Hackney’s rise in the 2000s from dangerous and affordable to cool, cooler and coolest eventually made it a kind of Chelsea of east London, with the expensive housing – house prices have grown 281 per cent between 2001 – and glamorous dining establishments to match. It may have become a magnet for Fullham exiles but Hackney never quite lost its aura of cool, and its transformation into one of the priciest areas of London has come not with a dumbing down but with the refinement of a distinctive, creative dazzle. The payoff? A proliferation of yummy, interesting restaurants. Having lost track of Hackney’s culinary scene in recent years as other foodie neighbourhoods blossomed, particularly Peckham, I decided to dip my toe back in and see what has survived – and thrived – in a difficult period. I was delighted to find that the answer is plenty. Here are five of the best.
We arrived at 6pm on a Friday night to find ourselves in a quiet but expectant restaurant of obvious hipster appeal: pared-back but inviting interiors and a cute, closely-packed, beshrubbed terrace under a roof. By the time we left at 9, it was hopping: attractive, creative-looking types queued outside the terrace on Dalston Lane, sipping cocktails from little mugs while they waited for tables (including ours) to become free. Having just finished the surprisingly affordable signature 10-course tasting menu (£59; an extra £45 for a worthwhile wine pairing), we understood the buzz.
It was a sequence of some of the most delicious small plates either of us had had in years, a frankly orgasmic fusion of two cuisines – Italian and Japanese – that in other hands might have produced something tacky. Instead, flavour bomb after flavour bomb exploded as we ate little piadinas (fried Italian dough folded over Taleggio and San Daniele prosciutto and dusted with Exmoor caviar), duck and daikon chawanmushi (a truffle-rich custard), oysters with blackberry granita and shiso, two perfect slices of yuzu-topped hamachi (yellowtail), unagi risotto topped with eel, tempura cod cheek with more Exmoor caviar, and beautiful wagyu on something like a prawn cracker. The owners, two genial young men who met in primary school, are gunning for a Michelin star, and should get one.
Cornerstone, Hackney Wick
Deep in East London, in the eaves of the Olympic park, the Michelin-starred Cornerstone captures the new Hackney. Out of the way in a formerly forgotten industrial enclave wound through by canals, this elegant, expensive, hard-to-book restaurant offers masterful, muscular food in small but delectable portions, served by male waiters in tasteful beige linen uniforms.
Like Angelina, a tasting menu is encouraged, and should not be missed: this is chef Tom Brown at his ambitious best. We delighted in pickled oysters with cucumber, horseradish and dill; citrus cured gurnard lifted by tangy elderflower vinegar and then two dishes packed with so much richness and taste, veritable blasts of umami, that we were rendered speechless. These were a crumpet loaded with seafood cocktail with brown crab and oyster marie rose sauce, and an audacious hake kiev with shrimp butter and dill salad cream. I loved them; my companion felt slightly orally assaulted by them. Either way, Cornerstone is at the top of its game and suitable for any discerning eater, so long as they’re willing to travel east.
3 Prince Edward Rd, London E9 5LX, www.cornerstonehackney.com
Brat, Climpson’s Arch, Hackney Central
Several years ago I had dinner at Brat’s original outpost in Redchurch Street, Shoreditch, and it was a scrum: all the trendy great and the good were scrambling for a taste of chef Tomos Parry’s famously elegant seafood and perfectly honed wine list. Since then, a residency in Clipson’s Arch, a sprawling but charming outdoor area slung over with awnings a stone’s throw from Hackney Central, has appeared. It’s got woodfire ovens lined up outside to cook whole fish, crab, and chicken, and the atmosphere is lovely; murmuring and happy, warm even on a chilly evening.
The wine is a standout: we had a rich buttery bottle from the Marche region in Italy to accompany a parade of fun, affectionately-cooked seafood dishes: oysters topped by a rich and piquant tomato sauce, grilled bread topped with anchovies, a burrata and tomato salad, a platter of home-made chorizo and mussels swimming in unctuous broth, and then – because where else? – a whole turbot, twice the size of our heads, that had been cooked in one of the ovens. The waiter explained lovingly the different pieces of the fish, the tender delicacy of the cheek, the satisfying crunch of the skin. It was a lot, but in a good way. This is the place for bang-on, well-sourced food, a lot of turbot, and a good evening out to boot – there isn’t a sniff of stuffiness here.
