The greasy, prodigious breakfast leaves you full for days, but memories of the characters you meet will never depart
Bank holiday hangover? What better balm for the soul – and, of course, the stomach – than a trad English fry-up. Places to find them may be few and far between, says Bethan Rees, but her local is still going strong…
A Saturday morning without a good breakfast is a Saturday morning I’d rather forget. And when I say “good breakfast”, I mean a traditional full English. And in doing so, I’m cherishing our heritage – since the English breakfast ritual dates all the way back to the 1800s when the affluent Victorian classes would dine on a selection of morning dishes including scrambled egg, smoked bacon and fried mushrooms. The trend, of course, has long since hit the mainstream.
But traditional cafés – and I’m talking about “caffs”, where your tea is stewed in an urn and your eggs come fried – across the capital are being substituted by tastefully decorated establishments where you can order eggs royale with artisan baked muffins and babyccinos. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t hate these new-style cafés. I’ve been to many and loved my organic multi-seeded toast, served with artfully mismatched crockery on “vintage” formica tables, and often in a buzzing environment too. But there’s something uniquely wonderful about the atmosphere in a proper old-school caff that is impossible to beat – however good the food and décor elsewhere. And it makes me sad to see fewer and fewer of these places.
The traditional café may be a dying breed, but there are some south London stalwarts hanging on for dear life. Among my friends favourites include: The Phoenix in Brixton, Rock Steady Eddie’s in Camberwell, Crossway Café in Peckham and Gym Café in Forest Hill. Everyone has one they love, and mine is Maggie’s in Lewisham. I have been going there for the past twenty years of my life and, as a twenty-two year old, that is some commitment.
Maggie’s Café & Restaurant is tucked away behind Lewisham railway station, looking rather non-descript, and rather like an ordinary café – but Maggie’s is far from mundane. Firstly, the breakfast menu doesn’t offer a simple “Full English” option. In Maggie’s, you invent your own breakfast, with every fried fare you can possibly imagine, including liver and bubble, and all for just £5.95. Secondly, they offer bottomless tea or coffee, whether you ask for it or not, which comes out of a stainless steel pot, poured by Maggie herself – the Peggy Mitchell of Lewisham who hasn’t aged a day since 1993 (must be something in the bottomless tea). Unusually for the average greasy spoon, Maggie’s is also licensed – meaning, if you are so inclined, you can also order a beer (or wine, or spirit) with your breakfast, without the fear of being judged – and without being in the confines of an airport branch of Wetherspoon’s. Very continental.
The greasy, prodigious breakfast leaves you full for days, but memories of the characters you meet in Maggie’s will never depart. Jimmy sits in the corner like he owns the place. He gives you his opinion on current affairs, if you want to hear it or not. “Horses are for riding, not eating,” he shouts. He waves his toast around trying to get the waiter’s attention, the toast which he stole from his neighbour’s table once they had left. “My name’s Jimmy, but I’m not Jimmy Savile.”
The mix of customers is extraordinary – like all good greasy spoons, Maggie’s is most democratic. There’s the group of builders from the site down the road, the dishevelled students in last night’s make-up, the big family with a baby in the high chair, the older couple drinking wine with breakfast, and the old boy reading The Sun. Where else – but in a good old greasy spoon (excluding, perhaps, the Post Office queue) – would you find such a diverse bunch in the same room? And there’s something magical about that.
We’re lucky to have these precious establishments still open in south London, and as delicious soft-boiled duck egg with asparagus soldiers are – we should make the effort to embrace the old-school: the less than desirable décor, the peculiar artwork, the sticky plastic gingham table clothes and the water-marked cutlery… because we’ll miss them when they’re gone.
Words: Bethan Rees