Thursday, 8 December 2011

Shop ‘til you sup: late evening shopping & dining in Shoreditch

By Alistair Martin

Too Much is Never Enough, 123 Bethnal Green Road

My sisters went Christmas shopping together over the weekend. They arrived at Westfield mid-morning, had coffee, had a natter. They looked in a few shops, and sought each other’s advice as they picked out presents for friends, family, and the odd little something for themselves. They got lunch, nattered some more and passed on dessert.

They then tried more things on, tried more things out, and tried every free sample of food and drink in the mall, passing an entire afternoon in a flurry of “Would Dad like this?”, “Will Mum suit that?”, “Does this top go with that skirt I’ve got?” and “Look! Free chocolate brownies!”

Only around 7 did they retire, taking in a light refreshing cocktail and just a small portion of that dessert they passed on at lunch (they’d earned it) before heading home.

Ahhhh, sweet retail therapy; my idea of hell. Not because I’m some kind of curmudgeonly anti-consumerist who sniffs at Christmas with a “Pah, it’s all too commercial these days”. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with buying thoughtful presents for people you care about, and the whole thing’s only as commercial as you make it. My problem is with the torturous process of procuring those gifts and, in particular, coping with the millions of other Londoners simultaneously doing the same.

Firstly, why do they all walk so slowly? And always right in my way? Often there isn’t even the option of overtaking; walking next to each other in groups of four or five, they form impassable human blockades, drifting through the passageways at a pace that, rounded to the nearest mile-per-hour, is technically stationary. Even those that move at speeds closer to what would ordinarily be classed as ‘walking pace’ seem compelled to punctuate their strolling with sudden infuriating stops to gawp at some pointless bullshit in a shop window.

“Oh look, that shirt’s got 15% off, that would suit Darren”.

“Are you gonna get it for him then?”

“Nah, he wouldn’t like it, and I already got him a DVD”.

Then why the fuck did you screech to a halt right in my face to point it out, you gibbering moron?!

By the end of the day, instead of brimming with good will to all men, I just want give every shopper encountered that day gifts of their own internal organs, each carefully removed, wrapped and presented in a Christmas stocking fashioned from the skins of their friends and loved ones. [Not at all ‘curmudgeonly’, no, definitely not – ED.]

Aside from the X-Factor single, shopping is, to me, the most torturous aspect of Christmas, and even as a massive foodie, I prefer not to prolong the process by interspersing it with the intake of food and drink. A good meal in the middle of a shopping spree would be like watching Cheryl Cole when she was still a pawn in Cowell’s cash cow: whatever beauty it had would be soured by association with the interminable, execrable puke surrounding it.With this in mind, 123 Bethnal Green Road – the renowned, trend-setting boutique store at the top of Brick Lane – was always going to have its work cut out to convince me that its seasonal pop-up concept of late-night shopping and dining (three times a week throughout advent) was going to be anything other than a painful waste of an evening in Shoreditch.Naturally, the whole experience was radically different to a day frittered away amidst the rabid throngs of Westfield. A delicious vodka, lemon and elderflower cocktail greeted our arrival, and, having been shown to the top floor of the beautiful Victorian end-of-terrace store, two cauldrons of sumptuous rum punch (one black cherry, one pineapple) eased us into the evening. As we perused the assorted vintage knick-knacks available for sale, their edible equivalents were passed round in the form of intriguing nouveau cuisine-style canapés.One floor down, and the experience became more substantial. The assorted trinkets for sale gave way to stylish, vintage-style clothing: original, often-exclusive, much of it using upcycled or otherwise ethically-sourced fabrics, all of it British-made and designed.Typically of Shoreditch, some of the items polarised opinion: I personally found the skirt fashioned from three strips of tatty black leather a little unworthy of the £500 price tag. But much was eye-catching and more feasibly priced, and even I took advantage of the 20% discount offered every attendee by treating myself a retro Brutus shirt.The food on this floor was served in the next room along, on an old wooden table as rustic and hearty as the warming stews, fresh salads and cheap cheerful wine available for self-service. Squeezing in beneath the fairy lights, amongst a typically eccentric throng of Shoreditch trendies, made for a very intimate, cosy experience. Dessert canapés and cocktails in the basement rounded off the evening.

I have to admit that, even though most of the venue was populated almost to the point of bursting (albeit with fewer of the obligatory dawdlers and sudden-stoppers), the interesting items for sale and thoroughly Christmassy atmosphere made the whole experience surprisingly pleasant, even for a bah-humbugging Scrooge like myself. [Ah-a, see! – ED]That said, I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. After all, the evening costs a recession-defying £50, just for the pleasure of late-night shopping and some hearty-but-unspectacular fare in the company of an amassed horde of sharply-dressed strangers. If you are going to dedicate entire blocks of your time to trundling round overcrowded shops and overpriced eateries, you’d certainly have a more interesting evening and accrue more original gifts doing it here than in Oxford Street, Westfield Shepherd’s Bush or Westfield Stratford. I, however, would still prefer to get my gifts online or in local stores before spending a relaxing evening in a good restaurant and bar, rather than amalgamating the experiences into the cloying Christmas pudding that so many others apparently enjoy so much.And if I really, really must shop like the rest of London, I’d probably choose somewhere to go from this list of the Best Bars & Restaurants to visit when shopping in London.

The public ticketed events for Too Much is Never Enough runs every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday until 22nd December.

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