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The mosque on Brick Lane serves as a metaphor for the East End of London. It was originally built as a place of worship in 1743 by Huguenots, Protestant refugees from France. It was taken over by Jewish refugees from Poland in the 19th century and was turned into a synagogue. Then in 1970s when most of the Jewish population moved out to north and west London, it became a mosque for immigrants from Bangladesh.
Though there aren’t many Jews or indeed Huguenots left in east London, you can taste their legacy in the food of the area. There are still Jewish bakers such as Rinkoffs on Vallance Road or most famously at the Beigel Bake (yes, it’s meant to be spelt like that) at the top end of Brick Lane. It’s open late at night and hungry cab drivers queue up with shift workers, clubbers and night owls to buy salt beef beigels (or bagels, if you will) dripping with mustard so strong it will make you sneeze.
A bit further down Brick Lane on the corner of Commercial Street is a relatively new business that nevertheless reflects the area’s heritage, Poppie’s fish and chips. Britain’s most famous dish is a London invention. It combines the Sephardic Jewish technique of frying fish in batter with the Belgian way of frying chipped potatoes in hot fat.
Next door to Poppie’s is the Golden Heart pub, whose landlady is Sandra Esquilant. The surname is Huguenot, and her husband is a descendent of those Protestant refugees. From the outside it looks like a classic East End boozer but it too reflects the changing area. Artists such as Tracey Emin and Gilbert & George moved into this part of London in the 1990s and became regulars at the Golden Heart.
Above the pub there’s a sign that reads Truman, Hanbury, & Buxton. They were once one of London’s biggest brewers but their mammoth Black Eagle brewery on Brick Lane closed in 1989. It was derelict for a while but it’s now a symbol of the rebirth of the area, housing nightclubs, bars, food stalls, art galleries and offices. The area around the Old Truman Brewery is now one of the most lively parts of London.
After the artists came the young professionals and new restaurants opened to cater to them in the 2000s. They come and go but Hawksmoor,which opened on Commercial Street in 2006, looks like it’s in for the long haul. They serve the best steaks in London with meat from the Ginger Pig butchers in Borough Market. The bar is also a great place to meet for a cocktail.
Despite all the trendification, the bottom end of Brick Lane is still staunchly south Asian, with curry houses and shops selling saris. The food is nothing to write home about but cross over Whitechapel Road heading towards Hotel Indigo London – Aldgate and you’ll find traditional Pakistani restaurants offering meat grilled over hot coals.
At Needoo on New Road the thing to order is the mixed grill, lamb chops, kebabs, and chicken skewers, all heavily spiced and grilled to perfection. The vegetable curries, especially the aubergine and okra, are excellent too. The food is ridiculously cheap and you can bring your own wine or beer. After all that culinary history, you’ll probably need a good lie down to digest it all.