You can’t quite put your finger on it. But something feels different when you’re walking around Hackney Wick.
Maybe it’s the post-industrial warehouses and depots. Maybe it’s the way everyone is dressed as though they’re headlining the EDM tent at an ambient music festival in Serbia. Who knows? Maybe they are.
But then it hits you: hardly anyone is over the age of forty, and even when they are they’re the hardcore tail-end of Gen X, 48-hour party people who could snort you under the table. Hackney Wick is just so damn youthful.
No wonder. Clubs, creativity, community: the Wick feels full of possibilities, an experiment in a different kind of urban living. People talk to each other. They dance in public. They share beers and jokes and smokes. A weeknight in Hackney is like a Saturday night in the rest of London. It’s an exciting place, even if you do need a working knowledge of late-era Foucault just to go to the bathroom.
And perhaps nowhere in London is changing so fast. Every month, a new shop, a new bar, a new gender-neutral creative-hub-cum-pilates-studio. There are many Wicks, all layered upon one another. They’re not jostling, exactly. But they’re not always that comfortable, either.
Because creating a sense of community isn’t easy. So many developments end up feeling homogeneous, forced, or just unnecessary, unable to reflect their surroundings and projecting instead a faceless global Model Village anonymity, Dubai without the desert.
Here East doesn’t. Built in 2012, an ‘innovation and technology campus’ in the Olympic Park, Here East is symbolic of the Wick’s remarkable growth, of its perpetual youthfulness. It has co-working spaces, open-air showings of sports and films, a retro videogames arcade. It has a hairdressers, a gym, and a whole array of bars, cafes, and restaurants. It feels like it’s in London, not Doha or Singapore.
Stepping into The Lock Inn, a traditional pub, you find yourself in a much older incarnation of Hackney: the east end as it once was, years ago, before the lattes and the LOLs and the LSD, before the microbreweries and the microdosing and the microaggressions. With seats spilling out canal-side, and a cosy bar within, it’s the kind of watering hole that feels both intimate and communal.
On a blustery Wednesday afternoon, it’s serving the locals. There are workmen in high vis, a group of girls in yoga pants with the flushed faces of post-class elation, and even those rare Hackney Wick seniors, enjoying cups of builders’ tea. Who said Hackney was hipster-only?
Food comes from the kitchen next door, Gotto Trattoria. We try a bite at lunch over a pint and it’s so good we decide to return for dinner. In the evening light, it’s even better: that sparkling clamour of well-nourished enjoyment, every table a miniature theatre of contentment and conviviality.
On the table to our left, a second-or-possibly-third date is gradually soothed with Nocellara olives and dew-glistened glasses of Gavi di Gavi, the Supreme-bedecked lad growing into his earrings and tats, the corduroy-skirted and oversize-shirted lass beginning to relax and open up about her anti-racist vegan leather co-operative; to our right, two young men drawl in Italian, all mink-dark eyes and streetsmart clothes, chatting to the waitress as they tear fistfulls of focaccia. Yes: the clientele is as stylish as you’d expect from Gotto’s spiky freshly-painted arthouse logo.
The menu is abrupt and unapologetic, a burst of Vespa vroom in a Neapolitan backstreet: pork meatballs. Burrata pugliese. Caprese. It’s reliable, punchy Italian fare, in a part of town better known for Buddha bowls and ginkgo shrub frappé. Deal with it.
And we do. Beef ragu tagliatelle is rounded and rich, carrying its sonorous undercurrent of sofrito like a good baritone carries a wistful aria. Bigoli with clams and razor mussels makes up for its skimpy chili-and-garlic sauce with the atavistic al dente perfection of its pasta. The pizza, a la Napoli, is a fluffy duvet quilted with comforting and familiar toppings from the Roman larder. The pasta is made fresh in-house. The pizza dough is 48-hour proved. And they taste that way.
So there we are, sated and satisfied and smiling in that relaxed and dusk-lit way that people smile when they’re fed and watered, when – almost as an afterthought – a tiramisu arrives at our table. It’s the only dessert on the menu.
Unassuming, hands-in-its-pockets, whistling to itself inconspicuously: without fanfare, this humble beaker of tiramisu, about the size of a whisky tumbler, soars from the sidelines to the centre stage, the little coda that could. It unfurls each of its constituent components like a magician flourishing his tricks, or a painter his brilliant brushwork to this picture-perfect pudding: the mollifying creaminess of the mascarpone, the coarse graininess of the sponge, the honeyed and smooth sting of the amaretto, with its afterglow taste of the sacrament wine…Yes, I’m mixing my metaphors. Yes, I’m exaggerating. But great food makes you giddy. It makes you want to yell and beckon at passers-by: get a load of this! Ten spoonfuls, twelve, each of them a tableau of tabletop joy, and we’re left with the exit music of the teaspoon’s desperate chinking against empty glass.
When I lived in Milan, the post-dinner stroll – arms behind back, maxims in mouth, moonlight on pinstripes – was as important as dinner itself. Here East isn’t Parco Sempione, but with the taste of tiramisu still casting its ember-like glow, it’s a good substitute. The sun has long since set; the jubilant clamour of starlit revelry echoes over the canal. We see bars, neon lights, the occasional silhouette of a bicycle, music and wine flowing alike – and it’s only Wednesday. Here East has achieved that municipal alchemy promised by developers: a sense of community, of vivaciousness, of life being lived.
You can’t quite put your finger on it. But there’s something special about Hackney Wick.
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
14 E Bay Ln
Tel: 020 3861 6844