These days, the London food scene is lauded as one of the finest in the world. The old cliché about having to eat breakfast three times a day if you want to eat well in Britain seems to have been left in the dust by a slew of Peruvian pop-ups, bodegas and modern American comfort diners, all celebrated by the culinary cognoscenti of food bloggers and Sunday-supplement journalists.
Of course, that’s all gravy. Nobody wants a return to the days in which Garfunkel’s was a serious third-date option, it’s just that a lot of these new restaurants can be a bit… much. I mean, how many people can actually face the three-month reservation wait at Jason Atherton’s new gaff, or the long, weirdly sombre queue outside the new Taiwanese bun place in Soho? Let alone the prices. The fact is that many of these places make you suffer for the privilege, whereas in reality, eating out should be painless, joyful, social experience.
To find that affordable, enjoyable, relaxed style of eating that most of us really want when we go out, the key is to look beyond the hype machine and into the network of London’s gastronomic institutions, the places that have been there quietly for years, run by the same people, serving the same food and never dipping in quality or upping in price. Places like Kokeb, an Ethiopian restaurant in the resolutely “local” backstreets off Caledonian Road, where a mural for a teenager recently killed in a police chase clings to the outer perimeter of HMP Pentonville, and where signed Charlie George shirts hang behind the bars of the local pubs.
Kokeb typifies the kind of place that’s been overlooked by the city’s new food revolution, yet maintains a roaring trade among those in the know. Decorated like an Ethiopian village café, with a small bar covered in straw and posters on the wall, Kokeb serves traditional Ethiopian fare with large rolls of injera, the spongy flatbread which forms the basis of the cuisine.
Ethiopian food is one of London’s most established, yet least appropriated food cultures and is best described as being akin to an earthier, healthier Indian. And like its culinary cousin, it’s best washed down with a couple of local beers, including the Ethiopian specialty “St George’s Lager”, which comes with a picture of our shared favourite dragon-slayer on the label of the bottle.
After we conceded defeat to the spread she’d laid out for us, Kokeb’s owner/sole chef/waitress/hostess Getenesh told us of how people from all different cultures have been eating there since its opening in 1999, of how she falls more and more in love with her country’s cooking every day and of dealing with the influx of impatient TripAdvisor snitches that’ve come in recent years.
It was the rare kind of eating experience that makes you feel as if you’ve learnt something, rather than just eaten something and taken a hit on your debit card. Restaurants like Kokeb might not fit with the current mould, but it’s their originality, and the purity of their vision that keeps them here long after the fly-by-nights have gone.
Find Kokeb at 45 Roman Way, N7
An international festival of light
Dinner in a decommissioned 1967 underground carriage
Half-price brunch and a HUGE fried chicken burger