London’s street food scene has been one of the defining features of eating out in the capital over the past few years. Where once standing out in the blustery winds and drizzle to order from food trucks would have been most Londoners’ definition of a lunchtime nightmare, the evolution of street food and the growth of undercover markets has changed the way we eat out and socialise.
As the Evening Standard only recently pointed out, chefs in London once came up through restaurants, but now the real cooks are brought up on the streets. From Bao to Breddos Tacos, Smokestak and Lucky Chip, market stalls are proving so popular they’ve setting up permanent shop with a loyal following before they even open the door.
Yet with all food movements, the drinks world took a little longer to cotton on, and grabbing a drink to go alongside your bao bun in any of these markets meant a can of cheap lager or watery spirit mixer. Perhaps an airline-sized bottle of acidic chardonnay if you were lucky. Today that’s all changed, and it’s in London’s food markets where we are starting to see some of the city’s tastiest drinks and bar concepts.
But who changed the game? And will pop-up bars ever be a breeding ground for the city’s best bartenders?
Three years ago when Street Feast opened the doors for its summer market at Dalston Yard they ushered in a new era of drinking at street markets, one where even the most complex classics were possible and selling expensive spirits was not only viable but easy. Ramos Gin Fizzes where being shaken up and the shelves were groaning under the weight of premium bourbons from across the States. And what’s more, the Negroni and craft beer drinking generation who flocked to the pop-up were delighted but the growing cocktail scene.
Street Feast now operates several permanent market spaces with food vendors rotating in and out of the spaces and new bar concepts coming to life constantly. As owner Jonathan Downey says “I’m making more money than I ever made and have more bars. It’s where stuff’s happening.”
At Street Feast’s Dinerama you’ll find Big Bar currently serving classics such as the gently spicy El Diablo or the Winter Americano, while over at Hawker House in Canada Water the Whisky Bar is home to 50 whiskies from the USA, Japan, Scotland and Ireland. If you’re not sure where to start, take an £8 spin on Whisky Roulette and you could be sipping top price liquor at (almost) Wetherspoon prices. How did Street Feast become the mecca for drinks and great cocktails? Smart hiring. The owners quickly pulled a team together of the industry’s brightest and best to oversee the drinks including the likes of Kevin Armstrong who is one of the names behind super-successful Bethnal Green bar Satan’s Whiskers.
From street food markets with great drinks to entire cocktail markets, the home of London Cocktail Week in Spitalfields Village has grown to show that the phenomena doesn’t need to base itself on tacos and bao buns – the drinks alone can be enough to attract a crowd. But with the capital’s permanent venues pumping out great drinks all week long, can a pop-up space match with imagination and quality?
“We expect and ask for the Cocktail Village drinks to be as good as those on the Cocktail Tours,” says Siobhan Payne, LCW Festival Director. “This year we really aimed to put a spotlight on the drinks and for the bars in the village to represent the city's amazing cocktail culture.”
But an entire village of cocktails, with some street food stalls relegated to the corner, isn’t without its challenges. And as with a food-dominated market, variety is key.
“We have to be thinking about variety not just in terms of base spirit or visual appeal but also how challenging a drink is,” says Siobhan. “People seem to be increasingly attracted by that level of choice, and with so much going on in London all of the time the pop-up markets can feel out of the ordinary. We always knew a pop-up cocktail village was going to be a winner but the mania, or hyped feeling around it can be pleasantly surprising. People don't want to miss out.”
Bars that have enjoyed the most success at LCW’s Cocktail Village have consistently been curated by brands who choose to work with globally recognised bartenders. Just this year Hennessy partnered with the guys behind Cocktail Trading Co and Patron hosted a different international bar team each night, from Melbourne to New York. In 2016 the most popular drink in the village came from Rich Woods, of Duck & Waffle fame when he dreamt up an imaginative list using Grey Goose. It’s a formula Street Feast have proved works well, pulling in some of the most prolific and respected names in the London’s bar scene to ensure every drink going out could be served in our top venues.
Outside of the market game, starting as a small pop-up has permeated beyond the food world and has already proven to be a successful start for the drinks industry’s most well-known company Mr Lyan, headed by Ryan Chetiyawardana. Starting off with drinks at Death By Burrito on Kingsland Road, creating pop-ups for The Whisky Show and eventually hosting a sherry and whisky bar at Trangallan, Ryan and his team built a name for themselves before opening White Lyan, launching the bar at The Mondrian, Dandelyan, and recently converting their first bar into Super Lyan and critically-acclaimed restaurant Cub.
Just as famed chefs turned their hands to street food, London’s drinks scene has become heavily invested in the pop-up market world. And just as those markets then became a haven for chefs who wanted to test out ideas or open a concept without financial backing, this is very much where the future of market drinks could be heading. For now though, they are seriously benefiting off some much needed attention from already established talent. But we do wonder how many of our celebrity bartenders are going to have Street Feast on their CV in five years? A fair few we’d wager.