OPINION - Stop London's great real cafes being choked by identikit chains

“Proper food” at Moorgate’s Cafe Verona (Cafe Verona )
“Proper food” at Moorgate’s Cafe Verona (Cafe Verona )

Proper Food, they call it on the noticeboard outside. That is to distinguish the menu from the fake food outlets that have sprung up across the City like Indian balsam or Japanese knotweed on a riverbank. This little Italian cafe on Foster Lane has the characteristic menu of its type: a top row of baps, rolls and sliced bread plus pastries, set over an array of sausages and bacon, with the sandwich options of prawn mayo, egg mayo, tuna and sweetcorn, coronation chicken and rosy roast beef.

At lunch, there are salads, lasagne, soup. It’s normal food, intelligible food, produced for people with appetites by people who treat customers like they’re glad to have them. It’s one of just three similar little cafes I can think of on roughly my route through the City. Another, Alfredo’s, is tucked away in a little alley. And I’ve just been to the Cafe Verona for a custard tart from a lady who beamed at me.

This reflection is prompted by this paper’s guide to traditional cafes, several in or around Soho where Italians used to gravitate. They’re to be found all around London, places like George’s in Olympia where post office workers congregate. If you want to define them, they’re places where manual workers eat, with decent strong tea, only one sort of coffee and a hefty cooked breakfast, possibly with fried bread. Not every family cafe is good, but none of them is likely to serve £5 caffè lattes.

There are fewer and fewer of these places and they are disappearing with every new development. On the stretch of Moorgate from London Wall to Finsbury Square there is one Cafe Verona to 10 chains, not including M&S. That’s right: 10 to one. You know, Greggs, Pure, Starbucks, Caffe Nero, Itsu, Leon, Blank Street, Subway... all chains.

A number of chains sell foodstuff that is pretty much the opposite of what an Italian cafe calls Proper Food

A number sell foodstuff that is pretty much the opposite of what the Italian cafe calls Proper Food. There is the revolting selection of Matcha in one chain, including a white chocolate one which would get you assaulted in Japan. There’s the enticing offer from Pure of The High Protein, Low Carb Breakfast You’ve Been Looking For, with a picture of a rolled omelette with sausage and a horrid looking scrambled egg with avocado bits on top. But the absolute nadir, as you’d expect, is Starbucks which is offering a Classic Combo of ham and cheese croissant with... Caramel Macchiato (which looks very different from what a macchiato is in Italy).

It’s tricky for a family business to compete with the chains when rents are prohibitive. There was a hint of the problems facing the sector in a question to the Mayor last year which observed that while 250 outlets opened in 2022, 500 (including pubs) closed. The Mayor agreed that the problem was especially bad for small independent businesses.

It’s not just the cafes; the same goes for independent English eateries. There’s only one actual City chophouse I can think of, now Simpson’s in Cornhill has closed, and I grieve the loss of places where you sat on a bench and ate Barnsley chop and bubble and squeak like you might have done in Dickens’s day. There’s Sweetings, of course, where the service is erratic but you can eat a plate of whitebait and bread and butter in comfort at the bar.

There’s a solution to the replacement of real cafes and restaurants by fake food chains: it’s up to us. We need to patronise the small places. There may be a bit of a wait at Alfredo’s for your bacon roll, but that’s because it’s made to order.

This paper’s guide to the cafes is a start to the fightback: support them and their like and they may survive. Once they’ve gone, they’ve gone.

Melanie McDonagh is an Evening Standard columnist