Travel to London with even the roughest draft of a plan, and it just may include a trip to one of the city’s many bustling markets. Generally open on the weekends, the markets feature wares ranging from antiques to junk, and offer hungry shoppers both street food and gourmet delicacies.
On a recent trip, I set out to discover the city’s lesser known, more affordable dining options. No chain restaurants allowed, the aim was to hunt down local eateries that used fresh, natural ingredients. In a world bogged down with McDonald’s and Starbucks on every corner, I knew I was in for a challenge. My legs didn’t realize they would be getting the workout of a lifetime, either.
We arrived later than expected our first day, and after checking into our hotel and glancing at a city map, I realized that we would be eating around 3pm by the time we made it to the restaurant I had in mind. Not to be sidetracked by the waft of fried chickpeas from the Falafel cart around the corner, we hopped on a bus and headed towards the Old Truman Brewery. No, we would not be eating in a Brew-Pub this afternoon. The Brewery is now home to one of the city’s largest weekend markets, and the location of many locally run places to grab a bite.
After hopping off the bus, walking through back alleys, past the bar where Jack the Ripper and his victims hung out (you know you’re in a great part of town when you pass locations such as this), and down narrow corridors painted with graffiti, we finally found the marketplace. Even though my eyes wanted to do some window shopping, my stomach strongly protested as it practically led me towards the smell of food. Unfortunately, most of the scents were coming from street carts selling everything from Barbecue to Vietnamese. Against my natural instincts, I asked for directions from a local in a deserted alley (not smart, by the way), and found the destination we had spent an afternoon trying to find.
Located in Elys Yard, behind Brick Lane in the Brewery, sits an old, red double-decker bus. Not just any bus though, this one has been recycled into what is now a vegan restaurant called Rootmaster. With a small menu of offerings such as Mediterranean Pasta, Thai Coconut Curry, and their own version of a veggie burger, I knew we had come to the right place. I couldn’t wait to dip some potato wedges into the “bus-made” mayo and ketchup – yes, also both vegan. I had quickly ordered the burger, wanting a no-nonsense way to fill my belly, and my husband went for his standby as well; the Teriyaki Stir Fry.
We had headed straight to the top of the bus via a small, winding staircase where the driver’s seat used to be. Everything was cooked right underneath us, as the lower half of the bus had been converted entirely into the kitchen. The food was incredibly fresh, and although the portions were large and we ate almost every morsel on the plate, we didn’t leave with a heavy feeling. There was still room left for a little dessert, which I opted to get in another section of the market.
I had read a few reviews on a local Vegan baker that makes her way to the markets every Saturday and Sunday. She calls herself Ms. Cupcake, and when we arrived at her booth in the tea shop area, nestled among antique china and vintage furs, I knew she had earned her title. From head to toe, Ms. Cupcake was every bit the baker of treats and indulgences. Obviously she enjoyed her cooking, which I noted not only from her jovial personality, but also the fact that she could have been a younger version of Mrs. Claus.
Not being the type to just pick one, we decided on a small box containing Cookies N Cream and Peanut Butter Cup for my husband, and Ferrero Roche and a Neapolitan version for myself. Usually not one for Neapolitan ice cream, she had to persuade me to sample a bite of one before I would even consider it. Once tasted, I couldn’t stop. It shouldn’t have even been termed the same as its bland, frozen namesake. We left with a box of treats to enjoy the rest of our stay in London.
The next day, after searching high and low for a place to enjoy a decent breakfast near Hyde Park, we instead opted for a light snack to tide us over until lunch. Looking back, the snack proved to be a life saver, as the lunch destination for this day would also include a trek across the vast city of London. Taking the tube station this time, we arrived in Camden Town Market and were immediately overwhelmed by the amount of people who seemed to be heading in every direction.
I had a map that included detailed directions to our lunch spot, but even with this it shouldn’t have surprised me that once we arrived, the restaurant wasn’t there. The street numbers literally jumped from 247 to 251 on Camden High Street. Not wanting to wander aimlessly two days in a row, I was very quick to ask directions from a vinyl-clad woman passing out coupons for discounted tattooing. She only had to point, and there it was in the distance, gleaming over masses of people like the Emerald City. We rushed towards it and passed through the psychedelic facade to enter.
Sitting at 250 Camden High Street, the Inspiral Lounge, like the other eateries on my list, had been highly recommended and was considered one of the more unique restaurants in London. To our left as we entered was a counter filled with everything from ice cream to casseroles, salads to truffles. And yes, once again it was all Vegan. We asked the girl behind the counter how it worked, and she let us know that we could choose any main dish, and it would include any salad and two sides. The portions seemed huge, but I was ready to begin my selections.
I picked out a very savory looking Lasagna, and ordered a Caesar salad, Cashew Nut Cheese Cauliflower, and Roasted Root Vegetables. The plate seemed to pile up to the ceiling. Jeremy chose the Vegetable Layer Bake with a Mixed Salad, the same Cauliflower, and also the Roasted Veggies. We chose a seat and dove right in. We probably could have eaten both of our entire plate’s contents, but we each had our hearts set on one of the many desserts that also lay waiting behind that counter.
Jeremy got up to grab our selections, and I took a look around the place. It was bright and sunny from the windows lining one wall of the restaurant. The view outside was just as fun, overlooking a waterway lined with stalls selling racks of clothing and yard sale items. It was definitely the hippie side of town, which could be seen from looking out the window, and also smelled from the Patchouli all the other customers in the restaurant seemed to be wearing.
Jeremy came back loaded down with Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream and a gorgeous slice of Chocolate Truffle Cake. Once again, Inspiral didn’t disappoint, and we waddled out the door very content.
There were many other dining venues similar in menu to the places we chose to go on our weekend in London, but unfortunately they didn’t share the same price point. On this trip, I definitely learned that in the city center, you get what you pay for. Anything local and unique will cost much more than the plethora of mass marketed restaurants popping up on top of each other. Head out of the main tourist attractions, and you’ll find the real gems, but you’ll have to be prepared for the hike.