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Artillery Row

Hats off to the great British greasy spoon

Steve Morris celebrates the great British institution of the greasy spoon ‘caff’ and predicts that it will thrive again in a post-Covid world

The world can be divided into two types of people: those who wouldn’t be seen dead in a greasy spoon, and those who’d walk over broken glass to get to one. I am of the latter persuasion, and my love for them goes right back to when I was a teenager.

My nan used to work as a bookkeeper at a skip-hire firm tucked away down an alley in Hanwell, West London. In the holidays I would go and sit with her and then we’d all go for lunch at the local greasy spoon — The Rendezvous — opposite the bus station and, yes honestly, the second-hand Rolls Royce dealer.

The beauty of the local caff is that they are truly egalitarian

The Rendezvous was a classic greasy spoon with functional décor — Formica-topped tables screwed to the floor, strip lighting and red and brown sauce (of indeterminate quality) in plastic bottles. More of the food offering a bit later, but what made it such a heart-warming classic was the community — or should I say, communities — that formed there. It was a snapshot of working-class Hanwell. Pop in most days and you’d likely find the local window-cleaner, dustman and bus drivers. There would also be workmen aplenty. During the day the clientele changed and could include teachers and schoolchildren as well as shop and office workers.

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. Inside, conversation would spring up between tables. But you could, and many did, sit quietly in there for hours, undisturbed with just the cuppa (British tea in a big mug). You certainly wouldn’t be pestered by serving staff, because there usually weren’t any. It was order up at the counter, pay cash and collect food when the order was ready.

Is there anywhere else like it – any place where all types can get together and feel less lonely? Wave after wave of those who have immigrated here, for instance, have found great comfort in the warm welcome and food of the greasy spoon. It is better than being alone in your room, sometimes without cooking facilities.

There is an old Russian proverb that goes: “Where there is food there is warmth, where there is warmth there is hope and where there is hope anything is possible.” How true, and how true of the spoon. The only place like it, which doesn’t serve food, is the church.

Andrew Teather, London priest and food connoisseur tells me: “You meet an extraordinary slice of life in the greasy spoon that you simply don’t meet all in the same place elsewhere.”

The greasy spoon has a real authenticity that branding agencies cannot recreate

The history of these classic caffs, as opposed to café, is tied up in the food story of the UK after the Second World War. As well as rationing, the subsidised public dining rooms which were set up during the period served a decent piece of meat but murdered the vegetables. Eating out was a dismal affair. There wasn’t the great choice of places to eat that we enjoy now. So, the greasy spoon was very welcome — especially as it was cheaper than the more upmarket Lyons Corner Houses.

In the late Fourties and Fifties the old back street café began to take root, often run by families (and many still are). Those families were sometimes from overseas and those who had chosen to settle here after the war. As today, the spoon specialised in no-nonsense cooking and low prices.

But there is more to them than meets the eye: they had something of a seditious history, well, some did. They became furtive meeting places for marginalised groups; places where people could go and no questions asked.

The food can be surprising. The greasy spoon often mixes classic British cuisine — including the whopping breakfast — with food from around the world. The variety of some menus is astounding. At The Rendezvous there were hulking great pork chops, excellent liver and bacon and gravy, pasta, pies, and much more. The food wasn’t and isn’t rubbish. And then there were the puddings — hearty ones like apple pie and custard.

The local greasy spoon will thrive again — people will crave the company and normality they offer

The service is quick: often you go up to the counter to order and, as if by magic, your food is there with you in minutes. The full English may be full of fat and terrible for the heart, but boy it does lift the old spirits. It is the very opposite of a Starbucks — no branding and no shiny people sitting all day with a single cup of cappuccino pretending to work on their laptop. The greasy spoon is not and has never been funky. Thank God. I often think that if you were a tourist coming to the UK, and especially London, that you might skip all the standard hotspots and just spend a morning or two at the local greasy spoon, soaking up the calories and the atmosphere.

Today, the good old greasy spoon is under pressure from take-aways and chains, but they hang on, even if some of my favourites have shut down. The Acton Grill in its old incarnation served the food classics, but also had a full and upmarket wine cellar from which to order a bottle. Thankfully, many great caffs remain open. And they have their fans. Remember, artists Gilbert and George used to eat every day at the Market Café (which opened in 1947 in Spitalfields) before it closed.

In a post-Covid world the local greasy spoon will thrive again — people will crave the company and normality that they offer. It is an interesting paradox that the big brands, and small artisan ones, strive to create an environment that signifies home comforts. But with their threadbare décor, simple ingredients and builders’ tea, the greasy spoon has been doing it all along. They have real authenticity; the kind that branding agencies cannot recreate. As Edwina Attlee said in her article in The Architectural Review, they are a “happy collision of food and space, comfort and tradition”.

I ask Andrew Teather his food story. He tells me that when he came to London at 20 years old, he couldn’t cook anything and ate out all the time at takeaways. Then the kindly owner of The Beaujolais Wine Bar and Club in Covent Garden took him under his wing and let Andrew loose with the chef to learn the basics. It was a life-changer. Within months Andrew could rustle up a pheasant terrine and other delicacies. I ask him what would he be cooking and eating now if, instead of French food, he had learned to cook at his local caff.

“That’s easy,” he tells me. “I’d be eating lots of bacon sandwiches.”

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