ENJOY A COFFEE BY THE CANAL AT TOWPATH CAFÉ
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL DELFS
Towpath Café is a beautiful little café sitting on the edge of the water along the Regent’s Canal in East London. It has no indoor seating; just a small alcove where diners can find a bit of protection from the wind, with broad, burgundy awnings that fold out over metal tables to offer shelter from the rain or shade on a sunny Saturday afternoon. You can order Italian coffee, homemade lemon polenta cake or a cold glass of Pinot Gris from the small bar in the middle alcove. If you want hot food you carry your ticket to the kitchen next door. The line to order can easily run 10 minutes long, causing congestion and the occasional collision with passing bicyclists. But it’s a cheerful crowd out enjoying a beautiful spot along the canal.
When Towpath first opened its shutters in February 2010 you’d be hard-pressed to find a less likely spot for a café to be successful. Despite the rising tide of gentrification in East London, the surrounding neighbourhood was still mostly council estates and derelict warehouses. Graffiti covered the bare brick walls along the canal path, and the long, elegant houseboats that lined the canal near more affluent areas to the west and east were noticeably absent. Even the space the café occupied seemed unlikely: two shallow, cement storage alcoves with roll up metal shutters and barely enough space for a wooden bar and someone to stand behind it.
When Towpath first opened its shutters in February 2010 you’d be hard-pressed to find a less likely spot for a café to be successful.
The beautiful coincidence is that Lori de Mori happened to live in a house on the other side of the canal. An American food writer between projects, Lori had recently moved to East London from Tuscany, and she was looking for a way to put down some roots in the area. Before the café had a kitchen she would bake cakes and sweets and carry them on covered plates over the bridge and down along the path to be placed on the bar. To the Spanish developers who owned the warehouse above, the alcoves were most likely an afterthought – too small and out of the way to be commercially viable. But Lori, who walked past them every day, saw an opportunity, instinctively sensing that the people she saw walking, jogging and bicycling along the canal in increasing numbers would like a place to sit by the water and have a cup of coffee or glass of wine.
Success begets imitation. When Towpath Café opened in 2010 there wasn’t a single other business trading along the canal for five kilometres in either direction. Today, half a dozen more restaurants have cropped up along the 300-metre stretch between Kingsland Road and the Whitmore Bridge. On a sunny summer afternoon, there are so many people along that stretch of canal path that movement slows to lazy stroll. Bicyclists meander at the same speed as baby carriages.
In hindsight, perhaps this transformation was inevitable: as people and money and development poured into East London, opening restaurants along the canal was an obvious next step. But perhaps it wasn’t. Somebody had to take that first, risky leap, putting themselves on the line with an idea that seemed far from likely at the time. Without Lori looking across the canal at those empty storage alcoves and seeing an opportunity, perhaps that stretch of canal would have tumbled down another path of destiny. It’s an interesting thought to ponder while you’re sitting in the sun by the water drinking a cool glass of wine on a Sunday afternoon.
Towpath Café, 36 De Beauvoir Crescent, Hackney, London. Phone: 020 7254 7606