Even before it was London, Camberwell was mixed. Charles Booth’s turn of the century poverty maps painted Camberwell with a palette of rich yellows, pinks, reds and poor blues, from Camberwell Grove’s line of vast Georgian mansions, to the cramped Victorian terraces built for working men and their families. Mercantile wealth was towed into the borough on the Grand Surrey Canal, while the existence of the new railway brought in labourers who could now commute north and east. The Camberwell Fair became an annual respite for these new residents, showcasing entertainment and cheap foods ─ oysters, whelks, trotters ─ while the more affluent curtain twitchers declared it a hotbed of “vice, folly and buffoonery”.
A hundred and fifty or so years on, the middle classes of Camberwell are much more likely to boast about its affordable food with ‘if you know you know’ inflections than they are to deride it. Camberwellites, perhaps more so than any other type of Londoner, basically refuse to shut up about how good their food is.
There is another way of looking at Camberwell. One curious thing for an area so blessed with places to eat out, is that there are very few, if any, destination restaurants, even while the reputation of Camberwell Church Street — with its feeling of a curated food court — masks some of its less trodden paths, the real hidden food of Camberwell may reside somewhere in the menus of places which are already well known; menus which act as Trojan Horses, presenting as one thing while obscuring what their best dishes are. After all, the best thing at one of the best restaurants, Falafel and Shawarma? It isn’t the falafel, nor is it the shawarma.Read More