Muswell Hill, at least the Muswell Hill I’ve known since the mid-1990s, has always been a typical middle-class London neighbourhood. Parents were lawyers, journalists and teachers, did yoga and pilates, bought muddy vegetables, and read the Guardian. It was a relatively idyllic place to grow up, with four or five parks within walking distance and safety to play on the streets.
The Broadway feels much like a traditional English village centre, enhanced by its lack of tube station. More importantly, it houses several long-established, independent shops, such as W. Martyn, a quaint coffee and tea specialist opened in 1897, or Broadway Pet Stores, whose friendly staff have remained unchanged over the past two decades. These independent outlets make the area feel more like a community than many London neighbourhoods.
Food-wise, however, Muswell Hill has lagged behind its more ethnically-diverse neighbouring areas, particularly Crouch End, Stroud Green and Hornsey. As a boy, it was always exciting venturing south and east with my parents, to authentic Turkish food in Green Lanes, to trendier outposts in Crouch End, or to the ethnic melange of Stroud Green.
Not that there wasn’t anything good in Muswell Hill. La Porchetta, which proudly proclaims its independence from London’s other Porchettas, was a childhood staple; Kilim offered reliable Turkish fare; Toff’s was always proudly, if somewhat dubiously, affirmed as one of Britain’s best fish and chips shops; and Ask and Pizza Express were always there, for those times when your parents wanted pizza but found the superior La Porchetta too noisy. In short, there was always good food, it was just simpler, less adventurous, and somehow felt less authentic than in other areas.
In the past couple of years, however, the hipsterisation of London’s food culture (street food, small plates, cheap, better-quality fast food, and ‘artisanal’ produce), has belatedly ensconced itself into Muswell Hill’s leafy streets. The pioneers, bizarrely, were characterless chains like Carluccio’s and Côte, corporate behemoths serving blandly generic Italian and French fare. Fortunately, they blazed the trail, putting the area on the map for some more interesting restaurants, delis and cafés to emerge.
In July 2014, Alexandra Palace hosted its first street food and craft beer festival. The fair brings together some of London’s finest food trucks, craft beer stalls and alternative bands. This welcome addition to the local scene arrived late (Street Feast first opened its doors to hungry East London hipsters in 2012), but better late than never.
Bodean’s opened it’s newest branch in Muswell Hill in late 2016. In 2002 Bodean’s was a trailblazer, bringing the now-ubiquitous concept of American-style ribs, wings, and pulled pork to Londoners. As ever, we Muswell Hillbillies got our share late, long after Soho and East London were crawling with American diners, some good, some terrible. While not perfect, Bodean’s is a welcome, and self-consciously hipper, upgrade on Giraffe.
The Broadway’s culinary range has diversified, and to a large extent improved, in the past two years. The extortion of Planet Organic notwithstanding, Muswell Hill has received the once-cool but still-good Franco Manca, a trendy salt-beef selling café (salt beef is always a good thing), and even purveyors of fine sourdough bread and Monmouth coffee at Flesh & Flour. There will always be a place in my heart for traditional cafés like Feast on the Hill, but I am thankful for the superior coffee at Flesh & Flour, and obviously for their artisanal lard.
The belated hipsterisation of Muswell Hill’s food scene, the term in itself an oxymoron, is not completely benign. The snootiness of Muddy Boots, a new deli that looks down on those unable to afford organic meat, is uncalled for. A recent sign outside the shop stated that “most people are totally happy to buy their meat from supermarkets. For everyone else, we’re here”; most people would buy their chops if they could afford them.
Furthermore, trendier stores and eateries threaten the existence of many of the area’s long-established and popular locations. The fishmonger Walter Purkis & Sons came to the area in 1987, and still commands lengthy queues every Saturday morning. The recent imposition of a more modern fishmonger on Colney Hatch Lane may threaten their existence. Sable D’or has recently closed for refurbishment. The café is certainly modernising to compete with the influx of coffee sellers.
Until recently, Muswell Hill was, if not quite a gastronomic Siberia, somewhat limited food-wise. Recent years have seen vast improvements, and providing that traditional outlets are not pushed out, that can only be a good thing.