When I’ve put London food obsessives in the position of defending their high praise for the rubbery salt beef at the Beigel Bake on Brick Lane they’ve invariably blamed their lapse in good taste on drunkenness. It’s open 24 hours. It’s quick. It’s cheap. It’s filling. Blah. Blah. Blah.
Likewise, discriminating young Londoners who, when within three Chardonnays of sober, wouldn’t be caught dead with a Tesco tomato in their organic jute carrier bags can be seen stuffing their reddened faces with questionable kebabs from an Upper Street shop that recycles its moulded and fully cooked meat, unrefrigerated and unprotected, for hours at a time.
At the risk of sounding like a drunken pensioner, things aren’t what they used to be, at least not for me.
In my younger & foodish days, when I got smashed with much greater frequency and far more dedication than I do now, I always tried to finish off a night of binge drinking by stuffing my face with trash food of the highest quality. As a student in Montreal I looked forward to being booted from my local, Taverne Henri Richard, so my drinking buddies and I could rush off to Schwartz’s for its incomparable smoked meat, Le Chalet for succulent rotisserie chicken, an all-night Polish social club for handmade potato pierogi, Arahova Souvlaki for juice-dripping gyro sandwiches or St-Viateur for sesame bagels fresh and hot from a wood-burning brick oven. From these experiences grew a straight C student – and eventually a professional food critic.
Back in my native New York we would hobble if necessary to Katz’s Deli for world-class pastrami, the Market Diner for a copious burger deluxe, Florent for steak frites, Junior’s for its famous cheesecake, Wo Hop for the greasiest subterranean chow fun noodles in Chinatown or, on one particular Saturday night bender, three of the aforementioned.
Living in Paris years later we would crawl on our knees to L’As du Falafel for its amazing spécial, Au Pied du Cochon for gelatinous pig’s trotters and golden onion soup gratinée or the last Vietnamese open in Belleville for a crusty banh mi.
In fairness to London’s late-night, liquored-up foragers, their city is lacking in 24-hour eateries worthy of their loyalty. If London imagines itself a – or even the – gastronomic capital it will have to improve in this category.
To this end I have a suggestion to underground, pop-up restaurateurs, existing as well as aspiring: Why don’t you serve high-quality impulse food in your flat on weekends from midnight to 4 am? Think of all the advantages: You wouldn’t be competing with licensed restaurants. You’d be performing a public service while enhancing London’s status as a great dining city. Were your soufflés to fall it’s unlikely that anyone would notice, much less give you grief. And given the likelihood that someone will purge the food you spent hours preparing you would not be expected to put out fancy linens.