On a warm Friday evening somewhere along an anonymous stretch of the Old Kent Road, the shutters at Pho Thuy Tay are half down and the lights are off. Outside, a huddle of Deliveroo drivers are waiting in their cerulean jackets, while owner Thuy Nguyen is inside arranging plastic bags full of cartons of Hanoi-style crystalline pho, clear as a rockpool and made lush with a poached egg, ready to be whisked across southeast London. Nguyen’s personal phone buzzes with texts from homesick Vietnamese students asking her if she is still doing her blackboard specials, the same ones that would normally fill the restaurant’s five tables in anticipation of Hanoi deep cuts: frog-leg hot pots; deep-fried duck tongues; herbal, rare beef salads; or blood sausage — boiled or fried — formed from pale-marble boudins that float on the surface of her cooking pot like a herd of fat harbour seals bobbing in the sea. These feasts were communal by definition, and the point of them wasn’t necessarily the dishes, but the way they encouraged the students to collectively reimagine Hanoi, the food as symbolic as it was sustaining.
Pho Thuy Tay is one of close to 100 diaspora restaurants lining Old Kent Road that serve this communal function of remembrance. The unique layout of the road, which former Guardian editor Peter Preston called “omnicultural”, means there is a panoply of small family businesses — Algerian patisseries, Nigerian suya spots, Lebanese grills, Colombian bakeries — where no one culture dominates. The Monopoly board-cheap rents and isolation not only from outside influence but also from potential competitors allow restaurant owners to take more risks with their food. “All the other Vietnamese restaurants in London are catering to British people, whereas I’m catering toward Vietnamese, particularly Vietnamese students,” Nguyen explains, interpreted by Liliane Nguyen of Family Feasting. “If I can’t make it the way I think it should be made, with all the flavours correct, then I’m not going to serve it.”
The street incubates a certain type of a restaurant, one filled with the more sacred parts of culture and cuisine that immigrants tend to hang on to, rather than share to an audience of nonbelievers — the type of food that writer Jonathan Meades compared in function to the Eucharist. Across a three-kilometre stretch, Old Kent Road is home to Nguyen’s tiết canh, a magenta pudding of raw blood coagulated in the fridge with fish sauce; a Somali takeaway that specialises in halwo as sticky as cardamom wine gums; three restaurants frequented solely by Igbo men that serve the delicacy isi ewu, made from a whole goat’s head; a signless Dominican joint whose public face is empanadas but really specialises in beans on rice and yaroa, a messy casserole of mashed plantain and cheese; the most astonishing, silky gizzard dish at Mingles, a Sierra Leonean bar; and Alhaji Suya, a suya spot so authentic it burnt down, but whose owner Abdullahi Maikano has been selling kilishi (a bruise-coloured jerky) in its absence.
Some would argue, quite correctly, that there is a danger of over-romanticising this type of restaurant. After all, they are businesses like any other, and despite the high proportion of familial staff they still fall prey to the same structurally unequal owner/worker system that results in long hours and low wages. Yet there is something happening on the street which defies what is happening to the wider London restaurant industry in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, which is that instead of looking to the government for guidance and contemplating their future, they have simply opened and remained busy. The Old Kent Road’s restaurants are not relying on a bail out; they are now relying on the communities to which they have made themselves indispensable.
When the lockdown was announced in March, most businesses on the road shut immediately, leaving only halal butchers and grocery shops standing. Three months later and those shutters are back up, with most restaurants on the road having already been open for weeks. At the Bolivian restaurant Jenecheru, on the northern end of the Old Kent Road, owner Gabriel Quenta and his brother Diego sit with their mother at a long table facing the door, as if holding court. On the table in front of them are many bags of sopa de mani and the family’s legendary salteñas, filled with a sweet, scalding stew of chicken, eggs, and olives; Cornish pasty in appearance but with the explosivity of a soup dumpling. Jenecheru is beloved by both the Bolivian community as well as the wider Latin population of south London, and has become an integral way for locals to access the identity built through cuisine. “There aren’t that many Bolivian restaurants in London, or even the U.K. Maybe three or four,” Gabriel explains. “That’s really helped us — the loyalty of our customers. The food is just a little more important to them.”
Since the pandemic, the Quenta brothers have rearranged the restaurant to serve as a collection point, where customers can phone in orders throughout the week and pick them up on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Although the menu has about eight to 10 main dishes, the price hike in certain ingredients like chuños (dried potatoes) and ají boliviano — both foundations of Bolivian cuisine, according to Diego — means that there are now many dishes they can’t offer. While business is heavily down, it’s at least allowed them to retain 30 percent of their takings and help the few staff outside the family who decided to self-isolate. “I found out about the government schemes late, so they’re still processing,” Gabriel says, when asked if he’s getting help. “I can’t really speak about the future right now. Like any other business, of course we’re quite worried about what the future holds — I’m sure you heard Boris Johnson’s [lockdown easing] speech, and that was quite confusing. We just have to not stop.”
