It survived the sandwich bar. It even survived McDonalds. But can the greasy spoon survive the blokes who want egg, bacon, bubble, sausage, and toast, but no butter?
It's 4.30am in Tony's Cafe in the middle of New Convent Garden market, and vegetable humper Wayne surveys his working breakfast - double portion of bacon and sausages, with egg, mushrooms, tomatoes, beans, two slices of toast and a large tea, for pounds 3.50. "Plus bubble," he adds, despite lips anaesthetised by the night. "I've been up since 2am and this'll probably be last in my mouth 'til evening."

Each table has a battered aluminium ashtray, Seventies plastic sauce bottles, sugar in an oversized bowl, a scuffed glass containing rolled- up paper serviettes, and a tabloid opened at the sports pages. Vinegar comes from an old Jack Daniel's bottle. The smell is of cooking oil mingled with Rothman's, and the sounds are fizzing, splurting and hearty conversation. "Grumpy greetings!" says Simon. "When you wear that scarf on winter nights you look like a faggot," declares George. "Full English please, mate."

But life in this greasy spoon is not quite what it seems. "I get the feeling some people want more sophistication," reflects Wayne. "They started doing quarter-pounders here a month ago, on trial. They've even experimented with breakfast curries. It's taking the piss, isn't it? I've had one or two myself, mind."

At 8am the Metro Cafe outside Goldhawk Road tube station, Jerry of Sheen Cleaners tucks into his full English at 8am and reflects: "There's so many places nowadays don't know what you're talking about when you ask for a pig doorstep [two slices of a bloomer loaf with butter and sizzling slices of bacon in-between]."

"Cotton-wool bread, we don't want," adds his colleague, Del, "And why should anyone want to pay more than 10p for a second cup of tea? People who go into McDonalds are like robots."

"Because we work all over town, we know the good caffs still hangin' on," says Jerry. "Norman's in the Isle of Dogs is formidable. The builders in there haven't forgotten their roots, yet. The Turkish owner at the caff in High St, Hainault - now he's a real character. I wouldn't talk to my missus in the morning but that guy's a joy to see. And the small eye-tie at Monaco's, Great Russell Street - lovely man, lovely fry-ups. I was a singer for 17 years before window cleaning and I know most cultures around the world, but I don't experiment with food - I'm a traditional man, a dripping double bacon and egger. That way I know I'm safe. At the end of the day, if you don't see what goes into a meal you don't know what's going to come out. But I tell you, this caff used to be packed with bodies by 6.10am."

The Metro's owner, Michael, comes to their table with a re-fill. "It's going haywire," he explains. "The rates are killing us, rent. McDonalds and Kentucky up here, sandwich this, Pret-a-that, double yellow lines. I don't know if I'll survive another year."

In Village Cafe, by Nine Elms Flower Market at 4.30am, a man fortified with a pounds 3.20 bubble breakfast (bubble, egg, bacon, toms, beans, fried slice and tea) leaves a table on which proudly stand three bottles of HP Fruity and two Sarson's and assorted shakers that look more historical than the building. He puts coins in a gaming machine called Del's Millions which plays Only Fools and Horses car-horns, catch-phrases and theme-song snippets amidst the ray-gun noises.

"We don't get quite so many old porters in for really big fry-ups now," says the proprietor. "Maybe they're dead from so much grease. I don't know. To be honest, I'm more and more tempted to break away, because when blokes are asking for no butter, what's the future? I don't eat in greasy spoons myself, to be honest with you. But a lot of women are liking the Full English, actually. Women have got big appetites nowadays. Still, what I'm thinking of adding in the summer is continental breakfasts from around the world. Turkish cheese, olives..."

"You stick to the full Monte," says flower dealer George. His hefty serving and cutlery and mug (with spoon in) rattled down on the Formica next to his Racing Post in 175 seconds after ordering.

"Please Do Not Ask For Credit As A Smack In The Mouth Often Offends," says a sign above six eager loaves of Sunblest. The plastic-wood walls of Dave's Diner in Battersea are decked with cafe kitsch and cheery offers on yellowed cardboard. "No1 - eggs, bacon, saus, bubble or chips, beans or toms, black pudding or burger, mushrooms, 2 slices bread and tea/coff - pounds 3.95. NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH! Good food, generous portions and prices kept as low as poss. Tea 25p. Bovril 35p."

"Most places nowadays put the prices up, make a little bit more profit and work less," says proprietor Mr Panella. "That's if they haven't given up to the chains. But we're very generous people here. I hope we can stay a greasy spoon." Pause. "I'm branching into one pasta meal a day. Today, it's Fusilli The Amatriciana Way, pounds 2.50."

Meanwhile, he serves three double-glazers full English breakfasts with black pudding and other extras "well done". "I usually go to the bakery," one, Roy, admits. I'm down to one of these a fortnight. It's obvious why. I don't want to die. That's what I'm told, anyway. But I do like getting my fat and bollocks in a sit-down. You need it to work, but now you have to work so hard you don't get it."

Over in Dalston at the Kingsland Cafe, which has three 1995 calendars on one wall alone, near the sticker saying "I'm not bald - my head is a solar panel for a sex machine", the proprietor steps over a 10 x 5,000 box of Lotus serviette packs and admits he's cooking "only one or two a year" of his Full Kingsland Specials (eggs, bacon, sausage, liver, burger, lamb chop, mushrooms, tomatoes, onions, chips and beans). He sees its inclusion in a prominent position on the price board as more of a psychological test, along with the "bubble, beans, toms, chips, mushrooms, slice bread & butter" for "special vegetarians". His custom is "still old and oily, but less so".

"There's endless competition and I got really bored of struggling," coughs Johnny, who had decided to pack up The Snackery caff, opposite Farringdon tube station, lock, stock and Bovril, on 17 January, and "perhaps do the knowledge, I don't know."

"McDonalds and friends, that's what really changed the game," he says. "I'm terribly tired - knackered at the end of the day over the bookwork and broom. If people don't want a full fried breakfast with tea, toast, the lot, for under pounds 4, why should it be my problem? It's sad, I'll miss the characters, but at least I might not have to get up at four."

"Well, we eat when we can and we're not spoilt for choice," rallies "Badger", a porter at Smithfield meat market. "Butt's don't open until 4, 4.30am and the refurbishment they're doing might prove a bit dodgy; the hole-in-the-wall is too small... but Dalas does big spoon jobs until 4, and Ferrari's caff, Central Cafe and Smithfield caff still bang us up a really good Cock (sausage, egg, bacon, baked beans, liver, kidneys, black pudding and tomato breakfast) - that's 25 hours a day, five-and- a-half days a week... But, personally, I'm into supermarket pizzas at the moment. I eat driving in".

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