Nothing here is exactly what it appears to be
At first glance, Vinegar Yard appears to be just a street food market. A somewhat incongruously placed one perhaps, given that its decorated with huge sculptures of oversized ants and yet sits just across the road from London Bridge station and is mere steps away from The Shard.
Despite its liberal use of fairy lights, exposed brickwork and repurposed shipping containers, Vinegar Yard isn’t the plucky bohemian operation you might think it is. The whole market is operated by MJMK, the people behind piri piri chicken restaurants Casa Do Frango, on behalf of one and possibly all of the property developers currently planning to redevelop the yard as well as the land immediately adjacent to it on both sides.
The small street food market is therefore meant to be temporary until construction work can begin on a mixed-use complex that will replace it. Vinegar Yard as it currently exists is, in effect, a feel-good marketing front for a gaggle of property developers and their latest project.
The new Vinegar Yard is intended to consist of student accommodation, office space and WeWork-style ‘co-working’ space in addition to retail and restaurant premises. All of which is far cry from the burger flippers and sandwich stuffers currently on site, all of whom will be impacted by what the owners choose to do next.
Property developers CIT and Sellar, working with architects KPF and RPBW, appear to own the Vinegar Yard site and land immediately to the east. They appear to be planning the office, co-working, retail and restaurant buildings. Property developer Greystar and multinational asset managers Columbia Threadneedle, working with architects KPF and LDS, appear to be responsible for planning the student accommodation immediately to the west of Vinegar Yard. All of them, for the purposes of this London Bridge development, present a united public face as the St Thomas Street East Design Framework.
Only CIT and Sellar have submitted an application for planning permission, as far as I can tell. The insight they give into their future restaurant and retail plans seemingly doesn’t have room for any of the existing traders. Visualisations of hypothetical future on-site restaurants and cafes include names with relatively deep pockets such as JKS (the group behind hits such as Bao and Hoppers) and Rapha.
None of the mock-ups include any of the on-site traders, nor are they mention anywhere else in the submitted documents as far as I can tell. Neither does there appear to be any mention of their intended policies towards restaurant tenants, although this isn’t unusual for planning permission documents as far as I can tell.
How landlords treat their restaurant tenants matters now more than ever. For example, at the time of writing, the coronavirus lockdown of London is in full-effect and casting a veil of uncertainty over the capital’s restaurants. How the capital’s landlords treat their restaurant tenants in this crisis will be pivotal in determining how many have a chance of reopening or not, and thus has potentially far-reaching consequences on what our post-Covid dining culture and public spaces will look like.
Of course, planning permission documents can only tell us so much. So I asked CIT and Sellar whether they’ve offered – or plan to offer – rights of first refusal, preferential tenancy terms or other preferential treatment to the existing Vinegar Yard traders in the event that their application for planning permission is successful. I also asked the traders themselves, as well as MJMK, whether they’d been offered any of the above.
At the time of first publication, I haven’t received any response from MJMK, Sellar or CIT’s public relations firm. Of the traders, only one has replied whom I’ll be unilaterally keeping anonymous. They said ‘there have been no discussions with us about the plans for redevelopment and the future site… We are in the dark about a lot of things sadly.’
In the meantime, one can only hope that Vinegar Yard will reopen as soon as the lockdown permits – despite its flaws. The pre-lockdown spread – taken as a whole – was a generally unimaginative and uninspired selection in breadth, depth and quality with an an overrepresentation of burgers and other meat sandwiches.
Even so, Vinegar Yard is still worth considering as a meal option when you’re in and around the London Bridge area – and not just because of the worthwhile dishes from traders Nik’s Kitchen and Up In My Grill. Vinegar Yard has somehow managed to find a better balance between tipsy table-hogging drinkers and people who actually want to eat – a footing that the nearby Mercato Metropolitano has never managed to attain. That counts for much more in a street food hall/market than you might think.
If we’re fortunate, Vinegar Yard will overcome its structural flaws and become the real local asset that it could actually be. But for that to happen, it has survive both the pandemic and the intended redevelopment.
Call me a pessimist, but the odds seem stacked against it.
Table of Contents
Baba G’s is a longtime street food trader that briefly had its own restaurant in Camden and has other stalls in other markets, such as the nearby Mercato Metropolitano. The most notable thing about this Indian-themed stand is that it doesn’t attempt to serve actual Indian street food, such as pav bhaji, papri chaat or kati rolls. Instead, somewhat predictably, it serves up curry-themed burgers.
