In the courtyard of Levant Book Café, water trickles in a stone fountain. The tables are occupied by customers drinking strong Arab coffee and playing chess on heavy wooden boards with ornately carved pieces. A waiter brings out the cafe’s specialty dessert — booza — a traditional Syrian ice cream made with mastic (a plant resin), that is pounded and stretched rather than churned. Its texture is almost elastic; its taste refreshing, subtly flavoured with rose water, topped with pistachios. Inside the café, shelves are filled with Arabic books, while Arabic phrases are painted across the walls and ceilings. “I live in London and Damascus lives in me,” one states, as if to make explicit that this Syrian café is as much for displaced Syrians to briefly forget their losses as it is for customers to be momentarily transported to Damascus.
The surrounding streets are lined with many restaurants dedicated to serving Lebanese, Syrian, and Iraqi cuisine. This, though, is not Paddington; nor is it the Edgware Road. Both have long been considered epicentres of Arab dining in London, but Park Royal, an industrial area in the north west of the capital, is nestled in the roaring corner where the A40 meets the A406. As of 2022, it is here that Londoners can find some of the most-renowned Eastern Mediterranean and West Asian food in the U.K.; it is also an area to which heavyweight restaurant groups are gravitating.
The recent boom of dark kitchens operating on delivery apps has attracted numerous new establishments to the area, with its proximity to major roads and numerous small-footprint industrial buildings ideal for organising high-volume deliveries. Two of central London’s most popular and successful South Asian restaurant groups have established a presence in Park Royal in recent years: Dishoom has a kitchen to service its delivery wing, while JKS Restaurants has set up a central kitchen marinating and preparing food to supply Arcade, its much-hyped food hall now open at Centre Point on Tottenham Court Road. Meanwhile, Tim Hortons, the Canadian chain, is preparing to open its long-awaited first London branch in Park Royal five years after arriving in the U.K. This demonstrates how Park Royal is becoming increasingly attractive to chain restaurants as well as independent businesses alike.
Thanks to this and the construction of the Elizabeth Line, the new London railway line connecting the city east to west, Park Royal is likely to change irreversibly from its history of manufacturing. The London mayor’s office is spearheading a major regeneration project with a new transport hub being developed in the area that will link HS2, the new high-speed rail network connecting London to the Midlands and North, to the Elizabeth Line. The new station, Old Oak Common, due to open in 2026, will be one of the largest and best-connected in the country. Mayor Sadiq Khan has promised 10,000 new jobs and 1500 new homes, while also promising to protect the unique industrial area and its businesses. But this influx of both food and transport hubs, and the significant regeneration they will and have already precipitated, is threatening the soul of this unique culinary enclave.
Up to a third of all food produced in London is estimated to be produced in Park Royal, whose industrial area comprises almost 2,000 businesses which together employ over 40,000 people in food manufacturing, car repairs, and prop houses. The area has a long history of food production, with biscuit makers McVities and tinned food and sauce giant Heinz factories located here; the Guinness brewery was once here too. Over time, it has become home to much smaller food businesses, with up to 500 now operating within the industrial perimeter of the area. A wander down the “world food aisles” of any U.K. supermarket and a perusal of the back of the packets of ingredients and spices will demonstrate just how many were produced in Park Royal and neighbouring North Acton.
In the late ’80s and ’90s, cheap rents and the availability of industrial units drew business owners who had recently arrived from predominantly Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and settled in west and northwest London. Small Lebanese food companies such as Al Jabal started bakeries making baklava and man’oushe — the folded-over flatbreads commonly topped with mincemeat, cheese, or za’atar, mostly eaten for breakfast or brunch. Ridwan Issa, known as Abu Tarek, opened Al Jabal after arriving in the U.K. in 1990 following the Lebanese Civil War. Attracted to the area by its affordability, he soon leased a small industrial unit from which he would go on to make his man’oushe and fatayer (stuffed hand pies), and later enter into larger-scale catering.
Many of the smaller businesses began by selling in bulk to restaurants across London, grocery stores, and homes. Slowly, the local Arab communities started trickling in, buying baklava by the kilo and man’oushe in the dozens — piling them on to plates at mass gatherings and stashing the rest in deep chest freezers like treasure. Customers could even bring in their own mixes of za’atar and mince meat, and the bakeries would dutifully provide both the dough and industrial ovens in what was seen as a throwback to community bakeries frequented in their home countries. “We were one of the first,” says Abu Tarek. “Then Sweetland came.” Sweetland is one of the best-known Lebanese patisseries, producing fresh baklava wholesale and to the public. “Then other people saw the area and started setting up shops — butchers, Lebanese supermarkets, and now Park Royal is full of Arab businesses. In the 1990s during the weekend it was an empty area, you (were) afraid to come by night — it was dangerous,” he says.
