It’s Saturday morning in London. I’m headed to my favorite, undiscovered street market — Maltby Street Rope Walk — to assemble a progressive brunch. As usual, it’s cold and drizzly. And, as usual, I have an empty coffee cup in my pocket.
The weather can’t be helped — it’s a late-spring day in a city synonymous with fog. As for the coffee cup, this is my routine in London. Caffeine is required to simply move around this sprawling metropolis. And when I’m done with my takeaway flat white, it’s impossible to find a place to throw away the cup — because city leaders have, quite reasonably, removed garbage cans from major landmarks and Tube stations as an anti-terrorism measure.
For this I cannot fault them. But it means that when I’m done with my coffee, I’m stuck with the cup. Londoners have improvised a solution to this: They arrange neat little rows of discarded cups and bottles on curbs and other flat surfaces, as if improvising altars to present their offerings to the garbage-collection gods. But I’m too much of a rule-follower to leave my garbage just sitting there in the street. Instead, I stuff the cup into my jacket pocket until I reach a less target-rich corner of the city.
But I digress. After 10 minutes of shivering in a bus shelter, the red double-decker bus finally pulls up. I hop on, ride it a few stops through a nondescript neighborhood, and hop off at a grubby, yellow-brick railroad viaduct. It’s a bus stop that few tourists would find their way to. But I know what’s just around the corner.
I walk under the bridge — feeling the ground shake as an express train rumbles overhead — and pass a graffiti mural and a tidy pile of garbage bags, stacked for collection. Rounding the bend, I reach my destination.
London is blessed with an abundance of wonderful street markets. But the Maltby Street Rope Walk is far and away my favorite. I love its variety, and I love that it’s just far enough off the tourist trail to remain predominantly local. Mixed in among the London trendsters are a few visiting international foodies who’ve done their homework.
This short-but-sweet food bazaar bustles every Saturday and Sunday morning. I always make a point to show up as hungry as possible, and before long, I’ve grazed my way to an incredibly satisfying brunch.
From the horizon rockets up the jagged glass pinnacle of The Shard, Europe’s tallest building. Just a 15-minute walk away, The Shard also marks the boundary of the tourist’s London — not to mention the Borough Market. I love the Borough Market, too. It’s historic and a delight to explore. But it’s also bourgeois and a bit too pleased with itself.
Rope Walk, on the other hand, revels in its lack of pretense. It’s burrowed deep in Bermondsey, a lowbrow but emerging neighborhood. Bermondsey is the kind of place where rustic microbreweries are tucked between self-storage shops and auto-repair garages.
The Rope Walk is simple: Two dozen vendors fill a narrow corridor squeezed alongside the rail viaduct — about as long as a football field, and maybe 30 feet wide — with a festival of artisan food carts, each one offering a bewildering array of Instagram-ready taste treats: succulent Scottish salmon mounted on little slices of dark bread, Venezuelan arepas, Vietnamese banh mi, fresh-pressed juices, Spanish jamón carved right off the hock, a creative array of scotch eggs, Brazilian steak wraps, Middle Eastern flatbreads with savory toppings, German-style sausages, gyoza steamed in wicker baskets, slabs of grass-fed, dry-aged, rare-grilled hanger steaks, and much more. London’s many hipsters — with their perfectly coiffed beards and chunky eyeglasses — think they’ve died and gone to heaven.
Under the arches are lumber warehouses, some of which are home to rustic brick-and-mortar restaurants. One seemingly high-end seafood place (The Walrus & Carpenter) feels genteel…except that its secondhand tables are squeezed between stacks of two-by-fours.
The drizzle intensifies. I pop up my hood and do another lap — still deliberating which combination of street food nibbles will add up to my dream Rope Walk lunch.
On a rickety table in front of Tozino tapas bar, I spy calçots— giant green onions charred on a grill. My colleague Robyn was just telling me she’d finally tried this springtime delicacy in Barcelona. And ever since, I’ve been dying to try it. I have no trips to Spain planned anytime soon, but no matter — in London, the world’s food comes to you.
Through broken English (with lots of Spanish), the vendor hands me a little newspaper-wrapped bundle of blackened spring onions and explains how to eat it: carefully peel back the charred outer layer of the onion, revealing a sweet, slimy, tender cooked stalk in the center. Dip it into Romesco sauce, and munch. File this one under “Looks weird; tastes amazing.”
Now on to the main course. After doing a couple more indecisive laps, I finally settle on a tried-and-true favorite: The Cheese Truck, with a carefully curated menu of melted English cheese sandwiches. I opt for the flavor bomb: Cropwell Bishop Stilton cheese (imagine a fearless mashup of gorgonzola and cheddar) with pear chutney and bacon.
I stand patiently in the drizzle while they griddle up my sandwich to order. When it’s finally ready, it’s every bit as decadent, melty, and delicious as you’d dare to dream. The cheese itself packs a punch, balanced and mellowed by the chutney. The bacon may be gilding the lily a bit, but I can live with that. Just the right amount of cheese has oozed out the side and gotten crispy and salty against the grill.
To wash it down, I head to the Sicilian lemonade stall. You have to be careful in Britain, where “lemonade” usually means “sicky-sweet lemon-lime soda.” But this is a true Sicilian lemonade, as authentic as the guy from Catania who pours it for me: Fresh-squeezed lemon juice, sprightly and not too sweet.
The sun is breaking through the clouds. And, while I’ve had the place largely to myself, now Londoners are emerging like earthworms and filling the pavement. Things are getting crowded.
It’s time for dessert. I swing by the Bad Brownie table and buy a salted caramel brownie. It’s rich, decadent, and gooey — dripping with thick, salty-sweet caramel, and topped with crunchy crystals of solid caramel. A couple of bites is enough for now. Fortunately, by this time I’ve found a place to get rid of that coffee cup. I wrap the brownie in a bag, jam it in my empty pocket, and begin walking toward Tower Bridge.
As a train rumbles overhead, I start whistling a tune. I have a busy day of guidebook work ahead of me. But no matter. As usual, Maltby Street Rope Walk Market has provided me with one of my favorite meals of the trip.
Maltby Street Rope Walk Market is described in our Rick Steves London guidebook — which I was in town to update for our upcoming 2020 edition.
If you like this place, you’ll love the other nine places I wrote up in my recent post on Europe’s best markets.
Maltby Street Rope Walk Market takes place every Saturday from 9:00 until 14:00 p.m., and Sunday from 11:00 to 4:00 p.m. It’s about a 15-minute walk from the Borough Market and London Bridge Tube station, or 10 minutes by foot from Tower Bridge. You can also ride the Tube to Bermondsey, turn left out of the station, and catch bus #188 toward Russell Square; ride just a few minutes to the Tanner Street stop, get out, hook around the corner, go under the rail bridge, and look left.
And don’t forget to come hungry.