Travel Guides for Un-tourists


Cheap and Cheerful: London’s Best Retro Cafes

by CB Cowling

posted on January 17, 2019

Long before the days of gentrification and chain coffee joints, London’s humble worker’s caffs did a brisk trade in cockney classics. Neighborhood greasy spoons served the full works for under a fiver: bacon, sausage, black pudding, eggs, beans, grilled tomato, stacks of toast, all washed down with a mug of thick, strong tea.

A few of these nostalgic gems remain tucked around the city, lauded by locals and food critics alike. The best are still run by their founding families, as beloved for their tasty, no-frills cooking as for their stylish retro interiors; they remain little pockets of the past amongst the hustle and bustle of the 21st century. Tea is bottomless, portions are generous, and there’s an abundance of friendly banter. If you’re looking for some local color alongside your breakfast, give your diet the day off and pop into one of our favorite London caffs.

Photo Courtesy: blanca_db

A mid-century relic adrift in a sea of modern development, the diner-style Shepherdess feels a world away from the trendy districts that surround it. Bright red formica tables line the sun-filled interior, while a loyal clientele sit with steaming mugs of tea and stodgy bacon sandwiches to watch the streets come to life through gaily painted front windows. Cheap and cheerful is the name of the game here, and their breakfasts have a devoted following — Jamie Oliver is a regular and we’ve heard he knows his food.

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Full English breakfast, thick-cut chips, veggie brekkie

Photo Courtesy: twohonesttruths

If the Regency’s stylish 1940s facade looks familiar, you’ve probably spotted its art deco backdrop in any number of big screen cameos. A visit feels like walking onto a film set, from the formica tables to the steaming steel tea urn to the thick cockney accents bellowing orders from the counter. The menu is simple but perfectly executed, with a £5.50 fry-up that consistently earns a place on best-of lists next to Michelin-starred peers. Fellow diners are a cross-section of the Westminster locale: cabbies and builders rub shoulders with pinstriped politicians and news crews.

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Egg and sausage and baked beans, cheese and onion pasty, homemade steak pie, corn beef salad, homemade bread & butter pudding

Photo Courtesy: krishnalondon

Not to be confused with its similarly-monikered neighbor just up the Thames, this River Cafe has no interest in moving with the times or keeping up with culinary trends. Across the road from Putney Bridge tube station, it’s an atmospheric shrine to ‘50s Italy, with shiny blue-and-white tiled walls and romantic pastel murals of the Riviera. Breakfast offerings are simple, but portions are big, the food is filling, and the welcome is warm and familial.

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Liver and bacon, shepherd's pie, ham and egg and chips, full English breakfast, apple pie

Photo Courtesy: josephmdunford

This south-of-the-river favorite has managed the tricky feat of keeping its traditional worker’s caff feel while updating the menu with high-quality, locally-sourced ingredients from nearby Borough and Spitalfields markets. The vibe is carefully-curated coziness, with checkered tablecloths and black and white photos of life in the neighborhood. Dishes follow the full English template, but eggs are farm-raised from Kent, Cumberland sausages are from the best butchers in the city, and tea is Terry’s own house blend.

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Smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, corned beef egg and chips, Austin's BLT special, hot filled croissants, Morning Pride breakfast tea

Photo Courtesy: jo_rodgers

Alpino is one of the city’s many cafes opened by Italian families just after the war, and one of the few that still serves up quality homemade fare in an interior unchanged since the 1940s. The north London institution’s cheery brick entry leads to a cozy warren of glossy wooden booths and peeling football posters, dimly lit with antique pendant lamps. Breakfast is a selection of fry-up favorites (their old-school kippers and grilled mushrooms are the best in the business), but come lunchtime they switch over to homey Italian fare.

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English breakfast, toasted panini, spaghetti Bolognese

Photo Courtesy: eskisnaps

E. Pelicci is a Golders Green landmark and a beloved piece of London’s East End history. Owned and run by the same family for over a century, this Grade II listed cafe is a design lover’s dream, with a postcard-perfect art deco facade and intricate marquetry panelling within. Mama Maria has been ruling the kitchen for decades, while children Anna and Nevio Jr. serve up a mouthwatering full English with a side of friendly chat and genuine warmth. It’s rare to leave here without a great story, a new friend, and a slice of Maria’s famous bread pudding for the road. 

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Cannelloni, chicken and bacon pie, hand-cut chips, full English, bread pudding

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