This is not somewhere to head if you’re the kind of person that sits down for lunch and wonders “why aren’t you people at work?”
It’s also not the place to go should you be a stickler for systems and efficiency, rigid service and (God forbid) an “explanation of our concept”.
No. Towpath (or Towpath Café?), on the Regent’s Canal just west of Kingsland Road, is for people with time and without deadlines. For the unstrung and carefree. For the discerning hippy, that’s surely, probably, possibly lurking within all of us.
There are three or four hatches in a line plus a scattering of tables in front of them, which take up about half of a not particularly wide stretch of concrete. The first hatch (or last, depending on your approach) is the kitchen. Next to that, a coffee counter, bar and point at which to place an order and maybe pay, if you’re feeling particularly capitalist. Beyond those, a couple of recesses double as seating area and storage cupboard.
People stand in front of that coffee counter forming one of Britain’s least orderly queues whilst they wait to be served, or perhaps simply for the menu to be written. Cyclists, joggers and walkers pass by; their fear of falling in the canal and general angst caused by the divine right everyone has to maintain one’s own path, heightened by the fact that the people milling and sitting just don’t care. Or care only that someone does in fact fall in. Because: fun.
I’ve never quite got to grips with the logistics, and I’m pretty certain there’s neither sign nor website to confirm. But, essentially, it’s something like “We’re open from the third Sunday in March, for breakfast, lunch and afternoon vibes (but not on Monday) until the end of Summer (as judged by us). Oh, and sometimes we do supperclubs (for regulars in the know)“.
If you’re there and it’s open, place your order at the counter, hope you can grab a seat, take a ticket to the kitchen, wait, wait … and then start to fret that your order’s been lost at exactly the same time one of their ace kitchen hands starts shouting your name and wanders over. They’ve an impressively considerate and heartwarming employment policy, btw.
Lunchtime is generally signaled by the arrival of a newly written blackboard. On some occasions that’s 12:30. On other days, it’s after 13:00. Who’s clock counting? In any event, if it’s lunch you’re after, I recommend holding off until 14:00, to avoid local workers who feign a need to get back to a desk.
Before we get to the fine details of that meal, though, a mention for breakfast. Which runs from I’m not sure to I don’t know when. And anyway, what is this ‘morning’ thing you speak of?
You’ll see from the menu below that the offering is basically wholesome. Be assured it’s well sourced and gratifying, and you should wash it down with excellent coffee, freshly squeezed juice or an inventive cordial. Assuming you deem it too early for a Campari soda or glass of rosé.
Last week, when I stopped by pre-noon, I h’actually ignored those options and enjoyed an off menu but on counter, still warm and ethereally light goat cheese and wild garlic and goat cheese tortilla/frittata/omelette (details, details). It was well-judged, balanced and pretty mouthwatering cooking.
On another occasion (lunch, this time) it proved difficult to choose what to have from the blackboard. Large, smooth and clearly creamy pieces of mozzarella on toast topped with monksbeard and chilli (£8.50) went by. I saw a very strong plate of blushing pink pork tenderloin and peppers (£11.50), and someone else’s whole globe artichoke for dipping into lemon butter (£8) caused envy. The couple next to me picked the newest broad beans from their pods and waved them at ricotta (£7) as they spoke about last night’s conquests.
I know, I know, it’s simple stuff. But go and try it and you’ll see it’s bang in season, quality ingredients, treated with due respect.
What I actually got my fork on was a cracking plate of hummus, topped with minced lamb, pine nuts and sweet softened onions, served with a couple of hunks of sourdough for scooping (£10.50). The lamb was crusted and blackened, in part thanks to cinnamon (or perhaps cassia bark – it was a soft flavour) and other sweet spices caramalising on the exterior of the meat. Though there was a crisp edge to it, the meat had come together like tiny, soft, lazy meatballs. Just chilling out on a slack textured, still warm, gratifying chickpea and tahini blend.
I dug into someone else’s roast chicken salad (£9.50). A variety of leaves, many of them bitter, were coated with a sharp, mustardy dressing that also majored on tarragon. There was more chicken than anticipated; as with all dishes, it’s generous in a way restaurant food rarely seems to be. Indeed, I think that’s the key point. It’s not so much as restaurant, as somewhere others cook great things for you that you probably could, but probably won’t, cook for yourself at home. Everything’s deceptively effortless. This, I imagine, is what it’s like to eat lunch at Nigel Slater’s gaff.
Other things came and went (a whole sea bass with blood orange salad), but dishes will no doubt be different if you head over this summer.
There’s an intangible quality to Towpath. The fact it’s a sun trap helps, but I think there’s more to it than that. In part it’s because the owners have managed to drop a little bit of California onto a very receptive Hackney thoroughfare. But I suspect it’s also the effect of an all female kitchen. What’s for sure is that this is a special place; in a similar vein to Rochelle Canteen and The River Café (were it actually a café).
Take the suit off and try it. Weekends are an option. But it’s not the same as when you sit pretending that you, like the others around you, just don’t need to think or care about something so meaningless as ‘work’.
Towpath in 3 words
Chilled eating haven
You rarely need more than £10-15 per person for food. Leisurely drinks could add up.
36 De Beauvoir Crescent, N1 5SB – No Website – No Bookings