True Gripes: South of the border: Into a gastronomic wasteland

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The Independent Online
What is it about south-east London and food? Why is there this curious antipathy to the stuff when everywhere else in the metropolis has caught on to the fact that we're Europeans now and eating out can be eclectic and good value. Somehow the message seems to have bypasscd the burghers of the south-east. If it can't be fried, curried, boiled in a bag or slammed in a microwave, forget it. The map in the Good Food Guide says it all - a gastronomic wasteland. The south-east seems unable to rise much above pub-grub, kebabs and tandooris. Is it something in the water?

For a moment in the 1970s and 1980s, things started to look up - plenty of enterprising bistros. Nico Ladenis opened his first restaurant in SE22, and was notorious for chucking out anyone who asked for salt and pepper. But Ladenis went on to conquer the world, and the bistros have all gone to make way for multi-ethnicity and a plague of pizza and pasta chains.

With a few Italian and Cypriot exceptions, specialist food shops full of southern promise invariably turn out to be a disaster. It's all so half-hearted and unappetising. Everything looks a week old. Crusted taramasalata, tired blocks of quiche, fossilised charcuterie, sweaty cheese gasping for air, and anything else that can't move sealed tight in clingfilm. Why?

South-easterners are quick to latch on to food trends, but don't seem to have a clue how, or are just too lazy to make them work. When it isn't drowning in apathy, the south-east is locked into massive indifference.

Oh great, you think, when a new pasta place opens within walking distance - I haven't got to travel for an hour to get my chops around a Penne Amatriciana and a bottle of hefty red. Wrong. In south-east London, the pasta is usually sitting in a puddle of its ill-drained cooking water and the sauce will be an approximation of something that hasn't long left a can.

Mean is the word that springs to mind for most of the pizzas - all base and no topping and most brasserie/bar food is a uniformly microwaved diet of macaroni cheese, lasagne, and baked potatoes.

When a new brasserie opened not far from where I live, I nursed fond thoughts of spending my early mornings reading the paper over several shots of thick espresso. 'Sorry,' said the owner, 'we're still saving for our espresso machine.' God help us when she gets it. These are the sort of people who think that Lavazza is an item on Eurotrash.

Somewhere between fast, ethnic and a few stragglers from dinkiedom, there's a happy medium struggling to get out. A few good places do exist, and they are packed every night.

The rest don't seem to care. It's not all gloom and doom, but McDonald's and Pizza Hut have quite a lot to answer for.

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