Shoreditch and Spitalfields foodie walking tour
If you’ve got a big appetite and a day to spare, you can do worse than heading to East London to eat your way around Spitalfields and Shoreditch.
An area that Londoner’s know and love, which is gradually becoming frequented by tourists to London too, it should be a firm fixture on anyone’s London travel itinerary.
Spitalfields history – why come?
The one thing everyone knows about this area is that it’s squarely in Jack the Ripper territory. A number of tours criss-cross the area throughout the year, which are probably a good way to see this part of town (although I’ve never been on one)- although I much prefer the approach of eating your way around.
But the history of the area is far more interesting and diverse than the elusive Jack. The area was first made home by French Huguenot silk weaves in the 17th century, hoping to escape the restrictions of the City Guilds by settling outside the City. Terraced houses were built in the late 17th and 18th centuries to house the silk weavers, with some larger houses built around Spital Square. A number of these original Georgian townhouses can still be seen in the centre of Spitalfields, towered over by the 18th Century Nicholas Hawksmoor church, Christ Church Spitalfields.
As the silk trade declined, Victorian Spitalfields became synonymous with slums and poverty, with the once grand houses becoming multi-occupancy tenements. It was against this backdrop that Jack the Ripper stalked Spitalfields and the surrounding area in 1888.
Through the years, the area had continued to be centred on the textile trade, with Jewish settlers first taking over from the French, and later the Bangladeshi community moved in and made the area home.
Its history has conspired to leave Spitalfields and the surrounding environs a fascinating and culturally rich area, where you can sample foods from every corner of the globe, while marvelling at the beautiful architecture, the hustle and bustle of daily London life, and the concrete and glass spectre of the City of London which looms ever closer to the West.
The food tour – what to eat
So what better way to get acquainted with some of London’s diverse history, than to sample its food? I’ve pulled together a self-directed walking tour, which takes in a some of my favourite places to eat, as well as a few other notable sights along the way. The amount of food choices here can seem overwhelming and searching for the best bites can be tricky if you’re not local. The selection below will steer you through this minefield and to some top notch East London eating.
The tour is probably best done as a group of at least 4, to give you the opportunity to try as much food as possible before you’re fit to burst. The loop starts and finishes at Aldgate East Underground station (although you can mix and match with Liverpool Street if it’s easier) and covers about 2.5 miles (4km). It’s all flat and easy walking and you can make it last all day if you want- otherwise go as fast or as slow as your stomach will allow!
Here’s the first half of the map, and then it’s straight on to the food!
- Start on Whitechapel Road as you emerge from Aldgate East underground station (served by Hammersmith and City and District lines), using the exit for Whitechapel Gallery (feel free to peep inside). Head to the corner of Osborne street where you’ll see Efes Turkish restaurant. This is such a good staple in the area (there are several, you’ll probably pass another on the tour!). Share a mixed grill for a sample of their lamb and chicken shish and adana kebab. They bring you free bread and salad so don’t over order!
Graffiti and Georgian houses
- Head up Osborne Street (it’s going to become the famed Brick Lane in a few hundred metres or so) and watch out for all the graffiti down the side alleys, the subject of walking tours in its own right. If you see groups of people with cameras heading down an alley, then follow them, you’ll probably find something good.
- Take a left on Fournier street to see some of the beautiful original Georgian townhouses and make a loop back to Brick Lane by taking a right onto Wilkes street and then right again onto Princelet Street (this is a whole block of Georgian houses). 19 Princelet Street is preserved by a charity and sometimes open for viewing, so check their website before your trip for a chance to see inside one of these amazing buildings. If you really want to push the boat out, you can even rent one of the houses for your stay in London through the Landmark Trust. Once you’re back on Brick Lane, pop in to Taj Stores for a spot of shopping- this is a veritable library of spices so if there’s anything you struggle to get back home, stock up.
- Take a right down Hanbury Street for Dosa World, a tiny but delicious South Indian restaurant (and one of my recent finds). So it’s not Bangladeshi, but the best Bangladeshi food is not found in Brick Lane, so unfortunately none of hundred has restaurants have made my discerning list. I highly recommend the mutton kotthu poratha and the cabbage thoran, and you should also try some dosa since you’re in Dosa World- the rasa dosa (with onions) is especially good.