Now, more than 20 years later, the bustle of the expanded restaurants and shisha cafés side-by-side with the original bakeries host multigenerational visitors undeterred by the factories and confusing labyrinth of streets. Rents remain comparatively cheap to those in central London, which has kept prices down. And while the days of a £1 lahmbiajeen may be gone, it is still possible to eat a generous lunch for under £10.
Many of the restaurants open to the public are in the middle of Acton Business Centre, an industrial estate in the heart of Park Royal itself. The area is replete with warehouses, gated compounds, and a marked lack of housing. The streets are lined with wooden pallets and damaged cars awaiting repair. The number of restaurants located down alleyways reminds visitors of the area’s industrial wholesale history. And in order to appreciate Park Royal, city planning and the high street model should be forgotten; for those who regularly visit, the singular, industrial aesthetic is now part of the experience.
The success of some of the original restaurants established in Park Royal has attracted new businesses, keen to capitalise on the area’s growth. Beit el Zaytoun is among the new wave of restaurants that has recently opened, set up by Lebanese-born entrepreneur Ayman Assi who spotted a potential business in a canal-side café serving English breakfasts. He convinced the owner, a friend, to let him take over in the evening, providing shisha and drinks. “We (initially) made only £20 to £30 a day,” says Assi. Sensing an opportunity, he eventually persuaded the owner to let him take over the cafe.
At this waterside location with its modern Lebanese art, patterned tiles, and the sound of the Lebanese singer Fairouz playing in the mornings and live music ringing out from the oud, an Arab lute, in the evenings, it is easy to forget the factories in close proximity.
“All the chefs are from Lebanon and the music we play is Lebanese music. All the furniture and chairs are from small shops in Lebanon,” Assi says. At the front of the restaurant, Assi arrays a range of preserves produced in his village in Lebanon, ready to purchase.
The draw of establishing a restaurant like this, in this location, is simple. “You don’t get this kind of place in central London. The space, the greenery, the parking,” says Assi. “Some of my friends said, ‘Are you crazy investing here?’” But the crowds and customers have come. Beit el Zaytoun has become a popular stop for visitors from across London, as well as other U.K. cities. It’s popular amongst the Gulf customers, too, who make a beeline from their central London hotels, willing to travel not just for the food, but the shisha, waterside dining, and regular appearances by pop stars like the Lebanese singer Ragheb Alama and the Iraqi artist Saif Nabeel, who come to both dine and perform.
This developing reputation for destination dining in Park Royal all came to an abrupt halt when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Not only did it reduce tourism, but the Park Royal restaurants surrounded by offices and businesses took as much of a hit as restaurants in the West End and other high-footfall areas of central London. Many remained open during the lockdowns, but squeezed by the sudden disappearance of regular customers, the need to furlough staff, and the pincer grip of delivery companies like Uber Eats and Deliveroo, they had to adapt fast.
Although Al Jabal managed to stay open for local delivery, Abu Tarek said that the business “went from 10 staff to only two people and me.”
“People called me up saying, ‘Don’t close, please, we want to eat. The children want manaeesh,’” says Abu Tarek. With his own delivery capabilities, he refuses to use apps, citing the steep charges even if he realises he may be missing out on widening the business’s reach. But he seems content. “We have been here 30 years and a lot of people know us,” he says.
Al Jabal has changed very little over those three decades, located in a unit down a small passageway in the heart of Acton Business Centre, with a sign above a set of steps that leads to a counter behind which the large man’oushe oven sits. Workers roll out thin dough, lining up multiple man’oushe on a wooden paddle before it quickly crisps and bubbles in the intense heat permeated by the woody scent of za’atar. This is fast food: The process takes just a few minutes.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s — coinciding with the Iraq war — that the Iraqi community arrived. Al Enam, probably the best-known of Park Royal’s Iraqi restaurants, began by selling frozen kubba and shawarma sandwiches — as an afterthought to its catering business — in 2009. Now, it is known for Iraqi homestyle food, with starters from £4.50 and main courses from £9.
“The expansion [into a fully fledged restaurant] happened when we saw people coming in to order food and standing outside eating shawarma,” says Mohammed Habasha, one of the owners. “They would say, ‘Please make us a table where we can sit and eat rather than in the car,’ so we put up a gazebo outside with some tables, and it got very busy.”
The freshly made bread, burgers, and the shawarma that often runs out by early afternoon attracted the customers. Unusually, Al Enam closes at 7 p.m. The restaurant is family-owned and the Habashas are heavily involved in its day-to-day running. Habasha is here seven days a week with his parents, who greet customers and look for diners’ every need. “The reason we close at 7 is to have family time. I could close at 11 and leave the restaurant to others, but you need someone to go the extra mile and oversee the quality,” he said.
