Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Greasy Spoon Rules

Visitors to London for the first time often find it hard to find something to eat.

They end up either wandering from street to street in increasing degrees of hunger or spending a fortune in Planet Famousville or the like. London for the uninitiated can be like having liposuction on your wallet.

However, even in the capital, it is perfectly possible to eat quite a good sized meal for £5-10 if one knows where to go.

This is where the Greasy Spoon Café comes in. This kind of eatery is, in no way, to be confused with anything referred to as a Café (pronounced ka-fey) – it is a Kaff and there are simple rules to recognise one and how one should behave once inside the doors of this most prized and sort-after eatery

Trust me: no trip to London is truly complete without a big plate of ehem, bekon, hegs n cheeps (see below)

So – here are the rules of the Greasy Spoon Kaff

1) How to find one

Locate a tube station in central London – look for some buildings that are clearly office spaces. Walk along the main street between point a (tube station) and b (office space) looking down the small streets to the side – within four or five streets you will find a Kaff

2) How to recognise it when you see it

It will be called INSERT NAME HERE’s Café

It will have a window next to the door for take-away meals (in the really good ones these will be welded shut so you have to go in regardless)

It will be filled with large IT staff eating sausage/bacon sarnies (sandwiches) and drinking coffee/huge cups of milky tea

The menu will be clearly visible from the street – usually written on a blackboard or a piece of laminated paper

The only options on the menu will be sandwiches and fried things (some places stretch to Jacket Potatoes, but most correctly assume that said IT staff eschew anything healthy) – in the really good ones even the salad is deep fried

It will have an awning over the entrance so that diners can sit outside in the pouring rain and enjoy the fume-filled air when the inside (inevitably) becomes over-crowded

3) Décor

It is law that all Greasy Spoon Kaff’s have fixed benches and chipped formica tables the size of which Bilbo Baggins would consider petite – the trick is to approach these sideways and slowly squeeze oneself in – then never, never breathe out again until you leave.

There must be either: a football banner on the wall showing the colours and names of a local London club or pictures of famous people who may, at some point, have been desperate enough to eat there (and those of you wondering where Joanna Lumley eats when in London should visit the Kaff just around the corner from Liverpool St Station to see her picture on the wall) or both

4) Queuing system

This varies from place to place. The best approach is to stand outside for 5-10 minutes and observe how the regulars do it – or to face the wrath of the staff
It varies between:
a) Being ushered to a chair to wait your turn
b) Forming one of two queues (depending whether one is eating in or out) in the tiny space that is laughingly described as the entrance in the fire evacuation forms

5) Taking the order

DO NOT order anything healthy. The correct order in a Kaff is either a Bacon Sarnie (sandwich) or similar meat-filled sandwich, a plate full of dead animal – or ham, egg, bacon, chips and beans.

Vegetarianism might as well be a foreign country as far as these places are considered and they are still labouring under the mis-apprehension that Vegans are those pointy-eared people from Star Trek.

Your order will then be shouted out across the café to the small room where the tiny workers toil – your order of ham, egg, bacon and chips will be translated into Kaff speak as “ehem, bekon, hegs n cheeps”

Regardless of what you order you will be asked if you want bread and butter with it – even (and I can’t stress this enough) your order in the first place was bread and butter.
(Americans: be warned – chips are what you call French Fries. Crisps are what you call Chips)

Whether eating in or out one must order a cup of tea or coffee – this is how you can tell a really good Greasy Spoon from a mere pretender:

a) Is the tea/coffee as weak as humanly possible?
b) Did half of the milk/tea/coffee end up on the floor/saucer?
c) Was the sugar thrown towards the cup with a similar level of gusto to an Olympic athlete throwing a javelin?

If the answer to all the above is “yes” then you are in a top quality Kaff and should mark it on your GPS for future visits

6) Staff

There are two types of Kaff workers

a) Elderly slim men with a mixture of greek and cockney accents, who despite their size and lack of meat on their bones could easily break you in two if required. They are unfailingly either extremely pleasant or entirely ignorant of your existence

b) Diminutive women in pinafores carrying more weight in their arms than Sherpa Tensing did when he went up Everest

It is the ultimate honour on Earth for one of the staff to recognise you and remember your order – if this happens then it is probably time to give up your outside life, move in upstairs above the building and put on an apron

The size of both types of workers goes some way towards explaining the small table size, alongside the policy to push as many people in as possible

7) Etiquette on leaving

Greasy Spoon Kaff’s are not, by the very nature of their existence, the kind of place one is encouraged to linger. They rely on a fast turn-over of customer and so the polite thing to do is to eat your meal as soon as it arrives, linger for a few seconds reflectively over your cup of tea/coffee and, having paid, leave quietly.

The best way to deal with getting through the inevitable queue in the doorway is just to throw oneself bodily towards it and hope for the best.


OK - so some of you novices out there who have never been to a Greasy Spoon may be reading this and thinking that actually it doesn't sound like such a great experience.