While most restaurants in central London closed, some businesses on Old Kent Road actually opened during the pandemic, such as the Iraqi-Kurdish Old Kent Road Fresh Naan Shop selling flatbreads for home use, as well as the Algerian bakery El Marsem. Its subtitle ‘COFFEE SANDWICH BAR’ is a relic from the pre-COVID-19 era, and a testament to owner Farouk Izouaouene’s adaptability. “I wanted it to be a coffee shop that served breakfast and North African food,” Izouaouene explains, “but when the pandemic happened I had to open it halfway and become a takeaway.” When El Marsem opened in late April, it had morphed into a traditional Algerian bakery, specialising in bread rather than the French-accented patisserie that is sold at most of Old Kent Road’s Algerian cafes. “It wasn’t in my mind then, but now I have to do it!” Izouaouene laughs.
Considering it was a compromise, the selection at El Marsem is outstanding: glossy baguettes with soft, brioche interiors, aromatic with nigella seed, or boureks, TARDIS-like parcels of minced meat, mashed potato, salty cheese, olives, and harissa, all in an oily semolina casing that barely contains it. The pivot to bakery is something Izouaouene gave a lot of thought to when considering the potential of the space as well as the needs of a community without its restaurants, particularly during the month of Ramadan, when most food was taken home and reheated for Iftar. For now, business is good, and Izouaouene has no plans to apply for any help: “I’m not relying on [the government],” he insists. “I don’t want to owe anyone. As long as I can pay my rent and pay my staff then I’m happy.”
One term that has punctuated the national conversation over the last two months is “restaurant industry”, usually in relation to the idea that it needs to be saved and bailed out by the government. It’s a cold, slightly inhuman term: industry. It is a word that insists that the importance of restaurants is predicated on their contribution to the wider economy. When Yotam Ottolenghi presented the case for a bailout in the Guardian, the focus of jobs and GDP was tempered by advocating for restaurant’s social worth. But when Ottolenghi calls restaurants “vibrant community institutions” and “hubs of social interaction”, who does this really refer to? Can they really all be vibrant community institutions when the business models of so many central London restaurants rely on an itinerant, rich, and touristic clientele that may never come back? Are London’s hubs of social interaction really chain restaurants and restaurants which price locals out, or are they the threatened markets which exist at Elephant and Castle and Ridley Road, or Oriental City, Colindale’s shopping mall and community centre which was bulldozed by developers and eventually replaced with a glossy food hall? Is there really anything that connects Burger King and Leon to diaspora restaurants and community kitchens, which are genuine community hubs, apart from the fact they both make money selling food?
Perhaps it’s time to start talking about restaurant communities. This means community in the real sense; one that does not emerge overnight or during a three-month pivot, but that takes years of hard work to build. These are communities which require vigilance and constant engagement in a back-and-forth conversation, listening to what people actually need and then feeding them. It’s possible to see this in the relationship Thuy Nguyen has with her customers, the same ones who accosted her on the street after she first closed her restaurant and pleaded with her to open up again. The Old Kent Road has its issues, but it is not Babel: communities intertwine every Sunday at Hong Kong City when the room is filled, not just with Chinese diners, but with the West African community in post-church plumage. Or at L’Auberge, an Algerian bakery, where every day during Ramadan chefs carefully arranged hundreds of portions of soup and meat pastries for Iftar and gave them out for free, without question, to those who asked. This is not an industry; it is something much smaller and more important than that.
The communities on the Old Kent Road have fought existential threats for years rather than months — resisting gentrification, sustained immigration raids, an inhumane immigration policy that keeps restaurants struggling to find chefs, the ever-looming regeneration of the area, the greed of landlords pricing them out, as Nguyen was in Deptford in 2015. The story is the same across London: Bridges need to be built between these ecosystems and the ‘London restaurant industry,’ which exist independently of each other, to redress the balance. A major barrier is that none of these restaurants have the capital to afford PR, nor can they rely on a national review or a social media post from an influencer to access it. While the lack of diversity among restaurant writers is well known, the lack of diversity among the restaurants that PR companies represent, not simply with respect to race, but a convergence of race, class, colonialism, and capital, is perhaps the main determinant in who gets to exist within the image of the ‘London restaurant industry’ that the media projects.
With the exception of high-end Indian and Cantonese cuisine, it is damning that there is virtually no newspaper or food media coverage of the cuisines from former U.K. colonies — Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Caribbean islands, Nigeria, and Ghana — that have been the engine room of London’s restaurant industry for decades, nor the cuisines of the newer immigrant communities — Colombian, Ecuadorean, Dominican, Algerian, Vietnamese, Polish, Romanian, Somali, and Ethiopian — that form Old Kent Road’s backbone. This extends to Eater London’s own coverage, whose 38 Essential Restaurant list also conforms to a comparatively limited vision of the London restaurant landscape.
