Croydon is another part of south/south east London tipped for a trend-setting turnaround in the coming years. A Westfield shopping centre is on the way, Boxpark has already arrived and more millennials are using the town as a foot-on-the-ladder location, in the hope that in 10 years’ time they’ll be smugly selling up to those late to the hype. There is a lot going for the area.
Of course, such places don’t miraculously transform just because Westfield clicks its fingers. The effort of independent traders is often the main catalyst behind a shift in public perception of an area’s appeal. Don’t get me wrong, I know there are thousands of Croydon residents who are more than happy with their hometown, but it’s the view of those who might be inclined to visit for a reason beyond a stressful Ikea trip who are beginning to look at Croydon differently. I count myself in that bracket. I once played a gig in Croydon (The Cartoon Club, anyone?) where one of my friends was whacked over the head with a sack of potatoes because he wouldn’t give this particular spud a quid. Fond memories.
The truth is I haven’t ‘been out’ in Croydon for many years – my food and drink knowledge of the town is pretty much limited to the traders in Boxpark next to East Croydon station. So when my wife asked if I fancied going for dinner at relatively new set-up The Joker, I was a little taken aback once I saw this place’s location. The bar is in South End, Croydon’s restaurant quarter, and although it is surrounded by other pubs, bars and restaurants, The Joker has brought to the area an offer indicative of its debut site in Brighton. Stripped back wall tiles and a mosaic floor show off a refurbishment that highlights the faded beauty of what the Victorian building once beamed. The concrete bar, forests of plants and low-hanging lights feel more California chic than south London bleak.
The Joker is yet another multifaceted concept to arrive in the modern on-trade, catering to guests who are after a range of consumables for various social occasions. Some treat it as a cocktail bar, whereas for others it is a new brunch spot. Then you have couples having a romantic dinner at one end of the site, far away from the office workers who have just lined up a load of shots at the other. Then there are decent beers, Sunday roasts, the lot… The size of the venue allows the team to accommodate all of these tastes without ruining anyone’s time there. It’s a neat trick if you can pull it off.
We popped in on a Friday evening, where the buzz was as lively as the clientele eclectic. The infectious atmosphere meant that a couple of craft beers – chosen from a decent list – soon turned into a couple of cocktails. The Copper Lemon (Absolut Elyx, fresh lemon, sugar and rosemary) was a winner, as was the Kombucha Margarita (Altos tequila, kombucha, lime and agave). It was only a matter of time before kombucha started finding its way into classic cocktails and, to be honest, it didn’t seem out of place at all – a tart sweetness that sat happily alongside old friends tequila and lime.
When it comes to food, the two Joker sites partner with external caterers. In Brighton, the folks from Lost Boys Chicken man the pass, punching out tangy wings, burgers and curly fries to seaside diners. Should you visit the Croydon pub, you’ll be treated to the expert cuisine from a business called Humble Plates, whose Humble Kitchen concept is currently wowing all of those who pass through The Joker’s doors. Humble Kitchen offers a range of bar snacks and small plates with a big focus on social dining. Their aim is to bring people together through good food – simple as that. During the week, the menu is broken down into bar snacks, tacos, burgers, fries/sides, and small plates. Then there are the desserts, a brunch menu and Sunday roasts. While the menu tells customers to ‘Indulge, Repent, Repeat’, I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that approach. Indulge, yes, but save yourself the guilt – skip the repent and head straight for repeat.
With tacos at three for £12, we ordered the tuna (with avocado, pine nuts and mango salsa), the sweet potato (with almond salsa and pickled onion) and the halloumi (barbecued with avocado and truffle salsa). I ate some similar combinations in Mexico last year that weren’t a million miles away from this experience, minus the white sand and blue ocean, of course. There are some things gentrification can’t buy, I guess. The Korean burger (£9) is a signature creation from Humble Plates and didn’t disappoint. Fried chicken thigh, Korean hot sauce, kimchi slaw, pickles and mayo served at a size that leaves room for more from the menu. The mac n cheese croquettes with truffle mayo (£6.50) will fly out of the kitchen all day long, as will the tater tots with garlic mayo and hot sauce (£5.50) – there’s that West Coast influence creeping in again.
I loved The Joker. I love the fact more venues like this are appearing in areas you wouldn’t expect to find them; I love that I really did want to eat everything on the menu; I love that the pub/kitchen set-up is the result of two businesses coming together; I loved our waiter (I think he was called Josh), who was so attentive and friendly despite being challenged with a busy Friday night service; I loved the food, the drink and the atmosphere; and I love the fact that I know I’ll be back.