Dalston, Lewisham, Battersea, Bermondsey—and now Shoreditch has got the makeover from Jonathan Downey and his collective of street food concepts.
On the site of an old bullion truck depot owned by the Corporation of London, the latest set-up is called Dinerama. It follows the template set by Downey and his Street Feast venture for breathing new life into derelict spaces with the help of vibrant mobile vendors and bars.
Open from noon to midnight four days a week until October, it is home to some Street Feast regulars like SmokeStak and Breddos, plus first-time traders including Busan BBQ, Rainbo and Cheeky Italian.
But Dinerama is very much an evolution of the collectives around London that have gone before it, and a sign of how street food in the UK has grown up. Housing six eat-in diner spaces, five street shacks, two food trucks and five bars across two tiers, this is a substantial, thousand- capacity operation, and has formal planning and licensing agreements rather than the temporary event stipulations of previous Street Feast start-ups.
Downey says that in terms of bar take over its first few weeks, the site has been the biggest licensed venture he has ever been involved in. It even shrugged off a substantial fire in mid-July, reopening less than a month later.
Tenants at the collective echo this professionalisation, adding efficiency to a sector that has always had distinctive and edgy propositions but not necessarily the sharpest skills in business and logistics.
They have been helped in this respect by the top chef Neil Rankin, a consultant on the project. “He’s adding massive value to a lot of chefs who are passionate but sometimes don’t have the professional training. He’s helping them to get better and quicker and make more money,” says Downey.
Street Feast is evolving, too—into London Union, a new vehicle led by Downey and Leon co-founder Henry Dimbleby and backed by a host of big names in food and drink. It is in negotiations on a few more sites, with Shepherd’s Bush and Canada Water among the potential locations, and has ambitions to go international as well; Downey mentions Los Angeles, Austin and Detroit as cities he’d like to try.
Wherever he goes, he says, the idea is to regenerate areas. “We’re place-making and job-creating—making use of space that is otherwise dead.”
The biggest win for London Union would be the big market in the centre of the capital that Downey and Dimbleby have been chasing for a while. They hope to secure somewhere next year, but know they’ll have to stay patient to find the right spot.
“We set up [street food and bar pop-up] Hawker House in seven days. This might take seven years at this rate,” says Downey. But he promises it will be worth the wait, and will make a bold statement about London’s burgeoning street-food scene. “Apart from being dads, it’ll probably be the most important thing Henry and I do in our lives. It’ll change the perception of London as a world food city,” Downey says.