Unlike many of London’s neighbourhoods, with their seemingly overnight gentrification and rampant property development, Brockley has quietly evolved, retaining its creative vibe and community-driven, village-like atmosphere.
Leafy and overlooked, property prices shot up in Brockley the moment London Overground arrived in 2012, triggering an influx of quirky cafés, bars and restaurants, artisan bakeries and independent stores.
These include independent coffee shop and yummy mummy magnet Arlo and Moe, craft beer hangout the London Beer Dispensary, micro-brewery The Brockley Brewery, and delicatessens such as the popular Brockley Deli with its extensive range of swanky foods and drinks and menus covering breakfast to evening with bar snacks and cocktails.
Sandwiched between New Cross, Lewisham, Catford and East Dulwich, this corner of south London boasts lovely open green spaces, such as Hilly Fields, which has a peerless view of the city, and Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries.
For nightlife, in its historic heart, Crofton Park, there’s the splendid, pristine Grade II listed Rivoli Ballroom, originally a cinema dating from 1913 and remodelled as a 1950s art deco dance hall, which has been used in numerous films, fashion shoots and music videos. For culture there’s the Brockley Jack Theatre, frequently voted one of London’s best fringe theatres.
Artistic flair is also demonstrated by the striking graffiti art emblazoned on a number of buildings and walls in the area. The high quota of creatives here has spawned the Brockley Max Festival, which celebrates local talent with live music, theatre and art each June.
On Saturdays there’s Brockley Market, which has great street food, and Brockley’s burgeoning food scene plays host to an eclectic mix of restaurants and cafes, the best of which are below:
Tucked down a side road, I’ve passed The Orchard during the day numerous times and assumed, with its groups of mums and toddlers, workers on laptops and friends catching up over a coffee, that it was just another modern cafe with an unremarkable menu. But the moment I walked in during one evening and glimpsed the menu it was obvious that The Orchard is far more than that.
Seated by a wall of exposed brick and bookshelves mounted around a large fish tank, and other walls decked out with an eclectic mix of artworks, jazz and reggae posters, flasks, bottles – and a blue watering can of all things – I had the onerous task of choosing from a selection of 16 tempting cocktails (ranging from £7.50 to £8.95). I plumped for a Hedgerow Fizz, consisting of house-infused blackberry Beefeater London Dry Gin, rosehip, lemon and prosecco, and it proved to be a gleaming red sweet, sour and refreshing beacon of light..
With delights such as braised pork shoulder and seared yellowfin tuna loin with wasabi croquettes on the menu, the Orchard really is a highlight of the Brockley food scene.
The Orchard, 5 Harefield Road, SE4 1LW; 020 8692 4756; thebrockleyorchard.com
When I arrived here at 7.30pm and no-one else was in the restaurant, I wondered whether I’d been misinformed at how good Masala Wala is. But I wasn’t to worry: half an hour later this unpretentious little cafe restaurant was completely full.
It serves traditional Pakistani cuisine, which is subtlety different from Indian food. If you want popadoms and a chicken tikka masala, this isn’t the place to come, as Masala Wala offers down-to-earth home cooking that is generally less rich and oily than typical Indian fare.
The menu is very small, changing every month, with two vegan and two meat main dishes (£9-12), and mung daal (£4), roti flatbreads (£4), katchumber (£4), a simple salad with cumin and condiments on the side.
Being a small, family-run affair, they decided to focus on a small menu done well rather than a large one done not so successfully. I tried the Baingan Gosht, which featured deliciously crumbly and delicately spiced lamb with aubergine, followed by excellent homemade pistachio kulfi ice cream (£5).
Masala Wala, 5 Brockley Cross, SE4 2AB; 020 3659 4055; masalawalacafe.co.uk
Essentially Brickfields is a cocktail bar rather than a restaurant, although it does have a menu of small plates, burgers and bar snacks.
Rather more upmarket than its surroundings, it’s cosy and dark, busy yet laid back, with its various plants giving it a slightly tropical feel. There’s a front bar and a quieter back room, and the clientele are generally young. Whilst the plates we sampled were quite generous – for example Padron peppers (£4.50), char-grilled asparagus and baby gem (£6.00), and crispy calamari, teriyaki and plum sauce (£8.20) – the food is an afterthought and you essentially come here for the relaxing vibe and the swish drinks.
The Brick Spritz (£8.50), with Beefeater gin, strawberry, limoncello, prosecco, elderflower, mint and lime, was pleasant indeed, as was the Bloody Tommy (£8.50), with Olmeca Reposado Tequila, blood oreange, blue Agave nectar and lime.
Brickfields, 293 Brockley Road, SE4 2SA; 020 8691 1617; brickfieldsbar.com
This large, very popular Turkish restaurant doesn’t look so much from the street but step inside and you’re almost transported to Istanbul with the Turkish music playing in the background and shish kebabs sizzling on the charcoal grill.
Though it won’t win any interior design awards the place was buzzing. The restaurant gets through 100-150 shoulders of lamb alone each week – each marinated for 48 hours – and it was easy to see how, with every table taken and people patiently waiting by the door for a seat.
After a selection of tasty starters (£2.50-5.00) including Imam Bayildi (aubergine stuffed with onions and tomato), Acili Ezme (tomato, peppers, onions and parsley in lemon juice, tomato puree and herbs) and lahmacum (Turkish pizza topped with minced meat), the mains, Adana Kofte (spicy minced lamb kebab, £14.50) and Bildircin (grilled quails, £11.50) had a special and distinct flavour, courtesy of the big wood oven in the corner.
Meze Mangal, 245 Lewisham Way, SE4 1XF; 020 8694 8099; mezemangal.co.uk
This is perhaps Brockley’s most outstanding restaurant and I should think one of the best Indian restaurants in the country. Established in 1985, it continually strives to be innovative. The menu features curries using ostrich, buffalo, quail, Balmoral Estate red deer and Grassingham duck. It is screaming to be different.
Every dish is a completely new take on Indian cooking: crispy tapioca coated beetroot cutlet; char-grilled cottage cheese, Rajasthani masala, green beans, dal makhani; Kasundi king prawn, green papaya murabba: my companion and I tried both the vegetarian and non-vegetarian tasting menus (£56.95 and £58.95 respectively), each being five delicious courses paired perfectly with old and new world wines that were ideal companions. Not one dish disappointed.
The restaurant itself is delightful: at the entrance there’s a kitch and colourful lifesize Indian tiger statue and when you step inside you set eyes on both smart decor and a huge vase of fabulous flowers. The attention to detail continues, from the striking specially commissioned artworks on the walls, the curvy American plywood panels that despite looking like something out of a 1960s airport completely work, the elegant table covers and dishes perfectly presented on earthenware, slate, wood, ink black plates and more.
The Babur, 119 Brockley Rise, SE23 1JP; 020 8291 2400; babur.info