It’s hard not to get excited about a visit to Cafe Van Gogh, especially when you hear hardened omnivores claiming they’d come back for seconds.
But this not-for-profit vegan restaurant is about even more than just the food. Behind the stunning grade-II listed facade there’s a social purpose that’s as wholesome as its dishes.
Having lain vacant for 5 years, Cafe Van Gogh finally reopened in 2015, through the vision and hard graft of local resident Steve Clarke – the fulfilment of a lifelong dream. Steve had dedicated the past 20 years of his career to the sadly unsung public service of supported housing, where he provided a hand-up to some of London’s most marginalised residents. But with a passion for food that matched this drive to help others, his eyes would always wander towards the vacant cafe around the corner. “All my time working supported housing, walking past it every day”, Steve recounts, “I always had it in the back my mind: wouldn’t it be great to get in there?”.
Having no experience in the food business himself, Steve partnered with the chef from a local community café, and together, they managed to convince the church landlords to invite them to move in next door. It’s kind of an odd couple – a historic church beside a hipster-sounding vegan cafe – but there’s a quirky charm to it.
Café Van Gogh now partners with a range of local charities to offer work placements to adults and young people with additional life challenges. To date, they’ve worked with homelessness organisation Thames Reach, learning disability charity Toucan and the local special needs school Highshore. These placements are a vital service in themselves but they also add to the community vibe of the Cafe. As Steve put it, “the customers love it and it gets quite interactive”.
The space also acts as a hub for community groups, local schools and socially-minded projects. I particularly loved the sound of the plant-based Ethiopian cooking classes organised by social enterprise Migrateful – run by refugees who are struggling to find employment.
As you’d expect in a place founded on social and ethical values, staff are paid the London Living Wage and, levelling up, the cafe went 100% vegan earlier this year. There’s a real sense that this place wants to welcome everyone, regardless of income or social status. For example, the varied menu is specially prepared to include genuinely affordable options, and there are plans afoot for a pay-it-forward scheme – a discreet way for those on low incomes to benefit from the generosity of philanthropic punters. In fact, the cafe already offers free meals to some of its customers who are struggling financially.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing, though. Steve talks candidly about the challenges of running a social enterprise; “I love it, but 10% of the time it’s insomnia, teeth-grinding”. Not long after founding the cafe, he split with his business partner, leaving him to fend for himself in a notoriously tough industry. Fortunately, he found an ally and a supporter in the landlord, who also happens to be the church vicar. In many respects, this partnership is an inspiring example of how diverse organisations can come together for the greater good of their community.
And how about the restaurant itself? The art nouveau building provides quite a unique setting, with a pretty spiral staircase splitting the café into two cosy rooms. There’s something of the French bistro about the place, which makes it equally suitable for a casual lunch or a special occasion: a great date spot to take your vegan squeeze perhaps? There are some lovely, quirky touches throughout, from the board games on the bookshelf to the vinyl player on the condiment table. And once the weather improves, the large patioed garden makes this an excellent spot for a sun-kissed Saturday brunch.
Food-wise, the menu does a great job of combining the hearty with the healthy; meat eaters can put aside any concerns about leaving this place hungry. There’s a large, globally-inspired menu, covering everything from seitan ribs to jerk plantain – given how it looks, you might be tempted to just double check that the food is really 100% vegan (it definitely is). I tried the burger of the day with the full works (including a vegan hot cheese sauce) and was happily stuffed afterwards. The spiced potatoes were a great alternative to the ubiquitous fries or wedges and, perhaps unsurprisingly for a plant-based place, the colourful side salad was the real deal – far from the two leaves of lettuce and sad slice of cucumber we’ve come to expect. With so many other great things to try, I’ll definitely be making a return visit.
And finally…. if you’re wondering about the name, Vincent Van Gogh himself lodged in a house just around the corner. In many ways the Dutch master is an appropriate symbol for the work of Steve and the rest of the Van Gogh gang. Their namesake’s life demonstrates that mental ill health need be no barrier to achieving great things; but also that first and foremost we need to connect with people around us and help prevent mental illness becoming tragedy. Who knows? With such great support, perhaps some of those given creative opportunities by his eponymous cafe might just go on to great things themselves.
Cafe Van Gogh can be found on 88 Brixton Road, London SW9 6BE. It’s open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-9pm and Sunday, 10am-5pm.