When you catch a glimpse of Barge East floating with sails emblazoned with black logos, you might think a band of East End pirates had moored up to ransack the neighbouring Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park for loot.
In reality, it’s an old Dutch barge turned restaurant, sailed across the seas from Amsterdam to Hackney Wick. Barge East has turned childhood dreams of being a pirate into a reality for three old friends, and has become one of London’s rated restaurant on TripAdvisor in the process.
From tub to tug
The idea for the floating restaurant, currently ranked first in London on Tripadvisor, was concocted by Stuart “Tommo” Thomson, Rob “Blandy”, and Ryan Craig.
De Hoop (‘The Hope’ in English) is looking good for 117 years old and has been given an east London spin, with beers brewed at Truman’s and spirits from East London Liquor Company aboard.
On a bright spring afternoon, the fairy lights strung along the barge’s outline create a Peter-pan feel – the perfect floating home for the boys who never grew up, offering strategic views down both the Hertford Union Canal and the Lea River from its crow’s nest.
As Rob, one third of the team, prepares a latte, he explains how they met years ago: ‘Ryan and Tommo went to school together. I’m friends with Tommo because I went to uni with his fiancé. We all met nine years ago on a ski trip, then we all got together.’
It was co-founder Tommo, the owner of floating business ‘Hot Tug’, who accidentally got the ball rolling. Tommo’s ‘Hot Tug’, which Rob describes as ‘a completely barmy, whacky idea’, is the world’s first floating hot tub, where clientele sail down Angel and Canary Wharf’s canals in a hot tub.
In his search for a ‘Hot-Tug’ mooring, Tommo discovered the water where Barge East now floats. ‘The Olympic park was inviting ideas for floating businesses,’ Rob says, ‘Tommo came down and after seeing the size of the mooring and the land, said “This is way too good for hot-tubs.” ’ Tommo and Ryan began the boat-hunt and Rob ‘came on board – excuse the pun,’ he laughs.
Ryan and Tommo travelled to Holland to see De Hoop in August 2017, and decided ‘this is the one.’ They were faced with a daunting mission: to sail a canal barge from Holland to the UK. ‘It took five months to bring it over because you have to find a weather window. These boats, they’re used to being along canals, when you get them into open water, they’re not very stable,’ Rob explains. Zero shipwrecks and six months spent lovingly restoring the boat using reclaimed materials later, the boat was ready.
Despite the revamp, the barge is living history – ‘it’s about 117 years old. So it’s a pretty old boat,’ Rob says proudly. It’s hard to imagine now, but ‘it was a complete wreck, it wasn’t rotting, but it was an old crane barge, so it never used to have a roof on it. This part was just completely battered and bent’, he gestures to the area where diners are tucking into baby squid with chorizo risotto.
This cosy yet spartan dining area features a smattering of wooden tables that create a Viking ship aesthetic. The design consciously pays homage to the vessel’s long life, and a sea-faring feel is brought by lights slung through pulley blocks. Rob gestures to the metal girders which reflect vibrant Beavertown beer cans as he says, ‘All this metalwork by the coffee machine, it used to be a crane on the outside. We tried to keep a bit of character there.’
Character is also brought by each plate of food, prepared by co-founder and head chef, Ryan Craig. The bearded chef cut his teeth cooking on luxury yachts, and crafted a menu which blends these internationally-inspired flavours. Rob tells me, ‘The time he spent on super yachts, travelling all over the world, had a lot of influence in his menu.’ He adds, ‘Ryan’s girlfriend is also Mediterranean, so there’s a lot of influences coming from her too, like in the Kofta.’
Scaling down from sailing super-yachts, ‘cooking for the 100th richest man in the world’ to sailing in Hackney Wick, was a large adjustment for Ryan. ‘It was a challenge going from that to this, because there was no budget in the yachts, he could order in duck breast. Now we’ve got to cost everything and make sure it’s making margins, with no waste,’ Rob says.
Such expertise has earned Barge East the impressive accolade of London’s best restaurant on TripAdvisor. (The top restaurants jostle for position but Barge East is always up there.) Rob is bashful about their achievements, ‘It’s crazy, ten months ago when we opened, we never imagined that we’d be in this position. We’re not trying to be Michelin star, but we wanna be fine dining’.
As a result, the hidden gem has begun to gain global attention. ‘Once you get into the top ten, you get so much more exposure from tourists – someone rang up last week to book from Canada! It’s getting busier and busier,’ he says.
Despite growing popularity, Barge East’s ethos remains consistent: stocking local produce to support small East London’s businesses. Rob confirms ‘everything’s local – it’s a big ethos of the bar. You pay a bit more for local stuff, but it’s quite a big thing for east London. Lots of our house staff are local residents.’
Mid-sentence, he bolts up and serves a wave of customers for five minutes behind the bar. Rob has crafted a drinks menu which showcases the best of east London. Admirably, Hackney and Bow-based breweries are the stars – from the East London Liquor Co’s products in cocktails to Hackney’s Gordon’s Blacks for espresso martinis.
The beers come from London Fields Brewery, Truman’s Brewery, ‘who brew just over the water’, and Beavertown provide the canned beers. For those looking for a teetotal night out, they offer Squareroots soft drinks, a business started in a market stall in Harringay.
A hammers life for me
But will £9.50 Espresso Martinis wash with the West Ham fans whose stadium neighbours Barge East? On-board, you can’t escape the majestic shadow of the London Stadium, which the football club fans now call home.
Rob talks me through his myriad clientele. ‘This place changes from day to day – you’ll have a corporate party during the week, then Saturday West Ham playing at home.’ The football club’s move to the shiny Olympic stadium, from a historic home packed with memories in summer 2018, wasn’t welcomed by all Irons fans. In March, during a match against Burnley, West Ham fans were sufficiently disappointed to invade the pitch.
Irons fans are a notoriously rowdy bunch, but Rob is quick to defend their reputation. ‘They’re great, West Ham fans’. He is adamant Barge East’s ethos is about inclusivity, rather than turning people away. ‘We’ve got a really nice West Ham fan base here – I don’t know whether that’s because we’re a boat, or our barbeque might be a bit more expensive than a stadium burger van.’
With all these celebrating or grieving football fans, has Rob ever been on life-guarding duty? ‘We’ve had a few people fall in, the majority of them are West Ham fans. We just pull them out straight away’. The agony and ecstasy of England’s World cup dream sparked high emotions amongst punters. ‘We showed one of the England World Cup games last summer and England scored, a guy jumped in the canal,’ he chuckles.
What this trio of friends have created is a pirate ship true to Hackney Wick’s spirit, and Barge East seems watertight to sail along the canal to success.
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