Eight years ago I had a bad breakfast and it changed my life forever. It was in East Dulwich at a bar with minimalist decor and gastro pretensions. I forget exactly why it was so bad – perhaps they undercooked the sausage? I think they forgot the bacon? – but it was so lamentable it drove me to start a blog.
The London Review of Breakfasts led to a recipe book, The Breakfast Bible, and various bafflingly serious radio and TV appearances, and my regularly being addressed by complete strangers as “that breakfast guy”.
Should I thank them? Am I right to still be angry? It’s complicated, I guess. But let me be clear: this was not an isolated incident.
I grew up in East Dulwich. I had taken my breakfast across southeast London, and all too often had been served up sappy, under-fried eggs by grouchy clubbers in beige combat trousers. Liquorish, the oeufending bar (update: it has recently been deposed by a cocktail joint), was just the tipping point.
South London contained – and continues to contain – far too many gobsmackingly average breakfast-serving establishments, places that often appear to have been founded by ‘retired’ lawyers or bankers whose vague dreams of running a cafe hitherto consisted of them sitting in one, and thinking ‘this belongs to me’. The menus make no sense. The staff have no idea whether you pay at the counter or at the table. The food is what you’d make at home if you were suddenly asked to cook for fifty. They have no idea what they are doing.
I’ll name no names. That would be mean. Better, I feel, to point out some of the good breakfasts South London offers so as to help certain Darwinian forces do what’s needed:
The Uplands Cafe, East Dulwich
I list this first because it gives me a chance to contradict what I just said in the intro. One thing that South London does do well is greasy spoon cafes, and if you are adrift, breakfastless and lacking in guidance then I advise you to seek a busy-looking caff out. It will likely be called something like ‘[insert location] Cafe’ or ‘[insert owner’s name]’s Cafe’. The Uplands Cafe, on Upland Rd in East Dulwich, for example, does a good quality fry-up, notable – last time I checked – for its hearty, herby sausages. Our reviewer Tina Beans said, “if you’re sick of dressed up, bourgeois breakfasts that don’t deliver then you will like this place”. 21 Upland Road, SE22. Tel: 020 8693 3948
The Lido Cafe at Brockwell Park, Herne Hill
When I was growing up, the only ‘cuisine’ to be found near a pool was that which came from the vending machine next to the changing rooms. You could have a Twix, or a bag of Wheat Crunchies, or a plastic cup filled with Bovril or cream of chicken soup. It was hard to spend more than a pound. The Lido Cafe is at the opposite end of the poolside dining spectrum. It’s in a listed Art Deco building and offers smoked salmon-based ‘prosecco breakfasts’, homemade granola, and fry-ups with Stornoway black pudding. To be honest, I am doubtful whether most of the clientele have ever been in the water. Dulwich Road, London, SE24. Tel: 020 7274 3088
No 67 at South London Gallery, Peckham
The bleak artery linking Peckham and Camberwell isn’t my favourite road, but this is one of my favourite places for breakfast. The coffee is excellent and the food is innovative without being annoying; the brunch menu’s attractions include baked egg stew with an optional pork shoulder, buttermilk waffles, and a ‘Full Spanglish’ that smartly capitalises on the popularity of hot chorizo. Oh, and the gallery is good too. 67 Peckham Rd, SE5. Tel: 020 7703 6120
The Deptford Project, Deptford
I miss the nineties, which is possibly why I have such a soft spot for this graffiti-clad cafe in a train carriage with lampshades made from day-glo rubber tubes. The breakfasts at The Deptford Project, however, have a delightful homemade quality – thick-cut bacon, flavoursome eggs – that belongs to no particular decade. Tragically for Deptford’s breakfasters, they’ve now been asked to move on by the end of August due to a new development (if they are indeed made to leave, you may wish to visit The Waiting Room down the road, where the coffee is some of the best around and they have a good VHS collection). 121-123 Deptford High St London SE8. Tel: 07525 351656
Arlo & Moe, Crofton Park
This is the kind of cafe that single-handedly increases property prices in an area by, like, £30,000, though I’m sure that Crofton Park’s residents are mainly delighted by the crazed quantities of delicious scrambled eggs that come atop their sourdough ‘sexy toast’. The room is stylish and retro, like a wartime cafe that hasn’t noticed there’s a war on, and the staff take the coffee seriously enough to ensure you get a very good cup, but not to the extent that they are gritting their teeth as they hand it over as they’re not convinced you are equipped to properly appreciate it. 340 Brockley Rd SE4. Tel: 07749 667207
Words: Seb Emina. Seb’s book, The Breakfast Bible, is published by Bloomsbury. Follow his breakfasting alter eggo Malcolm Eggs at The London Review of Breakfasts or on Twitter at @malcolmeggs or the real him at @sebemina.