Why are rich modern cities so obsessed with street food?

Berlin's Markthalle Neun. Image: Getty.

In London, at some point in the 1840s, an oyster seller who had “seen better days” described her trade to journalist Henry Mayhew. Hawking from a basket on a busy street, she took home just a shilling a night (£2-3 today). Her regulars were sheepish gentlemen, prostitutes, and workers hunting a Saturday supper. In nineteenth-century London, oysters were hardly a luxury. Mayhew estimated 124m were sold every year, at four a penny.

In the same city, in mid-2016, I picked up dinner in a half-abandoned warehouse. For a few pounds entry, plus a fiver or so a dish, I wolfed down Hawaiian sushi, a Jerk-seasoned corn cob, and chewy, bright-green meringues. The vendors and bar staff were even hipper than the hip, millennial crowd, which was padded out by families and tourists.

Street food has always been an urban phenomenon. A set of historical essays, published this summer, has chapters on ancient Rome, Naples in the 1700s, and modern-day Bangkok. Until recently, rich and poor cityfolk bought most of their food, raw and cooked, from stalls or wanderers on the streets.

It’s hardly news this traditional chow has gone gourmet. Open-air markets, like Smorgasburg in Brooklyn or Kerb across London, jostle with restaurants to offer the most exciting and innovative urban grub.

But another trend could change the phenomenon, and the city space, more drastically: the fixed-site, often indoors, always open market. Street food is coming off the streets.

This autumn, Time Out unveiled plans to open a market in London during the second half of 2017. The Shoreditch site will host 17 food outlets, a cooking academy, several bars, a shop and a gallery.

“We want to offer local restaurateurs, mixologists [that is, cocktail-makers], artists the opportunity to showcase their talent in a different part of town and in a great location that reflects our brand character,” Time Out CEO Julio Bruno told me by email.

London is not the only target. In 2014, the media group opened its first market in Lisbon, taking over a 75,000 sq ft, nineteenth-century hall on the waterfront. A second Iberian market, in Porto, will start trading next year. Similar schemes in Miami and New York are “progressing well”, the company says, but have no launch dates attached.


Time Out stresses these markets are not just about street food; journalists say otherwise, drawing them into round-ups of on-the-hoof eating. I visited the Lisbon market in September and saw a dual identity. There was street-style informality: on that Saturday night, the masses fought for free chairs, drunk beer from plastic glasses, and chomped overflowing burgers and bold-flavoured ice cream from semi-permanent stalls. But there were luxury flashes: the hall was decked with polished wood and steel, and the vendors included some of the city’s best-known chefs, who crafted elegant small plates. As we walked in, passing a glass tank, we were watched by a pair of lobsters.

The market does not mirror the serendipity of street life. Time Out’s writers curate everything, with each vendor brandishing a four- or five-star review. “The best fine-dining, the best fast-casual – [the journalists] handpick all of that, whether it’s already loved by locals or up and coming,” Bruno says.

These markets are a new way to use old spaces. Markets themselves aren’t novel – they were one reason cities first sprung up, and now famous hubs like Barcelona’s La Boqueria, Berlin’s Markthalle Neun and LA’s Grand Central Market have substantial street food components – but this trend is different. These are fresh developments pulling plugged-in food lovers to quieter parts of the metropolis.

Time Out’s Lisbon market played a role in its area’s revival. The Cais do Sodré area, long distinguished by drunk sailors, brothels and sweaty clubs, has become a fashionable nightlife spot over the last decade. Having an attraction feeding 1.3m people a year in your locale can’t hurt. Unsurprisingly, it’s something Bruno is proud of. “The market played a decisive role in bringing employment and attracting visitors to this once slightly neglected part of town,” he adds.

One of Time Out’s competitors has community values up front. London Union’s internal mission statement is, “Transforming lives and communities with the awesome power of street food”. Last year, the company bought Street Feast, which runs markets in underused buildings and spaces in Canada Water, Lewisham and Shoreditch. The one I visited this summer, in Dalston Yard, has recently closed.

Its founders, backed by food world glitterati from Jamie Oliver to Yottam Ottolenghi, want to open to 20 local markets by 2020, including a vast street food mecca in the heart of the city. Their dream spot is the derelict Smithfield General Market.

Smithfield General Market. Image: JamesK1987/Wikimedia Commons.

On the phone, Jonathan Downey, one of the founders, rejects the accusation the smart and fashionable just come to make fun in poorer parts of town. As those areas become cooler, they also become more expensive, rents rise and locals might suffer.

“I am not a gentrifier; I am a hyper-local,” says Downey. He describes the varied parts of London in which he’s lived or opened bars and restaurants. “I’m not a landlord. They may then follow and reference what I’ve done, but I have actually done something that is reasonable and good value. We are about community and amenity.”

Who are these markets for? London Union says 70% per cent of its 1m annual customers are under 35; but the story of invading hipsters is not entirely fair. In Lewisham and Dalston, where 40 per cent of visitors lived within a mile, the markets became part of the neighbourhood, while in Shoreditch the crowd has more suits from the nearby City.

Street Feast’s traders, who pay a percentage of their takings as a pitch fee, hardly resemble the down-and-out hawkers of history. Downey calls most of them “passionate, second- or third-career people”. “They want to do something that they love and share it,” he says.

These warm, structured, permanent markets are a platform for young businesses. Their impact on an area probably needs careful watching, as it will vary from place to place. Rich cities with few vendors may have to worry less, though others, like New York with its several thousand legal and illegal traders, may see a threat.

But what of those defining labels – “food” and “street”? To Downey, street food means specialising in one dish, like chicken wings or tacos. It is anything eaten standing up, but not necessarily outdoors. And it requires a human connection between seller and eater. “It’s a bit like being a band on stage,” he says. “You feel your feedback.”

With the last part at least, Mayhew’s oyster maid would agree.

Charlie Taverner tweets as @charlietaverner.

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“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.