Camberwell may not be the obvious destination for gourmets, but a quick stroll down Church Street spoils you for choice. You can traverse a good portion of the culinary world in five minutes, and the pavement seating, chatty owners and old-fashioned pricing make you forget you’re in London. These are my favourites:
No. 27 Falafel: It looks like a kebab house, but it actually has some of the tastiest Lebanese food I’ve eaten in London. Try a Mezze box for £3.50, with sweet caramelised aubergines and chickpeas, spicy meatballs and proper houmous. The gritty, oniony houmous you get in supermarkets is nothing like the smooth, creamy Middle Eastern variety, made with lots of olive oil and worthy of a meal in itself. In contrast to Chinese and Indian food, the subtlety and depth of Lebanese flavours survives the transition to economy, and the food at Falafel still tastes authentic. Do not be put off by its appearance; if you want cheap, gorgeous food and staff who’ll turn a blind eye to greed, then 27 Church Street is the place to go. The lights are barbarically bright and it’s definitely not a date venue; I recommend going on a quiet, rainy night and eating in so you can watch the Arabic music channels and be first in line for seconds.
No.47 Caravaggio’s: Just down the road from Falafel, this Italian restaurant has probably remained unchanged since the seventies, but this is not to its detriment. It is a proper, archaic dining experience with white tablecloths, dark corners and suited staff who eat the same bolognese as you.It is warm and welcoming, the kind of place where you want to take your shoes off and ask the waiter if he’ll be your dad. I also think they deserve some credit for unashamedly serving wine whose label I recognise from the ubiquitous 2 for 5 range that blights South London’s street corners. The food, however, is consistently good-rich, salty and creamy in all the right places. The Caravaggio Pizza with blue cheese and prosciutto is smoky and amazing and you can make your dream pasta by choosing from the extras list. The other notable thing about Caravaggio’s is that it is very, very cheap, and, when not drinking I have never spent more than ten pounds there.
No. 41 Tadim: Sister of the more celebrated FM Mangal, Tadim is my favourite place in Camberwell to sit and read with a coffee. It has a big, cool back room whose walls are painted with scenes of old Constaninople and where an old man sometimes sits writing a dissertation. The staff are super friendly and, as with most Turkish places, the coffee is ten times better and cheaper than that in high street chains. I am always a bit mistrustful of the kind of glass display cabinets favoured by small cafes as they never look recent or popular, but the food here is good. Although Turkish food is commonly conceived as lots of grilled meat, the vegetarian options are always great, perhaps because the creators have to try a bit harder for approval. The vegetarian moussaka comes with a huge rainbow salad, the vegetables always taste fresh, and they do an incredible Halloumi bread which looks like a boat filled with cheese, but is actually even better.
Nos. 24-26 Sophocles/ Cruson: Sophocles and Cruson are neighbours, little treasure troves of abundance that make for the most interesting grocery shop one can hope for. Sophocles Bakery is full, day and night, with groups of Greek men chatting and looking at things in a way that manages to be both ominous and comforting. It is a great place to come for breakfast, selling every kind of croissant you can imagine, good strong coffee, and flaky strips of burek stuffed with feta and spinach. The egg custard tarts are particularly good, cooked every day with crisp caramel edges and perfect buttery centres, and they can be baked to order (I panic bought). My experiences with their packaged cakes have been less good, and they often taste a bit stale, so it’s best to stick to the fresh things. Next door, Cruson welcomes you with trays of strange fruit and weepy but bright flowers. It has a really good, unusual selection of mushrooms and in asparagus season it sells beautiful bunches of pencil asparagus for a tiny price. Inside, you’ll be delighted to find that the owner often snoozes on shift, head thrown back, emitting grandiose snores from a step- ladder. Cruson have a good selection of Greek and Turkish cheeses, vast buckets of olives, and herbs that are often difficult to come by elsewhere. Last but not least, they stubbornly continue to stock, out of what I can only imagine is frivolity, soggy little sachets of something called ‘cock flavour soup.’