Rediscovering classic British dishes on an East End food tour

A simple, unbeatable toasted bacon sandwich from St. John Bread and Wine
A simple, unbeatable toasted bacon sandwich from St. John Bread and Wine

When I think of the food scene in Shoreditch and its surrounds, I think of the exciting restaurants that are helping to maintain London’s standing as one of the best culinary cities in the world - particularly those that have opened in the past five years. From Som Saa to Lyle’s to Smokestak, the list of exciting modern restaurants in this part of the capital goes on and on.

But on Eating Europe’s East End Food Tour I’m quickly reminded that this area isn’t just about the much-hyped openings that embrace all sorts of international cuisines. It’s also home to some excellent renditions of quintessential British foods, from bread and butter pudding to bacon sandwiches.

Our guide is the enthusiastic Flic Wentzel, who peppers the tour with historical anecdotes, a range of accents and the occasional innuendo. “I hope none of you have had a cheeky sausage this morning, eh?” Flic tells us by way of greeting. Indeed, we had been given strict instructions to not eat anything before the tour - sage advice considering there are seven stops covering breakfast and lunch dishes. What follows in the next four hours is essentially a highlight reel of British classics. The only thing absent waas jellied eels.

So what is on the menu? Fish and chips, of course. While there may be fierce debate as to the origin of the dish, Flic is adamant that the two elements were first combined here in East London, even if the chips were brought over from Belgium and battered fish arrived with incoming Jewish families. The original chippy no longer exists, so instead we queue up at Poppie’s in Spitalfields.

Poppie’s owner Pat Newland began his career aged 11, cutting up newspapers to wrap around the fish and chips, but as health and safety laws have pretty much put that practice out of order, his restaurant today uses its own custom-made ‘newspaper’ wrapping to keep the tradition going. A side order of mushy peas provokes a quizzical look from some foreign members of the group, as does Flic’s sudden outburst of Cockney rhyming slang. Soon, however, everyone knows that ‘Ruby Murray’ means curry and we’re off to nearby Brick Lane to try one.

A Brick Lane Ruby Murray curry
A Brick Lane Ruby Murray

We stick with a classic chicken tikka masala in restaurant Aladin and Flic informs the group that the flecks of red and green in the accompanying rice are there to represent the Bangladeshi flag. Outside, we take a closer look at some of the colourful street art, including The Sacred Crane by Belgian artist Roa in Hanbury Street. Apparently, this magnificent bird started life as a heron, but morphed mid-way through because so many local residents kept asking if it was a crane, which is revered in the Bangladeshi community.

At other points, we tuck into brioche bread-and-butter pudding in a restaurant that looks like it’s been lifted straight off the pages of a Dickens novel; sample two British cheeses (a cheddar and a blue); and down an ale and a cider in an old-school boozer.

Brick Lane Beigel
A stuffed, satiating Brick Lane beigel, made the traditional way for your eating pleasure rather than your Instagram profile

The dish of the day for me, though, is the very first thing we taste – a bacon sandwich at St. John Bread and Wine. Picture thick slices of soft white loaf toasted over an open chargrill to give those super satisfying griddle marks and added smokiness. Inside, there’s a slathering of butter and Gloucester Old Spot bacon. The secret ingredient is the homemade ketchup on the side; it’s made with a touch of apple sauce.

The tour concludes with a decadent salted chocolate caramel tart in Pizza East, a modern, industrial-style pizzeria occupying the lower level of a former tea factory. This dessert may not be the most obvious beacon of Britishness, but it seems fitting to round off a day of historic dishes with a fine example from the modern Shoreditch dining scene – in suitably hipster surrounds.

A salted caramel chocolate tart from Pizza East in London
A salted caramel chocolate tart from Pizza East

The tour costs £80 for adults; £64 for ages 13-17; £52 for ages 4-12. Everyday at 10am, 10:45am, 11:15am. To book visit or call 01223 793177.