And ok: so these places are never going to win a Michelin star, and the only reason that Egon Ronay would be seen dead inside the doors would be to commit arson, but here's the thing...

It's great.  From the moment you go through the door and the bloke behind the door calls you "mate" instead of "sir", to the moment where you sit down at the formica table and regard the world over a large cup of tea, all the way through to the no-nonsense food, the wink of the waiter/waitress, the informal atmosphere and the simple, straight-forward food.

Given the choice between tea at the Ritz and ham, egg and chips in a simple London cafe I'd chose the bacon buttie every time


English Rider said...

So homesick for a bacon buttie consumed in the fetidly moist and grease-laden air of a real eatery. Great post.

Argent said...

I have been known to patronise such an establishment in my time. This one was in Birmingham, where I was working at the time, and it was pretty much the same model, expect it was inside a kind a shabby little shopping mall. We used to go there most days for no-nonsense grub and chat. Happy days! Give me one of those places over places like Pret a Manger (blecchhhh!) or Subway with the bewhildering and labyrinthine complexity of its sandwhich specification process.

Titus said...

All great, and particularly love the location-finding tips. Little puzzled by the accent though - Greek Cockney?

I also need to borrow a part of one of your poems for a non-commercial enterprise and would like your permission!

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

English - yes, i forgot the vague air of damp. Well remembered

Argent - Subway are probably all very well if you have half-an-hour to mull over all the options - but the other advantage of the Greasy Spoon is that going there is keeping money out of the hands of big corporations like MacD's and Subway

Titus - the best food shops in england are always run by a greek family. I don't know why this is true - it just is. You will have to give me more information about which poem and why i'm afraid

The Bug said...

Sadly, the one time I dined in London alone I chose a Pizza Hut. To be fair, I was on my way back to the US from a year and a half in Zambia and all I could think when I saw the sign was PIZZA PIZZA PIZZA!!! I was a bit disappointed because the sausage didn't taste the same - & they served coffee or hot tea with it which I thought was REALLY bizarre.

I would have been better off in a cafe I'm sure.

The Clandestine Samurai said...

I still have to say "chips" even if they'll know what I'm talking about if I say "French Fries"? Tea or Coffee with anything (even pizza, for Pete's sake!)? Would I want bread and butter with my bread and butter? Sounds like a close adherence to custom and traditional practice to me........

Which would be good because if (hopefully 'when') I go there, I want to be blasted with the full homegrown London experience. Minus the possible racism that I'm told is still festering in some places. So what kind of place did J.K. Rowling write at, do you know?

The Clandestine Samurai said...

Upon observing the décor, have you ever seen any pictures of The Streets, or Dizzy Rascal or Kano? I like those guys......

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

Bug - being british i can't quite understand why you wouldn't want tea with everything. That's an over-statement, but i did scandalize my spanish aunt recently by asking for a coffee before the dessert at a restauraunt (i just fancied a coffee is all)

Samurai - the bread and butter with bread and butter thing is an over-statement, but they do offer it with pretty much everything else

Even if you go into a MacDonalds "French Fries" will be marked as chips. You cna ask for French Fries if you want, and they will understand, but you'll immediately mark yourself out as a tourist

The Streets are very good - yes i know them

As for JK Rowling - she's from Edinburgh in Scotland, so i think most of her writing was done there rather than London. If you're an Ian Rankin fan I can reccomend The Oxford Bar in Edinburgh - where he still hangs out today (or so i believe)

Michael said...

These have mostly disappeared over here in the new world. They've been replaced with fast food and (for me at least) greasy chop-stick restaurants. My favourite sounds like yours, but with more space (the new world you know) and a Vietnamese menu. Bright florescent lights, well worn carpet, the buzz of dozens of animated conversations, and staff that carry the neutral expression of a lobotomized kidnap victim, and speak just enough English to say, "thank you very much," when you pay and leave. If this was the only restaurant in the world, I would be satisfied.

Lydia said...

I can see, smell and hear this place from your description. It seems a marvelous way to rub elbows with the locals and fill up your stomach. Since I do not eat read meat I suppose they would "hold the bacon" and just give me chips and eggs?

This post should be in a travel journal. It is that good!

赖子 said...


Don't Feed The Pixies said...

michael - i like the sound of your place very much. I have heard both good and interesting things about Vietnamese food

Lydia - it is technically possible to be a vegetarian in these places yes: although i have noticed that even the posh restauraunts in London only have a passing aquaintance with vegetables

Chinese symbol person: about half past three mate (IE i have no idea what you are saying - please stop selling me things)

the watercats said...

ahhh... bacon butties!... over here the greasy eating establishment has become a Centra supermarket hot food counter. You can choose wedges, jambons, breakfast rolls (which include egg bacon and sausage, sausage rolls, chicken wings/legs/blobs, and mix and match any of the above items in a white bread roll with a choice of mayonaisse/ketchup/coleslaw/fried onions.... and eat it in your car..