Megan Abbott

Hackney Road: A Guide

Megan Abbott
Hackney Road: A Guide

Only in London does a man in dungarees whittling a spoon from woodland offcuts co-exist alongside wheelie bag wholesalers and shops selling 16 types of loo seat. This is Hackney Road, the nucleus of London’s most metamorphic borough.

You know the story. Hackney was once racked with crime and poverty, isolated by its rough reputation. Its magnificent, noble houses went unnoticed by outsiders, as did its wonderfully convenient proximity to central London. But not for long. Before they knew it, Hackney locals were heading to stripped-back coffee shops for soy flat whites, copper-clad breweries for craft beer and Brooklyn-style bars for trendy small plates.

Hackney Road snakes from Shoreditch Church to Cambridge Heath. It’s the unpolished sibling of nearby Columbia Road and Broadway Market, where whippets and their stylish owners float down the pavement buying indoor plants and artisan bread come the weekend. While those streets are admittedly lovely, they’ve somewhat lost the dilapidated East End charm that clings to Hackney Road. But this fading fast – it seems that each time the last bar of scaffolding is dismantled at one end, another is erected at the other. However, Hackney Road’s cheekiness and proud sense of its past remains, making it one of the most charming and interesting parts of London. With any luck, shops selling polyester shopping bags and fur-lined stilettos can continue to exist alongside the increasing number of artisanal bars, cafes and boutique hotels – it’s hard to imagine one without the other.

So, if you find yourself in these ends any time soon, be sure to follow our guide to Hackney Road, starting at the Shoreditch end and finishing up (both full and hammered) at Cambridge Heath Overground.

 

Nkora

It’s tough to walk by Nkora (above) – with its airy decor and expansive coffee menu – without making a pitstop. Come for breakfast or lunch when simple yet delicious options include salmon and cream cheese brioche, peanut butter and date nectar on toast or toasties with prosciutto, cheddar and fig chutney. Wash down with coffee made using carefully selected international beans or pick up a frosty bottle of their nutty, chocolatey homemade cold brew (a habit which we have taken on with enthusiasm).

Morito

The buzz ahead of this opening grew with the placement of every shiny new tile and Samantha and Samuel Clark – the duo behind Clerkenwell sweethearts Moro and Morito – have lived up to expectations and done it again. The menu is similar to its siblings, celebrating the rich flavours of Spain and North Africa through colourful sharing plates (above and below). The experience is all very nu-Hackney, with a horseshoe-shaped marble bar, huge windows, handmade pottery and lots of topiary. Bookings are taken for lunch but dinner is first come, first serve, so get there early.

The Natural Philosopher

Speaking of cocktails, the place you’re most likely find us dribbling into an artisan old fashioned come Saturday night is this gem, just a piggy-back ride from our front door. A Mac specialist by day and an intimate cocktail lounge by night (oh, Hackney), The Natural Philosopher is drenched in soft candlelight, red velvet, board games and various curiosities. The sunken bar twinkles with bottles, serving all the classics as well as in-house specialities, with luxurious snacks like crostini with salmon and chives to soak it all up.

Sager + Wilde Wine Bar

Anyone who has visited Sager + Wilde’s big-boy restaurant (formerly Mission) will know it for its insanely delicious tasting menus, natural wine and bevy of high-profile East London regulars. The couple behind it recently opened up this bar, blessing Hackney locals with another dose of organic, (almost) guilt-free wines. This slinky, glowing little den is rammed at the weekend, while it’s the perfect place for a mid-week date or to chill out with a glass of biodynamic red.

 

Long White Cloud

When the desire for a bloody mary hits, locals can be found elbowing their way into this Antipodean cafe to nab a seat. A no-frills interior of benches, school chairs and a scattering of local artwork make way for a similarly simple menu. Feast on an ethically sourced full English or soft homemade cookies with a cup of Monmouth coffee, or try one of the banana, avocado and cucumber smoothies alongside a generous heap of organic scrambled eggs.

 

Town Hall Hotel

Not strictly on Hackney Road, but the place to stay when exploring the  surrounding area. For many, the launch of Town Hall Hotel spelt the end of Bethnal Green’s rough past. This grand Edwardian structure presides over the street, incongruously elegant in its surroundings. The original town hall opened in 1910, with an Art Deco extension being added in 1936 alongside original council chambers. It has slinked into the background of films like Atonement, Snatch and The Edge of Love, and most of its original features still remain. Stained-glass windows, wood panelling and swirly marble are reimagined with retro furniture, elegant modernist tweaks – it oozes East London cool. The boutique bedrooms and apartments follow suit, incorporating old-world glamour with Scandi cool. We’re particularly fond of their ‘bed & beverage’ service, where cocktails brewed on site are placed in rooms on request – much better than a meagre After Eight.

As well as positioning itself as one of London’s best hotels, Town Hall has also become a destination for the city’s food lovers. Up the glistening sweep of marble stairs you will find the Corner Room, an intimate dining room replete with woody finishes, plants and the kind of feature wall that has guests choosing an Instagram filter before ordering their first drink. Dishes are seasonal and led by British ingredients: duck egg, lamb neck with swede, curried cod, cow’s curd with peas and black olives. Downstairs, the culinary star of Hackney Road is Typing Room, the celebrated restaurant from star chef Lee Westcott. This small space is decked in oak herringbone floors and Danish furniture, watched over by the open kitchen. Inventive five or seven-course tasting menus are available with wine pairings (a one-way ticket to being both broke and hungover); expect nettles, fruits, yeasts and ferments alongside high-grade meat and British seafood, with a shorter menu for lunch. Next door, mixology maestro Matt Whiley heads up Peg + Patriot, Town Hall’s sumptuous cocktail bar. Low lighting, a mind boggling drinks menu and a 1AM closing time basically makes Town Hall the boozy black hole of the East End.

 

The Marksman

Old East Enders sip murky brown ales beside pink-haired tattoo artists and local jam makers in this legendary Hackney drinking hole. The Marksman reeks of the past, from the wood-panelled walls and creaky wooden floors to the clunky glass chandelier and heavy velvet drapery. Magically, chef owners Tom Harris and Jon Rotheram have managed to retain of this nostalgic charm (along with the old punters) and merge it with a phenomenal food menu. The downstairs area is as warm and raucous as ever, while a wonderfully incongruous upstairs dining room by Italian designer Martino Gamper has recently opened. The menu is English soul food: giant flaky pies, tender meat, fish with buttery samphire, smoked cod’s roe, potted crab, thick, salt-flecked fried potatoes, lamb with anchovies, blood-orange sorbet. We have yet to go in there without ordering the signature beef barley bun (crumbly mince encased in a sweet, Taiwanese-inspired dough, served with a dollop of horseradish cream) followed by the divine honey tart. Two more reasons why we will never leave Hackney.