In the exceptional case of Indian cuisine, wealthier Indian restaurateurs are able to access PR for their restaurants, but very few of the working-class Bangladeshi and Pakistani chefs who built Indian cuisine’s reputation in this country have that same privilege. Between seven of the most influential restaurant PR companies in London — Fraser, Gemma Bell, Gerber, Bacchus, Wickerwood, Sauce, and Lotus — Indian restaurateurs (JKS, Farzi Cafe, Lucknow 49, Jikoni) are well represented. This contrasts with no Pakistani or Bangladeshi restaurants, one Sri Lankan, and the representation of just two black restaurant owners: Iré Hassan-Odukale of Ikoyi and James Cochran of 12:51, incidentally the only two black-owned restaurants that have received a national newspaper review in the past five years outside of an edition of the Observer Magazine, curated by the musician Stormzy. There are no restaurants from any of the newer immigrant communities.
This all helps to curate an image of the industry as a select club — middle and upper class, predominantly white European or Latinx, occasionally East Asian or Indian — sharing the same signifiers, in the process erasing the much more diverse industry that exists outside of it. While the food media needs to reform to break down the direct link between PR and coverage, if it is unable to, then a redistributive model whereby PR companies take on a certain number of accounts pro bono should become the norm. Evidence suggests this can have an effect, as when PR Frankie Reddin elected to represent Dalston Caribbean restaurant Island Social Club free of charge last year: what followed was a review in the Evening Standard Magazine and an appearance on Jamie Oliver’s TV show Meat Free Meals.
Restaurant writers who have the power to change the narrative also have a responsibility to be more diligent, writing about the role in the community these restaurants have and contextualising them against the backdrop of citywide issues such as migration, gentrification, racism, and displacement, not with the language of discovery and exploration but by amplifying voices from those communities. This means a fundamental shift in the role of restaurant criticism, not just away from entertainment writing or an extension of PR but as a way of reflecting and understanding the city’s communities through their most visible cultural contribution. These restaurants deserve access to capital, and for that money to percolate in their local ecosystems, empowering a community, rather than being funnelled up to investors and landlords. Finally, chefs who have a voice within a restaurant industry that prides itself on its diversity should honour, credit, and platform the chefs who have been doing it before them and have supplied them with inspiration hitherto without acknowledgement. All these cases require solutions that are reparative, redistributive, and break down existing colonial structures, taking power and capital away from mainly white, middle-class gatekeepers and diverting it to those who need it most.
Now that the entire industry is on the precipice, it can also learn something valuable from restaurants which focus on serving communities. It is telling that most of what the industry has pivoted to — takeaway models, becoming community hubs, selling items that supplement home cooking — is precisely what these diaspora restaurants have been doing for years. The same thing can be seen at pie and mash shops which give OAP discounts to their ever-ageing clientele, or at Ivy’s, London’s last pease pudding stall, where the owner, Lorraine, knows the name of every decades-old customer. More recently, it can be seen at restaurants which belong to the conventional, projected vision of the industry, like Ombra in Hackney where simply selling fresh, filled pasta to takeaway has been so successful that owner Mitshel Ibrahim admits that they couldn’t stop the service even if restaurants go back to normal. Or in wine bars like 40 Maltby St in Bermondsey and Quality Wines in Farringdon, which have created relationships with their local customers as people more than as a brand, and which are now relying on these customers to get them through the pandemic (chef Nick Bramham of Quality Wines estimates about 60 percent of sales have been from previous regulars). They have learnt that community is as much about survival as it is about any romantic notions of altruism. It is, quite simply, good business sense.
Back at Pho Thuy Tay, Nguyen is posting labels on jars of fermented shrimp sauces: mam tep, ruddy with krill, and mam tom, a bureaucratic grey hiding a corrupt flavour, like the funk of a thousand prawn heads reduced down and down, atomised to the density of a neutron star. She is not pivoting to anything; she is simply doing what she has always done, which is to sell her leftovers for cheap directly to customers. “When I make a big batch I post about them on Facebook and people will buy the surplus. My customers trust me, so whatever it is, they will buy it,” she says, less as a boast and more as a statement of fact. The week before it was shards of crispy rice formed at the bottom of the pan, to be topped with pork floss and spring onion oil. This is not what people would usually consider restaurant fare, but the food cooked for a person by someone who loves them. “Thank you, aunty,” a young male customer writes in Vietnamese underneath a photo of the week’s offering on Facebook. “You take care of me.”
Many of the restaurants mentioned are not listed on Google. You can find them at:
Pho Thuy Tay 899 Old Kent Road
El Marsem 223 Old Kent Road
Jenecheru 206 Old Kent Road
Old Kent Road Fresh Naan 304 Old Kent Road
L’Auberge 251 Old Kent Road
Dominican Empanada Stall 214 Old Kent Road (under the sign Le Tings)
Hong Kong City 43 New Cross Road
Mingles 1 Peckham Park Road
Alhaji Suya 15 Peckham Park Road (now moved to Unit 15, Angerstein Business Park)