Why You Need To Eat On Drummond Street Before It's Too Late

By James FitzGerald Last edited 56 months ago

Last Updated 02 October 2019

Why You Need To Eat On Drummond Street Before It's Too Late
Drummond Street: a corridor of uncertainty

In Euston you'll find a street that’s better than Brick Lane. Drummond Street is famed for its South Asian food, but has none of the pretence of its trendier cousin. To the curries add simple cafes, pubs, a theatre, and best of all, real community. It’s not much to look at, but this is a part of town that’s somehow resisted exploitation despite being close to transport hubs and Regent’s Park.

But nearby, the JCBs hover: a sign of change to come.

‘King’s Cross only had junkyards. Here, there’s so much to offer’

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Opened in 1971, Diwana claims to be the country’s oldest South Indian vegetarian restaurant. Its cheap-and-cheerful bhel poori buffet is beloved by UCL students, who pile in and eat all they can. Local lad Mohammed Salique washed the dishes here back in the ‘80s. Now he owns the place.

“This was once a rough area,” Salique reflects. “Some of us were victims of racist violence. Things changed for the better around the early ‘90s. It became a sweet area to live in - until this HS2 thing.”

That's High Speed Two: a new rail link that intends to connect the capital with northern England, and which requires Euston station to gobble up some land to the west to create new platforms. Most, but not all, of Drummond Street will be spared. But the upheaval is putting people off coming here.

“King’s Cross only had junkyards before it was redeveloped,” says Salique. “But Euston has so much to offer. Drummond Street is an asset, and we need people’s support more than ever.”

The man recently felt motivated to lend his words to Human Jam, a production at Drummond Street’s Camden People’s Theatre. It dealt movingly with the record-breaking exhumation of tens of thousands of bodies from the neighbouring burial ground that’s been earmarked for HS2 work.

A living community feels like it’s being uprooted too. Salique explains that a cultural hub like this is not created overnight. “It’s about the reputation of an area,” he says. “It takes decades to build that. If I decided to set up somewhere else tomorrow, it wouldn’t have the same meaning or fame.

Washed dishes here in the '80s: Mohammed Salique

The ‘railway lands’ have always been fair game for developers. London's terminal stations were purposefully sited on the fringes of the 19th century city, where it was felt nothing very important stood in the way of building work. A whole place called Agar Town was swept aside in 1866 for the building of St Pancras station. Even the recent regeneration of King’s Cross was not uncontroversial, with beloved nightclubs booted out of warehouses that were destined for ‘bigger and better’ things.  

These days, politicians are obliged to consult on stuff — and sometimes to actually listen as well. On the subject of HS2, Drummond Street has made its complaints known. So far, the direct casualties of the bulldozers include a treasured pub, and a burial ground used as a public garden.

What locals fear next are the indirect effects of construction work. Whether by noise or blocked roads, this is the creation of what one restaurateur calls a “war zone” that scares off customers. And many feel their voices have been ignored during public consultation over such issues.

HS2 says it is doing what it can to ease disruption. But in September 2019, there remained doubt about whether the project would go ahead at all. That land had been cleared for a railway before the final green light was given was just another grievance for local traders. Some report takings are down as much as a third in the two years since the area’s transformation began.

This, they tell us, is the time to enjoy the street’s vibrant culinary scene — before it’s too late.

‘I mixed up the menu… regulars are disappointed’

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Along with Diwana and Ravi Shankar, the title of Drummond Street’s top vegetarian restaurant is contested by Chutney’s. For our money, you couldn’t put a dosa paper between the three — but Paul McCartney is among the discerning veggies who’s been known to select this particular eatery.

Like his neighbours, Mubin Abdul relies on regular customers, who’ve been falling away. Unlike his neighbours, he has managed to stomach a radical shift in menu to help keep himself afloat.

“Suddenly vegetarian restaurants are everywhere in London,” Abdul explains. “Indian customers no longer need to travel all the way here from, say, Southall. And a lot of new customers come here, look at the menu, and say, ‘oh, it’s veggie. We’ll try somewhere else then.’

“So we started losing out. Since there’s not much choice for meat-eaters on Drummond Street, I decided to mix things up and include meat. We make things like chicken curries now.”

Although it’s rare these days to hear about a restaurant choosing to add more meat to its menu, the case of Chutney’s highlights the dilemmas that restaurant-owners are now forced to confront here.

“The strict vegetarians, they do mind,” admits Abdul of his menu-change. “I gain a few customers but lose a few. Some of my remaining regulars are disappointed.”

‘Developers want the whole area’

Construction cordon or 'Berlin Wall'?

A reminder that there’s more to Drummond Street than curries, the formidable Pasquale Brizzi runs an Italian restaurant bearing his name. He left Turin decades ago to avoid military service — but has found no escape from this conflict in NW1. He works just a few doors down from the demolitions.

“My very first customer from 35 years ago is still a customer today,” he says, while delicately plucking us some cannoli pastries from under a deli counter. “He’s dreading the day we will maybe have to shut. Developers want all these buildings — the whole area. They won’t stop where they are.”

