The Light Bar, London E1: ‘This is the Shoreditch that winds up the rest of the country’ – restaurant review

While sipping a “Sonic Mook Experiment” in the freshly renovated Light Bar, I pondered how, over the years, many have wished a biblical plague to finish off Shoreditch. Well, no such luck. It’s alive and well, and I’ve had a banana-flavoured old fashioned and some monkfish yakitori to prove it.

That said, I do understand why people feel so strongly about this area, which has been a magnet to the young and wilfully edgy for almost three decades now, because they can be exasperating and are very definitely laughable. In fact, the word “Shoreditch” itself has become a punchline of sorts, and the cause of much groaning and eye-rolling. Such things are hard to shake off.

This has continued long after the luxury Nobu Hotel Shoreditch opened and the YBAs had grandkids and moved to Hastings; in fact, long after anyone genuinely edgy or creative migrated to Dalston or Haggerston, or the north or Berlin, or, in fact, anywhere with WiFi. Yet even all these years after Nathan Barley, whenever I review a place in Shoreditch, the comments still fill with the likes of “Keep it foolish” and “The rise of the idiots”, because some things will never die.

If anything, The Light Bar is egging them on, with a cocktail menu that pays tribute to ye olde Shoreditch, and Sean McLusky’s club night at 333, to Gary’s Bar, to Jonjo Jury at the George & Dragon, to Secret Sundaze parties, and so on. If you are a 40-plus reformed clubber with a working knowledge of the area, prepare to feel sentimental on reading that list, and then to feel very, very old.

The Light Bar, a three-storey former power station built in the late 1800s, has always been a striking building; I’ll stop short of saying it’s beautiful, though, because it was never that. It’s a small miracle that the bulldozers didn’t flatten it in the noughties, when a 2008 campaign fronted by the likes of Tracey Emin and Suggs kept it intact, though it took a certain leap of faith to believe that this cavernous, draughty, falling-down relic midway between Liverpool Street and The Tea Building was in any way important.

Years later, and after many millions spent on titivation, I’m so glad someone did, because now in modern Shoreditch, among the glass-fronted skyscrapers and Boxpark, there’s still a chunk of the Great Eastern Electric Light Generating Station left, with its glorious red bricks and arched windows. Inside, in a ground-floor space called The Engine Room, it is flatteringly lit and elegant, with open brickwork, navy leather and bronze features. While the downstairs focuses on dining and the brainwaves of chef Johnnie Collins, the upstairs Copper Bar is a cocktail destination, while the soon-to-open rooftop Timber Bar will be for private dining.

The menu is eclectic, surprising and at times peculiar. Giant pale radishes come with their leafy tops and a puddle of wild garlic mayo. A wobblingly fresh burrata is doused in pink pickled rhubarb and broad bean tops from Stepney City Farm. Husky-brown, deep-fried artichokes arrive with a cashew and green chilli sauce, and though I’m unsure if either of those things was delicious, they were certainly beautiful, and as Keats once said, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.” Much more definitely wonderful was the Spence Bakery focaccia, griddled until almost fire-damaged and served with heavily salted butter. I try not to fill up on bread, but this was too good to be taken back to the kitchen.

The Light Bar’s menu is part Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, part Japanese yōshoku spot. Fried braised beef comes in a bun and smothered in a chocolate-laced barbecue sauce – not too chocolatey, but certainly there. And if that sounds a bit too Letitia Cropley on The Vicar of Dibley, then perhaps The Light Bar isn’t for you. Chunky robata monkfish skewers are marinaded in black sesame, while a Swaledale chicken skewer is paired with preserved Tropea onion.

Here is a chef who refuses to be bland, and who bombards his diners with flavour; sometimes delicious, sometimes offputting, but never forgettable. They’re not here to serve cosy burgers, eggs on muffins and bottomless prosecco brunches. In fact, this is exactly the Shoreditch edge that winds up the rest of the country. Still alive, still kicking, and now served with chocolate barbecue sauce.

The highlight of lunch turned out to be a fat, sugary, fresh doughnut: a plump, sugared one filled with rhubarb and miso ice-cream, then made pretty with sesame-flavoured dust; it was like a walk along Blackpool front in the 1980s, but with bells on.

We also had the “Simon Hopkinson dark chocolate tart”, which was fiercely fennelly and demolished without any quibbles. We came for an hour, and ended up staying for five, because it was raining and the cocktail list and the wonderful staff made leaving increasingly difficult. The “Family” cocktail is a chic, neat margarita made with tequila, peach, lime, chilli and ginger ale. I raised one, or more like three, to a new era of post-pandemic Shoreditch. Still alive, still keeping it foolish.