Jonathan Downey: king of London popups


I had just reached the top floor of Street Feast in Hawker House, east London, where that night crisp crab tostados, whisky roulette, a bar with an enticing wine list chosen by Ruth Spivey and a hatch offering Kamm & Sons’ new British aperitif were all on offer, when its impresario Jonathan Downey stopped and looked at the sign one of his team had just put up on the walls.

The sign read ‘Keep Left’ and Downey frowned. 'It should read "Please Keep Left"', he commented, with the attention to detail that distinguishes the best in this profession.

But this nicety would probably be lost on the 2,000 customers who would head up these stairs over the next five hours on another packed night at Hawker House. Downey’s customers would be equally hard pressed to realise that they were actually in a former office building that was awaiting planning permission for conversion into flats.

Downey was the founder of the successful Milk & Honey bars in Soho and Manhattan. Several years ago, he was one of the first to recognise the potential of street-food vendors and via his enthusiasm for, and encouragement of, these highly enthusiastic traders he has developed an extraordinary network of talented and itinerant cooks, all of whom are looking to offer their particular dishes for short-term performances.

At Hawker House, Downey has taken this to the next stage, mixing the temporary with the semi-permanent. Hawker House is open until the weekend of 4 April, on Friday and Saturday evenings only, with a rotating range of culinary stars. As an expression of just how exciting the food and drink scene is in London, there is probably nowhere more stimulating, nor better value, for a fun night out.

This begins on the first floor, which, Downey explained, is always devoted to meat. There is a stall selling ‘boomburgers’, spicy Jamaican burgers, next to one devoted to Japanese barbecue, while the corner is the place to go to for the slow-cooked brisket from Smokestak, the current home of barbecue enthusiast David Carter, once a restaurant manager.

On the second floor a young woman is preparing the first of that night’s many Taiwanese steamed buns. Alongside her is the hugely enthusiastic team behind Baba G’s, a fictitious Indian character, whose smiling face announces a menu of masala fish goujons, masala fish sliders and a spicy lamb jalfrezi burger. The spiciness of these dishes must be good for bar sales. Less potent dishes are provided by the adjacent BOB’s Lobster stall.

The low ceilings on the top floor have allowed Downey to turn half of this space into an outpost of Milk & Honey with low, comfortable chairs and a DJ. Despite its temporary lodgings, it feels like a permanent nightclub thanks to clever lighting, red signs shouting Wine and Whisky, and columns painted in yellow and black diagonal stripes, a design feature borrowed with pride from Peter Saville’s interior at the once-famous Hacienda in Manchester, Downey’s hometown.

As an original twist there is the chance to play ‘whisky roulette’. It costs £8 to spin the wheel but the numbered whiskies on offer by the glass correspond to the numbers on the wheel at £7-£40 a shot, so the odds are in the player’s hands. Anyone landing on 0, the house number, wins a bottle of whisky. And although this cost Downey eight bottles on the first weekend it was offered, it has introduced many to the pleasures of a glass of whisky rather than gin or vodka.

Few of those sitting on this floor will appreciate that the total cost of this conversion from offices into Hawker Street has cost no more than £35,000 and that when it closes in April the furniture will return to one of 15 shipping containers in Dagenham ready for Downey’s next restaurant.

These never last more than 10 weeks at a stretch, the maximum for a temporary trading licence, but they do provide great satisfaction all round. For the customer, there is good food and wine without the need for a reservation. The traders who pay a ‘pitch fee’ of £175 per night have the pleasure of cooking only what they like for an enthusiastic set of customers each night. And for Downey’s company, the profits come from the bars and the £5 fee charged for any customer after 7 pm.

But the most exciting aspects for Downey, whose enthusiasm for pop-ups belie his 50 years, go beyond the sheer pleasure of the food and drink on offer. He is extremely proud of the fact that last year they served 200,000 without any serious incident and that the atmosphere seems to appeal so strongly to women. This two-nights-weekly performance concentrates the buzz and energy necessary to put on a good show as well as leaving him time to scout for new cooks and buildings with potential.

From May, Street Feast will be back at an even bigger site at Dalston Yard and at Model Market in Lewisham, south London, in a formerly run-down market thanks to an agreement with Land Securities. The initial Model Market last year restored considerable civic pride to Lewisham, Downey claims – another manifestation of how restaurants are brightening up the face of London.

Hawker House Street Feast  260-264 Kingsland Road, London E8 4DG.

Friday and Saturday nights until 4 April 2015.

See the Street Feast website for more information and pictures.