It’s not surprising that gentrification changes the shape of the food landscape in any town, city or even area it passes through. If you’ve ever picked up a copy of Time Out, or simply just walked through just about anywhere in East London, you’ll have seen and heard all there is to know about pop-up supper clubs, cereal bars and oxygen restaurants.
Of course, not all of those concepts are uninteresting, and if pitched to the right audience can make for a fantastic experience. For example, while the food at Dans Le Noir wasn’t all that exceptional when I visited last November, dining in pitch darkness at a communal table felt to me like something worth doing, once in my life, as a bit of a Christmas treat. Elsewhere, artists blur the lines between pop-up restaurants and the good old ‘dinner & a show’ to play with the form an event might take – I’m thinking Lemonade & Laughing Gas’ Twin-Peaks inspired The Owls Are Not What They Seem… (which I didn’t experience myself unfortunately)
I’m not particularly concerned by the impact of the “novelty” food offer emerging, some of it excites me, some of it irritates me but for the most part; it is pitched right – the price tag either matches the experience, or the expected clientèle… It doesn’t disguise itself to pretend to be something else.
On the other hand, during a recent visit to Margate, I was disgruntled by a short visit to a relatively newly opened café; The Grain Grocer. A disclaimer is in order before I begin – while I certainly did not have a particularly pleasant time at the establishment, I’m not here to bash a small town local business – but what I’m looking to do is to express a kind of anxiety at the rise of similar cafes & restaurants up and down the country.
The minute you enter The Grain Grocer (which I don’t think was the previous time I was in Margate in late January) everything does indeed scream Shoreditch-On-Sea… From the reclaimed wood décor to the menu design and the architectural shapes thrown by some of the patrons’ beards; we find ourselves in hipster wonderland. Fine? It could be… if it wasn’t for what I felt to be an uncomfortable kind of appropriation of farm house aesthetics. From Kilner Jars to wooden “cagette” crates, everything looked a little bit like the house I grew up in… everything apart from perhaps the price tag, the language used to described the food (“organic raw apple cider vinegar” or you know, “vinegar” as my mum might call it) and a sense that you have to know what to do to order.
Some of the confusion over what to do once we had made our selection could be excused by the fact the café was likely understaffed that day… should you order at the counter? pay at the end? queue alongside the people who are waiting to order to do so?
Despite the fact that my £5 egg on toast consisted of a single, cold, boiled egg on a tiny piece of over toasted sourdough, I might be willing to give the Grain Grocer another go, mostly because the friend I visited the establishment with praised the coffee – and she knows a good cup of Joe…
But here’s what I’m worried about… is this where healthy, organic, ‘back to basics’ food belongs? In overpriced cafés where one has to be aware of the etiquette to be able to order it, only to be gratified with tiny portions and flustered service? There is nothing justifiably expensive or ‘hipster’ about the offer at the Grain Grocer (and again, I merely hold this particular place as an example of food gentrification) and yet, its audience will be those well off and accustomed to the disguise of the environment… it may look like a farmhouse, but it seems to me to be riding a trendy wave, and not much else…
I’ll write about the food offer in my home town of Lancaster some other time, but locals might recognise the disappearance of the High Street chippy mere months after the opening of the fashionable Radish as another version of the very thing I am anxious about…
If you live in Margate, or are planning to visit soon, do give the Grain Grocer a go and join the conversation in the comments below! And for the best Baked Camembert you will ever have, head to the Cheesy Tiger on an evening.