They like new stuff but they want it to be good. And they don’t mind a queue. Zoe Williams looks into London eating, millennial style
Eating out at all is a millennial thing: in the olden days, we used to eat toast at home first, then drink all evening. Restaurants were strictly for birthdays, second dates and when an old relative wanted to see you.
The culture has changed quite significantly in this regard, with the blossoming of a generation that doesn’t just engage at the level of trend but also at the level of connoisseurship.
Let me put that more simply: they don’t just like stuff that is new. They also like stuff that is good. So it’s worth following them into their restaurant habitats, the way we used to follow well-coiffed ladies in cashmere: people who think about this stuff a lot make good choices. There’s the odd curiosity – nobody knows why they love avocados as much as they do – but their discoveries are sound.
Street food is a catch-all term, running the gamut from a kebab-van to a Michelin starred restaurant doing a pop-up. Yet its popularity has been a gear shift for the food world, allowing talent without capital to make a mark, and people without much capital either to eat experimentally without all the fuss.
Drinks that belong in gutter have their own spot
Dinerama, the Street Feast venture in Shoreditch, is not for purists: the stalls have cutesy and/or misleading names (Prawnography; German Sex Dungeon – which is a good name if you’re looking for a German sex dungeon, but otherwise must surely lead to disappointment). Drinks that belong in the gutter – vodka and energy shots, to take a wild for instance – have their own dedicated spot.
But at root, it’s comfort food with an angle, always an angle, fried chicken in shamefully moreish spice mixes, dumplings with personality, every known protein barbecued Swedish style and a carnivalesque atmosphere. Nobody stays too long in one place; it’s like a festival without the pesky live acts (actual food festivals, by the way, are another thing entirely, more for the middle-aged, people who have stopped talking about bands and now only talk about cheese).
Maltby St: a bit less rough-and-ready
The Maltby Street Market in Southwark doesn’t look dissimilar but has a different bite-profile: a bit less rough-and-ready, a bit more considered and cheffy. There is still plenty of food you could stick between two bits of sourdough and eat as you walk along, but there is also some of the most incredible cured meat in London, from powerful looking Spanish hams to luxurious mounds of salt beef. Plus, if you want to go a little classy, there’s a proper restaurant – 40 Maltby Street – with an unreplicable wine list packed with organic, natural and biodynamic wines.
Anywhere you can find speciality alcohol, somebody, in respect for it, has cooked up something good to go with it. The craft beer phase is as good a globalisation story as I’ve ever heard: apparently (I learnt this from the brewmaster at the Dancing Man, in Southampton), the reason we were ale-limited in the past is that English hops are quite boring – twiggy and earthy and not worth much except for session drinking. All the skills were here, but none of the nuance.
Then American and antipodean brewers introduced new flavours, and the whole thing cross-pollinated and went wild. This has generated an appetite for foods that go with beer, rather than vice versa. The Indian Brewery does incredible street food pop ups; it’s actually in Birmingham, but what’s 100 miles to a person with a yen for a Bombay hotdog?
Brixton: every known food
Brixton Market still has a lot to be said for it – albeit not much that hasn’t been said already (short version: every known food is there. You can have a gluten-free pizza, a Caribbean fish stew and walk out having unaccountably purchased a pig’s head and a tie-dyed t-shirt) but if you’re in the area, the young vote has migrated to the Department Store, a magnificent architect’s practice that’s installed a cafe on the ground floor and a restaurant on the top. At the moment the restaurant is invitation only (yes! That is really a thing!) so I recommend turning up for a coffee and trying to busk an invitation upstairs with raw charm.
The other major advance on old habits is brunch. I have yet to figure out whether it’s a lush’s excuse to start drinking before lunchtime, or a puritan’s excuse to meet without drinking at all, but I do know that it’s huge with Millennials, to the extent that the Breakfast Club – a modestly sized London chain, with a 50s diner feel and a menu full of eggs – has queues round the block, every weekend, without fail.
On queuing and human rights
Steer clear of places like the Jam Tree which have a signature bottomless Prosecco deal. It’s like going on a hen night you haven’t been invited to. Casita Andina in Soho is brunch at its most chic, souffles instead of muffins. Caravan, in King’s Cross, has a cornbread that you will be thinking about like a lost love forever.
One final thing (this weaves through all these places, and takes in the neo-burger craze that started yonks ago with Meateasy in New Cross): they don’t mind a queue, the moderns. This is the bit I understand the least, since being forced to stand outside, when a perfectly reasonable reservations system has been in place for centuries, I consider to be a violation of my human rights. But there it is: whether it’s Bubble Dogs in Fitzrovia or any given food market – by definition, a place without seats is one long queue, food that comes accompanied by an evening full of inconvenience is very now. It could be the dopamine thrill you get when a table finally arrives – each generation chooses its own high – or it could just be that they are too young for varicose veins. Either way, it makes them very easy to spot.