In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides used "hoi polloi" – "the many" – in positive contrast to "hoi oligoi", "the few". Only recently, and long after Dryden and Byron got their grubby fingers on it, has the former term come to have negative connotations, implying as it now does a dismissive contempt for riffraff, plebs, proles and the like.
I see this new establishment from Pablo Flack and David Waddington – the duo behind two other excellent restaurants, Bistrotheque and Shrimpy's, and a few other pop-ups besides – as nothing less than an ambitious attempt to recover the phrase for its original, affectionate meaning. That task deserves applause on its own merit, and when conjoined with the very good food here, it acquires something like nobility.
This is Shoreditch – and hoi polloi be there plenty. The clientele is young and cool; and so spacious is this canteen-like brasserie with its high ceilings that you want to stay all day, nursing a drink and/or hangover.
You walk in through Hattie Fox's That Flower Shop, a calm and aromatic Eden spilling over with vegetation. The menus are printed on brown, recycled paper, and are split into breakfast, daytime, dinner, supper and weekend brunch, complemented by a set of drinks menus. There is a huge selection. From the starters on the daytime menu, I go for a crab salad with radish on toast (£12.75). The crab is light and ribboned, and counters the crunchy radish beautifully. The dressed curried mackerel on seeded toast (£7.25) is close to kedgeree-like, with a gentle spice and strong fishy flavour.
Among the mains, there is an excellent set of pork cheeks with spiced apple and pickled carrot (£15.50). The apple is warm, autumnal and puréed, and the carrot has an acidity that cuts right through a tender hunk of flesh. A bowl of beef-dripping chips (£4) could not come any better – thumping crunch around fluffy potato that's light as a cloud. And my beloved Matt, with whom I'm comparing notes after a summer in which he and I were each other's best man, is overwhelmed with joy on tasting the pressed lamb, Jerusalem artichoke, radish and madeira – at £18, just about the most expensive thing on this very affordable menu.
Such dishes show they do the classy stuff well here, but there is also no shortage of excellent everyday dishes. The fresh orange juice (£3.50) is irresistible; the eggs Benedict (£9.50) comes with a hollandaise so thick and yellow it looks and tastes as though made of sunshine; and the eggy bread with berries and mascarpone (£8) is the sort of calorific indulgence beloved of real hoi polloi.
The staff here are true to the name, too, all shaggy hair, beards and skinny jeans that I thought went out of fashion a decade ago. Their service is warm, friendly, attentive, and impossible to fault. So much so that when we are invited to try dessert, it would be impolite to say no.
There are two kinds on the daytime menu: "afters" and "modern cups". The latter are essentially ice-creams or sorbets, the best of which is an immaculate chocolate, barley and black-malt ice-cream (£6.50). If you are into strong, intense, and succulent chocolate, this justifies a visit on its own. So too, frankly, does the date pudding with marmalade ice-cream and treacle sauce (£7), a delightful combination whose aroma recalls endless cricket pitches from the summer that is now a memory.
Bottles of wine start at £19 and the list is pretty strong. The cocktail menu, meanwhile, has very fancy names that, we are told, refer to 1960s Cockney rhyming slang. I have a passing interest in that subject, and recognise very little of the terminology. Luckily, they will also do you a normal cocktail on order, which is very much in keeping with the spirit of solidarity and helpfulness that makes this place so welcoming. This is, indeed, how hoi polloi should eat: unfussy and surrounded by warmth. Goodness knows what Thucydides would have made of it, but I shall be coming back time and again.
Hoi Polloi, 100 Shoreditch High Street, London E1, Tel: 020 8880 6100. £90 for two, with drinks
Three more all-day brasseries
As suited to a sophisticated brunch (special mention for the pancakes) as it is to a romantic dinner. 56 Westow Hill, London SE19, tel: 020 8670 4052
A great take on a classic Parisian brasserie, this dependable all-rounder is sometimes excellent (and always pricey). Eastgate, Chester, tel: 01244 324 024
The chattering classes continue to pack out this soothing but superbly characterful Merchant City café. 64 Albion Street, Glasgow, tel: 0141 552 6813
Reviews extracted from 'Harden’s London and UK Restaurant Guides 2013', www.hardens.comReuse content