brixton Station Road, is Pop Brixton – the newest kid on the foodie block. An architectural Lego-style wonder, Pop is constructed from shipping containers piled atop each other to form tiny restaurants, festooned with lights and connected by upcycled wooden-pallet ramps. At the centre of this creative food and events space is The Greenhouse, a huge dining room under a dome made from steel rods and industrial-strength bubble wrap. This sounds like an insane art-school project but it’s actually a beautiful eating space.
“I love the vibe, the atmosphere and the nice people – it’s local, innit,” says Steve Jackson, a twentysomething who works at Baba G’s at Pop Brixton and has lived in the neighbourhood all his life. “Brixton has changed because there is money here now. Back in the years when things like Pop didn’t exist, people were complaining they had no money – and now we’re making money, which is good!”
Unlike BoxPark – a similar shipping-container food and shopping space in London’s Shoreditch – Pop is all heart and no pretension, with a great vibe and, most importantly, good food. Start your journey with a tipple or two. The New Zealand Cellar has a top selection of wines by the glass, while Brixton Port Authority offers London-brewed cask, keg and canned craft beer, including from Brixton Brewery. If you’d prefer a hardy German wheat beer or pilsner on tap and a bratwurst sausage or two, World of Wurst is wunderbar.
When your stomach starts to rumble from all the heady food smells wafting through Pop Brixton, zip up upstairs to the bar at Donostia Social Club for a glass of Tarabilla Vino Tinto and a few Basque pintxos. Authentic Ghanaian food – “It’s Ghana be tasty” – is on the menu at Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen. Try the cinnamon fried chicken and plantain chips.
For delicious tonkotsu (pork broth) ramen, visit Koi Ramen Bar. There’s also a miso version on offer and don’t say no to the smoked-egg topping. For small plates of Anglo-Indian curried loveliness, head to Kricket; or seek out Baba G’s for Indian-style Bhangra burgers – the crispy tikka chicken burger is a winner. Miss P’s Barbecue has you covered for melt-in-the-mouth beef brisket or Cajun catfish, while a salted butter and caramel crêpe from L’Amuse Bouche is a perfectly sweet end to a foodie exploration of Brixton. ￼