The burgers tend to be quite sloppy and oozy. While this is part of their Instagrammable appeal, it also means you have eat one of these beasts at a table (if you can nab a perch) unless you want to risk staining every single part of your clothing.
The sole vegetarian option has saag paneer stuffed in between its baps. Although there wasn’t quite enough spinach, the saag present packed a punchy tang that contrasted well with the milkiness of the soft paneer and a crunchy, moreish and mildly vegetal bhaji. Saag paneer is a classic for a reason.
Baba G’s is best known for its lamb burgers, but they’re not all created equal. The Naga Delhi double is a dual patty affair, both were coarsely ground and lightly chewy. Just as importantly, its tingly cumin-esque tang received a complimentary lift from the punchy combo of lime pickle and sharp red onions. The onion bhaji was notably better this time around, its battered and neatly sweated onions adding a crunchy, tangy sweetness to the proceedings. It’s not a beef burger and it’s all the better for it.
The lamb jalfrezi burger, despite using some of the same elements, was a far less impressive sandwich. The lack of cumin, an overenthusiastic application of generically tangy sauce, an overeager deluge of red onions and the squished, floppy, late bloomer of a bhaji all served to unbalance and deaden the coarse patty’s charms.
The least impressive of Baba G’s burgers wasn’t the lamb jalfrezi though, but the chicken effort. While allegedly made from thigh meat, it was a dry and excessively chewy affair. It would’ve had all the charm of a microwaveable ready meal, but for the valiant efforts of the the punchy lime pickle and pickled veg.
Rakish fries, possibly dusted with gram flour, and graced with a thin, weedy chutney made for a poor side dish. ‘Pachos’ were far better, dousing poppadom shards with raita, mango pickle and the ever present red onions.
Baba G’s is easily the best of the two burger stands at Vinegar Yard, although its efforts can still be surprisingly wobbly for such a long-time street food operator. Even more curious is that Baba G’s newer stand at the nearby Mercato Metropolitano generally managed a higher level of consistency with the same menu – there was a far narrower gap in quality between the two lamb burgers, for example. Even after all this time, there’s still room for improvement for this street food stalwart. As they’re still trading via the likes of Deliveroo, perhaps they’ll use this time to do just that.
Average cost per main dish: £11
Nanny Bill’s is Vinegar Yard’s other burger purveyor, one that has also digressed into other dishes to lacklustre effect.
The flagship bacon double cheeseburger was a drab affair. The thin, meagre patties had little to say for themselves in either taste or texture, while the American cheese was deadweight as per usual. The moderately tangy burger sauce and fatty salty bacon were the main sources of joy here, but these edible plasters couldn’t disguise the sickly state of this burger.
Beef brisket croquettes were mushier and saltier than a saccharin baby shower suddenly interrupted by a verbosely uncouth sailor. I’m incredibly averse to wasting food, but most of these little blood pressure grenades went in the bin.
Fried chicken strips were bland and soft, both on the outside and the inside. They weren’t a patch on the chook sticks available at the nearby Flat Iron Square branch of Mother Clucker.
Going vegetarian doesn’t get you a good meal either. The quinoa-based patty of the Lula burger was a tasteless puck with an airy, grainy texture that was unsettlingly unpleasant. The soil-like experience of this burger wasn’t helped by the insipidly feeble vegan cheese. The only reason this didn’t join the brisket croquettes in the bin was all down to the sweet burger sauce and sharp pickled onions.
Thin weedy fries had a transient taste of rosemary which is better than nothing, I suppose. Macaroni and cheese croquettes were better than the brisket variety, although only by virtue of not being as repulsively inedible. The small, soft spheres came filled with an undistinguished creamy melange that was vaguely identifiable as the advertised dairy and pasta.
No, just no. It’s not worth it.
Average cost per main dish: £9.50
It’s easy to overlook this stand and its broadly Middle Eastern dishes, but to do so would be a grave mistake. The chicken shawarma-style kebab was unexpectedly gamey with a satisfying meaty moistness and the occasional hint of smoke. The chilli sauce and yoghurt were tame affairs, but that didn’t matter too much given the punchy garlic sauce and the piquant jalapenos. The whole shebang was tightly wrapped within a khubz-style flatbread. There was a bit of leakage, but within tolerable limits.
