I wrote this for an American magazine Food & Wine hence explanation for what a greasy spoon is. They have made a lovely slideshow out of it.
Photo of E. Pellicci from Classic Cafes
A greasy spoon is a British institution roughly analogous to an American diner—but without the free refills. They serve basic food consisting of fried breakfasts, meat pies and sandwiches. You also see dishes that you probably thought had died out in the 1950s, such as boiled bacon or liver and onions. You will not get salad at a greasy spoon, nor are these the kinds of places at which to ask if the sausages are organic. You may, however, get Greek or Italian food, as many are run by the families of immigrants who came to the UK after World War II.
Greasy spoons are predominantly working class institutions, but the best attract a wide cross-section of the community. Most customers just call them caffs—i.e. cafe without pronouncing the e. In some, the interiors are works of industrial art with deco touches and lashing of 50s formica. More often, though, the decor is merely functional, with plastic furniture that’s screwed to the floor. Though usually very friendly kinds of places, they are also highly efficient operations, able to provide huge quantities of food with the minimum of fuss. In a properly run caff, the food will arrive quickly, your eggs will always be perfectly cooked, and everything will be mouth-scaldingly hot.
Sadly, many of these places have closed in recent years, victims of rising rents and changing eating habits. Londoners of a certain age will get all misty-eyed if you mention places such as the New Piccadilly, Rossi’s in Spitalfields and my own favorite, the Euston Sandwich bar. Nonetheless, the ones outlined below seem to be thriving.
Finally, some tips for getting the most out of your caff: Request crusty bread and you’ll get the good stuff from the bakers rather than the industrial bread that comes out of a packet; ask for your bacon crisp, as many British people like a soggy rasher; and finally, drink tea. The coffee is usually terrible! —Henry Jeffreys
E. Pellicci, 332 Bethnal Green Rd, London E2 0AG
Perhaps London’s most famous caff. There are two things that make this place unique: one is the interior, an art deco masterpiece in inlaid wood. The other is the incredible Italian Cockney accents of the staff. This accent, once common in East London, is not one you hear very much any more. The way the Italian vowels swoop into London glottal stops is worth the journey alone. Oh, and the food is good too—especially the lasagna.
Kennington Lane Cafe 383 Kennington Lane, London SE11 5QY
It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but it packs a proper punch where it matters, in the kitchen. Run by perhaps London’s friendliest cafe owner, Halil, it won a Time Out Love London Award from the London listing magazine. The menu is a bit more extensive than most places of its ilk and includes fish and chips, kebabs and roast lunches. Also burgers and excellent steak and kidney pies.
Polo Bar, 176 Bishopsgate, London EC2M 4NQ,
An all night service has just been launched on the Underground, but London is still very far from being a 24-hour city. Just try getting a drink after 1am. Thank heavens for the Polo Bar opposite Liverpool Street Station, which has saved my bacon on countless occasions when I just didn’t want to go home. It’s open 24 hours and is always full of taxi drivers, shift workers and night owls. I always order a sausage sandwich and a mug of tea, but I’ve also heard good things about the burgers.
The Shepherdess 221 City Rd, London EC1V 1JN
This is just up the road from the bustling Shoreditch neighborhood, on a slightly desolate stretch of City Road. It’s a lovely room with some proper screwed-to-the-floor furniture. We don’t want those tables moving around! Their enormous breakfast is rightly famous and indeed award-winning: “The best builders breakfast in Britain,” according to the website Builders.com. You can’t get a higher recommendation than that.
Maggie’s, 320-322 Lewisham Rd, London SE13 7PA,
The best greasy spoons are run by formidable personalities, such as Maggie. I’ve never seen her looking less than chic, her hair always immaculate, lots of jewelry and a cigarette in her hand. The current building boom in Lewisham seems mainly to be benefiting Maggie. If you can find a table among all the builders, try this caff’s epic breakfasts. It’s quieter in the evening, when you can have chops and steak. They even have an alcohol license.
Regency Cafe 17-19 Regency St, London SW1P 4BY
If not quite as lavish as E. Pellicci, but this is another Art Deco wonder, an understated study in tile and formica. No surprise then that it’s often used as a film location. The lady who runs it is famous for having one of the loudest voices in London. Do not even think of taking a seat until you’ve ordered at the counter or you will feel her wrath. Worth braving her, though, for one of the finest fried breakfasts around.
Terry’s , 158 Great Suffolk St, London SE1 1PE
A model for how to bring a caff into the modern age without sacrificing its soul. They buy their coffee from Monmouth in Covent Garden and their sausages from Borough market. And yet it’s still cheap as chips and proudly working class. I normally order that London Jewish specialty, the salt beef sandwich (on crusty white bread of course). A cup of tea costs only 20 pence if you’re having food.
Arthur’s Cafe, 495 Kingsland Rd, London E8 4AU
In contrast to most greasy spoons, Arthur’s, which has be serving Londoners since 1935, only has a very short menu. It usually consists of two stews or a meat pie and then sausages, ham or steak with eggs and chips. The owner Arthur must be pushing 90 but he still runs the place with a smile and a joke for everyone. All men are ‘young men’ and women ‘young ladies’ to him. On my last visit Arthur told me “I’ve given you an extra dumpling with your stew. You look like you need feeding up.”
River Cafe, 1A Station Approach, London SW6 3UH
This British cafe run by an Italian family is not to be mixed up with the other River café, a very expensive Italian restaurant run by two British women that is located nearby. This Fulham institution just by Putney Bridge has been going since the 1950s and looks like little has changed since then. On the walls are fantastic murals of Italy, and every surface that might get tea spilled on it is safely covered in formica. One for caff connoisseurs.
Mario’s Cafe, 6 Kelly St, London NW1 8PH
Located in Camden, this might be London’s most celebrated caff. There was even a song released about it in 1993 by indie band St. Etienne: “Barry’s looking through the racing post / orders coffee, another round of toast.” It’s London’s answer to Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega. Mario’s is run by the eponymous Mario Saggese and his family, originally from Puglia. Great breakfasts and, as you’d expect, some pretty good Italian specials too.