City Living: The Joy of the High Street

George at the Camden Coffee Shop

George at the Camden Coffee Shop

Last time I shared a post on the Joy of Not Having a Car.   This week I share a complimentary post on the Joy of the High Street. 

The High Street is the British shorthand for what we Americans call Main Street, the precursor to shopping malls.   As the center of a neighborhood’s commercial and social life, it’s where you go to get life done and get a few people to know your name.  

It’s fun to occasionally go destination shopping on bustling iconic streets like Oxford Street or on pedestrian streets like Carnaby Street in Soho but for the day to day, you need your local High Street.   Yes, there is online retail (thank you Amazon for Prime and employment of my husband), but you still need the High Street for drugstores and haircuts and groceries and take out and pubs and fresh flowers.  Every neighborhood's High Street has their own vibe which makes them more personal.

But the High Street isn’t only for a retail fix; it’s also the place you might bump into a neighbor or where you’ve put in enough foot miles to notice new growth.   In the last two months, I’ve been out and about enough to notice and stop in on three different shops on their opening day.  I was there when the deliciously decadent Crosstown Donuts opened their bricks and mortar location in the Camden Market North Yard near the Amy Winehouse statue, when Guy Gold opened his coffee bar & osteopathic treatment rooms (I don't know if I need treatment but I always need coffee) around the corner from us last Friday and a new bakery I sniffed out but didn't get the name of the Camden High Street only hours after it opened.  I need to go back another Saturday when I haven't already stocked up on hand rolled New York bagels from Bowery Bagels or the fluffy English muffins and sour dough bread from Jamie Oliver's The Flour Station.  These are dangerous streets for carb avoiders.

The High Street is also your best hope for when you’ve dragged your kids along to do some errands and promised it won’t take too long.  Promise delivered!  Last week we got haircuts, stopped at the ATM, picked up lunch (trying our 12th or so stall at the KERB Food Market), bought some new shoes (at Vans) and made it for the matinee showing of “The LEGO Batman movie” (at Odeon) in less than 90 minutes.  And even more beautiful: because it was so close, I dropped them at the theater door and they walked themselves home.

One of my favorite things living in my neighborhood is that I can flip through any cookbook and source every ingredient and related kitchen tool within a 10 minute walking radius.  Yesterday when my husband asked me about my plans for the day and I mentioned going to local bookstore (Waterstones) to skim through some Mexican cookbooks, then to a local cooking store to find individually sized skillets (either going upscale to Richard Dare or downmarket to a seconds store on Camden High Street which can't be found online) and then to one of several local grocery stores for ingredients, he lovingly gazed into my eyes and said (the truth): “Every day I’m with you is another day for you to buy a single use kitchen apparatus.” And I can-nacho lie, this neighborhood makes it easy to accomplish that.

Speaking of cookbooks, I have a collection from my chef hero: Yotam Ottolenghi.  Ottolenghi is originally from Jerusalem now living in London with several very popular restaurants (four Ottolenghi locations and Nopi) and a huge following.  He also writes a regular online food column in The Guardian.  With a city-sized Whole Foods and the fabulous fruit and vegetable grocer called Parkway Greens around the corner from me, I’ve been cooking a lot from his cookbooks.  The boys now ask for a sprinkling of zatar on their eggs.  Pomegranate molasses is my new balsamic vinegar.  Barberries save me from having to chop dried cranberries.  I’m all about finding new uses for preserved lemons, sumac and rose harissa.  And there isn't a dish that a refreshing yogurt sauce can't make better.

So imagine me reading this in one of Ottolenghi's columns:  “It’s easy to get stuck in our ways with apples. A granny smith is sweet and tart enough to work here, but why not try something new for a change? My local grocer, Parkway Greens in Camden, gets some of its apples from Brogdale in Kent …” His local grocer is my local grocer!  This has me more star struck than any celebrity sighting.  I have no idea what I will do when I see him there one day but you know I’m looking … every day.  I will get to know those apple varieties.

Another favorite spot in the neighborhood is the Camden Coffee Shop.  They don’t sell brewed coffee only coffee beans.  George, the owner originally from Cyprus, has been roasting and grinding coffee on the same premises for 40 years.  The equipment, even the old school scales, hasn’t been upgraded in that time.  George does all the work himself telling me there’s no room in the shop for another employee.  I visit George once a week (when he's there as the hours are "roughly" 9-5) for the best 500 grams of Ethiopian coffee for my paper filter and 250 grams of Costa Rica coffee for my stove top Italian espresso maker.   He’s taught me a few things about espresso.  It’s a weekly joy to feel part of something with that much history.

As a tourist, you might notice a few interesting restaurants and pubs on Parkway, our closet street for services.  As a resident, I can tell you this one street has two dry cleaners, a record shop, a musical instrument shop, four Japanese restaurants, three coffee shops – two chains and one independent, a tea house, three nail and beauty salons, two Indian restaurants, an Italian restaurant, a pizzeria, a fish and chips place, a Spanish restaurant, a French restaurant, an upscale modern European restaurant, a charity shop, two hair salons, an electronics store, a running store, a lifestyle/accessories store, a mailbox center, a movie theater, the Gap, Whole Foods and Parkway Greens (a second mention because I love them so much), lots of real estate offices, two pubs and three live music venues.  And that’s all in two blocks and before turning a corner. There's more too but it was making me hungry writing them all down.  I won't frequent some of them.  Moobo for bubble tea or Chicskin for sheepskin coats for example, but I like their names and I like knowing they're there for someone to enjoy.

A vibrant High Street is one that has services by day and a robust evening economy which I’ve heard referred to as “alive after 5.”   This neighborhood has the evening economy in spades.  Not all of it pretty.  We have yet to explore the music scene of Camden appropriate for the over 40 years of age crowd but on Parkway alone there is the famous Jazz Café, the Dublin Castle for a cheap beer and weekend live music, and Green Note - a vegetarian café bar and acoustic live music venue voted "London Venue of the Year 2015" by Timeout.  That high praise was enough for me to get our first tickets for the March 8 show at the reasonable cost of £10 per ticket.  About the same price as the Batman Lego Movie with a trade of popcorn for beer.  If you are local, meet us there?  If not, expect to read a City Living: The Joy of Live Music post soon.