When Boxpark opened in Shoreditch five years ago, it described itself as the world's first temporary shopping mall. That may have been marketing hype, but the idea of piling up 40 industrial-sized containers in the centre of London and installing a different lifestyle brand in each was certainly new. Bobble-hatted pre-hipsters turned up in their droves, ensuring the place was a big success, because where else in Spitalfields could you buy niche trainers, charity-sourced art or a £140 onesie? Interestingly there was less of an emphasis on food and drink in those days, although frozen yoghurt, Mexican rice milk and meat pies all featured. In the last few days a second Boxpark has opened, way down in Croydon no less, and this time food and drink is the sole point of the enterprise.
Boxpark's latest site is immediately adjacent to East Croydon station, where the tourist information centre used to be, and where the Ruskin Square development will soon be built. Ultimately the site will boast several large office and residential blocks with retail outlets beneath, frequented, if architects'photos are to be believed, by men in suits and leggy brunettes, pausing occasionally to sip prosecco and graze on sushi. Until Croydon achieves the cachet to make this possible the land is going begging, so Boxpark have nipped in to fill the gap with a slightly less upmarket selection of comestibles.
At first it looks like a temporary icerink may have been set up, although you wouldn't normally paint one of those black. Instead the organisers have gone for a makeshift bierkeller vibe, with two rows of containers lined up facing one another across a central atrium beneath a weatherproof roof. Almost everything important is downstairs, although there are a handful of larger outlets upstairs, plus two parallel balconies with no direct access down to the lower level. A few less fortunate operations are outside facing the road, unless that's actually the best place to be to catch all the passing trade. But everything else is securely ensconced within the perimeter, with security guards watching over each entrance lest any undesirables should attempt to gain admittance. It's very much the new aesthetic.
Over 30 independenttraders have moved in, with wares ranging from Caribbean cod fritters to Lebanese tapas. There's a very global feel to the cuisine on offer, perhaps reflecting Londoners' willingness to sample beyond their immediate experience, or perhaps because pie and chips is deemed a bit dull these days. Nothing even vaguely resembling McDonalds exists here, this is a different kind of fast street food, and at prices reflecting the variety and rarity of the ingredients. If you're seeking something Thai, Australian, Sri Lankan, French, Brazilian, Vietnamese or Greek, look around.
You may have to look quite a lot because, unless you know the brand you're after, the signage is often poor. The queue was out the door at Dum Dums, for example, so it was impossible to see inside to work out what they sold and for how much, at least until you'd queued past the drinks cabinet and could finally see the menu. What in fact they sell is a "freshly baked – not fried – handmade artisan croissant/doughnut mix", or a heart-attack in a box, which explains the length of the line. Meanwhile London's first paleo street food restaurant has set up in another of the long thin boxes, while Coca-Cola chicken wings are supposedly available in another, although I never did quite work out which.
Browsing was made surprisingly difficult by the layout of the tables in the centre. The organisers had squeezed in as many as possible to satisfy the Saturday rush, leaving only a narrow gangway along the edge, often blocked by groups of would-be diners attempting to work out what each container was offering and whether they'd like to indulge. You only get one lunch, so wandering around endlessly trying to decide which of the three dozen treats to sample can cause considerable congestion. But there were no such access problems in the Boxbar, a large pillared space concealed beneath the station entrance and echoing with alcoholic inactivity. I can't imagine the illuminated signs for Coors Lite draw many in, but I assume things pick up later.
If the food's exotic, the dining experience definitely isn't. Not much expense has been spared on the wooden tables and benches, where you cluster with your friends (or maybe a family from Norbury) to consume your prize. Almost everyone is sitting around scooping nutritious gloop out of a plastic tray using plastic utensils, or lifting some dough-based concoction out of a cardboard carton and stuffing it inelegantly mouthwards. On my visit a loud musical soundtrack was belching out, unsynchronised to the video playing on a large upper screen, making conversation unexpectedly difficult. I also noted that the lunchtime audience was not a hip and trendy crowd, more a selection of Croydon shoppers of all ages wrapped up in sensible jackets and only the occasional dazzling hoodie. Again, I assume the demographics narrow down later.
Boxpark Croydon has been carefully designed to double up as an events space as well as a place to eat. Come late evening the benches and tables are shuffled away leaving a large rectangular clearing for standing in, and downing beer, and watching some hip trendy act doing their thing on stage. Over 200 events per year are planned, targeted very directly at the young and baseball capped, and those who enjoy chilling out to a DJ or acoustic act. With the Fairfield Halls closed for renovation Boxpark is at least a new venue for entertainment, although I doubt their audiences overlap much, and for the youth of Croydon that's all for the best.
Unless you're target audience, my conclusion has to be, don't rush. Boxpark Croydon is essentially a shopping mall cafeteria upgraded for the modern age, the choice no longer just pizza, Chinese or fish and chips to be eaten at a central formica table. It's also nowhere near as exotic as the artist's impression in the pre-publicity, but since when did they ever match reality? What it is is a massive new foodertainment offering for the million who live nearby, and who no longer need to pop into McDonalds or Pret during their Whitgift Centre spin. It's authentic dining variety, of a kind that East London's known for years, popping up somewhere deservingly new. It is the world in South London. But don't rush.