Art and shopping
- You might be struggling a bit now, but that’s ok, you can digest as you walk. Get yourself back on Brick Lane and keep heading up towards Shoreditch. There are loads of great shops and markets from vintage and antiques, records, independent artists studios, everything you could want. So spare your stomach for a bit and have a look around. I love looking in Adrian Boswell’s studio on Brick Lane, just before you enter Backyard Market, which contains a range of interesting craft goods.
- So good it has its own Wikipedia entry, and favourite of East End gangsters and hipsters alike over the years, Beigel Bake is a nod to East London’s Jewish history, where you can get a salt beef sandwich 24 hours a day. Join the queue (it goes quickly) and enjoy the best value meal you’re going to eat in London while standing in the street outside. For more on Beigel Bake, check out the Londonist.
- Too much good honest food, not enough hipster pretence? Never fear, grab a sweet treat at Soft Serve Society in Shoreditch’s Boxpark. I particularly like the soft serve matcha ice cream, but I notice they are now making towering ‘freakshakes’- whatever floats your boat. There’s plenty of other great food to choose from here, and if you prefer savoury to sweet then you should absolutely pick up a souvlaki wrap from The Athenian. Meaty, chippy, tzatziki-y goodness…it makes me salivate writing about it, ‘nuff said.
- You’re probably suffering food overload now, but don’t worry, there’s a break in the eating, cross the road and head down Redchurch Street. There’s plenty more to eat, but you don’t have to, there are tonnes of different shops here, from interior design to skin care, so take some time to poke around and digest. If you fancy a takeaway treat for another day, then pick up some delicious hand made pasta from Burro e Salvia.
- For more tasty souvenirs, head to Leila’s shop, a café and grocery store on Calvert Avenue. Produce changes all the time, but you can always get really tasty marcona almonds and also a freshly sliced loaf of sourdough from John’s Bakery (London life hack- St. John’s Spitalfields won’t slice it for you, if you like yours sliced then head to Leila’s). There’s always seasonal produce including beautiful fruit; I like a bag of donut peaches in the summer. Calvert Avenue is also home to Calvert 22 Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to displaying contemporary art from Russia and Eastern Europe. Well worth a look; it’s only small but they have a great bookshop to boot.
I’ve now maxed out the number of stops Google maps will allow me, so the second half of the trip continues on a second map!
Columbia Road Flower Market
- If it’s a Sunday and you fancy it, you can add an extra 1 mile loop on your journey and head off to Columbia Road Flower Market (open 8am to 2pm Sundays only). The street is lined with independent shops and galleries as well, so there’s plenty to see and do if you’re looking for a full day in East London.
Old Spitalfields Market
- It’s time to start eating your way back to Aldgate East. Head South towards Spitalfields Market. Here you can shop and eat your way around. If you fancy some tasty snacks for later, then head to Androuet for cheese (pick your favourites, it’s all good!) and to Crosstown Donuts for super light donuts in unusual, but delicious flavours (they also deliver, by the way).
- If you’re not done yet, there are still two great places I recommend grabbing a(nother) bite to eat. Sud Italia pizza, working from a van in the market (it’s just out the back of Androuet), is proper Neapolitan pizza and it is amazing. I’m tempted to say it’s the best pizza in London. There’s a mushroom and truffle one that I absolutely love, but you’re not going to go wrong here, so have whatever takes your fancy.
- If you need a rest and, more importantly, a drink, then you can grab a seat in Vagabond Wines, where you pay for wine credits on a card, you can then try different wines of your choosing from the self-service machines (it’s a lot classier than it sounds). They also have a good selection of beers.
- Finish off the tour with some ‘proper’ East London food in Poppies Fish & Chips. Go to the proper one in Hanbury Street just opposite the market, rather than the little market booth. You’ll still have to stand in the street most likely, but it’s a more authentic experience. You can wash it down with a pint from The Golden Heart pub next door.