That quality is demonstrated in the ever-popular shawarma. The skewer of meat is set up daily at 9 a.m. to be ready for the lunch crowd. By late afternoon the meat dries out, so the skewer is designed to run out by then. The marinade of yoghurt, spices, vinegar, and lemon ensures that the meat is flavourful and tender, but it comes with a time limit. “So if it finishes, it finishes,” says Habasha, preferring to disappoint a customer rather than give them a subpar dish.
Al Enam has come a long way from its origins under a gazebo, with menus now leather-bound and walls adorned with photos of Iraqi and Arab celebrities such as singers Hussam Alrassam and Mahmod Alturky, who have come to visit. Complimentary lentil soup arrives almost immediately, accompanied by crispy fried pita triangles and lemon slices.
Al Enam bakes all its own bread. “The bread is the most important thing to complete the meal,” says Habasha. “If it’s not hot and not crispy, it’s not good. I always think that a place that serves fresh bread cares about customers and what they eat because buying [packaged] bread is cheap.”
Iraqi food is not as widely known as that of its neighbours, but successive wars have prevented its international export in the way that nations with less conflict in their recent history have been able to enjoy. This is a food culture that melds Levantine, Turkish, Persian, and Indian influences — it’s uniquely flavourful and joyful.
“Iraqi food is distinct from every other cuisine. Each and every dish is assembled from various backgrounds,” explains Habasha. “Iraqi biryani for example has hints of Iranian, Turkish, and Indian flavours so its taste is unique.”
The jewels of Iraqi cuisine include masgouf — marinated fish barbecued over coal so that the white, smoky flesh flakes off and melts on the tongue, and dolma — vine leaves, aubergines, and onion shells served as a main dish stuffed with spiced minced meat and rice, cooked in a tangy sour broth.
Al Enam’s popularity exploded, especially amongst Iraqis, when it introduced Iraqi breakfast. Highlights include bagila and dihin — literally, “beans and oil” — favas topped with caramelised onions and warm oil, best eaten with eggs. Kahi is a delicate flaky pastry designed to be filled with a very rich, speciality clotted cream called geymar, and drizzled with date syrup. For offal-lovers, the Iraqi breakfast specialty of pacha — boiled lamb’s brains, feet, and stomach — is available at weekends.
These establishments weathered much of the pandemic because of customer loyalty. They were never aimed at passersby — the location makes that impossible. “I think many central London restaurants in Edgware Road are looking to move to this area,” says Assi, referring to high rents and increasing charges for motorists driving into central London, which can total up to £27.50 in congestion and emissions charges before parking.
Part of this speculated exodus has already started. One of the best-known Lebanese restaurants in London, Maroush, opened a Park Royal branch in 2021 with an attached food market and wine bar, which had been in the works for a few years. The popularity of other restaurants nearby and the desire of many locals for quality Arab food outside of central London has clearly played a part in pulling Maroush from their flagships in prime Mayfair and Kensington locations. It also left its premises on Vere Street, just off Oxford Street in central London, in 2021. In the windows, posters announce that “this branch has been relocated to Maroush Park Royal.” It is a symbolic migration.
The ongoing regeneration is currently at the forefront of the restaurant owners’ thoughts, as it will almost certainly attract chain restaurants and raise rents for local business owners.
At Al Enam, Mohammed Habasha sees the opportunity for a new transport hub and increased residents living nearby. “We have had the worst of it already with the building works (for the new train stations) and it will only get better,” he says. Ayman Assi agrees that Beit el Zaytoun can only be helped by more footfall, but Abu Tarek is less optimistic. The HS2 works caused the closure of the businesses located on the other side of the road — for example, Patchi, a patisserie, relocated to another site in the area, using the opportunity to expand. However, the loss of those businesses impacted Al Jabal. “We were relying on each other so we lost a lot with these businesses gone,” Abu Tarek says. “In a few years they will probably take these premises out, too.” He doubts there will be space for small businesses such as his in the future Park Royal.
If these small businesses are priced out, he fears the area may cease being the home of new and innovative cafes and restaurants. After the era of first Lebanese and then Iraqi businesses reflecting seemingly never-ending regional upheaval and instability, there are now many Syrian establishments opening in Park Royal like Levant Book Café.
Many Londoners remain unaware of this culinary history that exists down the A40 or toward the end of the Central Line. As inevitable regeneration comes closer, the promise of increased jobs and greater connectivity is tempered with the potential loss of these businesses.
Abu Tarek is uncertain about the future of Al Jabal. “I can’t go far. To build the customers in 30 years ... I don’t have another 30 years to go elsewhere. We have had a generation building customers. A friend of mine — I catered his son’s wedding, now I am about to do his grandson’s wedding.” Where then does he see Al Jabal in five years time?
He smiles ruefully and says, “In Park Royal still. Inshallah.”