The layers of Whitechapel are dense. Like the packed housing of the 19th Century, this area is filled to bursting with cultural and historical intrigue. In the shadow of the City and amid the culture clashes one question persists: where do I get a decent lunch? The wonders of Whitechapel aren’t always clear – the volume of foot and car traffic on Whitechapel Road prevents a calm view of anything.
Decades of working class Bengali culture dominates a diverse area that is equally charming and chaotic. Working class areas always come with working class food. The migrants of East London, like the Turks, Kurds, Jews and Bengalis all have their own worker’s cafes. They come in different guises but their function is the same as that as the British café – to make sure there’s affordable food, ready to go, when people need it.
Along the Whitechapel Street Market you can eat well for a few pounds – rice, curry, bread, samosa – a cheap eats is right there in these bullshit-free eateries. A personal favourite is the Shalamar Kebab House on the Corner of New Road and Fieldgate Street, just off the main drag. It’s perhaps the plainest room in the area – colourless but clean. They’ll sort you out a plate of rice, meat and salad for less than a fiver in the most casual of dining spots.
Follow the Whitechapel Road towards Aldgate East and things change a bit. The change is marked by the east-meets-west mash up café, The Pie Factory where they flog curry pies to perfectly illustrate everything good in East London grub. Further along and we get to the typical London lunch territory – great coffee, cake, soups, sandwiches and pizza. London demands you are perky – so get your legal liquid highs at Grounded Coffee and Exmouth Coffee Co, alongside edible lunchtime staples.
Pizza is everywhere at the moment, having shrugged off 90s naffness and become the food to build businesses around. Next to Grounded, is Pixxa, a bright little place to grab pizza by the slice. Nearby, West Country chain The Stable do good value lunch specials – pizza for £7.50 and wraps for £6.50. They also offer a huge range of ciders which means you can get one of your five-a-day and extra confidence for that post-lunch conference call.
If a liquid lunch and pizza is in order but beer is your booze of choice, Indo is a great little spot. Formerly the Old Blue Anchor, Indo is a beautifully shabby old boozer, with up-to-date beer taps and a decent pizza menu. The surroundings would make a great quiet spot to have a half and blast out some emails during the day, and a great place to relax in the evening. Craft beer is everywhere these days and if you’re a discerning drinker, Indo is the one.
The walls of Indo are a quite wondrous gallery – a canvas of Gary Coleman’s Guardian obituary spoke to my sensibilities immediately. I know more about irreverence than art, but I believe the Whitechapel Gallery has quite a reputation. The gallery walls also contain perhaps the best place for lunch in the area. The Whitechapel Refectory is surprisingly affordable and calm, beautiful place to eat. There’s soups, sandwiches and salads for around 5 or 6 quid and decent coffee too.
It’s hard to miss a place that’ll feed you well on Whitechapel Road, but if you want to stretch your legs, for a couple of hidden spots then head up Vallance road to the legendry Rinkoff’s. This place is imperfect and the sandwiches are pretty rowdy but it’s cheap, cheerful and full of the kind of cakes that will smooth over any problems the day has thrown up. By the time you’ve blasted a couple of pistachio and salted caramel crodoughs (aka cronuts – look it up, it was a trend in the past) the feeling that you’ve developed type-2 diabetes will entirely overshadow the fact you’ve missed your deadline and can’t afford the bus home.
Further off from the heart of Whitechapel is Sara a coffee shop and organic deli on Dunbridge Street. This hidden gem allows you to have a decent coffee and a little Italian pastry (cannolino, cantucci etc are 90p) whilst doing a bit of food shopping. The walls are lined with shelves of organic products and booze too. You can get lunch for five or six quid and have pleasant, comfortable sit down. Alternatively, if it’s a nice day out the deli counter can sort you out a nice picnic to enjoy in the local greenspace, Weaver’s Fields. They also do organic wine bottle fills, which will help smooth you out for the rest of the day – nothing gets done PM anyway.
If evening relaxing is what you need from Whitechapel, The White Hart is a great place to unwind and take those informal ‘meetings’ you tell yourself you have to have instead of having dinner. The White Hart is home to One Mile End brewery so there are always several decent beers on cask and keg to suit everyone. On keg Snakecharmer IPA is perfect, as is the Cambodian peppercorn-spiced Tinker’s Cuss. Cask classics Hospital Porter and Salvation! Pale Ale will satisfy those who prefer the ‘dad juice’. The food’s is pretty expensive though, so get the crisps in and start taking those minutes.
For a true taste of Whitechapel, once you’ve built up an appitite from intensive business debates, treat yourself to a meal at Tayaab’s or Needoo Grill. Tayaab’s is a legendary in the area and a lot of the time there will be queue later in the evenings – people know about the stacks of perfect spiced lamb chops that await and will do anything to get at them. Needoo’s was started by a former Tayaab’s chef so the quality is high there too, but there’s much less chance of queuing. The bonus us that they’re both BYO, so you can stock up from a local off licence and save cash for another round of lamb chops. Tayaab’s is the classier of the two and more atmospheric but all the tastebud tricks are the same.
Down on Commercial road, Lahore Kebab house is the plainest but some say the best of curry houses in the area. My local mate says he doesn’t consider it really Whitechapel but if you want to Cross Commercial road for a cheap lunch then this is the place. A huge, lively, honest curry and kebab house in the evening, Lahore is also ideal during the day for a quick lunch – grab a naan wrap for as little as £3.50 and leave happy.
Take that wrap for a walk and find details to get lost in the atmosphere – ask yourself why people are gathering around an old man on a stool outside a vegetable shop. I recently spotted a guy opening a stack of boxes that seemed important. Inside each one was several individually wrapped Bengali lebu. They looked like giant, gnarled limes. I picked up a fruit and could smell it immediately – a waxy lime lick, like keffir lime leaves. Inside, the fruit tastes like a lemon, but much less juicy. I bought a couple and moved on, with the feeling I’d found an artefact, a symbol of a culture, some other overblown shit. It was that holiday feeling, when you’re at a market and you see something new and you take pictures and hold the thing up to the light like you’re fucking Indiana Jones. There’s culture to discover right here, you don’t need to be abroad, in flip flops to play the ignorant foreigner, you can do it Whitechapel for free.
The key to enjoying Whitechapel is to recognise the culture in the chaos. Walk around, look at the architecture, the brickwork of the terraces, the dilapidated hospital, the fading industrial monuments. Whitechapel is a place of change, of real working class history. It has to be appreciated in spite of the rough edges because at the pace this city moves, it won’t be here forever. Throw down that packet sandwich and eat up some culture! Slow down, take your earphones out and allow yourself to wander.
Words By Craig Ballinger