This and other remaining eateries are just outside the zone of condemned buildings: they are not scheduled for demolition and ‘only’ need to put up with building work on their doorstep for several years. But there’s an insidious danger long after the work’s done. Independent traders fear being priced out, and the area succumbing to the corporate feel of nearby Triton Square: a mini-Canary Wharf with glass frontages, ‘kooky’ outdoor ping-pong tables, and identikit sushi shops.

Brizzi worries about an invasion of chain outlets. “Pizza Hut, Pizza Express — they are American, not Italian,” he says. It’s as if authentic cooking itself is at risk of being bulldozed. “They want lots of big companies to take over here. Ones that can afford higher rents. We are little fish in comparison.”

‘We have to move forward’

Akin Adekeye switched from making ball gowns to meals

“They want the area to be sparkling with tall buildings,” says Akin Adekeye, who’s a few doors down from Signor Brizzi. “But what makes a place interesting is not tall buildings.”

It’s a quiet day when we visit his African Kitchen Gallery: one of London’s rare West African dining spots, and surely the only one lined with masks, sculpture, and other artwork. But this characterful bolthole is within touching distance of what some locals have dubbed the Berlin Wall.

They mean the wide cordon of fenced-off land which now separates Euston station — and its hungry commuters — from Drummond Street. A passageway retains some access, but the barricading of roads has cut parking options, and the taxi rank has been relocated, meaning no more cabbies rampaging down the street with big appetites. Add to that the tearing-down of hotels, offices, and the feted Bree Louise pub, and there are now fewer people found here looking for a bite to eat.

The JCBs hover: a sign of change to come

“We keep trying to survive. That’s all you can do,” shrugs Adekeye. He is not sure many businesses will adapt to the changes (some will not even use social media), but he is hopeful for those that do.

“Am I scared of change? No. This place started out as a craft shop making ball gowns — now we make food. Everything we do in this world is dynamic. We just have to move forward with everything.”

‘Don’t make changes when the future has already come’

Abu Bakar with his nitrogen ice cream chemistry set

Abu Bakar shares the view that the traders need to adapt. Although a generation younger than most local business-owners, he’s no new kid on the block: he has literally lived round here all his life. He occupies the very same Drummond Street premises from which the Patak’s Indian food empire launched itself in the ‘60s. But an old-school high street store will no longer cut it here, he reckons.

“When the place was handed down to me, it was a butcher’s shop,” he says. “I don’t know anything about meat. But I knew about the development plans for the area, and that a butcher’s just wouldn’t fit. I knew I had to prepare for the future, not make changes when the future has already come.”

The result is Milkman: a trendy, Instagram-ready nitrogen ice cream bar. Here you can both satisfy a sweet tooth and get a chemistry lesson, thanks to the impressive machinery used to make the treats.

Bakar reveals that he recently went to nearby, gentrified King’s Cross for the first time in his life — and it conflicted him. “It’s amazing what they’ve done there. If they were to do the same things here, you’d bring more people in. But at the same time, you will be losing a lot of heritage.”

Small alleys and courts express the area's industrial heritage

HS2 on Drummond Street

In a statement, HS2 told us, “HS2 has a responsibility to our affected communities and we made a commitment to the businesses of Drummond Street to work with them during the construction of HS2 to help mitigate against impacts. We worked with the traders on designing and installing themed hoardings to highlight the businesses operating in the area, and continue to engage with them on signage and way-finding opportunities to ensure continued footfall.

“As the construction of the new HS2 station gears up, we are actively encouraging our staff and contractors to buy local, and make use of the many cafes, restaurants and shops in and around Drummond Street.”

Londonist is never one to sneer at new transport for the capital. But here, the local restaurateurs’ plight may have comparisons with the death of the Astoria venue near Tottenham Court Road’s Crossrail station — or anywhere else culture has been swept aside for infrastructure.

The question is always: why build fancy new connections if there’s nothing left in the destination to transport people to?

Drumm-roll please… here's the best food on Drummond Street

Made brekkie for Sherlock Holmes: Chris Georgiou of Speedy's
  • South Indian vegetarian remains the dish of the day round here. There’s no beating the thali platters — featuring chapattis, dal, and the trimmings — from Chutney’s. See also: the hearty, potato-crammed masala dosas from Diwana, which serves ‘em quick before your train from Euston.
  • Lamb & fresh mango at African Kitchen Gallery, where Akin Adekeye combines Caribbean influences with recipes learned from his grandmother in Lagos, Nigeria. Walk in with an appetite; walk out with a piece of sculpture.
  • Just around the corner on North Gower Street, Speedy’s is one of London’s most recognisable cafés, having appeared on screen as the downstairs neighbour of Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC TV series Sherlock. Owner Chris Georgiou says his tourist customers have proven a “lifesaver” amid the HS2 work. A vegetarian breakfast with extra avocado is what Cumberbatch himself ate here.
  • Fudge-like barfi sweets from Ambala. Founded in 1965, this is considered the oldest remaining Asian business on the block.
  • And an honorary inclusion for the roti canai at Roti King on Doric Way. This was the eastern part of Drummond Street before a previous encroachment of Euston station scythed the road into two in the 1960s (the Euston Arch was also a casualty). Perennial queues suggest this Malaysian hotspot is no longer a hidden secret.