Late night takeaways keep our cities alive. After lockdown, we should help them survive

Whether it’s Middlesbrough’s chicken parmos, Cardiff’s cheesy chips or Glasgow’s munchy boxes, the late-night snack is the purest expression of a city’s culture
November 7, 2020

You could pinpoint the moment the heart of the UK hospitality sector was ripped in half: late on 22nd September, when Boris Johnson announced the 10pm curfew for bars, pubs and restaurants. The heartbreak was inevitable—the on again off again flirtations of Rishi Sunak’s furlough scheme, not to mention Eat Out to Help Out, could never be a replacement for a serious relationship.

There are plenty of reasons to believe that the 10pm curfew doesn’t work, even if you think public health should be prioritised over economic benefit. Forcing people who have been speedily downing pints onto the street, all at the same time, is a clear recipe for disaster. There’s also something final about a curfew, an uncrossable line you cannot adapt around: sure, you can open earlier, but that doesn’t help if everyone is at work then.

Still, if closure—whether through force of regulation or finances—is the alternative, most restaurants will find some way to survive if the curfew continues. But there is a subset for whom this may be one step too far. I’m talking about those who do their main business in the twilight of the drunkards’ rush hour: kebab shops, pizza takeaways with only a passing connection to Italy, chippies and falafel joints alike. Big name restaurants get plaudits and awards, but it’s establishments with generic names like Falafel King that oil our cities’ cogs with chilli and garlic sauce, providing a service that goes beyond satiating hunger and becomes almost literally vital. Once, after a night out, I recall vividly devouring a falafel and halloumi wrap in Camden that I am sure saved my life. It was as enervating as Pulp Fiction’s Mia Wallace getting a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart.

I find it strange that we don’t honour our late-night food more. Perhaps it’s the culture—even London, a city that increasingly apes New York, has none of the latter’s 24/7 food scene. Part of the problem is that if pubs and bars all close at midnight even without curfew, then there’s not much point opening too long past that. Though I’ve always suspected the problem is more psychological. The Edward Hopper-style romance of the nighthawk is something that doesn’t quite translate to the UK—here, if you’re wandering the streets after midnight, you’re assumed to be under the influence of something.

Yet late-night food isn’t just for drunks. One area in London that still caters to the night owl—at least before lockdown—is its central Chinatown, where a handful of dai pai dong-style restaurants serve into the wee hours, canteens offering Cantonese comfort food where metallic teapots can be surreptitiously topped up with beer but more often than not hold steaming pu’er tea. Those cafes taught me everything about eating at a time in my life when I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. When a black mood took hold of me I would walk to Chinatown at two in the morning and work my way through menus filled with beef brisket, ong choy, Macanese pork chops and infinite combinations of soup noodles. They kept me going when it was all I could do to escape the late-night thoughts in my head.

Whether it’s a taco cart in America or a fried chicken shop in the UK, the late-night snack system forms a huge part of the migrant economy. There is of course a danger of romanticising a world built on cheap labour in which people work unnatural hours to make ends meet. But equally, I recently talked to a Cypriot sandwich shop owner in north London who proudly observed that his shop had been regularly filled with patrons at two or three in the morning; that it had become a unique part of the local ecosystem, servicing families, wide boys, drunks and gangsters alike.

If they survive the curfew—not to mention the second lockdown—I hope these takeaways will be slightly more appreciated than they were before. The late-night snack is the purest expression of a city’s culture: whether it’s Middlesbrough’s chicken parmos, Cardiff’s cheesy chips or Glasgow’s munchy boxes. They satiate our basest desires. They are what we eat when concerns of health, body image and good taste go out of the window; the food that only God can judge us for. When this curfew ends, I know what I’ll be eating.