Brixton sheds its shady side
From left: diners at Honest Burgers; global goods on display at Rachel and Malika’s; light floods a Granville Arcade avenue. (Lily Lindsay)
On a Thursday evening in south London, the irresistible, sweet scent of frying garlic mingled with other delicious smells of Southeast Asian cooking. Music vendors, tucked into burrow-like railway arches, blasted the Caribbean sounds of Reggaeton from their waist-high amplifiers. Butchers, standing beneath strip lighting, painted the floor with bleach and water, and cats trotted around the fruit and vegetables that had fallen from the stalls above.
The market shops and stalls along Brixton’s Electric Avenue, a street immortalised in the 1982 song by Eddie Grant, had just finished work for the day. But at the end of the avenue and under the railway track, some of the market stalls in nearby Granville Arcade were just opening for the night.
Located at the end of the Victoria Underground line and housed in a late 1930s covered market, Granville Arcade is the scene of a recent regeneration project led by Spacemakers, an enterprise that transforms neglected and abandoned buildings in the UK. Along with its neighbouring buildings, Reliance Arcade and Market Row, Granville Arcade was awarded Grade II heritage status in 2010 for its architectural and cultural significance. At the same time, 20 empty market units inside the arcade – a sad spectre of decline in an otherwise vibrant corner of London – were filled with creative small businesses that Spacemakers granted a trial period of three months free rent. Two years later, the grouping of arcades collectively known as Brixton Village is thriving, their empty units now home to long-term businesses like restaurants, bars, boutiques and bakeries. And while Brixton is best known for being an enclave of Caribbean culture, a stroll around the three-market complex today makes it possible to travel – and eat – your way around the world, in less time than it takes to get to the nearest airport.
In Granville Arcade, the six indoor “avenues” are painted in jaunty yellow, blue and lilac, and Jamaican flags hang on the rafters beneath a glass roof. On Third Avenue, the Sierra Leone Grocery, a shop that is piled high with exotic West African fruits and spices, neighbours the Elephant Café, where chef-proprietor Imran Bashir serves samosas, Pakistani curries, and lamb, chicken and vegetable thalis at fold-away tables in front of his capsule kitchen. The cafe combines restaurant-quality cooking with the charm of eating in someone’s home, accented by stylish, elephant-printed wallpaper, soft lighting and attentive service. Just beyond, the brightly-lit Santafereno dishes out cheap and hearty Colombian platanos (plantains) and bistecca (flash-grilled steaks).
Long queues tend to form at a handful of kitchens, including Honest Burgers, KaoSarn (020- 7095-8922) and Mama Lan. At the latter, a short menu of plump dumplings, noodle dishes and street food is cooked by Beijing-born Ning Ma, whose amateur supper club grew out of her living room before becoming a professional restaurant. Next door, French and Grace is the permanent home of another former supper club that now serves Mediterranean mezze, bakes and stews. KaoSarn, a family-run Thai restaurant, is consistently packed with diners who come hungry for its sweet red prawn curry and spiced roast chicken served with sticky rice steamed in a banana leaf. Things get even more specialised at Casa Sibilla, which serves Puglian and Piedmont recipes, and at Brixton Cornercopia, where local products, including Sussex and Kent vegetables and English wines, are given prominence.
Running parallel to Electric Avenue and steps from Grandville Arcade, Market Row is home to Franco Manca, a pizzeria that drew attention to the area well before the Spacemakers regeneration project for its Neapolitan-quality wood-fired sourdough pizzas. A newer addition, Market Row Wines (no contact details) has been open just a matter of days, offering a modest line of 50 wines that cost no more than £12 per bottle. Tastes of South and Central America can be found several steps north. Stop first at Brazilian restaurant Feijao do Luis for a delicious caipirinha, where crushed ice and brown sugar are doused with potent cachaca and lime juice, before continuing on to Mexico via taco-toting Casa Morita and El Panzon.