Once a working-class neighbourhood, the Bethnal Green of yore readily earned its reputation as a Cockney stronghold in London’s East End. But a wave of trendy bars and restaurants is popping up, adding new layers to the local culture and character.
Traffic and chain stores might be first to catch the eye on a walk down Bethnal Green Road. But beyond first appearances, a distinctive local identity lies among roadside market stalls and characterful greasy spoons, frequented by rooted residents and newcomers alike. A host of independent shops and cafes has recently settled on this street too, enriching the options for a pit stop along the way. One might still even come across a window advertising pies and jellied eels in large letters. Not many of these traditional shops are left in London, where the plates overflow with bright-green parsley liquor and the atmosphere evokes the times gone by.
Bethnal Green is often cited in historical accounts as one of England’s worst slums, which in 1890 became home to the first council estate in the country (Boundary Street). Its more recent repute doesn’t smell of roses either. This was the headquarters of the Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie, who ran the East End’s criminal underground during the 1950s and 1960s. If the size of the crowd attending one’s funeral testifies to their popularity, then Ronnie’s is said to be the third largest in London, bested only to Winston Churchill and Princess Diana. Krays-themed walking tours in the area include the pub where rival gangster George Cornell was killed in 1966, along with their primary school, favourite meeting spots and the boxing club which witnessed their rise to fame.
But boxing in the East End has a history of its own. More champions have been raised in this part of London than anywhere else in the country. The story goes back to the age of bare-knuckle fighting, in 1787, when Daniel Mendoza beat Sam Martin ‘the Bath Butcher’ to become the first local world champ. A heritage plaque remembers ‘Mendoza the Jew’ at 3 Paradise Row, where he lived and wrote a pioneering book called ‘The Art of Boxing’. Further along Cambridge Heath Road, the iconic York Hall is often referred to as the home of British boxing.
Paradise Row is also worth a visit for the new generation of bars and restaurants populating the railway arches. At the large crossroads next door, the Stairway to Heaven memorial remembers the UK’s worst civilian disaster of World War II. Upon hearing the air raid siren on the evening of March 3rd, 1943, a crowd fled to the tube station to shelter underground. A woman and her child fell down the slippery stairs, causing many others to trip and panic, accentuating the fear of the bombing. 173 were killed in the crush which followed, including 62 children.
The war also wiped out what remained of the old slums. Walking east from the tube station along Roman Road, the city landscape appears as an unassuming mix of high-rise blocks, recent developments and a few surviving Victorian terraces. Halfway down is a small market where some of the stalls have been passed down for generations; a community stronghold dating back to the days of Bethnal Green as a silk-weaving hub. The view ahead is occupied by the imposing buildings of the Cranbrook Estate. Its peculiar green features and 1960s aesthetic might not look like much today, but this is perhaps the most ambitious example of post-war housing in the area.
A statue to one side of the estate depicts a man and his dog. It’s the Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green, a noble wounded in battle who, according to legend, faked humble origins in order to ensure a marriage of true love for his daughter. But if it takes more than a heart-warming folk tale to assuage the urban grittiness, then the Regent’s Canal is just a few steps away. The pretty towpath walk leads towards the green expanse of Victoria Park, the locals’ favourite city escape, which fans out from the eastern edge of the neighbourhood.
Things to do
A branch of the Victoria & Albert Museum, the V&A Museum of Childhood (Cambridge Heath Rd, E2 9PA) is the local cultural centrepiece. It opened in 1872 to become East London’s first public museum, parts of the building relocated directly from its older sister in Knightsbridge. A major renovation is currently underway to mark the 150th anniversary in 2022. New spaces and programmes will provide a host of interactive experiences for youths aged 0 to 14, promoting a hands-on approach and encouraging an active role in shaping the future (reopening in 2022).
Facing the museum, the York Hall (5 Old Ford Rd, E2 9PJ) is not only a leisure centre complete with pool and spa, but also a world-famous boxing venue. Nights of professional bouts are regularly held, making it the place to go to enjoy the local boxing culture. For a more ‘grassroots’ experience, one might try and have a look around the Repton Club (116 Cheshire St, E2 6EG). This is the oldest boxing gym in England, where many local champions have taken their first steps (and hooks).
