Written by Charlie Porter
Photographs by Jasper Fry
'Nostalgia'; 'tea so strong you can stand your spoon in it'; 'the honesty… and the sausages'; 'the people'; 'the tables that have thick plastic chairs attached to them'; 'the chat'.
These were just some of the replies I got to my question: 'what was your favourite thing about a greasy spoon?'. I knew I wasn't the only one with a penchant for those cafes that we still clearly hold so dear. That being said, when I started writing this article, I thought back to the last time I went to a greasy spoon, and I have to admit it was some time ago. The location was Franks on Kensington High street, where we bought a perfect bacon sandwich. Frank was there and told us stories of the cabbies that used to come in after the theatres had closed, but the clubs were still open. They'd have their 3am breakfast and head out again for the final run. His cafe now relies on the builders that are turning Olympia into an all-singing and dancing exhibition space. This is part of the problem; the growing numbers like me who forgo breakfast and don't need the calories to help me get through an exerting day. As Jay Rayner points out in the Guardian: "The indicator was that these places usually had funny opening hours – 6am to 3pm, typically – and the reason was that they were all about providing highly calorific food to people who needed it as they were working physically very hard in manual jobs. And the reality is that there are far fewer people in these jobs now".
But the calories shouldn't be the thing to stop us going. If Five Guys serve milkshakes that rack up 1000 calories, we can have a cup of tea and a bacon butty to support these corners of history. If we don't, the rampant 'Starbucksisation' of our high street will win out. One of the most famous greasy spoons, Shepherdess Cafe, closed after 37 years. Like many they felt the pressures of the lockdowns, and subsequently the "increased rents and a lack of sympathy from agents and landlords" (as the owners put it), forced them to close their doors in the summer of 2020. Just like that, we have lost a place that, as Russell Davies described on his blog eggbaconchipsandbeans, provided the key ingredients of "lovely" grub, "golden and crunchy" chips, and chairs "like a job lot from a garden centre".
Obviously, from my point of view, my appreciation comes from my tummy and my eyes. The formica tables, the sauce bottles, the counters, the everything. It sings to me and makes life feel simpler. You're presented with ingredients that you know, at prices you can understand. There is no smoke and mirrors, the transaction is clear. As Rev Steve Morris puts it in 'Hats off to the great British greasy spoon', "The beauty of the local caff is that they are truly egalitarian — if you've got a quid for a cup of tea, then come in". They offer space where you can be warmed and feel like part of the crowd. Equally, as Edwina Atlee identifies in 'Comfort eating: the greasy spoon': "If you were going there for one reason (company or comfort), you could pretend it was for another (eggs and bacon)".
So Jasper (Photographer) and I wanted to celebrate the cafe and remind us all (including myself) not only to enjoy the nostalgia and the look of these marvellous places, but also patronise where possible.
N.B Few things to note if you're keen on the subject -
@caffs_not_cafes is an excellent Instagram
'Comfort eating: the greasy spoon' by Edwin Atlee is terrific homage to the greasy spoon.
'Clasic Cafes' by Adrian Maddox with photography by Phil Nicholls. It's a true celebration of the cafe where Adrian's enthusiasm is evident, and Phil Nicholls photography is captivating while also being an exceptional record for prosperity.