Greasy spoons are to England what the diner is to the US. They are a culinary waypoint that helps codify the peculiarity of what “Britishfood” once meant, and remain a place where celebrities and builders and architects and students all rub elbows. And, in the disposable age of doing things for the ‘gram, they represent staunch opposition — they represent standing the test of time.
That said, thanks to rents and rates, London has lately lost even the best of its greasy spoons. Happily, a few remain; below are our favourites.
The rise of east London’s cool started long before gentrification entered the lexicon. Still, you’re probably equally likely to find Central Saint Martin’s dropouts and Arcteryx-wearing 22-year-olds at E Pellicci as you will long-standing locals. This family-run cafe has been open for nearly 125 years. Maria, the wife of Elide Pellicci’s successor, heads up the kitchen. You can still get breakfast baps, fry ups and, as the name suggests, plenty of Italian dishes. Expect value, warmth and to speak to the person at the table next to you. They’ll probably have a marvellous story, and it’ll probably be about the Krays.
332 Bethnal Green Road, E2 0AG, epellicci.co.uk
Terry’s opened in 1982 with an ethos towards British produce which, these days, would garner the sort of recognition any chef would dream of. They use local Smithfield and Borough market produce to create a menu of classic dishes: steak and kidney pudding, roasts, English breakfasts and rarebit, to name a few. It’s a formula which has worked wonders.
158 Great Suffolk Street, SE1 0DT, terryscafe.co.uk
Any list of greasy spoons would be incomplete without the addition of the Regency Cafe. Solidified in some generations minds’ by countless film and TV appearances, it’s lasted since 1946 due to an unfailingly simple offering and loyal locals. The walls are lined with photos of Muhammad Ali and Tottenham Hotspur paraphernalia, the red and white checked curtains give privacy from peeping pedestrians, and laminated papers with ad-hoc menu additions in bright red fonts border the kitchen hatch. There’s really nowhere else quite like it.
17-19 Regency Street, SW1P 4BY, regencycafe.has.restaurant
Kennington Lane Cafe
An essential feature of the true greasy spoon is the oval-shaped plate. Whilst the total volume of usable surface may be identical to that of their more widely-used rounded cousins, the oval plate, particularly with a fry-up piled high upon it, is a far more pleasing thing. It just looks as though there is so much more there to enjoy. This is the way of things at Kennington Lane Cafe. The breakfasts are plentiful and delicious, the space is all fixed wooden chairs and Formica-laminated tables. The lighting is both terrible and exactly correct. For warmer days, there are tables outside.
383 Kennington Lane, SE11 5QY, kenningtonlanecafe.co.uk
Early rising workers and later rising students eat between these walls. The east-facing facade means the morning light is often just so that it shimmies and bounces off the surface of the anonymous bottles of vinegar, next to the red and brown sauces (no branding, please). The breakfasts are simple, delicious and there’s a small specials board for lunches. It’s a proper caff, through and through.
258 Norwood Road, SE27 9AJ, @theelectriccafe
Mario’s has a wonderfully chequered history, as so many great London restaurants do. First opened in 1958 as Tony’s Restaurant, the site became a Chinese for a while in the Seventies, after a fallout between the two Italian owners. For four years it sat unoccupied, until 1989 when the children of the original founders came together to open Mario’s. Named after the “uneducated, unemployed, pot-smoking wannabe rockstar” (his words, not mine), this Kentish Town hangout was a popular haunt for the arty Camden crowd of the Nineties and still serves the Kelly Street locals today. The food — and the coffee, a contentious issue with owner Mario, who hates the term “barista” — is completely unfussy.
6 Kelly Street, NW1 8HP, marioscafe.com
This could very well be the pinnacle of greasy spoons. Closed at the weekend but open from 6.30am until 2pm on weekdays — hours most hospitality folk would sell their mother for — Beppes is a rare thing. Here you’ll find generous breakfasts, a wall of international bank notes, wooden beams, a chalkboard. The food is as hearty, straightforward and nourishing as it’s possible to get. There’s more than ninety years of history within the walls of Beppes.
23 West Smithfield, EC1A 9HY, @beppescafe1932
And three greasy spoons... in spirit
The first of the potentially contentious additions to this list takes the form of Bar Bruno in Soho. To many, and not incorrectly, it is foremost a sandwich shop. But it also has all the hallmarks of a wonderful greasy spoon. Unfussy, home-cooked dishes? Bucket loads, much of them Italian. Steeped in a familial tradition? Of course. Prices that give you change from a tenner? Always. And a proper English fry-up too. This is a properly great, old-Soho establishment where you’re as likely to find Bill Nighy and you will his builder on any given day.
101 Wardour Street, W1F 0UG, @barbruno101
Manze’s Pie and Mash
The next contentious additions to the list are technically pie and mash shops, but tick so many of the core greasy spoon boxes that it feels careless to ignore them. The history of pie and mash (and eels) is no less important than that of a roast or a fry up and for many, Manze’s on Deptford High Street is the best. Family run for 100 years and still serving East End classics at very reasonable prices, Manze’s is doing what all essential greasy spoons should. Granted, there is no long menu of roasts, omelettes or full-English variations here, but the seating is wooden and the tables are marble-topped and you can get a warm Sarsparilla. Ask for a double double, flip the pies over, and don’t swerve the chilli vinegar.
204 Deptford High Street, SE8 3PR, manzepieandmash.com
Arments Pie and Mash
If Manze’s are Millwall then Arments are Crystal Palace. Arments is another pie and mash shop with a century of history and a vivid rivalry with their aforementioned foe. Its essential inclusion in the list comes down to it being deeply embedded into the local community, and having exceptional quality of produce — everything a good local restaurant should strive for. It is a rose-tinted reminder of a generation of restaurants that need preserving, and importantly, celebrating.
7 Westmoreland Road, SE17 2AX, armentspieandmash.com