The Victor Wynd Museum of Curiosities (11 Mare St, E8 4RP) is perhaps the most eccentric museum in London. A modern-day ‘cabinet of wonders’, this small venue stores up an assortment of weird and notable objects collected over the years by its founder. The display preaches a free approach to discovering the oddities of this world (and maybe others), rejecting any form of categorisation which would be the norm in traditional museums. In keeping with the bohemian vibes, the premises are also home to an absinthe parlour and cocktail bar.
Working men’s clubs used to be typical London establishments where working-class folk would pay an annual fee in exchange for cheap booze. Nowadays, the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club (42-44 Pollard Row, E2 6NB) has reinvented itself as the enfant terrible of the local nightlife. An eclectic program of events delivers art and mischief in the form of poetry, music and cabaret, among which 1960s club nights and fancy-dress burlesque feature prominently. The place to go for unbridled fun in a quirky and friendly environment.
Perhaps London’s most fragrant destination, the famous Columbia Road Flower Market is a must-visit on Sundays (open from 8am to 3pm). The many stalls and shelves lining this narrow street brim with fairly-priced blooms and plants, as well as bulbs, shrubs and garden accessories. Some elbowing through the crowd might be needed at peak hours, while the best bargains can be made near closing time. While here, the many independent shops on Columbia Road are well worth discovering.
Restaurants and cafes
A community hangout more than just a greasy spoon, E Pellicci (332 Bethnal Green Rd, E2 0AG) has been run by the same family ever since Priamo and Elide opened it in 1900. Both the name and atmosphere betray Italian roots from Tuscany, by now in perfect harmony with tried-and-tested Cockney ways. Such a blissful mix couldn’t translate better to the menu. Spaghetti Bolognese and signature spinach cannelloni are among the Italian specialities, while a good old fry-up is also highly recommended. All backdropped by delightful art-deco furniture which has remained untouched since the late 1940s.
With four branches across east and north London, Sodo (266 Poyser St, E2 9RF) serves sourdough pizza at its best. Rustic, soft and crunchy as it should be. Carefully-sourced toppings include mozzarella from Essex, Yorkshire meat and seasonal produce grown in local gardens. Both classic and creative pizzas feature on the menu, paired with a good selection of natural wine and craft beer. A shout out to the brunch pizza both in its meat and veggie version, the perfect mash-up between a Full English and the Neapolitan delicacy.
Two-Michelin-starred Da Terra (8 Patriot Square, E2 9NF) is the place to go for fine dining in Bethnal Green. Chefs Rafael Cagali and Paulo Airaudo blend their Latin American roots into contemporary European cuisine, offering a blind tasting experience guided by them personally. The options include ten and seven courses, as well as a five-course tasting session at lunchtime. Housed within a Victorian hotel, Da Terra offers a modern, simple yet elegant ambience which reflects the style of cuisine pursued by the chefs.
A neighbourhood restaurant beneath the railway arches, Sager + Wilde (250 Paradise Row, E2 9LE) delivers Mediterranean food with a focus on pasta dishes. Small plates, brunch and grill options also feature on the menu, all dressed up to just the right amount of sophistication. A friendly and easy-going vibe completes the experience, as well as fair prices and an extensive selection of European wines.
The Gallery Cafe (21 Old Ford Rd, E2 9PL) is part of St. Margaret’s House, a community-driven charity dating back to 1889. Vegan dishes and sweet treats take centre stage on the menu, as well as locally-ground coffee and an assortment of juices. The sunny back garden is one of the area’s best retreats in summer weather, while a rich programme of events and exhibitions runs throughout the year. All profits fund the projects run by St. Margaret’s House, which include classes, workshops and a charity boutique located next door to the cafe.
Bars and pubs
A backstreet pub tucked away just off Roman Road, The Camel (277 Globe Rd, E2 0JD) was nearly sacrificed to fancy flats only a few years ago. The locals’ affection saved it, thanks to which, we can still enjoy its cosy atmosphere and neighbourly feel. The menu takes the Cockney pie and mash to the next level, offering an alluring selection which goes way beyond the traditional minced beef. Outdoor seating and a small back garden are available.
