Bonnie’s cafe in St George, Bristol, was something of an institution. Serving fry-ups from breakfast to dinner and what one reviewer described as “the strongest cup of tea in BS5” it had been going since 1996. But it was no longer breaking even. A few weeks ago it reopened as a coffee shop and Mediterranean restaurant.
Its owner, Suat “Sam” Tezgel blames changing eating habits and gentrification. “When I came to the UK in 1996 I’d never heard of gluten-free or vegan food,” he said. “It was all about fried food. I am a chef and wanted to make a living, so this is what I did. But in the last two years especially, the area is changing. I noticed different types of customers coming in. They were asking for more healthy foods like fresh fish and halloumi.”
Bonnie’s is not alone. It is just one of many “greasy spoons” to have shut down altogether or been repurposed in recent times. In the capital The Shepherdess on City Road, Hoxton. had been a fixture for four decades, with a celebrity clientele including All Saints and Jamie Oliver. But it finally became unviable amid rent rises last year. Even the UK’s most famous fictional iteration, Kathy’s Cafe of EastEnders fame had a recent brush with threatening developers.
Hospitality sector expert James Hacon estimates that the number of greasy spoons that have closed in the last few years “is many thousands, maybe even tens of thousands”.
“In the past couple of decades we’ve seen the rise of branded pub, fast food and coffee shop venues: think JD Wetherspoon, Pret and Costa,” he said. “These brands offer good value with a focus on consistency, often across multiple meal times – directly pulling custom from the traditional cafe or greasy spoon. Even petrol station forecourts and convenience stores see food on the go as big business.” There have been other pressures too, with traditional cafe offerings perhaps considered old-fashioned by younger consumers – millennials have long been caricatured as fans of smashed avocado – and processed pork products linked to cancer and obesity.
But this newspaper’s restaurant critic Jay Rayner believes the decline is the result more of social change than food fashion. “The indicator was that these places usually had funny opening hours – 6am to 3pm, typically – and the reason was that they were all about providing highly calorific food to people who needed it as they were working physically very hard in manual jobs. And the reality is that there are far fewer people in these jobs now.”
Rayner added: “Many cafes were founded by first-generation immigrants whose children or grandchildren don’t want to work sixteen-hour days keeping the family business going when they can instead go into a profession. But there is a social cost when they go.”
In Wales these migrant founders were often Italian. One of the last survivors, Station Cafe in Treorchy had been going for 84 years when it closed in May 2019. Its owner, Dom Balestrazzi, was long ready for retirement and his children did not want to take it on. “It was particularly sad for my husband, as he had spent practically his whole life there,” said his wife, Virginia, who helped run it for over 40 years. “But it was also sad for the wider community. We had no idea of the strength of feeling until the final days when so many people got in touch.”
Writer and photographer Adrian Maddox documented many of the country’s archetypal cafes in his 2003 book Classic Cafes.
“I became obsessed with a particular type of cafe – the signage, the Formica tables, the fonts of the menu, the windows, the counters, those giant silver tea urns,” he said. “And I spent years documenting them. But then as I finished the project I realised I’d also been sounding their death knell.
“Most of the places I photographed have since gone – it’s been depressing to learn of each new closure.”
Another who has chronicled the demise of the traditional cafe is filmmaker Bruce Gill, who made an award-winning documentary about the Caledonian in Huddersfield before it closed just shy of its 50th anniversary in 2018. It is now a pizzeria.
“You can’t get a full English and a cup of tea for £4 any more,” Gill said. “A bit of Huddersfield’s soul was lost. It’s so sad. It was an extraordinary asset for the town.”
In Margate, Kent, the Dalby had been going since 1946 but only came to national attention three years ago when rock star Pete Doherty managed to eat all of its “mega breakfast – a local challenge. Owner Mark Ezekiel said: “We get Londoners down who miss a fry-up because their local has closed. But even with big numbers coming in it’s hard to make any money when costs are rising from wages to utilities and ingredients. The best thing that could happen to our trade is a VAT cut.”
Yet even in this tough climate there are some signs of hope for the future. The handful listed in Classic Cafes that have clung on are reporting an upturn. Places like Pellicci in Bethnal Green, east London, and the Workers Cafe in Islington are crammed with young hipsters. The Regency in Pimlico is on “alt tourism” trails.
There are even new places opening repurposing the caff tradition. The Breakfast Club, offering both avocado and egg and bacon, prices its full English iteration at a not insignificant £14 – but has still has queues outside its dozen branches.
A Jay Rayner tip: Norman’s in Tufnell Park celebrated its first anniversary last week serving reasonably priced classics such as ham, egg and chips (£7.00) but with refinements like a wine list. Founder Richie Hayes said: “We grew up eating in these kinds of places and have always wanted to open our own cafe serving the classics. We are doing all right.”
It was with reluctance that Sam Tezgel decided to close Bonnie’s. But, for him at least, a restyle as Laila, with all traces of greasy spoon gone, may turn out to be more profitable. “People no longer want fry-ups,” he said. “Something had to change.”