Although the lamb kebab was much the same as the chicken, it was unexpectedly less enjoyable due to the shrug-inducing quality of the lamb.
The vegetarian kebab was served atop rice, with no flatbread option, which turned out to be the most enjoyable element of this dish. The coriander-flecked grains were neatly boosted by the candied sweetness of the squidgy, springy aubergine. This, in turn, segued seamlessly into the sharp umami of the tomato, red onion and cucumber salad. The ‘aubergine’ koftas, on the other hand, were grainy and dry spherical husks that were as appealing as a brick of dessicated Weetabix.
Although the tender chunks of baby sheep in the lamb stew were only moderately earthy, the lightly zesty, bittersweet and sticky blanket of a sauce more than made up for it. Surprisingly, the rice-salad combo to the rear was only half as winsome as it had been before, when served with the aubergine koftas.
I expected the manakish flatbread to be a thinly repurposed take of the flatbreads used in the kebabs, but that didn’t appear to be the case. Laying somewhere in between a laffa and a pitta in softness, pliability and tearability, its thin and chewy folds were topped with bittersweet greens and moist, milky and salty drops of feta. An unexpected gem.
Despite a few speed bumps along the way, Nik’s Kitchen still raced ahead of its neighbours with its lip-smacking dishes.
Average cost per dish: £9-10
Sugo is the only trader at Vinegar Yard to have, at the time of writing, their own bricks-and-mortar restaurant in the works. Interestingly though, it won’t be located at Vinegar Yard or anywhere adjacent to London Bridge and The Shard, but a few minutes walk away near Elephant and Castle.
Sugo serves up Sicilian-ish dishes, mostly in sandwich form. All used a thick triangular doorstop of soft, but somewhat stodgy and dour bread. Neither the protein nor the sauce of the chicken pesto filling inspired much devotion or joy. It was oddly accompanied by fleshy aubergine which added a much needed moreishness. Although mild, it was better than nothing.
A pork meatball sandwich will be instantly appealing to fans of Subway’s meatball marinara. But, and it pains me to say this, that multinational franchised fast fast food chain does a better meatball sandwich. Sugo’s pork meatballs had mild hints of a herb I couldn’t quite place, but this was the height of their charms. They were otherwise too soft and bland, with the wan tomato sauce and parmesan providing little backup.
The fine-grained exterior of the ping pong ball-sized mushroom and truffle arancini had a moderately crisp first bite, but was ultimately a bit too soft and floppy. The loose, almost congee-like filling initially had an earthy fragrance, but it faded quickly and that was the extent of the advertised mushroom and truffle. I much prefer the larger, crisper and heartier arancini from Little Sicily at the nearby Mercato Metropolitano.
The filling of the mozzarella and tomato arancini was even more unmemorable, but at least the teardrop-shaped shells were tightly crumbed and uniformly crisp.
The chickpea chips were a far better side dish. Thick and tall with a firm exterior and soft, fluffy, oil-free interior, these were essentially large versions of panelle. They weren’t quite as moreish as the panelle from Little Sicily at the nearby Mercato Metropolitano, while the tapenade-like side sauce wasn’t punchy enough. Even so, they were still the best thing I ate from Sugo.
A diplomatic summary of Sugo is that I have concerns about their new Elephant and Castle restaurant before it has even opened.
Average cost per main dish: £6.30
Up In My Grill
The best way to appreciate Up In My Grill’s steak is with the chimichurri. The steak’s tenderness, tang and neatly moreish browning was enhanced by the chimichurri’s zing. Only the weedy, dry and cardboard-like fries let the side down.
Although the beef in the steak sandwich wasn’t quite as characterful as it had been the first time around, this sarnie was far from disappointing. The crunchy half-baguette stayed out of the way, all the better to appreciate the the tangy steak melding neatly with the mature tang of the melted cheese and sharp onions. Satisfying.
Although the potato soldiers in the cheesy fries weren’t any better than they had been with the chimichurri steak, the addition of the same characterful cheese that graced the steak sandwich largely made up for it. Sometimes, cheese really can cure all.
The cheesy fries were certainly a better bet than the beef shin nuggets. Although the shells were crisp then soft, the mushy characterless beef and shrug-inducing shallot mayo left much to be desired.
Up In My Grill isn’t perfect, but it’s a solid choice nonetheless.
Average cost per dish: £8-10