Carnaby Street is most often associated with the swinging sixties when bands like the Beatles, the Who, the Small Faces and the Rolling Stones worked, played and socialized in the area. Edgy fashion boutiques served both mods and hippies whilst underground music clubs like the Roaring Twenties and the iconic Marquee Club played host to the new sound of sixties London. A 1966 Time Magazine cover cemented Carnaby Street as the centre of Swinging London.
It’s still a pretty cool neighborhood, although gentrified and sanitised for the most part. There are still plenty of edgy boutiques and some decent places for food and drink. I visited recently at lunch time to check out the Pitt Cue Company’s claim to serving the best barbecue in London. They also specialise in Bourbon and Rye based cocktails. I took the Irish Lass with me on the (correct) assumption that it wouldn’t take much to convince her to start drinking whiskey at noon.
Pitt Cue is tiny. There is a small bar area with a few stools. The main restaurant is in the basement with room for 30 covers – seated intimately. The decor is spartan – white paint and bare light bulbs. You come here for the food and the drink. Pitt Cue started as a trailer serving hot American style BBQ under the Hungerford Bridge last summer – it was a sensation. This year they opened a restaurant. The foodie blogs and twitterati have been buzzing about this place. The no reservations policy meant we queued outside from about 11:30 for the doors to open at noon. The Lingerie Collective next door picked up some passing trade.
The menu is straightforward; it’s about barbecued meat. The woman at the next table announced that she was vegetarian. The waitress was struggling to find veggie options on the menu (there are none). Trying to be helpful I leaned over and pointed out that the animals we were eating were also vegetarian. I received a well aimed kick under the table and decided to order a drink.
Looking for the familiar I started with a Hair of the Pig; a Bloody Mary made with bourbon. This was very spicy, with an immediate sharp zing, followed by a gentle, warming, slow burn. It’s a bit like the gentle warmth you get after the initial burn of splashing aftershave on freshly shaved cheeks.
We cooled down with a Cider Sour which was an unqualified hit. Made with dry apple cider, lemonade and rye whiskey this is a drink I’ll be serving at home this summer. It is refreshing, with the apple adding a sour undercurrent to the flavour, the cider adding a gentle effervescence and the rye adding bite.
We ate the best barbecue in London, hands down. We eschewed the ribs and went for pulled pork, ox cheek, chicken wings, chipotle slaw, crispy cabbage and crispy shiitake mushrooms. I will gladly have the pulled pork as my last meal on earth. It is warmly moist and shot through with flavour. The ox cheek was similarly wonderful, with the thicker, slightly gelatinous consistency of the cheek soaking in and retaining the flavour of the barbecue spices. The crispy shiitake mushrooms deserve a special mention. Pickled and lightly breaded, they are slightly sweet and have the consistency of meat. Perhaps the vegetarian should have stayed.
Of course we couldn’t leave Pitt Cue without ordering the infamous Pickle Back; a shot of home made pickle juice followed by a shot of rye. It sounds like a revolting wager but this unlikely combination really does taste amazing. The Pickle Back is reminiscent of a dirty martini made with rye whisky; the pickle juice adding a briny flavour. This is sweet pickle juice so there is an unexpected complexity to the combination. They do their own pickling at Pitt Cue so I wouldn’t suggest trying this combination at home with commercially bought pickles.
Staying on the whiskey and pickle juice theme I also tried a Big Mac ‘n’ Rye; bourbon, pickle juice and sweet vermouth served with bitters and an orange slice. The flavour here could be described as a sweet manhattan gone dirty (I knew a girl like that once, but that’s another story). This cocktail has a bitter aftertaste that might take some getting used to.
There were some desserts on offer but we needed coffee and decided to shift venues. Faces lit up in the hope of a table as the line of people at the bar clocked our departure. The Carnaby Street area does good coffee and we popped into the SpeakEasy nearby for a Flat White. For my American readers, this is a coffee drink consisting of a shot of espresso and micro foam (steamed milk from the bottom of a pitcher). It is less milky than a latte and has less foam than a cappuccino. The flat white was invented in New Zealand which is a country near Australia. Kiwi fruit and hobbits come from New Zealand.
The SpeakEasy has a young, hip and cheerful staff with a pared down aesthetic, all painted cement floors and polished concrete counter tops. The coffee is very good.
You’re not going to find Swinging London, ’60s psychedelia and the Rolling Stones in Carnaby Street. The seedy underground clubs are mostly gone, the Rolling Stones are in their 60′s, and Hoxton and Shoreditch is where today’s hipsters hang out. You will find some cutting edge retail shops however, and one damned fine barbecue joint.