There’s something romantic about street food. It’s just so wholesome, the idea of wandering around some vibrant city and chancing upon a snack made from whatever’s plentiful and inexpensive. It’ll be a recipe slowly evolved over years and years, perhaps centuries, passed down through the generations to the vendors who spend their days making it fresh. And you’ll have to wait for it in line behind a queue of locals, all of whom the vendor knows by name. And it’ll be marvellously, uniquely delicious.
But while Sri Lanka has samosas and Sicily has sfincione, London’s real street food is historically…a little less universally appetising. Nobody is going to queue in the pissing rain for jellied eels, so we’ve improvised, borrowed other countries’ cuisine and elevated traditionally cheap junk food to gourmet status.
And it’s worked very well. Last night, the Evening Standard launched its much-hyped Night Market, which brings together 60 food vendors under one roof. Such is its popularity that the organisers are able to charge people £15 just to get in – that’s £15 for the opportunity to spend more money on food from vans.
Alas, I think this incredible feat of commercialism signals the beginning of the end. Not for London’s street food scene, which I predict will continue until the end of time, but for the golden days when this kind of eating was fresh, cheap and good. Following the runaway successes of vans-to-riches stories like MEATLiquor, Bao and Pizza Pilgrims, every man and his heavily tattooed, extravagantly moustachioed best mate are taking to the streets to sell their assorted wares to the cutlery-adverse. It’s a shame, because there is a lot of fantastic, innovative and great-value cooking out there, but you now have to sift through a lot of dross to find it. After all, a deep fat fryer on wheels does not a street food sensation make.
The popularity of London’s special brand of street food has given rise to a number of events that bring a bunch of vendors together in one place, like Night Market, so you can mix and match. The organisers hope, because it is nighttime, that people will eat more, and spend extra cash at the bar.
Although I am generally in favour of these because they provide options for fussy friends, and seating (nothing sucks the fun out of food than having to stand up, like a horse), I can’t help but think street food is better off as a daytime activity.
I had this brought home to me recently at Pergola Paddington, which I had the misfortune to visit last week at the behest of my friend Rosie, who lives in West London. I don’t go to Paddington very often, mainly because it’s about as charming and brimming with personality as a bowl of cold sick. Like most notorious Zone 1 shitholes, it’s seen a lot of re-generation lately, with lots of boxy modern apartment blocks and an abundance of weird, Stepford grass that looks unsettlingly like Astroturf. But it doesn’t matter how many millions have been spent. Paddington is still…well. You know that old saying about polishing a turd?
Nestled amongst all these new flats is Pergola Paddington. It is, essentially, a tarted-up car park overlooking a particularly unlovely stretch of dual carriageway, with an enormous cafeteria-style dining area downstairs that reminded me a bit of school, though at least at school the chips were heavily subsidised. Around the perimeter were a number of ‘restaurants’ – street food from a shed – most notably burger brand Patty & Bun, which has spawned nine brick ‘n mortar outlets since its inception in 2011. The only outlet without a Post Office-length queue in front of it was Raw Press, because nobody drinking a bottle of overpriced rose in a Paddington car park wants to eat a raw vegan pumpkin slice.
In the interest of not starving to death, the four of us hatched a cunning plan. Rosie and Alex would get in a couple of queues for food and buy everything they could carry, Lucy would hold the fort at the table and I would head to the bar. My mission involved an uncomfortable 25 minutes of passively-aggressively trying to prevent people in leather dungarees from elbowing in front of me, and then carrying back two ice buckets of wine with some plastic pint glasses of fizzy water precariously balanced on top, because you’re not allowed real glass anywhere on site and the only water they sell is in…glass bottles. By the time I’d inched back to our designated station, all the food Rosie and Alex had gathered had gone cold.
The most jarring thing about all of this is that Pergola and its ilk markets itself as a budget option. Prices are capped at £12, the website tells us, smugly, making it affordable for all. Well, I should bloody well hope so, given that there are no waiting staff and the food options are burgers, tacos or noodles. By the end of the night I’d spent £60, eaten a lot of cold food and not actually had much chance to speak to my mates because we’d all spent much of the evening in queues. For that money, I could have gone somewhere else and had a slap-up meal with a real-life waitperson to take orders and bring me things. I could have had a proper wine glass. I could have had a fork.
Pergola Paddington is, in theory, a wonderful idea, but in reality is a tiresome, expensive ordeal. It manages to suck out anything even the slightest bit joyful from the street food experience, while cramming every possible inconvenience into a space only marginally more atmospheric than Canary Wharf, but with more of the braying red trouser brigade and fewer suits.
Of course, it is still important to support the vendors who are serving up amazing things – without our custom the good ones won’t get the chance to become real restaurants. As I say, I prefer street food as a daytime activity. If you work near Whitecross Street, or Bermondsey’s Maltby Street Market, or Berwick Street in Soho, bin off Pret for lunch and buy independent. You can eat it al desko and use the metal cutlery in the office kitchen. It’s great. Lunch is what street food is for. But for the real eating out? With friends? In the evening? Do yourself a favour and go to a real restaurant.
Header image credit: Pergola Paddington
Author: Emily Gibson
Emily is an urban adventurer, blogger and
glutton foodie on an epic quest to uncover the best things to eat, drink and do in London. She lives in Islington and loves ceviche, cycling and magic shows. Lifelong nemeses include beetroot, beards and wine served in tumblers.