A languid oasis lies hidden off London’s beaten path

With its picnic tables and chipped
folding chairs, Towpath feels as if it should be in a shack on the beach, not
on the ground floor of a converted factory in East London.

Wine is served in juice glasses,
and food is limited to bar snacks like almonds or radishes served with
anchovies. During a recent visit, a young, chatty crowd filled the seats and
benches Towpath sets up on the narrow walkway that runs along Regent’s Canal, a
thin band of water that slices through the city’s aging industrial zones. The
afternoon light bounced off the canal, making this corner of the capital feel
languid, like a village waking up from a siesta.

This is London?

Not exactly. This is East London, a
sprawling area known for its artists, anarchists and immigrants. Neighbourhoods
like Shoreditch, Bethnal Green and Hackney Wick have long been where a creative
class could afford to live and work. Now it’s also where they play, shop and
eat.

Though the main arteries are often
choked by traffic, the side streets of East London can be as tranquil and
pleasant as parks. The area feels light years away from central London, and
totally self-sufficient, thanks to a host of enticing restaurants, shops, markets
and hotels.

As Clarise Faria, the curator of
the Loft Project, a private club that invites acclaimed chefs to cook meals in
an airy apartment for select guests, said: “There’s’ no reason to go to the
rest of London.”

There’s certainly no reason to go
elsewhere to eat. In 2005, a shed behind a former school that now contains an
artist’s studio, where Rochelle Street meets the leafy traffic circle Arnold
Circus, became Rochelle Canteen, a restaurant open only for lunch. The food is
bright, direct and unapologetically English: fare includes dishes like a salad
of fresh peas, favas and pea shoots, and a whole sole sauteed in butter and
served with cucumber and fennel. The spot has a casual elegance and it’s easy
to linger over a midweek lunch, with dogs napping in the restaurant’s walled
garden and neighbours catching up with one another.

On the other side of Arnold Circus
is Leila’s Shop, a small speciality store with raw wood shelves, drying
sausages and nougat imported from Isfahan, Iran. On a recent visit, I was
browsing the shelves of house-made jams with the cookbook author Anissa Helou,
who sometimes holds cooking classes in her nearby loft, and after we stepped
outside, a perfectly silent electric car whipped around the corner. The driver
and Helou knew each other, and as they said their hellos under a bank of trees
four stories tall, I felt that I was looking into the future, to a time when
cities are gentle and everybody is friendly.

Things are busier a few blocks to
the south on Redchurch Street. There are boutiques like Caravan (tasteful
bric-a-brac) and Hostem (sartorial concept designs for men), and there’s
Boundary, a hotel and restaurant that the designer and hotelier Terence Conran
opened last year. Shoreditch House, a branch of Soho House that opened as a
hotel this spring, is nearby. So is Dirty House, a soot-gray private artist’s
residence designed by the conceptual architect David Adjaye; the building’s cantilevered
roof seems to hover at night, as the interior lights below give it a
luminescent glow.

And then there’s Columbia Road,
home to an open-air flower market on Sundays since the 19th century. More
recently, it has welcomed dozens of tiny shops that bustle during the week.

Not everybody is happy with the
area’s transformation. Recently, squatters occupied a derelict building on
Great Eastern Street that developers want to turn into a hotel and held a Bike
Ride of Fury, a protest on two wheels. Most cyclists have sunnier dispositions.
Because this part of the city is poorly served by the Underground, many locals choose
to bike, though even seasoned riders seemed tense when navigating the screaming
traffic on Bethnal Green Road, one of East London’s main thoroughfares. You
could also fill up your transit pass and hop on the buses that crisscross the
area.

But biking is a great way to see
Regent’s Canal, which has a narrow walkway shared by pedestrians and cyclists
who sometimes need to duck when riding under the low bridges. The canal snakes
past shimmering new condos, abandoned warehouses, floating vegetable gardens
and narrow barges turned into bohemian residences (and some businesses) with potted
plants in the windows.

The canal is also a quick way to
get across town to Broadway Market, a busy shopping street since 2004
transformed every Saturday into an open-air market with produce stalls and
artisanal cheese, art books and prepared food. The storefronts on Broadway
Market also do a brisk business, and one of them, Fin and Flounder, is known
for getting sustainable and especially fresh seafood from Cornwall day boats.

After my visit to the market, I
walked my bike through London Fields, which has an iffy reputation. But most
residents I met took offense when I voiced concern. That Saturday I found the
park, the verdant heart of the area to be more crowded than threatening,
although there was some colourful trash-talking during a match at a concrete
Ping-Pong table.

The quiet streets north of London
Fields are lined with tidy, modest Edwardian row houses, and at first glance
one of those streets, Wilton Way, looked like a quiet business district. But
then I noticed that the storefront post office was actually an art gallery
called Posted, and that the Wilton Way Cafe had flea-market furniture and a
booth in the window from which a Web broadcast emanated.

Also on Wilton Way is Violet, a
bakery owned by Claire Ptak, an American who worked at Chez Panisse and sold
pastries at a stall at the Broadway Market before opening up her own store this
year. Now Ptak has a squat stucco building to herself, and every month or so she
throws a tiny sit-down dinner in the room above the bakery, and asks a chef to
be the guest cook.

I asked Ptak where else I should
visit, and she pointed across the street to the Spurstowe Arms. Initially, it
looked like a standard neighbourhood pub. But afternoon drinkers sitting on
battered Thonet chairs in the garden out back, eating smoked mackerel and
pickled cucumber toasts, made it even more appealing. I considered staying for
a drink, but it was the late afternoon, and I felt drawn back to Towpath, a
leisurely 15-minute bike ride away. I asked the bartender at Spurstowe Arms if
it was worth it to come back later.”Right now it’s quiet, but it picks up
later,” he said, pointing at the mirrored disco ball hanging from the ceiling.
It wasn’t just that there was no reason to leave East London; it was that there
was every reason to stay.

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