Brief Encounters

Veronica Simpson flies the flag for local makers, producers and entrepreneurs.


In an ever more globalised, homogenised world, where high streets and shopping centres from Bradford to Beijing are dominated by all the same brands, and the same three or four cafe logos crop up in supermarkets, universities, hospitals, and office blocks, let's hear it for the genuine neighbourhood retailer, cafe and restaurant. Let's celebrate these places of distinction: owned and run by local people, for local people, with that extra patina of understanding writ large in their menus, their sourcing, their staff and their appearance.

I realised we had passed some kind of tipping point when, on a trip to Dorset, I encountered the cafe that time forgot, on Chesil Beach, and practically drooled over the vintage seaside styling. All net curtains and beige blown glass lanterns, its yellow, porous MDF wall panels were studded with tacky toys, buckets and spades. None of it had been touched, it seemed, since the Fifties - including the elderly proprietor with her beehive hair-do, backcombed and sprayed to within an inch of its life. You know there's been a cultural shift when the thing that would have seemed ossified and corny five or 10 years ago comes across as a precious jewel of originality - something untainted by the branding bullies; free of the stylist's touch, and light years away from the interiors porn in every consumer homes magazine or newspaper supplement.

Which brings us to Peckham - a neighbourhood which, five years ago, attracted little media attention, other than articles reinforcing ignorant stereotypes about racial tensions, deprivation and Del Boy (being the fictional home of this beloved comedy character). But to those of us who have lived in the neighbourhood more than a decade, we always knew it was a gritty little gem of a place, where multiple ethnicities and demographics rub along pretty well, where almost anything can be sourced from its ramshackle high street and markets. Thanks to affordable rents and the very neglect that used to stigmatise it, it is now home to a thriving DIY entrepreneurialism that has spawned a vibrant cultural scene, from yoga studios through art galleries, record shops, nightclubs, music venues to ever more distinctive cafes and restaurant.

One of the most successful of the latter is the Peckham Refreshment Rooms: originally a tiny, concrete bar that did great cocktails and excellent pan-European tapas, it has now expanded into a neighbouring shop. Chef James Fisher and business partner Sven Mündner envisaged this place as a classic continental day-to-night offer - the kind of place that opens really early to serve commuters with their coffees and croissants on their way to work and then a glass of wine or a cocktail and a delicious dish of something on their way home.

This bespoke and local sensibility permeates through the entire offer. Coffee is sourced from artisan coffee roaster Jack Coleman, based in nearby Bermondsey. The main pieces of furniture were made by local carpenters and artists, including Gavin Weber, a Slade (UCL) graduate who constructs extraordinary pieces of furniture and art works from his studio just 100m or so from the Refreshment Rooms. Weber dreamed up the distinctive, sculptural wine racks, ingeniously made out of PVC pipes and laser-cut board, which allow 190 bottles to be displayed and stored close to hand in this compact space. Most of the food is sourced from butchers, fishmongers and grocery stores sited within a 100m radius. The staff are mostly local. Fisher and Mündner live locally, and they like being part of Peckham's entrepreneurial ecosystem. When they found some budding knife-makers who had set up an experimental product design studio nearby, they invited them to use their kitchen as a testing lab, and Blenheim Forge now has its gleaming prototypes proudly displayed in a frame on the wall next to the open kitchen.

Peckham Refreshment Rooms set out to be a continental-style day-into-night destination for locals.
Peckham Refreshment Rooms set out to be a continental-style day-into-night destination for locals

It was a gift of a project for East London design consultancy Red Deer to come up with a scheme for the enlarged premises. 'What we did was draw inspiration from what was already there and just expand on it, really,' says Red Deer director Lionel Real de Azúa. 'For me it was down to four materials: the Douglas Fir panels that form the carcass from which all the joinery is made; burgundy hardwearing linoleum that we used as table tops and bar tops; the rendered walls, which really bring so much warmth into the space. And the fourth is copper. They had put copper sheet in the [original] kitchen rather than stainless steel. We decided to put copper sheet everywhere. It's such a warm material and really tactile.'

The scheme really expresses the Refreshment Room essence, which is all about integrity of materials and economy of design. Says Real de Azúa: 'Even the meat slicer is on show. The cocktails are made right in front of you. The cooking takes place in front of you. Everything is so perfectly calculated that there's no fuss around it. You don't have to hide anything. Literally the only thing we're hiding from the public is the wash-up area. Everything else is celebrated. That's what brings such a warmth to the space. You kind of feel like you're in a scullery, a canteen, a kitchen.'

Thanks to this scheme's success, Red Deer has a few more Peckham projects in the pipeline. But Real de Azúa's sensitivity for place and materials is also being put hard to work for Gail's, a rapidly expanding UK chain of artisan bakery/cafes. The idea is that every outlet is different - supposedly looking and feeling like a local cafe. It's a tribute to Red Deer's talents that it does it well. But it's a far tougher call, agrees Real de Azúa, 'when you are on a generic high-street location, to try and find a starting point of inspiration for the design'.

And if that isn't an argument for retaining as much as possible of what is authentic and distinctive in our urban areas - before the blight of slick city development turns every street into a bland thoroughfare of Prets, Costas and Starbucks - I don't know what is.

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