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Royal Oak E2
Maybe it's because I'm not a Londoner', as the song doesn't quite go - after a quarter of a century here, the Smoke can still surprise me. I'd always heard the Columbia Road market was quite a spectacle, but had somehow never hauled myself out of bed early enough on Sunday to enjoy it. Nowadays, though, this ever more genteel market goes on strong up to (and a little beyond) its official 2pm close.
We were venturing back through the crowds at that very time on the way back from the last 'lunchtime' slot which had been available - at noon! - at this year-old gastropub. To say that the place has acquired something of a following does no justice to the heaving press of people we had left behind in the ground floor bar.
We had lunched in the relative quiet of the small upstairs dining room: a quirkily Boho location where my disintegrating chair answered fully to the description 'junk shop décor'. The service is just as you'd hope in such a place: offbeat but very pleasant (if at the mercy of the inevitably rather slow kitchen). Get a window seat if you possibly can -you will at least be able to while away the time looking down on the teeming scene below.
Despite the name, this place is no East End throwback, and its modern British menu is straightforward rather than basic. Roasts are a weekend staple and feature substantial portions of carefully-prepared meat, plus accompaniments with a bit of a twist: lamb, for example comes dolled up with fennel, lentils and rosemary roast potatoes, and is thoroughly satisfying.
Would a trule 'old' East End institution have had so much to offer? Or perhaps my 20-year wait was a good investment.
73 Columbia Rd, London, E2 7RG
lunch noon - 4 pm, dinner 7 pm - 10 pm
Last orders: 10 pm