August 5, 2011 10:24 pm

Brave new Bermondsey

This narrow, atmospheric Victorian street is now home to 15 different bars and restaurants, from the Hide Bar to Zucca

Zucca and José, Bermondsey Street

Clusters of restaurants benefit everyone. Customers have a greater choice; restaurateurs are guaranteed of a higher volume of diners; and those who work in them are assured of company for a drink after hours.

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Nicholas Lander

Across London the number of such clusters has been growing apace. Soho has long provided the highest concentration of restaurants in London; Marylebone High Street offers another interesting cluster.

A new group has been emerging along Bermondsey Street that runs south from London Bridge and is now home to 15 different bars and restaurants, from the Hide Bar at number 39 to Zucca at number 184.

At either end of this narrow, atmospheric Victorian street are buildings that bear testimony to its changing character. Opposite Zucca is the church of St Mary Magdalen, once a pillar of the local community; at the north end are the offices of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, whose courses educate vast numbers of restaurant staff around the world.

This transition to gentility has not been immediate. Adam White and Clive Watson now run The Garrison, a gastropub, at number 99, and Village East, a bistro, at 171. But when they first moved here in 2003, White recalls the street being “fairly sparse”. “The Woolpack [the pub opposite The Garrison] was not what it is today and the one restaurant on the street was pretty empty. But the businesses around here were creative and pretty edgy, which is why we moved in.”

In the interim, demand from commuters to London Bridge station has been boosted by the residents of new flats, and, on Saturdays, the crowds who flock to the nearby Maltby Street market.

My favourite along Bermondsey Street is Zucca, a rare example in London of that great Italian tradition, the trattoria – a friendly and informal restaurant offering great cooking and value.

José Pizarro outside his tapas bar

José Pizarro outside his tapas bar

Zucca’s daily menu opens with a list of antipasti, including the deep-fried slices of pumpkin after which it is named, and continues with a couple of pastas, three fish and three meat courses, the latter priced at no more than £16. My salad of new season’s peas with mint and pecorino and a fillet of wild Scottish salmon (at £14.95, less than half the price I have seen it on West End menus) with broad beans and sorrel, were prepared and cooked with a rare sensitivity. Zucca’s wine list, with gentle mark-ups, is exceptional, as was the service.

Two caveats: the proximity of the tables and the open kitchen means that Zucca can become very loud indeed. And its justifiable popularity has led to a heavy demand for reservations.

José Pizarro, formerly master of the stoves at Tapas Brindisa, is also enjoying success at number 104, a small corner site that was once a post office but for the past six weeks has been reborn as José, Pizarro’s very own tapas bar.

We finally found seats at the counter at 2.15pm on a Saturday and a lightning culinary tour of Pizarro’s native Spain got under way. Glasses of vino came with a plate of ham from Manuel Maldonado cut from legs hanging over the bar. We then enjoyed cheese croquettes; a salad of razor clams; and boquerones, small anchovies in olive oil that we scooped up with chunks of bread.

Garlic and chilli prawns

José Pizarro's garlic and chilli prawns

By the end of that day, Pizarro later told me, his team had served 270 customers, many of whom, because of the cheek-by-jowl nature of the bar, will have been as hot as the cooks. But Pizarro is happy that the Spanish habit of eating standing up has been so eagerly adopted.

This is partly because the relatively small investment of £200,000 has been so astutely spent. The tiles under the bar are from Seville; the fillets of fresh fish on the bar are displayed under a glass cover as is the custom at La Boqueria, Barcelona’s famous food market; and the view Pizarro gets from the kitchen of so many people enjoying his food in a compact area (just 55 sq m) brings back happy memories of his grandfather’s tapas bar in western Spain.

On a subsequent visit, Pizarro told me that he had also signed on another site for a more formal Spanish restaurant further along Bermondsey Street. This cluster just keeps growing.

nicholas.lander@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/lander

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José

104 Bermondsey Street London SE1

0207 402 4902, www.josepizarro.com

Zucca

184 Bermondsey Street London SE1

0207 378 6809, www.zuccalondon.com

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