- Then make your way back to Aldgate East, or you can head across to Liverpool Street Station, which is about the same distance. On your way past, check out the Nicholas Hawksmoor church, built between 1714 and 1729- Christ Church Spitalfields. It was one of the first of the churches built for the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches (now known as the ‘Queen Anne Churches), which was established by an Act of Parliament in 1711.
Head home laden with food and edible souvenirs!
I’d love to hear about your experiences if you use any or all of this itinerary, so feel free to get in touch. You might also like my favourite ‘hidden gem’ restaurants in London, which you can read about here.
London’s underrated restaurants – 5 great places to eat in London that you’ve probably never heard of
Blink and you’ll miss them- London is full of amazing restaurants and it’s easy if you don’t know the area (and even if you do) to overlook some gems because they don’t look as cool as their neighbours or the hype has missed them or is waning.
After eating my way around London for the last six years I’ve got a tried and test list of great places to eat that are overlooked for one reason or another. If you’re planning to a trip to London, put a couple on your list and let me know what you think.
- Lobos Meat and Tapas, Borough Market
There are lots of great places to eat in Borough Market, but this one is really special. A tiny place crammed into some railway arches with a regularly changing menu, it has never disappointed me.
It fairs well on Tripadvisor, but due to its location tucked away under a bridge, it can be hard to find and is easily overlooked in the bustle of Borough Market.
Their secreto iberico and iberico fillet are winners, although everything I’ve ever eaten here has been amazing. Despite not being a fan of desserts and chocolate ones in general, I command that you try their double chocolate and pistachio cake, which is both rich and light. Lobos have also opened a branch in Soho but I’m yet to try it. Three course meal and wine c. £50 pp.
- Dhaka Biryani, Whitechapel
This is the kind of place that survives on word of mouth, because there’s almost no chance you’d walk in here without a pretty strong endorsement. But if you want delicious biryani, chana masala and shami kebab, look no further. The food is made in big batches and then heated for you when you buy it, or you can take it home and heat it yourself. It is unbelievably cheap for anywhere in the country, but for London it’s mind blowing. £4 biryani? Yes please. They also cater for events.
- Beast Restaurant, Marylebone
Hidden underground down the side of Debenhams off Oxford Street is, in my opinion, the best steak in London. Most people have never heard of it and those that have are sometimes put off thinking it will have a howdy hedge fund manager Mayfair vibe. It’s clearly popular as an after work hang out, but don’t let that put you off, it’s not ‘that’ kind of place. Beast specialises in Norwegian King Crab and the best steaks from around the world- Australia, America, Spain, Scotland and others all on offer.
The crab is expensive but well worth it, this is like lobster on speed. From the starters menu I especially like the crab and foie gras gyoza and shrimp tempura and don’t forget to add truffle chips to your order. The pros eat four courses: starter, crab, steak, dessert. Finish with the wonderfully light deconstructed cheese cake. The wine list is outstanding but be prepared to remortgage your house. Four courses and wine c. £160 pp.
- Great Real Hellenic Taste, Shoreditch
Deli-come-kebab shop on a busy corner of Commercial Street and Shoreditch High Street, this place is constantly busy with people coming in for giros. It looks like any old kebab shop from the outside, but this is proper food, make no mistake. I love the pork souvlaki which comes in a lovely soft pita with tzatziki, chips and salad. Eat it while walking around Shoreditch enjoying the varied architecture and street art. I haven’t tried the deli items, but I will, I’m betting it’s good. Grab yourself dessert while you’re there in the form of some Ion Greek chocolate. You’ve probably never seen it before but it’s delicious and comes in cute packaging as well – bonus.
- Ten Ten Tei, Soho
So small and unassuming it doesn’t even have its own website, Ten Ten Tei delivers great value sushi in a tiny café style restaurant on Brewer Street. It’s a great central location for tourists wandering around London, but you’d never know how good it is from the outside. The menu is absolutely huge, but it’s all such good value you can treat yourself to trying a bit too much. Tempura prawns are excellent as is the sashimi. If you’re looking for great service then go elsewhere, but if you want some very solid food and a few beers without breaking the bank then you’ll struggle to do better.