With a rustic feel to it and rock and roll beats bouncing among brick walls, the Sun Tavern (441 Bethnal Green Road, E2 0AN) falls somewhere in between a pub and a late-night bar. Irish drinks are the name of the game, the list featuring around 200 whiskies and one of London’s finest selections of poitín. There is a solid choice of cocktails and craft beer too, while food revolves around meat and cheese boards. Generally laid-back, the atmosphere cranks up when DJ sets and live gigs are on. Poitín masterclasses are available.
Accessed through a small alley, the railway arches above the tube station have been recently enlivened by two newcomers. An urban winery and bar, Renegade (Arch 12 Gales Gardens, E2 0EJ) makes wine on the spot, cherry-picking grapes from the UK and the rest of Europe. Old Street Brewery is the next-door neighbour (Arch 11 Gales Gardens, E2 0EJ), featuring a small but solid selection of beer poured straight from the tanks. The people behind it started at Mother Kelly’s (251 Paradise Row, E2 9LE), another craft beer heaven nearby offering a wide selection of taps, bottles and cans.
Animal skeletons and the odd taxidermy piece lend an eccentric flavour to Satan’s Whiskers, a late-night cocktail bar (343 Cambridge Heath Rd, E2 9RA). Hip hop vibes pair with a chilled and friendly atmosphere, fuelled by an excellently-stocked back of the bar. Classic cocktails feature confidently on the list, while the signature options change daily according to inspiration. Local DJs liven up the atmosphere at weekends.
Run by designer and author Michelle Mason, Mason and Painter Vintage (67 Columbia Rd, E2 7RG) forms part of an old upholstery workshop on Columbia Road. Vintage furniture and homewares meet a self-declared obsession with plants, in keeping with the famous flower market held in the street every Sunday. The focus falls on French café furniture, as well as reclaimed items that can be used as planters and garden accessories. Mirrors, paintings, prints, ceramics and plants are also part of the stock. Open Friday to Sunday, or by appointment during the week.
Nordic Poetry (141 Bethnal Green Rd, E2 7DG) is often praised as one of London’s best vintage designer stores. It was founded by Swedish-born entrepreneur Ameli Lindgren, who curates a creative mix of clothes and accessories displayed in thoughtfully-designed interiors. The shop has been at its current address since 2017 and enjoys an ever-growing customer base, reflecting Lindgren’s reputation for selecting the best among lost and thrown-away garments, which are then given a new life.
A wellbeing shop and massage parlour, Masaj (The Gossamer City Project, 20 Gossamer Gardens, E2 9FN) delivers a range of antidotes to the negative consequences of city living. Treatments last 30 to 90 minutes and include curative, releasing and nurturing options, which can be tailored according to individual needs. The shop is all about wellbeing, beautiful design and healthy lifestyle, displaying anything from stretching accessories and personal care products to candles and tea. Eye pillows, handwritten cards and massagers are some of the more original items available.
Eastern Biological (485 Hackney Rd, E2 9ED) is a one-of-a-kind natural history and lifestyle store. Opened at its current location in 2017, it stemmed from a passion for nature and high-quality design, aiming to cater to both country and urban dwellers. Prints, science books, educational toys and gifts form part of the carefully-curated selection, as well as oddities falling in between categories. A modern take on a curiosity shop exploring the intersections between art, biology and design.
An ethically-minded clothing and jewellery store, Bamboo and Bee (193 Roman Rd, E2 0QY) was set up in 2017 by three creative makers, each bringing their own brand to the project. Kerry Mounsey specialises in nature-inspired kimonos and patterned fabric design, Francesca Castaldo is an independent jewellery maker famous for her ‘honeycomb’ range, and illustrator Martin Reznik is behind an eco-friendly line of t-shirts inspired by music and mythology. Verry Kerry, Magpie’s Loot and 10tacled are the respective brands, brought together by a shared passion for sustainable practices and materials.