Friday night and Brixton Village is heaving. Dozens of people are here to watch a short set by a group of Cuban musicians. Standing space is squeezed by the crammed-full tables lined up outside each restaurant. The band is called Havana Cultura and their appearance, organised by boutique and music store United 80, comes ahead of a headline gig at Electric Brixton (formerly The Fridge), with founder the DJ Gilles Peterson, the following night.
The band goes down a storm; people dance; mojitos are quaffed. This scene, or something like it, is now regularly played out at the undercover market once known as the Granville Arcade. Where just a couple of years ago many lots stood empty, today restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques have joined the more traditional Brixton traders – fishmongers, fruit and veg sellers and specialist regional stores. That balance of businesses, and the slightly shabby chic of the structure, makes for a bustling, energetic space that nevertheless doesn’t feel overtly trendy.
These fast-paced developments have not gone unnoticed, especially in foodie circles. The Observer’s restaurant critic Jay Rayner, himself a local, hailed Brixton Village as “the most vibrant restaurant scene in London”. For choice and price it’s hard to think of somewhere better, but it is also about the experience. Space is frequently tight, kitchens (and what happens in them) are plainly visible and many places are unlicensed, which means the joy of bring-your-own.
It is not just restaurants that make Brixton Village a south London destination though. Fashion and music play an important part while arts and crafts are here too. Emy runs Brixi, a curiosity-style shop that displays a mix of old and new. “A customer described it as a bit like a museum but one where you can touch the exhibits,” she says. Emy started trading seven months ago and seems happy with progress thus far.
A combination of factors led to Brixton Village’s renaissance. As Steve Reed, the leader of Lambeth Council, tells Londonist: “We had a large number of empty units in part of the market and it wasn’t a nice place to be. So the council brought in an organisation called Space Makers to invite local people to have access to those empty units.”
Encouraged by a period of free rent, a number of pop-up operations sprung up and gradually the Village began to come to life. Anne Fairbrother runs Cornercopia, a locally-sourced deli, which was there from the beginning of this process. “Quite literally hundreds of artists, activists, actors, community groups and entrepreneurs took empty shops and transformed them into galleries, minute but magical theatres, storytelling venues, places for debate, intimate music venues and tiny, tiny cinemas,” she remembers. From there the entrepreneurial spirit of the businesses that survived that first stage drove the agenda. Opening hours were gradually extended and as Reed puts it, the “whole thing just burgeoned”.
Space Makers has since moved on but the market continues to do well. Most restaurant and shop proprietors we spoke to say that despite economic woes, business is good. What a contrast to just two years ago when, as Anne Fairbrother recalls, “we were only seeing one customer a day in our tiny new deli.”
Where to next?
Inevitably, dealing with its own success will be the next big challenge for Brixton Village. Bland corporatism can follow in the wake of hard-won independently-driven achievements. If chain outlets managed to get a toehold in the Village, the mutually supportive atmosphere (business owners collaborate with marketing efforts for example) would surely break down and the Village would simply be a less engaging place.
Rent increases, and subsequently price rises, are fretted over locally, but if there is tension between businesses and the market’s owners the picture isn’t clear cut. Some of the unit holders we spoke to were much keener to criticise press articles (a local newspaper feature had to be taken down from its website over misquotes) than the owners.
Anne Fairbrother is aware of the importance of the cost of doing business – “we need rents to remain stable, at least until new businesses can survive any price hike” – but also points out that infrastructure improvements are needed. Perhaps most pertinently though, she is concerned that the make-up of the market retains its mix: “We also need a long term vision for Brixton Village shared by traders, market owners and Lambeth council which ensures survival of the traditional market traders – the fishmonger and the veg stalls – as well as the new foodie shops.”
Added to the other Brixton trading areas – the outdoor markets and Market Row, which is also undercover – the fast-paced development of Brixton Village, plus local currency the Brixton Pound, has given the whole area a boost. Lambeth Council’s Steve Reed wants to keep up the momentum and is willing to use get involved where needed. “If there are disputes between the businesses and the marker’s owners I’ve offered to mediate personally,” he says. “We’ll do whatever we need to do to promote this kind of growth in Brixton.”
Five of the best in Brixton Village:
- Canteen-style Thai eatery Kaosarn serves delicious home-cooked Thai food. There’s no hope of a table without pre-booking at peak times.
- Elephant is perhaps the most raved-about restaurant in Brixton Village. It is also one of the smallest. The short menu consists of Pakistani street food dishes. Small but perfectly formed…
- Anne Fairbrother’s Cornercopia has grown and today is spread across three BV units. “Ultra-local food” is sold in a corner-shop and served in a cosy restaurant.
- Two bakery/coffee shops dominate the market. As well as Breads Etcetera, which supplies toasters with each table, Federation Coffee has one of the best spots for people watching and does a lovely Americano.
- Beautiful crepes of all varieties can be found at the quirky Brick Box. There’s a great Lambeth quote from William Blake on its signage too. Visit to find out…