“We’ve spent £70, I’m hungry and, worst of all, I’m sober” I complained. My wife was similarly disgruntled. We were at the Model Market in Lewisham. This was a derelict covered market that has been taken over by Street Feast and sells fast food during the summer months. We left vowing never to go back but decided to return last month with friends and children to see if we had judged too harshly. It was a beautiful August evening, a DJ was spinning soul music records and the trendy things of south east London seemed to be lapping it up despite the prices: £9 for fried chicken and chips, £7 for a small plate of fried squid, not as good as Royal China according to my daughter, and most galling of all, £6, £6!, for a 355ml can of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Another bar on site was selling a pint of the same beer for £5 but I definitely felt trendier holding a can.
The appearance of posh fast food is one of the stranger trends to have swept Britain in the last few years. The food of poor America tarted up and priced up to be eaten by middle class British people. There’s a chain called Bubble Dogs that will charge you £15 for a hot dog and a glass of fizz. Hot dogs should cost $2.50 and be eaten on the street.
We’ve even taken to that weird distinctly American hybrid of savoury fried chicken and sweet waffles with maple syrup. Duck & Waffle in London offer the ultimate posh take on this swapping the fried chicken for a confit duck leg. What’s interesting about these gourmet versions is how we get it so wrong. The food is beautifully presented but there’s just not enough of it. With American food you’re not meant to be able to walk afterwards.
That said some fast foods do benefit from a little poncification. I like George Osborne’s favourite, Byron Burger. I am willing to pay for good quality steak, chopped up and served rare especially if I’m eating it in a booth. In fact I’ll pay almost anything if I’m seated in a booth. But I am baffled by places such as Shake Shack or 5 Guys which offer burgers no better than McDonald’s and chips that are significantly worse (McDonald’s french fries are superb). At Shake Shack a burger, fries and shake will cost about £17. The equivalent at Maccy D’s will cost you about £6. The middle classes look down their noses at McDonald’s and yet are happy to eat essentially the same food as long as it is expensive enough.
So why do these places charge so much? Well first of all because they can. There are plenty of people for whom spending £10 on a hamburger isn’t a lot of money. But also in the case of Street Feast you are not just paying for the food and the overheads. All vendors are smartly branded. We bought our chicken from the amusingly-named Mother Clucker. The dream is to do a Meatliquor which started as a food truck and now has branches throughout London. Your average chicken shack in Louisiana doesn’t have a PR firm or a marketing strategy.
Street Feast are owned by a company called London Union. They don’t just sell overpriced burgers but are also, according to their slogan, “Transforming Lives And Communities Through The Awesome Power Of Street Food”. It’s the brainchild of restaurateurs Jonathan Downey and Henry Dimbleby. Street Feast run similar markets around the country and put on events with celebrity chefs such as Thomasina Miers.
One thing you will notice about the names above is that they’re not exactly salt-of-the-earth types. Alexei Sayle in his recent stand-up routine joked about how the poshing up of jobs such as journalism (I admit I am part of this trend) and comedy has spread to fast food: “burger vans! burger vans! all the burger vans down my local market are run by the class of Charterhouse of 2005.” Sayle also mocks the sort of gap year cookery where rich English kids discover the authentic street food of somewhere poor and decide to bring it back home at a price, “there’s a Vietnamese Phô stall in Peckham run by the Queen and Prince Philip.”
At Oak Fisheries in Headingley which I used to visit when I was a student, you were served by a woman with enormous arms who looked like she was born to work in a fish and chip shop whilst an unsmiling man with a comb over fried the fish in dripping. It’s still the best fish and chips I’ve ever had. There was no branding, no mission statement, and no plans to roll it out into a chain.
The day after Model Market, I went to a barbeque put on by some of the parents on our street. They all agreed that Street Feast was a rip off, and yet at the same time they would go back. One mother told me that what she loved about it was that it’s like not being in Lewisham, you could pretend that you live in a nice bit of London for the evening.
It occurred to me that Street Feast is the opposite of street food. You are not in the street. You are in a carefully curated middle class fantasy land, like being at a music festival but without bands. If the high prices don’t deter the wrong sort of people from wandering in, the entry fee after 7pm will. Whilst the stalls are run by the middle class, the people collecting rubbish were immigrants. It was London in a microcosm.
Meanwhile at Lewisham’s actual street market you can buy a proper bratwurst hot dog for £3, jerk chicken made by real Jamaicans for £4 and a pint at the nearby Wetherspoons for £1.80. They even sell Sierra Nevada Pale Ale though you do have to mix with some ghastly people.
A much shorter version of this article appeared in the Oldie magazine