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Review: Peckham Levels

January 15, 2018

Peckham Levels

Well, here we are then. I knew I’d have to write about this place at some point. Longtime readers (HI, I LOVE YOU), will know that I lived in Peckham for years (before it was ‘the new Dalston’, Christ) and I wrote a lot about how much I loved the area, the people and the general vibes. I ate in every little African restaurant, I pounded the aisles in Khan’s and Persepolis, and I spent hours Googling how to cook various knobbly vegetables I found in damp boxes on Rye Lane. I moved to Camberwell what, five, six years ago? But I’m still a regular in Peckham, and I’ve watched restaurants, popups, food trucks, pubs and now stinky derelict car parks, come and go.

The multi-storey car park is famous for Frank’s Bar, which was so genuinely exciting back in the day (a freakin’ bar! On top of a car park!) London hadn’t seen the like. It’s going to return this year, as usual, only now with Peckham Levels underneath.
There was a lot of talk about whether Peckham Levels was actually going to be a good thing. I spoke with people who said they’d looked into occupying some of the spaces and when they whispered about rent figures I nearly spluttered my pint. They claimed it was more than rents in Soho. I don’t know if this was, or still is, true. Let’s just say I heard it from more than one person.

Peckham Levels

So yeah, I was interested in Peckham Levels, and I was eager to accept my invite to the opening party. The response was a curt, ‘sorry we’re full up’ which, I’ll be completely honest, irritated me a bit. Ok, it’s a whacking great car park but if there isn’t room for one more person then fine, I get it, I’m no longer Queen of Peckham, or maybe you’re just shit at PR. I hung back a few weeks before visiting, not wanting to go in with a negative attitude.

Two of us head down there, then, just after Christmas, keeping minds open. Some of the levels are occupied by offices, artists’ studios, a hair salon, a kids’ play area… it’s designed to be a community hub, you see, and that sounds great. I have no idea how these other spaces are working out, so I’m gonna stick to what I know: food and drink.

Other Side Fried

Our first thought when we reach the street food area is ‘shit, this is actually a lot cooler than we expected.’ It’s bare bones (if you were writing a press release you’d say they’re ‘nodding to the functional history of the space’) but it’s warmish thanks to plastic screening over the open sides and there’s a pretty decent atmosphere on a Sunday afternoon. ‘We are the oldest people here’ I say, looking glumly at groups of students gathered at the tables, chatting or locked onto phones. No-one bats an eyelid when I start walking around filming on mine, which gives you an idea of the age range. Later, I spot a woman older than us and get excited.

The street food area is essentially a food court, vendors lined along one side, basic tables made from plywood. It is what it is. We have a fried chicken sandwich from Other Side Fried which is great apart from the obscene amount of Parmesan inside which was a mistake if the expression of the woman shaking it on there was anything to go by. We also have wings from Drums & Flats – buffalo but with an interesting peppery sauce that doesn’t make me hate them for not using Franks, and the wings are meaty – a decent size. Not so successful are dumplings from Hao Hao Chi – big as pasties, clumsily made and with a reek of old cooking oil. Avoid. There is poke, which we swerve because, well, it’s just vajazzled sushi, innit. If you want something lighter and healthier I suggest Nandine, whose original cafe I’ve written about before – fantastic, ‘authentic’ (urgh, sorry) Kurdish food.

Hao Hao Chi

Since it’s Sunday afternoon we’ve had one eye on the bar since, ooh, 11am, so we head to what must be the most millennial cocktail bar in the world. Palm tree wallpaper, succulents, festoon lights and fifty young white people dressed in rolled up white dungarees and knitted beanies. Fuck me, it’s depressing. Millenial by numbers. We look at the menu, our eyes drawn towards a ‘declaration’ in the bottom left-hand corner which reads thus, ‘I declare that all statements and particulars in this COCKTAIL CONSIGNMENT DECLARATION are complete, exact and true to the best of my knowledge and that all items will be carried and imbibed with due diligence.’ It is signed underneath ‘Near and Far’. This is the name of the bar.

What. The Actual. Fuck.

Now look, I don’t want to be a dick about this. I am perfectly prepared to let these things go with the recognition that it’s just a bit of terrible branding and maybe, somehow, people may find it amusing. The barman, however, makes sure that I don’t take this path by being so downright rude we just gawp at him, set the menu down on the bar and walk swiftly away. He visibly shrugs.

Next door is a wine bar. It’s natural wine (groan) but whatever. We have a nice glass of wine and the list is pretty decent. We relax a little and pretend a very poor ‘taco’ didn’t happen.

Peckham Levels

Do I sound like an old fart writing this? I AM IN MY THIRTIES FFS. As we sat in that bar every one of my memories of trekking through this formerly piss-stinking car park up to Frank’s flashed in front of my eyes. It was a bit like that scene in Labyrinth where the old lady in the junkyard tricks Sarah into believing she’s back home, in her bedroom, with all her old toys when really she’s just trying to trap her to kill some time so David Bowie (The Goblin King) can keep her stepbrother forever. It was all familiar, but in the end, she just knew it wasn’t right.

