People eat and drink oudoors in Soho, London, as coronavirus lockdown restrictions are eased across England. Many streets in Soho were pedestrianised for the night, and bars and restaurants added extra outdoor seating. Picture date: Sunday July 5, 2020. P

Lockdown has shown a new side of London—and why our restaurants matter more than ever

Even in a huge city, sometimes you don’t need to go searching for anything—the best things are close to home
July 11, 2020

I was born in London at the tail end of the 1980s and I’ve never seriously considered living anywhere else. While friends contemplate using the pandemic as an excuse to finally escape, something about the city’s vast anonymity will always appeal to me. But during the lockdown, suddenly the raison d’être of living in a sprawling city got turned upside down.

For many of us, these past few months have seen our worlds shrink into mini-communities. I’ve been limited to a piece of south London I hadn’t really got to know until lockdown. My walks have become reconnaissance missions: each day I learn a bit more about my neighbourhood. I make note of the variety of the architecture, see the hidden nooks and alleys between palatial townhouses, and examine the mulberry tree, which an artist has helpfully labelled. One day I even talked to my neighbours. An unintentional side effect of all this was that I fell in love with the Old Kent Road.

One of Britain’s most ancient paths, the Old Kent Road is a superficially unlovely thoroughfare whose two miles form the start of the A2. Nowadays, people know it as the cheapest property on the Monopoly board but throughout its 2,000-year history, it provided a route for pilgrims to Canterbury, was a major site of Victorian industry, and today acts as an escape route to Dover and the Channel. Its lack of proximity to a train station has meant that, compared to its flashier neighbours, it can be forgotten about, like a jar of pickles at the back of the fridge. But what has fermented is an extraordinary ecosystem of communities, full of locals from Algeria, Vietnam, east and west Africa and Latin America. With its halal butchers, African churches, Bolivian ice cream shops, and plethora of languages, you can imagine a far-right activist taking in the bustle and claiming that London has gone to the dogs. But it is precisely this quality that makes it the single most important street in the city: a vision of an alternative London away from the regeneration and corporatism that dominates elsewhere.

When lockdown started, the road was suddenly drained of life—gone was the normal busyness, where outside dining culture often resembles a Parisian boulevard. Some have claimed that coronavirus’s disproportionate impact on minority ethnic groups is due to a lack of social distancing in those communities, but I didn’t see any evidence of this. When restaurants began to open on the Old Kent Road, their customers were often spotted wearing masks. Mutual aid networks—community groups that deliver food and supplies— sprung into action, advertisements for help in Spanish were pasted on the windows of Colombian bakeries, Algerian restaurants prepared free iftar meals in Ramadan that anyone could pick up, and churches in formerly industrial buildings became food collection centres. Restaurants and food shops have barely had to change their business models—the two butchers who sell competing rotisserie tandoori chicken have been doing roaring trades, along with naan shops and empanada stalls who have always sold affordable food to take away.

Why do our restaurants matter? Our emotional attachments to these businesses can seem strange—does anyone really mourn losing the chance to have a mediocre demi-poulet at Café Rouge? But at their best they anchor us to our communities, and are places of pleasure and communality. There is not much overlap in clientele between the restaurant where Nigerian patrons used to share beers over plates of offal and the Millwall pub opposite where the pints were combined instead with karaoke, but there is a common culture uniting these businesses: the need to develop an eccentricity and imagination to eke out a living from barren resources, not just in the face of a pandemic  but also in peacetime.

Lockdown has shown the value of these small community economies and local food chains; that even in a huge city sometimes you don’t need to go searching for anything. In truth, I’m dreading having to get on a train or bus again. This new village life suits me—the best things have been closer to home all along.