Explore Shoreditch's past, present and future.

By Tim Hayward
Updated May 24, 2017
Credit: © Per-Anders Jorgensen

Shoreditch sits outside the walls and the jurisdiction of the City of London. It has always been a place where one could get away with a little more indulgence and pleasure than the city fathers might strictly approve. James Burbage set up London's first public theater in shoreditch in 1576, 23 years ahead of William shakespeare's Globe Theatre. "The 'Ditch," as the locals call it, has always been cutting edge.

In later years, this East End neighborhood became home to music halls: mirror-and-brass palaces of proletarian entertainment showcasing racy comedians, cross-dressers, magicians and dancing girls. In the 17th century, Protestant Huguenot weavers who'd been exiled from Catholic France set up a working enclave in the twisty little streets. shoreditch became known for prostitution, drinking and wild living in the 19th century, when Jack the Ripper stalked the filthy alleys and courtyards of nearby Whitechapel. Later, progressive waves of immigration brought Jewish and Bengali communities to the area around Brick Lane, a short walk from shoreditch proper.

In the past 20 years shoreditch has gentrified. When the White Cube gallery opened in Hoxton square in 2000 it turned a derelict corner into the unofficial headquarters of the Young British Artists, or YBAs (a group that includes Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin). More recently a hugely lucrative high-tech sector has developed around Old street. While the artists are whinging that they're being priced out by the wealthy newcomers, the quality of the restaurants now easily rivals the West End. still, shoreditch has somehow never lost its transgressive undercurrents, its edgy, rackety charm.

Rochelle Canteen opened 10 years ago in the bicycle shed of a former school. It's the de facto cafeteria for the school's new occupants—artists, designers, architects—but it's open to anyone. Founded by Margot Henderson and Melanie Arnold, the Canteen has the same austere elegance as st. John, the famous restaurant run by Margot's husband, Fergus. The coolly minimalist interior and presence of so many gorgeous creative types make the place feel a little like a club I'm not hip enough to join; yet dishes like the asparagus, fennel and pecorino salad and the BYOB policy always bring me back.

The Young Turks were key to the rise of the shoreditch restaurant scene. This chef collective, with credentials including st. John Bread & Wine, The Ledbury, The Fat Duck and Noma, launched a series of underground pop-ups in 2010. Their residency at The Ten Bells—an East End boozer of such grim authenticity that for a while it was actually renamed after Jack the Ripper—is now the stuff of London foodie legend. Like the sex Pistols' storied last gig in san Francisco, around 10 times as many people claim to have been at the pop-up in The Ten Bells as ever actually were.

James Lowe, a Young Turk, opened Lyle's in 2014. Unlike many chefs, he's not all that interested in highly manipulating his food, in some cases doing little more than charring the Braeburn apples he serves as a puree with thick pork rib chops. Some of his other dishes are pretty recherché, though, using ingredients that seem straight out of a shakespearean hag's cupboard: heirloom Legbar eggs, Edmund Tew cheese, barley, snails, quince.

Isaac McHale, another Young Turk, launched his first place, The Clove Club, in 2013. The room, a space in the former shoreditch Town Hall, is high ceilinged, plainly decorated, welcoming. McHale champions interesting, often overlooked British ingredients and, as befits a Noma graduate, is a deft hand with a vegetable, as evidenced by his green beans with anchovy-Parmesan dressing. Although the food displays his enormous creativity, this pragmatic scot keeps things accessible. He's become known for his housemade charcuterie and his buttermilk fried chicken recumbent on a bed of pine needles sourced from a nearby park.

Nuno Mendes is a man impossible to miss in the shoreditch story. Arriving in London in 2005 with El Bulli on his résumé, he established an early pop-up in a pub called Bacchus, where he cooked with the sort of molecular strangeness that, back then, was the Wonder of the Age. After Bacchus he created The Loft Project, where he sometimes worked with the Young Turks. His restaurant Viajante, inserted into the Town Hall Hotel in Bethnal Green, brought him his first Michelin star and helped him achieve a kind of elder statesman status.

Mendes is now chef at Chiltern Firehouse, London's glitziest celebrity hangout, in Marylebone, but he has also, more discreetly, launched Taberna do Mercado in the Old spitalfields Market on the edge of shoreditch. The cooking he does here is deceptive. It looks like the simple food of his Portuguese youth—cheeses, charcuterie, canned fish—yet beneath it lies all his formidable skill as a chef. If forced at gunpoint to choose only one restaurant in the area, I would almost certainly find myself at Taberna, devouring a sandwich of garlicky steak spread with shrimp-chile jam.

And what's the future for Shoreditch? Down on Curtain Road, once a ramshackle drag of warehouse studios and odd little furniture factories, the international Gansevoort hotel group is building a giant hotel called The Curtain near the site of Burbage's theater. Heading up the restaurant will be New York City chef Marcus Samuelsson, operator of Red Rooster in Harlem, a favorite of US presidents. Samuelsson's choice to open a branch of his Red Rooster in the East End, not the West, where money usually agglomerates, is audacious. Maybe this US chef sees the same thing we Brits do—a life and spirit in this untamed bohemian quarter that make the old West look dull in comparison.