It's deep into Friday night/Saturday morning and Capital Radio is spilling forth from a pair of speakers at the 24-hour Ridley Road Bagel Bakery & Patisserie. While London sleeps, this place is as loud as it is alive.

Late-night revellers, party refugees, hungry clubbers, canoodling couples, they all turn up, buy their favourite snack, sit on the abandoned market carts or in their cars, and eat and yak. And eat and yak.

The food may be a pretext, but it's some pretext. A placard proclaims: 'No animal fats or fish oils are in any of our products'. We're talking kosher. But how come a nice kosher bagel shop, open for a decade, ends up with cult status? Take a look inside.

The deli counter has chopped liver (of course), salamis, turkey roll, eggs, onion, rollmops, smoked salmon and three different types of pickled cucumber. Over on the other side, it's munchie heaven (and waistline hell). The bread racks are piled high with loaves, but it's the display counters which buckle the knees. You can have apple slices, bread pudding, cheesecake, chocolate cake, gingerbread, muffins, macaroons, eclairs, jam tarts . . . and bagels. Thousands of them.

Yet it's the mix of people which makes the shop unique. Set on a corner of a well-lit side street off Kingsland High Road, local women obviously feel safe arriving on foot. Despite the absence of chairs or tables (and not much space inside) everyone's just hanging out. They may be led here by their stomachs but hardly anyone comes solely for the food.

Friday and Saturday nights in particular, guys roll up to show off their clothes, their cars and their girlfriends. The pose factor is pretty high. There's some serious strutting around open-top Peugeots or immaculate black BMWs. (Rumours persist that some of the cars are rented for the occasion.)

Customers and staff greet each other like old friends. Everyone chats, jokes and banters in true party fashion. Cris is a smart black freelance accountant. 'I've just been to a gig up the road, but I come here three or four times a week. It's like an oasis.' Her friend Veronica is toying with the idea of second helpings. 'We thought we'd form a support group for people with serious bagel addiction. As you can see, it's not working.' She heads back into the shop and returns with a coconut marshmallow slice.

Staring at the mountain of goodies on offer, Petroc appears to be in a

crisis of indecision. 'I've been coming here for 10 years. There's just a great atmosphere.' He and Tracey finally opt for the bagels with cream cheese (65p each). Staunch regular Elaine is here nearly every night for bagels with humous. 'They're the cheapest. Mind you, I'll eat anything.'

Pamela, the night manager, is in charge of her 'ladies', five or six women in striped aprons who serve on two shifts throughout the night. How does she stop herself eating the profits? She laughs. 'I don't like bread or bagels.' Friendly and warm, Pamela is also eagle-eyed. 'Some of the 15-year-olds try to steal food. So I put extra chillies in the tuna bagels. That teaches them. But when I catch them I say, 'If you haven't enough money, just ask. I'll pay.' And they do. It creates a genuine respect. I just take the money out of the tips.' Pardon? 'Oh yes, our regulars give us tips.'

There's a bit of a lull around 2.30 but by 5am trade is non-stop. Outside, Alexandra is sitting in a van. Together with Maria, Andy, Eva and 'Condom Man', she's been to Alexandra Park and is on her way back to West London. Her favourite bagel fillings are chicken or cream cheese. Pamela says the best seller is the tuna 'with a little lemon juice, onions, salt and pepper' - a snip at pounds 1. At which point a Jamaican guy arrives - as he does every night - for a bagel with saltfish and ackees. Well, this ain't just a Jewish McDonald's.

Ridley Road Bagel Bakery & Patisserie, 15 Ridley Rd E5 (071-923 0666).

(Photograph omitted)