374 Helmsley Pl, London E8 3SB, bratrestaurant.com/climpsons-arch
Passione Vino, Shoreditch
An inviting lair if ever there was one, Passione Vino is lined with bottles and exotic floral wallpaper. It’s a wine shop with a few candle-lit tables that exert almost centrifugal force on the weary traveller from nearby Old Street. It was warm when we visited so we began outside at a snug table, where, to my delight, I was served a superbly silky, zingy Saten DOCG Montana Franciacorta. Franciacorta – top-drawer Lombard fizz made using the Champagne method – is as good or better than its French equivalent but relatively hard to find outside of Italy, so this was a treat. Next came a beautifully-sourced Flaneur Grillo from Sicily, elegant and satisfying with our madly rich, aromatic chicken liver on toast and a version of the Venetian classic cicetti Baccala Mantecato (cod paste on polenta) far better than any I ever had in that watery city.
When it got cold and dark we moved into the cosy bar for a platter of succulent bresaola with rocket and vinegar (simple perfection) washed down with rounded blackberry sophistication in a glass of Sandro Ray’s 2017 Lombard Nebbiolo, available by the bottle to take away for £40. Passione Vino is a perfect spot for discerning lovers, but also for anyone keen on a lovingly curated cupboard of splendid Italian wines and delicious plates to go with.
85 Leonard St, London EC2A 4QS, passionevino.co.uk/wine-bar-shoreditch
This cosily chic Punjabi newcomer managed to open – and thrive – during lockdown. No wonder: it serves deeply reassuring, flavour-bomb food at extremely reasonable prices (no dish costs more than £10) just as friendly for take-away as for relaxed consumption in the pared-down, well-apportioned dining room, which is bedecked with fronds of huge dried grasses. We dined sumptuously on generous portions of palak papdi chaat to start (potato, chickpea, crispy baby spinach and sweet yoghurt) and four thick fingers of masala panko-fried Amritsari fish with a tart kefir lime mango sauce. A large, battered soft-shell crab was a surprise delight.
From the tandoor, the chicken tikka was the nicest I’ve had in memory: tender, aromatic, robust and moreish, while from the ‘kari’ menu, masala-stuffed mini aubergines in a tomato sauce were another reminder of Attawa’s success at blending sophistication with rock-solid home-cooked classics. Unlike the traditional Indian restaurants nearby in Bethnal Green and Whitechapel, this one not only serves booze but has a nicely set-up bar with a thoughtful wine list and great craft beers: I went for not one but two bottles of Bombay Bicycle, a neat IPA; Dalston-made brews are also offered.
6 Kingsland High St, E8 2JP, attawa.co.uk
Other Hackney highlights:
Mama Shelter: Playful hotel, restaurant and hidden garden bar (with a handy retractable roof). The menu nods to French classics like steak tartare and must-try confit duck poutine. But the star of the show is their Beef Wellington Sunday roast. mamashelter.com
Oklava: Fun Turkish restaurant heaving with well-heeled locals enjoying themselves as they sup the likes of Crispy fried aubergine, greengage ketchup, Kyseri spice and cheese-bread from the oven. 74 Luke St, London EC2A 4PY, oklava.co.uk
Silo: Uprooted from Brighton, this ultra-green restaurant has its own compost machine and has a zero-waste policy. The food – subtle, expertly sourced English dainties – is good too. The white building, 1st Floor,c/o CRATE Bar Unit 7, Queen's Yard, London E9 5EN. silolondon.com
Sager and Wild Wine Bar: Great wine, legendary cheese toasty, and small plates including sardines, burrata and cheese and charcuterie boards. 193 Hackney Road, E2 8JL, sagerandwilde.com/hackney-road