This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Clusters of restaurants benefit everyone. Customers have a greater choice and are more likely to find a table; restaurateurs are assured of a higher volume of hungry, thirsty diners; and those who work in them are assured of company to go out with for a drink after hours.
Across London the number of such clusters has been growing apace. Soho has long provided the highest concentration of restaurants in London, although the competition today along Dean Street, with the Dean Street Townhouse facing Cây Tre
, Quo Vadis
and the recently opened branch of Bistro du Vin, is probably the most fascinating it has ever been. Marylebone High Street provides another interesting cluster, as do the restaurants along the South Bank.
A new cluster has been emerging along Bermondsey Street, which runs south from London Bridge and today is home to 15 different bars and restaurants, from the Hide Bar at number 39 to Zucca at number 190 in the south.
At either end of this narrow, atmospheric Victorian street are buildings that bear testimony to its changing character. Opposite Zucca is the church of St Mary Magdalen, once a pillar of the local community; at the north end are the offices of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), whose wine courses today educate an extraordinary number of restaurant staff around the world.
This transition to gentility has not been immediate. Adam White and Clive Watson now run The Garrison, a gastropub that proudly proclaims 'if you're happy and you know it have a pint' in the window of number 99, and Village East, a bistro at 171, but when they first moved here in 2003, the street was, according to White, 'pretty sparse. The Woolpack, the pub opposite, was not what it is today and the one restaurant on the street was pretty empty. But the businesses around here were creative and pretty edgy, which is why we moved in. There were still a few thugs about though, it must be said.'
In the interim, what has added to the demand from commuters brought in to London Bridge station, crucial for the early-evening trade, has been the development of new flats, whose residents fill the tables at dinner (supplemented by those who flock to the new food market on Saturdays under the railway arches at Maltby Street nearby). There is also a small park, complete with tennis courts, a boon for the takeaway business from Caphe House, an inexpensive Vietnamese café, just along from Al's Café, should your fancy be fish and chips or that old British staple, 'the all-day breakfast'.
My personal favourite along Bermondsey Street has long been Zucca
, a rare example in the capital of that great Italian tradition, the trattoria. Because of the high rents demanded in more central locations and the lack of a culture of family-owned restaurants, there is a dearth in London of this style of restaurant - informal, friendly with great cooking and value - that I head to whenever I arrive in any Italian city.
Zucca's daily menu opens with a list of antipasti, including the deep-fried slices of pumpkin after which it is named, and continues with a couple of pastas, three fish and three meat courses, the latter no more than £16. My meal, a salad of new season's peas with mint and pecorino and a fillet of wild Scottish salmon (at £14.95, less than half the price I have seen it on West End menus) with broad beans and sorrel, was prepared and cooked with a rare sensitivity.
Zucca's wine list, with gentle mark-ups, is exceptional, as was the service from a waitress who remembered to mention the price of the specials of the day, a common omission among waiting staff, and recited the day's half a dozen desserts with aplomb and pride.
There are, however, two caveats. The proximity of the tables and an open kitchen mean that Zucca can become very loud indeed. And its justifiable popularity has led to a heavy demand for reservations.
José Pizarro (pictured) has engendered the same phenomena at number 104, a small corner site that was once a post office then a sandwich bar but for the past six weeks has been José
, his first tapas bar since leaving the stoves of Tapas Brindisa.
We finally found seats at the counter at 2.15 pm on a Saturday and a lightning tour of his native Spain got under way. Glasses of fino from the south came with a plate of juicy ham from Manuel Maldonado that are cut from legs hanging over the bar. We then enjoyed cheese croquettes; a salad of razor clams from the specials on the blackboard, a dish now sadly unavailable until razor clams return in September; and boquerones, thirst-inducing, small anchovies in olive oil that we scooped up with chunks of St John bread topped with tomato.
By the end of that day, Pizarro subsequently told me, he and his team had served 270 customers, many of whom, because of the cheek by jowl nature of the bar, will have been as hot as the cooks. But Pizarro is happy that the process of inducting many more into the Spanish habit of eating while standing up has been so well received.
This Is partly because the relatively small investment of £200,000 has been so astutely spent. The tiles under the bar are from Seville; the fillets of fresh fish on the bar are displayed under a glass cover, as is the custom at La Boqueria, Barcelona's unmissable food market; and the view from the kitchen Pizarro now enjoys of so many people enjoying his food in such a compact area (José is only 55 sq metres) brings back happy memories of when he stood in his grandfather's tapas bar in western Spain.
On a subsequent visit at 11.55 am, as Pizarro's first customers were arriving, he drained his caffe con leche
and told me that he had just signed on another site for a more formal Spanish restaurant just along Bermondsey Street. This cluster just keeps on growing.