Look, I’m all for the development of Peckham. I welcome new business and money and some of those guys set up in there are locals but it’s hard not to be cynical about some of the decisions. Do we need two fried chicken places? Could the restaurants be more representative of the community? I guess lots of local businesses just wouldn’t have the money. You know who did? ‘West’, one of the larger restaurant spaces, set up by two people who describe themselves as ‘yoga bunnies’ who ‘met while working in The City’. Oh, come on – you can’t say you didn’t do a little inward groan. Caveat: it may well be good – I have not eaten there. They are probably nice people.

Peckham Levels

It doesn’t really matter what I write here because this place is going to be rammed to its concrete corners with youngsters having the time of their lives. Peckham has moved on without me, and that’s ok because I’ve moved on too. Do I still hang out there? Sure, but there’s much that’s lost its appeal. It’s when I see places like Peckham Levels opening and The Gowlett closing* that I start getting miffed. Peckham Levels is a sign of the times; it’s symbolic of the changes and it’s going to take a while for this to percolate. I’m gonna hang back and let that happen.

Peckham Levels, Floors 1 – 6, 95A Rye Lane, SE15 4ST

* Edit: 2/2/18 The Gowlett has reopened!

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8 Comments

  • Reply Gillian January 16, 2018 at 4:44 pm

    When I was a kid, about a billion years ago in Indiana, most of the restaurants we visited were tiny Mom and Pop places. Many of them had only enough room for 6 tables. The Mexican place didn’t have any place to sit, it was only take away.. But these places excelled in serving great food with small menus.

    Many places offered the same dish, a battered, crispy pork fried tenderloin sandwich on a soft bun with a mayo/lettuce/onion mixture slathered on. And everyone believed their favorite place served the best! When the march of the chain restaurants stomped their way thru Indiana our few “local” dishes disappeared forever, and the pork sandwich was one of them.

    Gentrification of restaurants is a terrible thing. When the Mom and Pop places are squeezed out, we lose local food ways, and a true connection to the community. With Peckham going that way, expect to see all the places you love slowly dry up and disappear, to the detriment of the community and those who traveled to eat there. Sadly, I’ve seen it happen before, and know just what you are going thru.

    • Helen Graves
      Reply Helen Graves January 16, 2018 at 4:49 pm

      Peckham is a weird one – it’s not *all* bad and there are a lot of people who care deeply about the community but it’s inevitable, as you say, that these small, independent businesses without money to support themselves through the development will inevitably be squeezed out. The area will become sterilised. What annoys me about PL is that they’ve come out all guns blazing saying this is a community effort, they’re supporting diversity, local businesses etc. What do we have? A young, middle class, white person’s playground. Don’t talk the talk and then give us something else.

      • Reply Cheez January 23, 2018 at 6:17 pm

        This project prevented the whole complex (including peckham plex) from being knocked down and turned into flats. It also gives a lot of local businesses (not just food) a temporary space to sell their wares, and has a nice kids area. Drum and flats is local btw, so is Nandine. Overall, from reading this, you hate Peckham Levels because you went to Frank’s before it was cool, which ironically makes you the hipster you claim to hate.

        • Helen Graves
          Reply Helen Graves January 24, 2018 at 10:48 am

          Hi Cheez! This is a bit of an odd one – I did say in the post that I know some of the traders are locals (see my separate post on Nandine/article in Peckham Peculiar – I’ve been a huge supporter of them from the beginning). You also misunderstand my talking about Frank’s. I think it’s fantastic that the cinema and the car park weren’t knocked down – I was reporting on my experience of visiting Peckham Levels.

          • Cheez January 24, 2018 at 5:19 pm

            Odd, because I take issue with your cynicism? e.g.,”Peckham Levels is a sign of the times”.

            Peckham Levels is and will be popular because it provides a different space in the area for lots of people to hang out, work, sell their stuff, eat, drink, etc. And in doing so, it prevented the site becoming another crap new build with a Sainsburys Local underneath.

            I’m not sure what you were expecting from it. Why would local traders who already have a space pay to move there? Should the owners sell space at below cost and run the project at a loss?

          • Helen Graves
            Helen Graves January 24, 2018 at 5:23 pm

            I wouldn’t bother being annoyed with me, Cheez. What I’ve written here will make absolutely no difference to the popularity of the place – I’m simply not that influential.

            I’m not sure what the cost is/was but if it’s anything like the figures I heard from people who run local businesses and turned offers down… wow, the figures were eye-popping.

  • Reply Food Urchin January 16, 2018 at 7:02 pm

    I think you are going to have to leave all this shit behind, Helen. And take up knitting, bowls and get another cat, or five.

    It’s OVAH!

    *Walks off, singing ‘We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun….*

    PS This is a very funny and adroit review.

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