The humble chicken shop. For many Londoners, it symbolises so much more than just a cheap and greasy eatery. A warm place for some comfort food after a big night out, an after-school club, an open-all-hours chillout spot. In other words, a kind of community hub… albeit, one that comes with an unhealthy dose of salt, fat and sugar. And since youth clubs and services started to disappear back in 2010, chicken shops have played an increasingly important role in the lives of London’s younger population – particularly in the city’s working-class neighbourhoods.
Take Tottenham for instance: fried chicken is an institution in these parts. Home to YouTube sensation The Chicken Connoisseur, you can find more than 30 fast food joints within a mile radius of its centre.
Tottenham also happens to be one of London’s most disadvantaged communities. Torn apart by riots in 2011 and ravaged by cuts to public services ever since, it’s now undergoing a rapid “regeneration”, which threatens to shut local people out. New money might be flooding into the area, but it’s reserved for developing unaffordable flats and faceless retail chains – not for public spaces and community centres. And this has meant that the area’s fast food joints are pretty much the only affordable places left where young locals can hang out together. No surprises, then, to see child obesity skyrocketing in Tottenham.
So in 2015, the arts charity Create came up with a brilliant idea: why not reinvent the chicken shop as a unifying force for good in the community? Their vision was of a place that had the same universal appeal of the chicken shop, but which offered a healthy yet affordable alternative to the traditional greasy fare – and in a space people could be proud of. Following a successful crowdfunding campaign and the input of some leading lights of London’s food industry, Chicken Town was born. A proper sit-down restaurant during the evening, but with the profits used to fund £2 healthy, after-school eats for local kids.
At bottom, Chicken Town is a not-for-profit community enterprise with a mission to improve the health and well-being of Tottenham’s young people. Beyond providing a healthier alternative to fast food, it also partners with high-profile restaurants (think Polpo and Clove Club) to provide training and employment opportunities to young locals, as well as leading a wide range of charitable projects in the community. This year, the restaurant has hosted a cookery school for people with ADHD and run food education and gardening sessions with local primary schools.
And if you’re wondering the secret to making healthy fried chicken, it’s all about steaming the meat first before flash frying in rapeseed oil. The result is a third less fat and half the saturates, but with the same crispy finish. The food is also sustainably-sourced – the restaurant only uses herb-fed, free-range and cruelty-free chickens, and sources its veggies locally.
But enough of the feel-good backstory, there’s a decent restaurant to write about here too. The space itself is certainly not what you’d expect from your typical chicken shop. Chicken Town is based in a beautiful old Victorian fire station, complete with large windows, high ceilings and spacious interiors. There’s even a lovely little outdoor patio with benches for a summer munch.
The menu is comprehensive. Expect all the usuals, but with a healthy twist. Six variations of burger (including buttermilk chicken, vegan and veggie options), your choice of pieces cooked in three different kinds of breadcrumb, Korean hot wings… and of course, no such place would be complete without mac and cheese. These are complemented by healthy sides made from superfoods like sweet potato and kale.
Admittedly, the unique cooking technique gives the chicken an ever so slightly different taste and texture to what you might expect, but it’s nonetheless delicious. And given the fact that this is restaurant-quality food, the prices seem pretty reasonable. The drinks menu also shows great attention to detail, stocking award-winning and locally-sourced craft beers. Gamma Ray of the Beavertown brewery being a personal favourite.
If you’ve read some of the reviews on TripAdvisor, you’d be forgiven for being a tad skeptical – the place has a tendency to polarise opinion. Our response is this: Chicken Town is trying to do something quite revolutionary. Fried chicken made healthy and sustainable, restaurant-quality food at fast food prices, and in a not-for-profit setting that can bring together both Tottenham’s new and well-established communities. It’s clear that not everyone gets it. But then that’s exactly why we exist – to make sure people hear the story that gets obscured in every TripAdvisor or Zomato review.
So, here’s a call to action: social enterprise like Chicken Town deserve our support. It represents all the best bits about the city rolled into one – diversity, community and social action, achieved through delicious food created by world-leading chefs. Wherever you’re based in the city, Chicken Town is worthy of your custom. We’ll certainly be back again soon.