To compare London’s traditional pie and mash shops with other restaurants would be to miss the point entirely. Sure, Holborn Dining Room, St. John, and Quo Vadis serve technically superior pies, but that’s also reflected in the price. The city’s few remaining pie shops are about so much more than just the food: they’re pillars of their respective communities, cornerstones of a working class culture that’s growing far less present in London’s East End.
One of east London’s oldest remaining pie and mash shops, G. Kelly on the Roman Road in east London re-opened last month after a two-year refurbishment. “We had to close because the building was essentially falling down,” co-owner Neil Vening told Eater recently at the shop. “It was subsiding to the point that when it rained the water went the wrong way down the gutters. So we had to do the drains, underpin the building, but the aim was always to try and keep all the features in here and restore it to as close to it was when we opened in 1939.”
Inside, many of the shop’s design adaptations are subtle but all contribute to a fresh, welcoming environment — a site carefully restored to its former glory while remaining current, stylish, and understated. The principal aesthetic difference is the removal of the dining room’s partition. Elsewhere, the space has been refurbished with gleaming white tiles (some original); decorated with original black and white photographs; warm globe lighting; marble table tops and bench seating divided by chrome backing. Vening has also made a point of restoring the kitchen’s machinery rather than replacing it, with everything made on-site, from scratch.
At G.Kelly, pie, mash and liquor costs £3.90. Regardless of east London’s astronomical rates and rents, which continue to rise, pie and mash remains democratically priced. Given that, one is forced to wonder whether G.Kelly struggles to make ends meet when keeping prices so low. “We have a good margin on it, so no. We’ll see how it goes, this was a very expensive project!” Vening said.
Here, traditional beef pies are rampant with rich gravy, featuring meat from Walter Rose and Son in Wiltshire (the same company that supplies Tom Kerridge’s Michelin-starred restaurants), which is minced on site each evening. Pastry is also made each morning and all pies are assembled by hand. To accompany the pies, a simple, unadulterated mashed potato is smeared onto the plates, drenched with deep green liquor — parsley based sauce, served as the classic accompaniment — which demands embellishment with chilli vinegar. Eels are also available, as well as a vegan pie (King Cook of Cook Daily is a fan). Gravy is available in place of liquor, on request, but remains a serious breach of etiquette.
First opened in 1939, the shop has a long, slightly confusing history. “George Kelly married my great aunt,” Vening explains. “They didn’t have any children and my grandfather was a lot younger than my great-aunt, his sister, so he was almost like her child and she looked after him. So I think, essentially, she persuaded George to pass it on to him. That’s how it ended up with us. We’re not Kellys by blood but we are related to them by marriage.”
Another G. Kelly remains open on Bethnal Green Road but is no longer connected to the Roman Road shop. Another also operated on Roman Road but has since closed down. “In the middle of the ‘30s somebody took [the site] over and turned it into a pie and mash shop but he was only there for five years,” Susan Vening, Neil’s mother, outlines how both Roman Road shops were taken over by George Kelly. “When my mother and I eventually took it over in the late ‘70s it was staggeringly busy and we needed the two shops to cope with trade. That gradually dwindled down and the markets died off and shopping centres opened, so we stayed with this one.”
Pie and mash shops have made an unusually high number of headlines in 2019. Alongside the reopening of G.Kelly, F Cooke on Broadway Market announced plans to close in May, joining the likes of M Manze in Islington, A.J. Goddard in Deptford, and Nathan’s, near West Ham’s former Boleyn Ground stadium, to have ceased trading in recent years. Others have moved out of London, setting up shop in Essex or Kent. Maureen’s in Chrisp Street Market, on the other hand, has launched a new nationwide delivery service, seemingly affected by the demolition of the nearby car park to make way for a new housing development. There’s also been much concern and debate over the demise of old London food traditions and the future of pie and mash itself.
Neil Vening remains positive, however, believing the tradition’s future isn’t necessarily as bleak as the discourse suggests. “We are thriving and were getting busier than even before we closed. I think the others will keep going as long as there’s someone to take over them over. The last two weeks have been so busy we literally can’t make enough pies, I don’t know if it’s the hype of reopening, although we did it in secret. We had newspaper on the windows and half an hour before opening we ripped it all off, and within half an hour there was a queue down the road. I don’t think it will be that extreme again but we don’t need it to be that extreme.”
The shop continues to benefit from a lot of regular customers (“a real mix of demographics and races”), tourism — both local and international, and a unique place in the market because of their age and long tradition. Other remaining shops have hosted evening or weekend pop-ups — like Manze in Walthamstow — to keep afloat, some more gimmicky than others. While G.Kelly hosts the odd private event, there are no plans to hold cocktail evenings or other pop-ups.
“You can just stick to pie and mash but just do it well and don’t get lazy with it. It’s simple food, it might not be the most Instagram-able meal in the world, but I don’t think it’s going to disappear anytime soon.”