The greasy spoon is a happy collision of food and space, comfort and tradition, but is sadly endangered
On the subject of local traditions and regional dishes, Léo Moulin writes, ‘it is indicative to believe that we eat our most reassuring memories, seasoned with tenderness and ritual, which marked our childhood’. Writing about intimate spaces, Gaston Bachelard asserts, ‘we live fixations, fixations of happiness. We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection’. This is a praise of that happy collision of food and space, comfort and tradition, the English greasy spoon. These cafés, with their nailed-down furniture, unchanging menus and lack of pretension, might be thought to epitomise a somewhat bland nostalgia, a tepid balm for those who like things to be the way they used to be. A dip into their history, however, reveals these spaces to have played a complicated and antagonistic part in the life of the modern city, and visiting them today finds them home to a vital kind of anti-social sociability.
Gilbert and george market cafe
Source: Estate of Daniel Farson
The greasy spoon – a category that includes transport cafés, cabmen’s shelters, coffee bars and 24-hour diners – was not in the 1950s, as it is today, one option in a sea of many for those wishing to eat outside their place of living. Doris Lessing describes postwar London’s dismal cuisine: ‘The Dining Rooms, subsidised during the war, were often the only places to eat in a whole area of streets. They served good meat, terrible vegetables, nursery puddings. Lyons restaurants were the high point of eating for ordinary people – I remember fish and chips and poached eggs on toast.’ One feels the phrase ‘terrible vegetables’ could aptly describe British cooking until at least the 1990s. The greasy spoon, or side-street café, was a step down from a Lyons. The food was hot, plain and cheap, the decor was unlikely to be particularly clean or tidy, and there were no waiting staff. There was instead a permissive attitude to time.
In his study of queer life in postwar London, the historian Richard Hornsey describes how this kind of café became a space of relative freedom and community for gay Londoners, and a site of fear and intrigue for homophobic commentators. In the early 1950s, convictions for a still criminalised homosexuality rose, and the tabloid press ran a series of sensational reports exposing public and private figures. A pernicious series by Douglas Warth seized on the down-at-heel café as illicit and dangerous: ‘There is a dirty café, off Shaftesbury Avenue, where dozens of the most blatant perverts meet, calling each other by girls’ names openly.’ Quentin Crisp called them ‘layabout cafés’, filled with bohemians, workmen, and people returning home from dances: ‘these marvellous places where you could sit through lunch and tea and supper without ordering anything more than one cup of coffee … establishments where several times a week, either accompanied or alone, I sat for hours eating lotus petals’.
Pellicci’s East End
Source: Alex Segre / Alamy
To their detractors the cafés were ‘side-street’ establishments, wayward, and in the way they avoided the straight line of the main road and the working day, somewhat bent. Hornsey suggests that this waywardness troubled London’s would-be planners and architects too. The cafés were too ambiguous, too un-programmed, too illegible. Ambiguity was a subversive presence for what Hornsey terms the ‘collective moral project’ of the time, which sought to reconstruct social stability through ‘a set of collective engagements and activities that would interpolate all citizens into a performance of civic participation’. Citing The County of London Plan, written in 1943 by Patrick Abercrombie and JH Forshaw, he highlights the planners’ ‘investment in regular cycles of individuated spatial repetition’. These cycles, which started and ended at the threshold of the family home, were to be streamlined and solidified as a form of social and moral ordering.
‘In London, the greasy spoon is unabashed in its understanding that a Full English can be partly Turkish, Italian, Cypriot or Bangladeshi without the slightest hint of diminishment’
In one sense it was the immateriality of the food in these places that meant they were problematic for planners and puritans alike. It didn’t matter what time of day it was, you could always get breakfast. It didn’t matter how long you stayed as long as you ordered a cup of tea. If you were going there for one reason (company or comfort), you could pretend it was for another (eggs and bacon). If the planners hoped that civilians would start and end their day at the family home, these strayed homes made that less likely. They needed to be planned out.
Arthur’s Café Dalston
Arthur’s Café Dalston
Source: Sophia Evans / Guardian News & Media
Today the food’s plainness and price is central to the greasy spoon’s appeal. The reliably familiar menu, still centring around foods associated with breakfast, is key. The space of the cafés is also pleasurably limited. Often filled with furniture that is nailed to the floor, as rigid in arrangement as they are in use, the greasy spoon is cramped but cosy. Regency Café in Pimlico is high ceilinged and airy, but the space is divided in such a way as to make it seem as though each diner is restricted to an area no bigger than a single chair and half the table span in front of her. The nailed-down furniture is two-tone, linking swirls of taupe with a Colman’s mustard yellow. These scoops of rigid plastic joined by sturdy bolts are hardy and ugly all at once. Coupled with the gingham-curtained windows that separate you from the pavement outside, it seems as though you are on board a train, everything is compartmentalised, inside from outside, inside from inside. The Formica ‘dividers’, which rise between each table to just-below-shoulder height, render a normal glance to your left into a peep, something nosey and invasive. There is a blend of voyeurism and exhibitionism in eating this close to strangers, it is oddly romantic. Eating here is an experience of bended knees, ungainly movements in and out of immovable furniture, a wedging in of limbs, as all the while you combat large white plates of hot plain food.
Regency Café Westminster
In London, the greasy spoon is unabashed in its understanding that a Full English can be partly Turkish, Italian, Cypriot or Bangladeshi without the slightest hint of diminishment. But it’s not this, nor their cramped cosiness that means these cafés are still, with regards to their position in the city, disruptive. Hornsey writes of earlier cafés, ‘the real danger was that they replicated the transient flow of strangers on the pavement outside, while encouraging patrons to linger over their cup of tea in a state of constant distraction’. Today we could say that the real comfort of the cafés is that they make space for this distractedness. They are small outposts from a world of forward motion, they admit deferral and delay. They are affordable and, crucially, they are hostile to work. It’s true they are used by workers, between shifts, halfway through shifts, before and after shifts, but no one works there (apart from the staff). They are disruptive to the city because of their homeliness, if ‘home’ is understood partly as a place where you do not have to spend or make money.
That time and space are at an unhealthy premium in the saturated city is old news. The housing crisis is also a crisis for homes in the city, familial or otherwise. This means the disappearance of space for doing nothing, or doing nothing more than resting, eating, looking, and waiting for the next part of your day. Writing about the slow erosion of night-time venues for the LGBTQ+ community, Ben Walters says, ‘demand for such sites is not on the wane. What is on the wane is their ability to compete on commercial terms in an urban environment utterly in thrall to profit’. Spaces like the greasy spoon and the gay bar offer comfort and community – but their value is not valuable and this makes them vulnerable.
New Piccadilly café
Source: Ferruccio / Alamy
It would be tragic if the current economic climate meant developers succeed where the postwar planners did not – the loss of the greasy spoon would mean the disappearance of a space that evades (to a certain extent) the interpolation of citizens into performances of civic participation. They are spaces of happy distraction, sustenance, and anti-social sociability. The most persistent message issued is stay, but this is not achieved through attentive service or plush surroundings, instead you are left alone, to your own adjustments and measurements, and are permitted to do your own waiting.
This piece is featured in the AR October issue on Food – click here to purchase your copy today