Sunday 13 December 1998
The main requirement of the working man's cafe is that it must be able to deliver hot food to the table within a very short time. The morning break on the building site is taken from 10 to 10.30. This means you down tools at 10 and pick them up again at 10.30 - walking to and from the cafe, and ordering and waiting for your food, are part of this precious half-hour. So there is no leeway for chef's tantrums or other unexpected hold-ups, such as are commonly experienced in posh restaurants in the West End.
I was taken out to dinner up West the other night, as it happens. It took a quarter of an hour for the waiter to even give us a menu, and another 25 minutes before he asked if we'd made up our minds. My mind had been made up before I'd even got there - I wanted a beer and a pizza. Alright, it was evening and there was no hurry, but old habits die hard, and I can't see the point of sitting at a table reading a grammatically suspect menu for half an hour when you could be eating and drinking.
Talking of habits, I saw the most amazing thing the other day in Nico's in Bethnal Green. Nico's cafe is famous for the size of the portions - these are so huge that most meals arrive on two plates - the egg, bacon, sausages and tomatoes come on one, and the chips on another. Don't even think about asking for toast.
The Amazing Thing was that half way through breakfast a bunch of monks walked in; proper monks with shaved heads, sandals and brown habits done up with ropes. They all filed up to the counter and ordered their breakfasts like everyone else, and sat down at a table. But the really amazing thing was that everyone else in the place stopped swearing. And since swearing makes up around two-thirds of working class conversation in Bethnal Green, this was tantamount to reducing the noise level by 66 per cent. You could practically hear the fag ash landing on the lino. But that wasn't the end of it. When the monk's breakfasts were delivered to their table they all stood up and said Grace. One of them said something and the others responded, in proper Gregorian chant.
But, again, the most remarkable thing about it was the crowd's response. Nobody knew what to do. One bloke took his hat off, as though a funeral was passing. Others looked down at their hands. Everyone seemed to look guilty, in a way that only happens when the working classes are challenged with their Godlessness. It could only happen in a caff.
'Struck Off - The First Year of Doctor on the House', by Jeff Howell is available from Nosecone Publications, P O Box 24650, London E9 7XQ, price pounds 9 inc postage.
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