We start with a sad fact – Starbucks now makes more money from selling food than it does coffee, and along with all the others coffee chains, Prêt a Mangers and their like, the independent cafes are being pushed out and slowly vanishing from the streets of London. And with them goes not only fry ups, mugs of tea and slices of toast, but also slices of history.
Subsumed into the gentrification of a city that is becoming more homogenous every year, the cafés that once seem ubiquitous are now the exceptions. And the best of those cafés are the little places colloquially known as greasy spoons – a British as Bond films on a bank holiday and drizzle when you forgot your brolly, they’ve been the refuge for Londoners of all types for over a century.
The rule with fry-ups is always the posher in the place, the worse the fry up – if you’ve ever ordered a “cooked breakfast” at a fancy hotel, you’ll know how bland they can be. At the old greasy spoon though, they’re an art form served in a setting that’s as near as you’ll get to a time machine.
There, on the old Formica tables with edges chipped and worn away from the decades of people leaning in them, the inhabitants of the greatest city on earth have rubbed shoulders for decades; Builders next to bankers, actors and gangsters, dreamers and plotters all together behind the steamed-up windows of British institutions.
Alfredo’s up on the Essex Road in Islington served the gangster “Mad” Frank Fraser a regular as well as actor Steven Berkoff, in his early years. The café even appeared in the film Quadrophenia thus guaranteeing it permanent cult status. But it changed hands, changed names a few times and is currently restaurant called Meat People. Nothing against Meat People (wretched punny name aside) but we lost something important when Alfredo’s went. Other cafés, however, still survive and you’re not a real Londoner unless you have a regular greasy spoon near you home.
Like your own little kitchenette away from your flat to sit among your neighbours, daydreaming, checking the Racing Post, tutting at the tabloids and recovering from the night before. The correct form sees sauce that comes in a squeezy red tomato-shaped container and tea with a slight film on the surface brought over in mismatched mugs, but it varies. And that’s the beauty. It’s like the opposite of the Michelin Guide because here the little flaws make things better. It’s comfort food from before people started calling things comfort food.
It’s easy to think that the lamenting of their passing is just another moan about things being different to how they used to be and a weird desire to cling to the past for the sake of it. But while the chains serve a purpose of their own (fast, consistent experience, reliable), the little independent places have a personality and are neighbourhood hubs. They’re personal, and in a city like London, finding a home away from home is a rare thing.
You still stumble across new ones as you drift out of zones one and two, into the outer rings of the city where the rent hasn’t yet become unsustainable and the land not yet worth more as luxury flats. Places where you don’t need a multinational parent company to survive and can get by just doing your own thing.
If you want to see London, buy a tourist guide, but if you want to see London life then sit in a greasy spoon café for breakfast and live among it. Full fry up, toast, tea two sugars.
Four to try
Perhaps the most famous of them all and still one of the city’s famous eateries. It’s been going strong since 1900 and is now a Grade II listed building. As East London as it gets, this café once counted the villainous Kray twins as regulars.
332 Bethnal Green Rd, E2 0AG
The 1940s interior is really well preserved and sitting here with a fry up and a mug of tea you feel like you’re living in an old Ealing Studios film.
258 Norwood Rd, West Norwood, London SE27 9AJ
It’s been going since 1946, and still has the art deco touches, Formica tables, brown seats and old tiled walls. It appears in the film Layer Cake and is worth visiting for a really fine full-breakfast.
17-19 Regency Street, London, UK
In 1993, British band St Etienne released the song Mario’s Café about this little place in North London. The place is still going, and the lyrics of that song perfectly capture what little London cafes like this are all about.
Mario’s, 6 Kelly Street, NW1 8PH.