As a fairly analogue, unchic and culturally inept millennial, watching a regular old British cafe – sorry, caff – “blow up” on social media is bewildering. I’m referring to Norman’s, one of British hospitality’s greatest success stories of recent years, by the way. This is a greasy spoon that hosted a Burberry takeover for London Fashion Week, a pocket-rocket of a shrine to bacon and eggs now boasting almost 100,000 followers on Instagram. That’s not far off Pizza Express – and they invented dough balls.
But that’s it, though, isn’t it? Norman’s isn’t a regular old British cafe at all. It’s the benchmark in a new wave of Uniqlo-jacketed modernism, where beans on toast has become an adage to simpler, less contentious times that we all look back on with petrified yearning.
The diminutive space, in Archway, North London, is the holy grail in Gen-Z-meets-Millennial irony: “aesthetic”, slightly self-deprecating but also self-aware. Post-modern, even. Launched during the pandemic, Norman’s is an homage to the food of youth. To the quick and easy, often Italian and Cypriot-run cafes that have long defined Britain’s unfashionable high streets, and to the pacifying nature of being able to choose a number of fried items for a satisfyingly low cost, helping us to nurse whatever hangover might have befallen us.
It is, essentially, a replenished take on a British institution. Tables are covered in red gingham, the floor is chequered lino. Dishes, whether fried fish sandwiches, shepherd’s pie or a joyful riff on pre-Jamie Oliver Turkey Twizzlers – these, quality pork – all under a tenner. Tea and coffee, as is par for the course, is included with the fry up. And all this in a hyper-sleek, normcore layout where Formica tables are greased up only for the ’gram, and where the produce sings of prime farming: sausages aren’t rusky cylinders but juicy nods to well-bred pork; eggs are Clarence Court rather than those basic ones that come on pointy cardboard trays.
How prices are kept low when the quality of ingredients promises to be top notch is anyone’s guess. The main difference to the old guard? Portion size (small). Who knows whether Norman’s founders, pals Elliott Kaye and Richie Hayes, believed they were building something that chimed so well with the cultural zeitgeist. As two former chefs who left behind roles at Michelin-starred London restaurants Lyle’s and Leroy’s, their MO was straightforward: “cooking and serving simple food that made people happy, that people recognised and felt a connection to,” as Kaye put it in a previous interview. I believe them.
Still, like it or not – I suspect the former, given the queues outside each morning – Norman’s has now become more than the sum of its parts. It has started something far greater: the rise of the upmarket (see: refined) greasy spoon.
Such juxtaposition is bound to attract ridicule. As soon as we start seeing flatlay shots of spaghetti hoops, and as soon as what should be a cheap plate of pie and mash creeps up in price, questions begin to arise.
Norman’s must be flattered by its imitators, which are cropping up with dutiful efficiency and aplomb. One, Cafeteria, has launched in Gosforth, Newcastle. Its website displays carefully lined up plastic carriers of red and brown sauce on a distinctly old school-looking stark table. On the menu: a chip butty, ham, egg and chips, cottage pie, cheese on toast.
It was the Geordie 2018 MasterChef semi-finalist, Anthony O’Shaughnessy, who brought Cafeteria to my attention. He wrote: “There’s a restaurant opening in a really flash part of town that has styled itself as a working class greasy spoon. Pie and mash is £15. Ham, egg and chips for £13. I will check it out, but it’s strange how upmarket parts of town are starting to fetishise the working class ‘aesthetic’. It’s a caricature now, isn’t it?”
There’s no doubt that forking out £15 for pie and mash, particularly in the north, is punchy. Maybe it’s delicious. But without wanting to sound anti-new-age greasy spoon, arguably, elevating food in this way comes at a cost in every sense of the word, relinquishing a bit of what a cafe always ought to be: that is, democratic.
Another is Lucky Strike in Bedminster, Bristol. It’s a self-described traditional cafe where old fashioned food is elegantly presented on sleek white plates. Colour tones are neutral, lines sharp, tiles sit squarely on the wall.
The establishment offers dinner service, too, which extends beyond what might be considered “cafe food”, instead slipping into bistro territory. But the overall emphasis is the same, on a simple culinary plain first built by immigrants post-war. Lucky Strike is playful, too: spaghetti hoops on toast cost £4.50 (add a fairly whopping £1 for a grating of cheddar); square sausage and black pudding sandwich for an agreeable enough £8.
A friend of mine in the food industry said that what he loves about greasy spoons is their unifying, egalitarian nature. They might be seen as workers’ caffs, but historically, they serve everyone. They embody groggy mornings after the pub, and when operated properly, offer society much the same by way of classlessness.
Ultimately, it’s worth welcoming the new kids on the block. Anywhere with an affordable menu and happy fare has every right to be celebrated. I only hope that with old greasy spoons suffering a steady decline – some estimate thousands have closed in recent years – these newfangled operators such as Norman’s or Cafeteria are a continuation of one of Britain’s best attributes, rather than a signifier of replacement. Long live the fry up, no matter what shape it comes in.